‘We live and die in these towns’

This terrible story has been on my mind.

From the outside, the store in Bacup, Lancashire, is unremarkable. Posters in the window announce a two-for-one offer on roast ham and baby wipes. Photocopying is available at 7p per sheet. To step inside, however, is to confront a story that divides a community and reverberates around the world.

There are four checkout desks at the store. One is regularly operated by Christine Herbert, whose teenage son was a ringleader in a brutal attack on 11 August 2007 in which a 20-year-old local woman died and her boyfriend was so badly injured that, a year later, he has still not made a full recovery.

Christine’s queue is often the shortest. Many shoppers refuse to be served by her. Others, when they do, pull up their sleeves to display a black wristband as they hand over money. The bands are embossed with the word ‘Sophie.’

Sophie Lancaster and Robert Maltby, 21, were set upon by a gang of teenagers in a nearby park. Robert was attacked first and as Sophie went to his aid, pleading for mercy, they turned on her. The couple were kicked, stamped on and left unconscious, covered in blood. A recording was played in court of a 15-year-old telling the emergency services: ‘This mosher’s just been banged because he’s a mosher … his bird’s on the floor as well.’ Another witness said they ‘looked like dummies’.

When he sentenced the gang, the judge, Anthony Russell QC, said: ‘This was a hate crime against completely harmless people who were targeted because their appearance was different.’ Sophie Lancaster did not die because of her race, religion or sexuality. She died because she was a goth.

I never heard of Bacup before last weekend’s story, but it could be anywhere:

Isolated from major towns and cities, Bacup sits in a steep-sided valley. Much of its infrastructure is derelict despite government regeneration funding. Several shops are empty and others tatty or downmarket. The houses along the main roads are terraced but behind them, on the hillsides, are several notorious estates. ‘It’s a shit-hole, basically,’ says Paul Mannion, one of Sophie’s friends and a fellow goth; ‘…one of those places that needs to be wiped off the face of the earth. There might be some OK people but they’re not in the majority.’ On a walk through the town it is noticeable that there are few non-whites. I mention this to a local, drinking alone in a town centre pub. He smiles. ‘They get fired-bombed out of their houses and given a whack with a baseball bat to make sure they get the message,’ he says.

Mannion could be describing thousands of places all over Europe and America. Most of us have lived and worked in small towns. The sort of place where if they put a new sign up, you talk about it. They tend to be ethnically homogenous and have little in the way of jobs or nightlife. There will be a local contingent of big fish, splashing around in a puddle-sized pond. Anyone with any sense will leave as soon as, never to return.

Anything can mark a person out as different. In particular, intelligence and imagination are regarded as capital sins. I recall a piece in a regen trade journal about the multitude of social problems suffered by the world’s Bacups. The article suggested that the reason their local economies are so stagnant is because the bright kids who might have made a difference to the area get out at eighteen because they are tired of being bullied in the town’s playgrounds and glassed in its pubs.

There is a ugly drive in our sorry species to target people perceived as different, people who are not part of some mob or group – I’m convinced this is the instinct behind most racism, all schoolyard bullying, anti-immigrant sentiment, and the backlash against ‘political correctness’. Human nature is vulnerable to propaganda, but here I’m not talking about the propaganda disseminated by governments and corporations but that handed down by individuals and families, from generation to generation, swirling around the high school, college, workplace and peer group. Even people who profess radical opinions can display absolute conformity in their social lives. It’s a fundamental problem with human society, human nature, or both.

But this instinct seems more refined in places like Bacup than anywhere else. What is it about the small town? The greater distance between people; the lack of perspective. Whatever, the propaganda says that if your face doesn’t fit then you’re worthless – and you’ll die. It convinces adolescents because they have little life experience and therefore little perspective. Talking about the Columbine massacre in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, South Park creator Matt Stone commented:


They scare you into conforming… by saying if you’re a loser you’re going to be a loser forever. Don’t fuck up because you’ll die poor and lonely. Eric and Dylan, people called them fag, they were like ‘I’m a fag now, I’m a fag forever’. And you wish someone could have just grabbed them and gone, you know, high school’s not forever…


They were weeks away from graduation.


They just beat it in your head as early as sixth grade… don’t fuck up because if you do you’re gonna die poor and lonely… but all the time it’s the opposite, the losers in high school go on to do great things and all the cool kids are living at home.

The only advice I could give to young people in places like Bacup is to study hard, get your A levels and move to a university in a big city as soon as. For all the talk about high crime rates in inner cities, people tend to be much more friendly, pragmatic and tolerant than in provincial towns. In fact, I’m more and more convinced that cities pose the best conditions for the fulfillment of human potential.

Update: Nightjack has excellent analysis on the Lancaster case.


One Response to “‘We live and die in these towns’”

  1. Joolz on Lancaster murder « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] on Lancaster murder Joolz Denby has written a moving piece on the first anniversary of Sophie Lancaster’s murder. The murder of Sophie Lancaster had a vile, performance-like quality to it which made me […]

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