On Teesside

Joanna Biggs

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.

It’s not as if the Linthorpe Road is all there is. Since mima (think MoMA, or don’t) opened in 2007, people have come from all over Europe to see exhibitions about the Bauhaus, the potter Lucy Rie and Gerhard Richter. Kate Brindley, the gallery’s director, boasted of a grant they’d won to build up a collection of postwar American drawings: ‘Middlesbrough will have drawings of a quality not yet in any other collection in the UK, not even Tate,’ she told me in her entirely white office; when she blinked, her eyelids flashed gold. Anish Kapoor’s Temenos was unveiled this summer next to the football ground: enormous steel rings with what looks like a fishnet stocking stretched between them. Lots of people told me about Teesside University, crediting it with reversing Middlesbrough’s population drain: last year it was the first former poly to become the Times Higher Education’s university of the year, partly because it works so closely with local industry to produce supremely employable graduates. It is also one of the institutions that is bound to be hit hard by public sector cuts.

Ray Mallon, Middlesbrough’s elected mayor, has polished his sales pitch until it shines, however uncertainly. Mallon was a detective superintendent in Cleveland Police who became nationally known in the late 1990s as Robocop, when his ‘zero tolerance’ policing caught the attention of Tony Blair: he had promised to reduce crime by 20 per cent in 18 months or stand down. He got there, but not without trouble. He had apparently turned a blind eye to two detectives trading drugs for information, warning dealers of impending drugs busts and taking police-recovered drugs for themselves: things that in a post-Wire world don’t seem as shocking as they once might have. There was insufficient evidence to prosecute, though he later pleaded guilty to police disciplinary charges. Three months later he was mayor; people I spoke to described him as ‘smooth’.

The council offices were utilitarian in the manner of a down-at-heel school, with faded stickers on the bog walls. In Mallon’s office there were two squashy leather sofas on either side of a coffee table covered in council papers and a electric guitar signed by Status Quo on a floor stand. Mallon wore black braces over his shirt and a purple, blue and black striped tie; his grey hair was slicked back. We both had tea in red ‘Middlesbrough, Moving Forward’ mugs; he also had a single rich tea biscuit on a side plate, but didn’t stop talking long enough to eat it.

Mallon assured me that he would answer my questions but first he wanted to talk about what he’s trying to do in the town – and he wanted the Dictaphone to pick up everything he said. He spoke in enthusiastic councilese (‘we’re going to prioritise the priorities’), of wanting Middlesbrough to become a ‘designer-label town’ that would attract everyone within an hour and a half’s drive. He was angry at people who looked down on the town: ‘And people have the audacity to criticise and condemn and be disrespectful to Middlesbrough and this area? Well, they don’t do it in front of me.’ The cuts didn’t seem to bother him, because he’d seen them coming: ‘I was all over inflation like a rash.’ At the same time he wanted me to know that his ego wasn’t ‘as big as some people think’ and at the end of the interview, he made me turn the tape off because he wanted to tell me what sort of man he was. I found that quite odd. I hadn’t brought up his past, and I would only have got a well-rehearsed line if I had; it was the boarded-up houses that worried me.

Middlesbrough barely existed before the 1830s. In the 12th century there had been 12 monks in a small Benedictine priory called ‘Middle-burgh’ as it was the ‘middle place’ between the monks at Whitby and Durham; by 1670 it was a farming hamlet of 90 people. But when Edward Pease’s Stockton and Darlington Railway was having problems exporting coal from Stockton – the River Tees was too shallow at that point for ships to get through – they chose to extend the line to Middlesbrough, where the Tees was deeper. The extension opened in December 1830. Edward’s son, Joseph, led a Quaker consortium in buying up the land and began to look for investors. He approached Henry Bolckow, a Mecklenburg-born corn tycoon and his English iron-maker business partner, John Vaughan, who opened ironworks on the Tees in 1841. But the firm of Bolckow and Vaughan didn’t come into its own until 1850, when Bolckow rather opportunely found iron ore in the nearby Eston Hills while out hunting. The proximity of coal, transport and an untapped source of iron was unusual: the 650,000 tonnes of iron ore mined in 1854 doubled to 1,197,517 tonnes two years later, the population boomed from 5463 in 1841 to 18,892 in 1861 and furnaces appeared all along the mouth of the Tees. It was Britain’s gold rush; a village thrown up to house ironstone miners was named ‘California’, the allotments were ‘Texas’. Gladstone, then chancellor, visited Ironopolis in 1862. ‘Middlesbrough,’ he said, ‘is but an infant compared to what it is destined to be. It is an infant, gentlemen, but it is an infant Hercules!’ The town adopted the motto Erimus – ‘We shall be.’ (Erimus is now the name of the company that manages Middlesbrough’s social housing: I heard it in the magistrates’ court, when the clerk was working out who was owed for a broken window.)

As the iron age blurred into the steel age in the late 1870s, it was found that Cleveland ironstone, which was high in phosphorus like most ironstone in the UK, made steel that was worthlessly brittle. But Bolckow and Vaughan heard that Sidney Gilchrist Thomas, a chemistry enthusiast and Stepney police court clerk, had come up with a way to get rid of the phosphorus, and let him experiment in their furnaces: the Gilchrist Thomas process was successfully demonstrated in a public experiment on 4 April 1879. Among other things, like train tracks and skyscrapers, Teesside steel was used for the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932; the bridge is stamped ‘Made in Middlesbrough’.

Success didn’t trickle down. In 1907, Florence Bell published At the Works. Inspired by Mayhew, it is a portrait of industrial life, the fruit of years spent poking around workers’ terraces asking questions with the help of her stepdaughter, the once and future Gertrude Bell: the coke ovens have to be kept going 365 days a year, a flannel shirt disintegrates after three days’ wear, men fall into the furnace and work stops for the body parts to be fished out, lunch is brought in a bucket and left on the cooling pig iron to keep warm. But the book is also about the way an ironworker’s home was run: what was for breakfast (tea, scones, pickled herring and butter), what they read (Mrs Henry Wood’s East Lynne, the Illustrated Police Budget, ‘something with a little love and a little murder’), where children played (slag heaps), how many men, women and children went to the pub on a Sunday (90,414), how often they gambled and what its appeal was (‘But that £5 we won at new year, it did fetch us up wonderful’).

In the 1930s things inevitably began to slide. A £250,000 loss was made on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Aldous Huxley, who visited in May 1931 for Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine, noted that Britain, once an iron-making pioneer, had long since been overtaken. Bolckow Vaughan had collapsed into Dorman Long in the 1920s, Dorman Long was nationalised to become part of British Steel in 1967, British Steel merged in 1999 with Koninklijke Hoogovens to make Corus, which is now owned by Tata. From a peak of 33,000 steelworkers, 2300 remained at the end of last year, when Corus announced it was mothballing the last furnace at Redcar, just east of Middlesbrough. Roger Cale, who worked in steel on Teesside for 40 years, drew diagrams for me of metal-making processes over a parmo, salad and chips. He explained the Bessemer Converter, the Open Hearth and the Electric Arc methods over four pages of my notebook, but the best thing about being a steelworker, he said, was retiring. In August a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Corus and Thailand’s Sahaviriya Steel Industries: for £320 million, SSI will take on the Redcar furnace and plans to return to full employment (1600 jobs were lost in the mothballing).

Aldous Huxley was also there for the birth of Middlesbrough’s second industry, chemicals. At the invitation of his friend Alfred Mond – later Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller for Western Europe in Brave New World – Huxley visited the ICI fertiliser plant at Billingham, near Middlesbrough, in the summer of 1931. ‘One of those ordered universes that exist as anomalous oases of pure logic’, he called it: ‘a poem of which the technicians and administrators are the joint authors’. There is something of ICI in the Central London Hatchery we tour in the opening pages of Huxley’s novel, which was published a year later. In 1945, ICI bought Wilton, a site on the opposite side of the Tees, to make plastics from North Sea oil: a 1956 colour newsreel of a royal visit shows the young queen staring blankly at a pair of safety goggles labelled PERSPEX. In the 1990s, ICI was broken up and Wilton and Billingham sold off plant by plant. They are both still there, though: Billingham will, with luck, be home to an eco power station in 2012 and Wilton is now owned by a Singaporean company, Sembcorp, which runs the site as host to several international corporations.

When I got to Wilton, I was digitally photographed for a pass and sent to watch the safety video. If something goes wrong you’re not supposed to call 999: the site has its own ambulance (and a superior US-style fire engine, which the PR man was eager to show me). In case of an explosion you were to head for a Toxic Refuge, where you’d stay until you heard the all-clear. Sembcorp’s PR man, talking all the time, drove me around the site. There are remainders of ICI’s petrochemical works: the ‘cracker’, for example, which refines oil to make substances like ethylene and propylene, used by neighbouring plants to make plastic (the nylon plant closed last year). Colour-coded tubes wind around the site, as if growing of their own accord in a computer game, fetching and carrying. There are companies from Saudi Arabia, America, Norway: a golden hello from the government beckons them in. The green power stations are the heart of Wilton: an old one, steam hissing out of red brick, next to a new one run on wood supplied by a coppice round the back, haystacks of old chair legs and piles of chippings; all you can smell is sawdust. A sort of village emerges where everyone depends on everyone else, and in which there will be investment: Vince Cable visited in August to announce £4.6 million of funding for the region, including biomass power stations, a recycled paper mill and a tyre recycling plant; £1.3 million is for carbon capture (one plan is to pipe CO2 into empty undersea gas fields).

When we are finished with the tour, the PR man parks in front of the power station and we go inside a portakabin-like block to meet Jane Atkinson, who runs it. She offers tea, but has no milk (there’s never fresh milk in a factory) and goes off to find some. She was born in Middlesbrough and sponsored by British Steel throughout her degree, working shifts at Corus during the holidays. The first woman to manage a blast furnace in the UK, she worked for Corus almost until the end; she was told to redraft her resignation letter so that it wouldn’t look like abandonment – she was just going to Wilton for work experience. She insisted that manufacturing isn’t dead, just deserted by young people who don’t want to be engineers. She’s a mentor now to students at Teesside University and there are funded apprenticeships, she said. But there are only four places each year: a very small dent in Middlesbrough’s 30 per cent youth unemployment.

Tom Blenkinsop, newly elected Labour MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, showed a similar sort of anxiety about the UK’s industry when I spoke to him at Westminster on the first day back after Parliament’s summer break. He emerged from behind the glass wall of Portcullis House in a charcoal grey suit and his hair stiffly gelled to take me through to the café. I asked him whether his job was partly to stick up for industry in a country that doesn’t care about it. ‘Talking to people about the processes industry, people don’t think we have one any more, because they’re just ignorant of it – they don’t have a clue.’ He was obviously exhilarated to be at Westminster: ‘It’s weird innit. They’ll let anyone in!’ he said as Zac Goldsmith stood chatting to his advisers on our left.

On my last day in Middlesbrough, I walked to the station past the boarded-up houses, dragging my suitcase behind me. I passed a pregnancy charity that was open two afternoons a week and a loose Staffy dog that ran away from its owner towards my rattling suitcase. It came when called and I retreated around the corner, bumping into a young Asian man who beamed at me. Behind him were rows of redbrick two-ups two-downs: there were punched metal sheets over the windows and doors, numbers in green spray paint where the door would have been. One house wasn’t boarded up. The window above the door had a hole smashed through it but there were net curtains: it was almost certainly lived in. The council are buying these houses to knock them down. A developer was to move in, but will there be any more developers? A sort of tragic romance weighs on Middlesbrough: the remaining house in a condemned terrace and the only blast furnace left at Redcar. The last one standing.