I’ve had a song in my head for days now. It’s Something About England by The Clash from their wonderful and sprawling folly Sandinista. It tells the story of a the last century of our political past via an encounter with a tramp in the street. He “missed the 14-18 war but not the sorrow afterwards” and it goes on to recount how “The twenties turned, the north was dead / The hunger strike came marching south /At the garden party not a word was said /The ladies lifted cake to their mouths”
Like many people’s accounts I’ve come across,( a bloke at the bar of Club Italia last night told me his great, great grandfather was on the march, which is ludicrous) the Clash’s version of the Jarrow Crusade is sympathetic but foggy. It wasn’t a hunger strike of course but a hunger march, though it didn’t use that term for fear of being seen as too strident and political. But ‘ladies lifting cake to their mouths’ is a pretty good approximation of how the political elite of the day, left and right, patronised and ultimately ignored the marchers.
But it’s the first line of this song that’s been haunting me. “They say the immigrants steal the hubcaps of respected gentlemen/They say it would be wine and roses, if England were for Englishmen again” This refrain has rung down the years of English history and never more so than this summer. My book will feature much about this, but The Clash’s words ran through my head as, sitting in a Bedford cafe before setting off for Luton, I picked up a magazine called This England’ which, at first glance, looked like a more cosy and twee version of the stuff I’m interested in. Maybe not exactly Orwell and Priestly but churches, history, landscape, maybe even a recipe for a better Bedfordshire Clanger.
But as I turned the pages I realised sadly that for all its pictures of the autumnal Chilterns and village greens, ‘This England’ was essentially by and for the pretty hardcore Eurosceptic right with much sneering and raging about ‘diversity’ (their quotation marks) and a piece called Independence Day which essentially equated the Brexit vote with the Battle Of Britain in terms of national salvation. As I have said, I don’t share some of the metropolitan disgust at how many working class combines voted but I still found This England had a tone I don’t recognise as the real national voice; petty, fearful and mean. That might be your England, chaps, but it’s not mine. We won the Battle Of Britain with a hell of a lot of Czech and Polish pilots, you know.
On my way out of town I pass yet another Corn Exchange, prompting me again to marvel at just how fierce and continual the exchanging of corn must have been back in the day. Over the River Ouse, into Elstow and past Ampthill, both of which inspired Bunyan whose own journeys to Luton were said to form the basis of Pilgrim’s Progress; muddy Elstow was the original Slough Of Despond whilst Ampthill was ‘the hill of difficulty’. Then along the A6 to the outskirts of Luton through Barton Le Clay. Hereabouts Oswald Mosley’s British Union Of Fascists asked to join the original march (still smarting from their beating at Cable St the day before the marchers left Jarrow, one hopes) but were given short shrift.
Via social media, I’ve arranged to meet a Labour councillor Rachel in a pub in Luton this afternoon where a wake/tribute is being held to celebrate the life and mourn the passing of famed Lutonian comic book artist Steve Dillon, creator of Hellblazer and Preacher and famous for his work on 2000 AD and Deadline as well as Marvel and DC. He died suddenly from a ruptured appendix on a visit to New York. By the time I get there, tears and beer are flowing and the mood is warm and emotional. Ian, Rachel’s boyfriend, tells me affectionately ‘all the politburo are here” by which he means several other councillors and Rachel’s dad Kelvin, Labour MP for Luton North with whom I grab a chat in the tap room. When a march came by to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Jarrow Crusade, Rachel, a firebrand ‘lefty teen’, went down to cook them breakfast. When she told her grandfather this, he told her that he had done the same for the original marchers in his native Leicester in 1936
Councillor Mark says that in his opinion, Luton is a ‘northern industrial town in the South Of England’. Politically it has never been as conservative as the rest of the Home Counties although it did return Tory MPs at the high imperial phase of Thatcherism. In 1919, great war veterans, angered that the town’s gentry and grandees had not invited them to a commemorative dinner, burned the town hall down. Drawn to work in the town’s car factories, Luton has a Kashmiri population of 40,000. The town is officially ‘hyper diverse’ i.e more than 50 per cent of its population are black and minority ethnic (BME).
I hadn’t been back here since getting hammered at Katy Collard’s wedding in 1986 and I warmed to the welcome I’d been given this time too and by the air of proud individuality from the Lutonians I met. Of course, the three pints of Centurion added to the glow and I left the Bricklayers to leave High Town for the centre and see the twilit new town hall. (Rachel had to run out after me and gently turn me around as I was headed in entirely the wrong direction) Red Ellen had addressed the lads here and grabbed a sarnie (see above). Somewhere in town I felt there was a Kashmiri naan with my name on it.