Middlesbrough magistrates’ court is hearing a clump of domestic violence cases on a drizzly August afternoon. The room is prison-like, the only windows a strip high in the wall above the magistrates’ bench and the royal coat of arms. The prosecuting solicitor begins each case with something like: ‘It was 3 a.m. and the defendant had been on a night out.’ A bag had been thrown at a girlfriend who was thought to be three weeks pregnant. A girl called her boyfriend a ‘mong’, he called her a ‘fat slug’ and then a glass of lemonade flew at the back of her head. A defendant is accused of hitting his pregnant girlfriend, and is forbidden to go near her until after the trial, but their baby is due on 9 September and the trial won’t start until the 28th. In most cases the couples want to get back together; fines are collected out of benefits. The local paper is mostly interested in drugs busts but Middlesbrough has the highest rates of sexual crime and violence against the person in the North-East. It’s almost as bad as Hackney, where I live.
Middlesbrough hasn’t weathered the recession well. In a recent study of local authorities’ ability to cope with the coming cuts, Middlesbrough turned out to be the most vulnerable place in the country. What this means is that it has high unemployment and high long-term unemployment specifically. Self-employed people are rare, business insolvencies are high and a very large number of people have no qualifications. Four in every ten jobs are in the public sector – the NHS, local government and education. People die younger here than in almost any other place in the UK. It’s a story people who live here know well: in the national media it is always the steelworks closing, unemployment going up and being called the shittiest place in the country. People were wary of a London journalist: I was warned that it was a ‘boring cliché’ to knock Middlesbrough. Still, they wanted to know what I thought: ‘You can be honest,’ they said. Or some of them said.
My B&B was a Victorian villa whose front garden was tended and walled. To get into town each day I walked down the Linthorpe Road: it’s the arterial road, where fights happen on a Saturday night. I walked past nail salons run by Asian girls in surgical face masks, the smell of raw alcohol wafting out the door; pizza shops piled high with cardboard boxes and the word ‘parmo’ in red letters across the window (the parmo is Middlesbrough’s kebab: deep-fried flattened chicken topped with white sauce and cheese; in a variation called a hot shot parmo the whole thing is treated like a pizza base and pepperoni goes on top); bars and restaurants, including a busy branch of Akbar’s, the Bradford curry house, which flew slim red flags from its roof; a trendy department store, Psyche, with Barbour jackets in the window. One shop in five or so was deserted: one had a sign announcing that this retail unit could be yours in just seven days’ time. As you got closer to town there were more jacket potato and sandwich shops (at Fatso’s Filling Station a sandwich, crisps and drink was £2.49), pawnbrokers and gambling shops. At the end there’s a covered shopping centre with Boots, a Vodafone shop, Starbucks: you finally come into a crowd. Next to the shopping centre is the main square with mima – the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art – and the magistrates’ court on one side, and the gothic town hall alongside grey 1960s council offices on the other. Completing the square are Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Bottle of Notes, a building-height bottle of lacy blue and white steel, teetering on its side, and a giant TV screen that always seemed to be advertising the 2012 Olympics or the latest government pronouncement: on the one hand perky, on the other grim.