I wish I could be proud of where I come from. Really I do. To feel a glow of pride when presenting birth certificate or passport. To bond over my football team’s prowess abroad; to be inundated with friends’ visit requests. I never made an effort to conceal my origins, even during that make or break ordeal, Freshers’ Week. Whilst classmates trotted out associations with Sheffield or Leeds, or disingenuously claimed they hailed from ‘a small Yorkshire village,’ I held my head high and pronounced ‘Doncaster.’ Then I’d wait for it. The awkward silence, the distasteful curling of the lip, or worse- the mocking jibes, the good-humoured taunts.
There were those who’d never been further north than the proverbial Watford gap, who assumed Bronte country: rural, rugged and romantic. Some merely passed through via the East Coast Mainline and took in the slogan ‘Doncaster- a city in all but name.’ That my hometown lost out to Preston in its bid for city status in 2002 and remained just that, a town, was not nearly so disappointing as its misguided overreaching. Such hubris didn’t hinder the renaissance of the perfectly respectable higher education college as ‘Doncaster University Centre’.
The former mining town, once earmarked one of the 50 most disadvantaged areas in Britain, has no lack of ambition, but lacks proportion and direction in its regeneration. A paradox of deprivation is that with it comes excess- binge drinking, unemployment, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse and corruption. Doncaster MBC had just about recovered from the ‘Donnygate’ scandal that prefigured the Westminster expenses furore by a decade, when its ‘Discover the Spirit’ brand came crashing down with the revelation of inadequate children’s services and the fall-out surrounding the Edlington torture case. Having been to school in Edlington, I thought it couldn’t get much worse than learning my former comprehensive had been razed to the ground; I was wrong.
However, in referencing the incident as pre-election ammunition against a beleaguered Labour government, David Cameron has effectively reduced Doncaster to a byword for Broken Britain. His over-simplified, blanket indictment of distinct and complex social issues, particular to their cultural and economic context, does nothing but stigmatise. It overlooks the 2007 flood spirit; the sixth forms achieving over 50% A/B A-level grades. It bequeaths apathy and shame to communities starved of industry, investment and opportunity.
It’s easy to play the ex-pat critic. Yet we have a collective responsibility to the reputation and the representation of our towns- after all, someone calls them home.