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Next month a train to London will leave from Shrewsbury in Shropshire for the first time in nearly four years, thus ending a lengthy local campaign to get the service restored. It also ends an obscure and quirky anomaly whereby Shropshire was the only one of England’s 39 historic counties without a direct rail link to the capital.
This will not offer an immediate transformation. There will be just two through trains a day, and the new 06.39 to Euston will save a mere three minutes and still take more than two and a half hours, beyond even the maddest daily commute. Of all the counties in England, Shropshire will remain, perhaps, the most disconnected.
It is, almost entirely, a shy, placid place of charming, unfrequented small towns and idyllic, occasionally spectacular, countryside. There is no university – other than Harper Adams, which focuses on agriculture – so ambitious kids have to leave; they rarely return. They are replaced by the newly-retired, looking forward to a decade or two of light gardening among kindred spirits. As the train argument raged (in so far as anything rages in Shropshire), one amused local remarked to me: “It’s not that they actually want to go to London. They just think they have a right to go.”
For me Shropshire was stop number 34 on a three-year journey through England’s 39 counties and one capital. I set out in 2011 to write a different kind of travel book, with a chapter on each of the ancient counties, all of them with histories dating from medieval times and sometimes much earlier.
I spent my time exploring their individual natures, cultures, dialects, traditions and humour, trying to grasp everything from the peculiarities of the Norfolk accent to why Lancashire produces so many comedians. I was hoping vaguely that somehow the micro might illuminate the macro. And it was somewhere in Shropshire that I had my revelation. I realised the most important character-forming factor of every place I visited was the extent to which it was Londonised: a process usually bringing financial enrichment while impoverishing local distinctiveness.
The phrase “Two Nations” has a special resonance in British politics, dating back at least to its use as the subtitle of the novel Sybil (1845), written by the future Conservative prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. It usually refers to the class system; hence its idealised antithesis “One Nation”, recently appropriated from the Tories by Labour leader Ed Miliband. But it seems to me to have a new and more urgent meaning. There are still two nations in Britain but they are not now Disraeli’s. There is London, representing far more than physical London: not only a place but a state of mind. And then there is unLondon.
. . .
Throughout recorded history, London has been a particularly dominant capital, the seat of royal, parliamentary and financial power. All roads lead to London (pretty much literally: A1, A2, A3, A4, A5, A6, M1, M2, M3, M4) and the ambitious and the desperate have always made their way along them to seek their fortunes.
For around a century after 1825, London was thought to be the largest city in the world (though this depends on how you define the boundaries), its status enhanced by being the heart of the British empire. In that era the new industrial cities of the north and the Midlands began to establish their own wealth and status but they were never a threat.
As the empire declined, so London did too – for a while. Its population began to fall quite sharply from the 1950s. Bombed-out East Enders were encouraged to move out to new towns with their own light industries, in surrounding counties such as Hertfordshire and Essex; businesses were helped to follow suit; back-office civil servants were scattered. Greenery-tinged adverts beguiled rush-hour Tube passengers with promises of a more spacious, less stressful life elsewhere.
But the tide was about to turn with a vengeance. What collapsed in the late 20th century? The heavy industries of the north. What grew to compensate? The financial sector and tourism, both overwhelmingly concentrated in London. The adverts vanished: the Location of Offices Bureau, which issued the Tube ads, was an early victim of Margaret Thatcher’s axe. And the whole notion of regional policy was forgotten.
The upshot was that London’s power and status – absolute and relative – grew and grew, its geographical, linguistic and cultural advantages backed up by pro-business governments. For the ambitious young, trudging up the vast majority of career paths, it was the only place to be. The property market went insane, creating a generation of paper millionaires. By the census of 2011, the capital’s population had risen to above 8m, a new record.
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But what do we mean by London? Until little more than a century ago it was still in theory just the square-mile City; even the Queen and parliament just up the road were officially in next-door Middlesex before what we now think of as inner London was given its own council in 1889. Then, in 1965, Middlesex was completely abolished, and chunks of other counties also incorporated, to create Greater London.
Fifty years later that hardly begins to do the capital justice. We could call the new reality “Greater Greater London”. Oxford and Cambridge, both less than an hour by train, are clearly part of it (so that even academic excellence is now effectively centred on London); so, too, are high-tech Reading and fun-loving Brighton. In all these places, house prices have gone equally crazy.
The postwar new towns have to be included too. Their factories failed to last, so many of the residents have to commute back into the city they supposedly escaped. The theory of the internet age is that almost anyone can work almost anywhere. The English reality is the precise reverse.
In practice, the entire southeast quadrant of England – except some distant and ill-connected coastal areas – is now operating as a single conurbation. Whether this is sucking the blood out of the rest of the country or pumping it round is a matter for debate, though both notions must be partially true. But every part of the body has become defined by its relationship with this heart.
Beyond London itself and commutable quasi-London, there is a vast penumbra of Londonishness. This can be seen most obviously in places such as West Berkshire and Suffolk, uninviting bases for the daily trudge to town but favoured by those – consultants, freelancers, the semi-retired – who can benefit from the London economy without having to battle in every day. This is hard to distinguish from the weekend cottage belt.
The arrival of rich incomers can pep up a dying village, creating employment, invigorating the pubs and shops, adding bold new voices to weary parish committees. But if their houses are dark far more often than not, the newcomers do little except drive the locals out of the property market. Especially if they do the shopping in Waitrose, Kensington, before leaving town. A council official in Gloucestershire told me most weekenders set out to do the right thing by supporting their new communities “but, after a while, it just gets a bit exhausting”.
Beyond that there are distant outposts: fashionable resorts more suited to occasional holidays than weekends, including some of the old fishing villages of south Devon or the surfy, foodie, golfy coast of north Cornwall.
But it seems to me that London goes much further than that. The BBC’s decision to move large swathes of its operation to Manchester was a throwback to the old days of dispersal. And as the modern trams glide past Manchester’s expensively refurbished library to “MediaCityUK” (formerly Salford Docks), the scene from the windows of the Midland Hotel, the favoured conference HQ for both major parties, might lull the leaders into thinking all is well with their world.
The BBC has, indeed, helped spread the wealth. A new wave of telly-types has begun to move into some neglected towns north of Manchester, bringing their tastes for latte and artisan bread. Similar phenomena can be observed round the other front-rank northern cities: those with fashionable sub-Oxbridge universities and big enough to attract regional corporate offices. Even the centre of Edinburgh can be considered Londonish: nowhere more so.
When I first went to Manchester in the 1960s there was a coal mine in the city centre, and prime sites – where there might now be a Starbucks – were occupied by the UCP (United Cattle Products) chain of tripe restaurants. Northerners now like to boast, not unjustly, of the cultural and gastronomic amenities of their cities. What they are really talking about is the extent to which they are becoming more like the south.
Almost nothing of this extends into the northern hinterland. There are cotton towns like Nelson in Lancashire where Pakistani migrants poured in 50 years ago to offer cheap labour to the failing cotton mills; the mills closed anyway, leaving little purpose for the town or its people, old and new alike. There are pit villages in Durham where unemployment is starting to extend to a third generation. And in the rich-soil lands of the east coast the job market is sent wildly out of kilter because manual farm work that cannot sustain an English family constitutes a major opportunity to a Bulgarian teacher. The sense of decay and despair is palpable.
. . .
The hopelessness is worsened by London’s hold on political power. In the 20th century the UK became, beyond reasonable doubt, the most centralised major nation in the developed world. Other countries created a capital away from their biggest city or had an unignorable commercial/financial centre (like Frankfurt or Milan) separate from the seat of power. Even France, the epitome of top-down governance, eventually devolved.
True, Scotland and Wales have been allowed to set up their own parliaments. And Westminster has itself ceded power to Brussels. But, in England, the councils, starved of funds, can do little more than decide whether to axe the libraries before the weekly bin collections, or the other way round. Local democracy and autonomy is a dried-up husk.
Two months ago, in the Scottish referendum, the UK had a near-death experience, coming within a few percentage points of meltdown. Next year the country faces the most complex and unpredictable election in its history. But there is no sign of any party starting to address the consequences of London’s remorseless expansion, dominance and control.
Yet it is unLondon, in its infinite variety, that will decide the election. In the current febrile political climate, I have no idea how unLondon will vote next May. But I hope it gets a government that understands that it exists, and needs more to sustain it than just direct routes to the capital: a wonderful city whose grip on national life is now endangering the country’s survival.
Matthew Engel is an FT columnist
Should London set its own interest rate? See House & Home section
How the other half lives: two sides of Engel’s England
In 1971 the Houseowners’ Association produced a small volume: Where to Live in London. It gave star ratings to districts and suburbs for the benefit of potential buyers; the tone would now be considered politically incorrect but some of the judgments were pretty astute:
Brixton*: The place most people love to hate.
Hackney**: Distinctly working-class but not entirely without hope.
Lewisham**: Very grotty.
Greenwich***: Clearly coming up in the world. Parts still rough.
Hammersmith***: As Irish as they come. But some parts are beginning to look interesting.
St John’s Wood*****: An area where money is the only password. Even small luxury town houses fetch £20,000.
By 2014, ordinary three-bedroom terraced houses in distinctly ** or *** parts of London, which would still have cost four figures in 1971, were nudging ever closer to the million-pound mark.
Within two hours of arriving in Lincolnshire, I was recognised. In the café of a fenland garden centre. “You do double-glazing, don’t you?” said the woman behind the counter.
“Not exactly,” I said.
She seemed mildly affronted, as though there had been some deliberate attempt at deception. “You’re not the double-glazing man from Bourne?”
“I could always try to do double-glazing, but I’m not from Bourne. I’m from Herefordshire.”
She switched tack quickly. “Oh, nice county.”
“Lincolnshire’s a nice county too,” I said.
If she had ever been paid a compliment in her life, she had never accepted one on behalf of her county. “Flat,” she said, flatly. “We like it, though,” she added in that tone people use to justify a taste for something completely uncool.
It was my first experience of what I came to know as the Lincolnshire backward defensive: an apologetic remark, very lightly seasoned with a pinch of truculence.
Extracts from ‘Engel’s England: Thirty-nine Counties, One Capital and One Man’ (Profile Books, RRP£20) by Matthew Engel
This article has been amended to reflect the fact that Shropshire does have a university: Harper Adams