Dewsbury, a middle-sized mill town in the West Riding of Yorkshire, was my home for 17 years. After I left I paid little attention to the town, though I’ve always come back to see my family. When people asked where I was from, I’d say it was a place called Nearleeds, because no one had heard of Dewsbury, unless they’d read Betty Boothroyd’s biography or remembered who Eddie Waring was. But then the headlines started coming: the highest BNP vote in the country; the attempted hanging of a small boy; a 7 July bomber from Lees Holm. Each a surprise, and yet not.
My Yorkshireness was never straightforward. I was born in Sunderland; my family moved to Dewsbury six months later, but that means nothing in the eyes of true tykes or – until they relaxed their Yorkshire-only selection policy in 1992 – the Yorkshire County Cricket Club. My father was a vicar and diocesan director of education; my mother the head of a church primary school. This means that when she reads news of the arrest of another local burglar from Dewsbury Moor estate, up over the hill, she can usually say: ‘I taught him.’
Our official residence was a beautiful, large and mostly unheated house. It was on a gracious street, up safe on the posh side of the valley, where the mill-owners built their fine houses away from the soot and fibres of the mills along the valley floor. Later, we moved next door, carrying our belongings through a gap in the hedge, before my father died one day in the back yard. The Church of England then made my Yorkshireness even more shaky by providing a free boarding-school place in Hertfordshire. My accent lasted little more than a month, and when I returned to Dewsbury two years later, it was with the longer, posher vowels of my mother, who was born and brought up in Surrey. Her father, Grandad Wallace, had been a miner in Barnsley. One day, the story goes, he got on his bicycle and cycled down south. He reached Ashtead, in Surrey, saw a pretty lane overhung with trees, and said he was never going back.
My mother still ended up in Yorkshire – and in the centre of the Heavy Woollen District. After the invention of the rag-grinding machine in 1813, Dewsbury entrepreneurs realised they could spin cloth from ground rags, and that the resulting ‘shoddy’ was good enough cloth for blankets, druggets and shirts. During the First World War, Mark Oldroyd’s Spinkwell Mills produced ten million square yards of cloth and employed 2000 people. Millions of soldiers wore Dewsbury-made shirts and spent frightened nights under Spinkwell Mills blankets. The Official Guide to Dewsbury 1957 (a librarian shows it to me in a fluster, because the police have just phoned to say a gang of book thieves is on the way and the Stephen Kings are unprotected) says that ‘one can stand in certain parts of Dewsbury and see upwards of sixty mill chimneys at a time.’
My mother’s second husband was a Yorkshireman who had started work at 16, sweeping the floors at a small mill specialising in cashmere and high-end wool. He became chief textile designer and sales director. I started at the private school in Wakefield, now we could afford it, but still managed to ignore Dewsbury. There were better shops in Leeds and better clubs in Wakefield. In this semi-rural conurbation, you can head out of town in any direction and hit a city: Leeds, Bradford, Barnsley, Huddersfield. There was no call to hang out in Dewsbury. It was a dump, we thought, and it got worse when the mills started closing, and unemployment started rising. My stepfather’s mill survived, buoyed by its luxury cloths that were popular in Japan, and my parents stayed in Dewsbury when I and all my peers left. I went to university in Oxford, which was pretty in a way Dewsbury never was. The chimneys, Dewsbury’s spires, were hardly dreaming, and even the tower of Dewsbury Minster, a church founded in 627, when St Paulinus turned up, is workmanlike.
There are nice bits, though. Even near the most troubled estates, there is green stuff. Even near Chickenley, where the 12-year-old girl tried to hang a five-year-old boy in a patch of woods. Many people in Dewsbury think the media overdid it. ‘The press wanted to make it another James Bulger,’ a police officer tells me. The CPS reduced the charge from attempted murder to assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, which is what the girl was found guilty of. Still, it was horrible, and not a surprise, to watch the TV graphics on the news bulletins as they slowly zeroed in on Dewsbury as the location of the crime, then on Earlsheaton, then on Chickenley. Everyone knows that anything goes in Chick. It’s lower than the low. A boy at the grammar school linked with mine was always known simply as the Boy from Chick.