Bradford, a northern English boomtown in the industrial revolution, has suffered a two century accolade deficit. Very few outsiders have ever had anything good to say about the place and yet on a recent visit markontour discovered fascinating history, great bars, a unique peace museum, thriving community radio and, above all, huge energy and optimism from Bradfordians.
Bradford was a small, rural market town until the wool factories took off in the 1830s and its population rocketed. A profusion of hill-top mills attracted workers and entrepreneurs from across Europe, although few of them seem to have enjoyed the experience. George Weerth, a German-born factory clerk with poetic inclinations, spoke for many when he complained that his adopted home was “the most disgusting manufacturing town in England..no theatre, no social life, no decent hotel, no reading room, and no civilised human beings…only Yorkshireman in torn frock coats, shabby hats and gloomy faces.”*
The English novelist, J.B. Priestley, however, was a little more generous a few decades later, describing Bradford as “at once one of the most provincial and yet one of the most cosmopolitan of English provincial cities”. Priestly’s words wouldn’t do too badly in describing the bundle of contradictions that is contemporary Bradford.
Despite its half a million citizens, Bradford has no direct national rail connection. While the rest of Britain is worrying about the demands of an ageing population, a quarter of Bradfordians are under sixteen. A staggering forty per cent of these children are growing up in food poverty, yet there are 1.5 registered cars for each adult resident (which explains why it took my taxi forty minutes to negotiate our way back to my hotel after a morning swim four miles away in Pudsey, the nearest pool that was open). Bradford voted for Brexit, despite a cosmopolitan demography that includes over a quarter of the populace who define as Asian or Asian British.
While most of the mills have long since shut-down, their legacy is everywhere, not least at Saltaire – Titus Salt’s attempt to build a utopian factory village, which opened in 1851. In its era Saltaire was famous as a symbol of a new, benevolent form of capitalism. That so much of the town is still standing and looking so good is certainly testament to the quality of the homes that Salt constructed for his workers. But one has to remember the historical context to swallow the idea that this was utopia, given that Salt’s child workers, many starting as young as six, had to put in 12 hour shifts at the looms from Monday to Saturday in order to benefit from free clothing, decent meals and Sunday school lessons.
It was reaction to the scale of exploitation at the dark, satanic mills that made William Blake pen those famous lines and turned Bradford into a centre of early trade union activity. Mostly this is a history of heroic defeat, but in 1893 Keir Hardie chaired the founding conference of the Independent Labour Party here and seven years later became Britain’s first socialist Member of Parliament (although representing the Welsh coal-field town of Merthyr Tydfil).
Today, Bradford’s Labour run city council is struggling with hundreds of millions of pounds of public spending cuts imposed on it by the national government’s austerity programme. But rather than focusing on what is being lost, the council is taking an “asset-based approach”, leveraging all that Bradford has going for it to invest in future development. Among those assets are clearly its youthful and internationally connected population, but also the built legacy of the mill years – the town centre alone is stuffed full of high quality late-Victorian buildings, many of which are currently unoccupied.
The cheap availability of high quality premises must be one of the reasons why Bradford is starting to attract an artistic community. Already home to the Bradford Literature Festival (started four years ago by the impressive Syima Aslam), the city is also now starting to boast arts organisations and quirky bars that wouldn’t be out of place in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, or my wonderful E17.
The Brick Box, for example, is an imaginatively designed little drinking den, whose speakeasy bar will surely be the birthplace of many a crazy, brilliant new project over the coming years. Brick Box also gives its name to an innovative community interest company that seeks to provoke and stimulate creative and economic growth in the city. I would have loved to have seen the effervescent co-directors, Rosie and Eleanor, presenting their thesis, ‘Absurdity Sells: The Value of Playful Events’, at SXSW! But I am sure we will be seeing much more of them in the future.
A few streets away, markontour was delighted to find the Record Cafe, a venue that combines a carpeted record emporium upstairs, with a craft beer bar downstairs. They need to put a warning on the door, however, because this set-up enables vinyl-addicts not only to imbibe before purchasing, but to indulge in browsing and buying until last orders are called. Dangerous.
The Record Cafe also has its quirks. Markontour and friends passed by on Steely Dan night. After enjoying a few tracks by the Dan, but noting that we were the only customers in the establishment, we enquired if perhaps there were also some local, contemporary bands on the playlist? “I’m afraid not” came the friendly reply. “How come? You’re a record shop”, we persisted. “It’s Steely Dan night” came the firm, and final, answer.
It wouldn’t have been polite to argue, especially not in the city of peace, for Bradford is also home to the world’s first university peace department and boasts its very own Peace Museum. In a world of wars, it’s a great concept to focus on the history of the struggle for the avoidance of conflict and I wish I’d had more time to look around.
But there’s no time in this short life for regrets and, not least in a week where markontour had the chance to fulfil a life-long dream – the chance to present a radio show!
BCB106.6FM is Bradford’s thriving, multi-cultural community radio station. Markontour was fortunate to be visiting Bradford as part of a Leaders Quest programme, which including recording a BCB broadcast as a team-building task. We might just have copied the wonderful team at BCB, who appeared to epitomise everything you would hope a community organisation to be about: passion for the town, diversity, professionalism amongst amateurs, and a focus on participation in making the programmes rather than trying to compete with commercial stations for listenership.
I can’t exactly recommend you listen to the results of our efforts**, although I believe they are going to be broadcast at some point, but it was great fun putting together a show that imagined being in the year 2038 and describing how Bradford became the world’s climate change capital. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Mamoona, the 16 year old student and BCB DJ who played the part of our fictitious Lord Mayor, actually does go on to lead Bradford to a clean, green and prosperous future in twenty years time! And Fling, the local band whose single we chose to soundtrack our little segment, are also well worth checking out.
Would George Weerth be happier to live in Bradford if he came back today? I don’t know – he sounds like a hard man to please and perhaps not someone whose opinions should be the basis for public policy. But I know I’m planning on going back, perhaps not on Steely Dan night, but certainly for the Literature Festival and I’ll be listening in to BCB106.6FM to find out what else I’m missing.
* As relayed by Tristram Hunt in ‘The Frock Coated Communist’, a brilliant biography of another German emigre to northern English mills, Frederich Engels.
** Thanks to Ann Morgan for patiently showing our rookie group the radio ropes.