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I went into my home town of Sunderland yesterday, first time in ages. I don’t go there often, the place is a bit of a state, but I needed a birthday card and there’s a Waterstones in the shopping mall. Leaving the car park the first thing I saw were two people sucking on cigarettes. Across the road were three fat skinheads, wearing football shirts and supping pints in the open window of a pub. I spotted three separate people with blue hair. Blue hair used to denote Woke but it’s quickly morphing into Chav, in the same way that Burberry went from posh to football hooligan in under a year.

It was a three minute walk to Waterstones, and on the way I spotted six closed shops, including Debenham’s, the biggest shop in town. It shut at the beginning of this year. The town was quieter than I’ve ever seen it.

I stopped in Waterstones and had a coffee. The woman who served me was friendly and the coffee was nice. A woman sitting opposite me was wearing one of those scarves that indicates treatment for chemo. She was struggling with a sachet of brown sauce, the type you get with a bacon sandwich. She looked over to me and said, ‘Can you open this for me?’

Which I did.

Downstairs, after my coffee, I paid for the card and discussed the long-term health benefits of red wine with the woman behind the counter. Then I walked back to the car park, noting once again that northern women do not wear skirts or dresses. Ever. They wear leggings or jeans. Unless it’s Friday night, of course. Oh, and the town is white. I’m talking 99% white going by what I saw. There was one group of migrants, huddled together looking like they weren’t happy to be there, but otherwise. White. This isn’t good or bad, it’s not a judgement on race or otherwise, but it does indicate the extent to which no one who wasn’t born here is interested in coming to here. This is a town you leave. It’s not a place to arrive.

But as I always say, after I’ve described how bad the place is, I have to say everyone I spoke to was really friendly. That cliche of the open, chatty northerner seems to hold true.

We used to build more ships than any river in the world. We dug the coal that powered a revolution*. Now we build more cars here than Italy. And we have more call centres than anyone outside of Wales or India.

Dunno what I’m trying to say. Change, I guess.


*An old miner once told me there were seams of coal a mile or so below where I sit drinking my MaccyDs coffee, seams that are a dozen feet high. A hundred years of coal, he said. Within five miles of this site there are at least a dozen other closed down coal mines.

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