A little English Journey
Can Bradford rise again?
After a recent visit to Japan, where I marvelled, soy-faced, at the speed and efficiency of their transport system, the following week I was back in the land where railways began - the north of England. Two of the last three visits by train to that part of the world had been so stressful that I felt a slight frisson of anticipation ahead - and we weren’t let down. Our train to Leeds on the way up was cancelled; for the return journey they went one better and the entire East Coast line was down, so it was a standing room-only service across the Pennines to Manchester, where we learned that the preceding and following trains to Euston had also been cancelled, too.
Considering the population density on the London train, and that all reservations had been nullified, the atmosphere was quite civil, and we eventually arrived at Euston a mere five hours after our Leeds service was due to leave. I remember thinking how I hoped there weren’t any Japanese tourists on board, and behold soon afterwards The Times’s Tom Whipple experienced this particular national shame.
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We were there to visit Bradford. On our trip at least a couple of locals asked us why in a curious and somewhat bemused tone and I was wasn’t really sure how to answer without saying ‘I like looking at Victorian buildings and this is how I choose to spend my spare time now’, but that was it. We’d all seen photographs of the city and it looked beautiful, in particular the streets around Little Germany.
These date from a time when Bradford was among the richest cities in Britain, its great wealth the result of the wool trade - it was so important that Japanese visitors during the Meiji restoration included the city on their tour of Britain, no doubt marvelling at this advanced civilisation with its impressively futuristic trains. During that century the modest West Riding town expanded rapidly, from around 13,000 people in 1801 to 280,000 a century later, benefitting from a number of geographical advantages.
In English Journey, J.B. Priestley wrote that: ‘It was very fortunately placed for its own staple trade of worsted and woollen manufacturing. It was near some large coalfields, and what was even more important, it had an excellent supply of soft water from lime, good for both washing wool and dyeing it.’
Priestley, growing up in the years before the First World War, remembered ‘as a boy, seeing there some samples of human hair that had been sent from China…. pigtails that had been cut off by imperial command.’ He recalled how the trade ‘brings the ends of the earth together’, with samples from Australia and ‘the Argentine’ ready to be exported ‘all over the place, from Finland to Spain.’
It was full of travellers coming from countries as far apart as Belgium and China, he wrote, yet the people didn’t give themselves cosmopolitan airs as ‘it was dangerous in Bradford to give yourself airs’ of any form.
Priestley joined the army in 1914 and never lived in Bradford again, and in his famous travelogue two decades later called his hometown ‘a city entirely without charm, though not altogether ugly.’
It is certainly not ugly, and today includes 3,723 listed buildings, many of which are derelict, with a distinctive style resulting from the dominance of local architecture firms - unlike in many more recently-built cities which employ a form of global design that really could be anywhere.
Yet it suffered heavily from post-war ‘improvements’, including a shopping centre which is soon to be pulled down. Forty years ago my father described it as ‘a maze of ring roads and hideous blocks and flyovers and desolation’ and that ‘Manchester looks almost untouched in comparison’, although he was something of a glass-half empty man.
The beauty adds both charm and tragedy, since no British city fell further in the 20th century – with perhaps the exception of Liverpool. ‘Little Germany’ recalls the time when Bradford was the most German city in Britain, migrants attracted by the wool trade and its economic links with cities like Hamburg.
Priestley wrote how after 1830: ‘A number of German and German-Jewish merchants, with German banks behind them, came to settle in the town. Many of these merchants were men of liberal opinions, who knew they could be happier outside Germany. The results of this friendly invasion were very curious. Bradford became – as it still remained when I was a boy there – at once one of the most provincial and yet one of the most cosmopolitan English provincial cities. Its provincialism was largely due to its geographic situation. It is really in a backwater.
‘That small colony of foreign or mixed Bradfordians produced some men of great distinction, including a famous composer, two renowned painters, and a well-known poet.’ One of the best-known clubs was called the Schillerverein, and ‘in those days a Londoner was a stranger sight than a German’.
‘A dash of the Rhine and the Oder found its way into our grim runnel – t’mucky beck. Bradford was determinedly Yorkshire and provincial, yet some of its suburbs reached as far as Frankfurt and Leipzig. It was odd enough. But it worked.’
The Germans in Bradford were an essential part of its cultural elite and ‘by 1851 two German Jews, Jacob Unna and Jacob Behrens were founder members of the Chamber of Commerce and in 1863, Charles Semon, a native of Danzig was Mayor of Bradford. In 1910 Jacob Moser, industrialist and philanthropist, a native of Kappeln in Schleswig Holstein, became Lord Mayor of Bradford.’ (Also among those German immigrants was the great-grandfather of Paul Collier, author of Exodus and a thoughtful critic of large-scale immigration.)
The city’s German identity ended with the First World War, a conflict that destroyed a generation here. On the first day of the Somme 1,394 men of the Bradford Pals went to fight the Germans and just 300 returned.
The Jewish population likewise declined; many intermarried and many left. Yet there is still a functioning Reform synagogue, even if the community has dropped into double figures.
Considering recent tensions in the world, and that Bradford is chiefly now known as being the most Islamic city in Britain, it might be surprising to learn that not only is the synagogue in a heavily Muslim area, but the local council of mosques helped raise money for recent repairs, and have on occasion provided men to form a minyan.
Bradford’s decline has been long running. Even in the 1930s, Priestley wrote about his hometown with a sense of sadness, that ‘My Bradford ended in 1914’. The slump which followed the conflict hastened the decline in exports, and ‘The very tide of fashion turned against the West Riding, which was still making solid fabrics for a world that wanted flimsy ones’.
He especially lamented the end of German Bradford:
I liked the city better as it was before, and most of my fellow-Bradfordians agree with me. It seems smaller and duller now. I am not suggesting that these German-Jews are better men than we are. The point is that they were different, and brought more to the city than bank drafts and lists of customers.
They acted as a leaven, just as a typical West Riding folk would act as a leaven in Munich or Moscow. These exchanges are good for everybody. Just lately, when we offered hospitality to some distinguished German-Jews who had been exiled by the Nazis, the leader-writers in the cheap Press began yelping again about Keeping the Foreigner Out. Apart from the miserable meanness of the attitude itself – for the great England, the England admired throughout the world, is the England that keeps open house, the refuge of Mazzini, Marx, Lenin – history shows us that countries that have opened their doors have gained, just as the countries that have driven out large numbers of their citizens, for racial, religious or political reason, have always paid dearly for their intolerance.
Priestley was writing in the 1930s, of course, and what he’d feel about more recent immigration would be an interesting question, since he wasn’t so keen on all incomers. Of Liverpool, he wrote: ‘A great many speeches have been made and books written on the subject of what England has done to Ireland... I should be interested to hear a speech and read a book or two on the subject of what Ireland has done to England... if we do have an Irish Republic as our neighbour, and it is found possible to return her exiled citizens, what a grand clearance there will be in all the western ports, from the Clyde to Cardiff, what a fine exit of ignorance and dirt and drunkenness and disease.’
Priestley grew up in on the edge of Manningham, now the most Muslim part of the city, and a few years ago Sarfraz Manzoor described the scene by the writer’s home as such: ‘A blue plaque on a three-storey house built from pale yellow Yorkshire sandstone. Martial hip-hop beats blare from the top-floor sash window as a woman in a pink shalwar kameez follows a man with a snowy beard down the sloping road.’
Bradford’s second period of multiculturalism was far more dramatic than its first. The 1961 census recorded just 81 Asian women and 3,376 men in the city; by 1971 that number had increased to 3,160 and 9,090 respectively. The most recent census recorded a population that was one-third Asian, although that covers the entire metropolitan area of outlying towns, which totals almost 550,000 people. Between 2001 and 2021 the white British population in that overall area fell by 40,000.
While Bradford is home to a few thousand Sikhs and Hindus, most of its Asian population come from a single area in Pakistani Kashmir: Mirpur. This is a region of only 400 square miles and half a million people, and its very specific migration-chain came about after Mirpur was flooded by the Mangla Dam, Pakistan’s great post-independence project. Some Mirpuris were hired to work in Bradford’s textile industry and, because migration tends to beget migration, more followed.
Unlike with Germans, this more recent wave occurred during a period of economic decline, and immigrants were hired because they were so cheap, and so useful to an industry that was no longer economically viable. While in 1965 there were 50,000 textile workers in Bradford, by 1980 there were just 15,000, and the Asians were usually let go first.
This unfortunately developed in tandem with two growing trends, one international and one more parochial; the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, heralded by the 1979 Iranian revolution and the growth of Saudi-funded Wahhabism, and the development of hard multiculturalism, a sort of neo-imperialism in which ‘community leaders’ were funded by the British state.
In From Fatwa to Jihad, Kenan Malik recalled how photos of Manningham newcomers from the 1960s showed men in smart suits, with briefcases and rows of pens lining top pockets, western in outlook. Yet within twenty years many elders feared losing their children to the temptations of Western lifestyles, and that they were growing angry and withdrawn, both disconnected from their ancestral traditions and rejected by the country of their birth.
He wrote how religion filled much of the vacuum, with the support of the state. In 1981 the Council began funding the Bradford Council of Mosques to create a ‘new channel of communication’. That same year it imitated the Greater London Council with equal opportunities statements and race relations units, and threw money at minority organisations. Its 12-point race relations plan declared that every section of the ‘multiracial, multicultural city’ had ‘an equal right to maintain its own identity, culture, language, religion and customs’. The end result, Malik lamented, was to empower political Islam and further increase segregation, not just between Asians and whites, but between subcontinental communities also.
The city also became notorious for the Ray Honeyford affair, when a headmaster was forced out of his job for objecting to the way that Pakistani children were treated differently by the system. Writing about the case years later, Theodore Dalrymple wrote that ‘Not since I lived and worked briefly in South Africa under the apartheid regime have I seen a city as racially segregated as Bradford in the north of England.’
The issue of segregation has been written about extensively down the years, in particular after the 2001 riots, and I wasn’t there long enough to add anything of interest, although I did get to visit the city’s Multi Cultural Tree, recently put up by the council. (Rather confusingly, when I retweeted this, at least one person seemed to have the impression I was there to launch it. If I’m honest, I’m not sure I’d be top of the list of people Bradford Council would ask to unveil a ‘multi cultural tree’, although I’d be flattered and am open to offers for next year.)
There was a lively and integrated-looking wedding taking place in our hotel, while the pubs were – obviously – overwhelmingly white, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything. But the notable thing about the city centre, and admittedly this was during a weekend of terrible weather, was how empty it was.
There has been a significant urban renaissance of northern English cities in the past 20 years. The population of Leeds city centre has increased from 17,000 to 50,000 since the turn of the century, and Sheffield from 25,000 to almost 70,000. But this has largely passed by the smaller urban areas, which continue to struggle.
Bradford will be City of Culture 2025, while at the same time Bradford Council is close to going bankrupt, one of many in Britain facing similar problems. Cultural power is a good thing, but ultimately it stems from wealth, which is what towns like Bradford lack.
Across the world economic activity continues to centre on large urban areas which benefit from agglomeration, while small towns decline, and in doing so continue to lose their middle class and cultural elite - the sort of people Priestley wrote about.
The writer noted that, because the London railway went to nearby Leeds, that city grew larger than Bradford, even ‘though it has never had the world-wide reputation’ of his home town. ‘Leeds has a university and law courts; Bradford has not. I have always thought that there must be proportionally fewer university graduates in Bradford than in any other large town in England’. Today, while Leeds is a lot less pretty than Bradford, it seems bustling and wealthy in comparison.
So what can a struggling town do? Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s great statesman, believed that trees could save a city, because if it looked rich, it would become rich, in part by attracting rich people. Simon Cooke, a former councillor in Bradford, has suggested simply knocking down the city’s unwanted, ugly modern buildings and replacing them with parks, an idea he attributes to architect Will Alsop. Although Alsop’s idea was rejected by the city, it seems preferable to the tried and tested and failed approach of declining towns trying to imprint their names on the world by commissioning ground-breaking new works of architecture which cost a lot and are invariably hideous or bland.
The next few decades will continue to be tough for smaller cities in unfavourable locations, and the best way to survive is to make your town as pretty as possible, and hope it can attract back a sizeable middle class. But that also requires investment in public transport, and since Leeds has been waiting for its own tram for decades, one cannot be too hopeful. Perhaps we could invite some Japanese visitors to come over again, but this time to teach us how to run things.
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