Middlesbrough may have topped a poll of the worst places to live in Britain, but one local is prepared to face down its critics. After all, what other town can lay claim to Picasso, the Proms and a delicacy known as the parmo?
By Shaun Harley
'Yer jokin' aren' yer!' That was my typically Teesside reaction to the news that a survey of council areas carried out for a Channel 4 show has placed the town in the top 10 of its "worst" list for the third year running.
And this time it has jumped from sixth place to topple Hackney from the ignominious top spot.
Like many people from the area, I don't deny that the town suffers from a relatively poor standard of living, but statistics only tell part of the story.
Middlesbrough is a town fighting its way back, fuelled by huge regeneration, modern creativity and the best post-pub delicacy in the Western world.
Many parts of the North East have had to cope with the loss of industry and a declining manufacturing base, and times have been hard for Middlesbrough in recent years. But a £1.5bn investment programme is slowly transforming the town.
To be honest, it's the least it deserves. The area's ironworks, steelworks, shipbuilding and chemical plants made a hefty contribution to British prosperity - no doubt profiting the merchants and landowners of leafy, pollution-free places elsewhere in the country.
For a time in the 19th Century, this corner of England used to set the world price for iron and steel.
The town's first professional football club, established in the late Victorian era, was called Middlesbrough Ironopolis, surely the most intimidating club name ever? In the 1930s, local company Dorman Long used "Boro steel" to build the Tyne Bridge for our grateful North-Eastern cousins.
It's telling that the area's most impressive structural achievement sits 12,000 miles away - the world-famous Sydney Harbour Bridge
The famous Transporter Bridge remains a local landmark but the area's export-focused prowess might explain why the town made do with an uninspiring grid-style development when it took off in the mid-19th Century and little noticeable investment was made in its own distinctive architecture.
It's perhaps telling that the area's most impressive structural achievement sits 12,000 miles away - the world-famous Sydney Harbour Bridge.
But the bridge does have "MADE IN MIDDLESBROUGH" emblazoned on its side, which in our book beats a plaque outside a disused railway station or yet another renovated mill. Our other famous export was Captain James Cook, whose statue can be found across the New World.
The town has experienced huge economic changes but Teesport is still the UK's second largest port, and the ICI petrochemical plant continues to dominate the Teesside skyline.
And when its towers light up at night, it's a modern Technicolor wonder. Who says so? Well, local lad Ridley Scott, whose dad worked in the shipyards, was inspired to create Blade Runner (and what would you rather watch... Howards End?)
Those towers are why we're called "Smoggies" by the Mackems and Geordies. Sunderland and Newcastle aren't exactly renowned for being rural idylls so we always laugh at away games when they scream: "What's it like to smell fresh air?"
Perhaps it's a genuine question rather than terrace banter. After all, Middlesbrough is surrounded by the stunning Cleveland Hills and is only a few miles from the North Yorkshire Moors and the Yorkshire Dales.
The urban landscape is starting to improve following the opening of the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (Mima) in the town's revamped central square, reportedly now the largest civic space in Europe.
Ok, we might have a poorly-designed, boring town centre - where pockets of grass were surrounded by railings, presumably to protect them from extinction - but at least it can now claim to be home to Picasso, David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Henri Matisse and Damien Hirst.
And this summer, the town hosted an outdoor airing of the Last Night of the Proms - just when it seemed the triumph of handsome twosome Journey South making the X-Factor top three was the summit of our musical achievement.
In the recent past, Mima's artistic line-up might have been mistaken for the latest influx of foreign stars to join the town's Premiership football club. (Sub)urban myth has it that stars would be given a tour of the picturesque village of nearby Yarm, rather than downtown 'Boro, when they flew in to discuss the deal.
Football has always been in the town's blood
But the club now has arguably the best academy system in the country, filling the first team squad and feeding the national team at junior and senior levels.
And while the rest of the league falls prey to foreign billionaires, the chairman is a local businessman who saved the club in the 1980s when he was still only in his twenties. Steve Gibson has since invested heavily, making it arguably the most successful English club outside the "big four" in the past 10 years.
Hard lives make for hard people, but Middlesbrough folk are generally warm and like nothing more than a laugh over a pint or three. The University of Teesside provides a thriving population of 20,000 students, who enjoy the town's many pubs, bars and clubs.
It can take a little while for outsiders to get used to the local accent though, which can use elongated vowel sounds - "I'm wearing me peeeeerrrrrple sheeeerrrrrrt tonight, like." This is usually delivered out of the side of the mouth, an economy of speech that makes the area a fertile recruiting ground for MI5, which probably explains David Shayler.
A night spent in Teesside's finest hostelries wouldn't be complete without sampling the incomparable parmo. This consists of a chicken or pork escalope, covered in cheese sauce and served with chips and salad (all the main food groups are represented) in a polystyrene dish the size of a UFO.
It's worth getting your order in quickly because it can take a while to get through the chorus of "Paaaaaaarmo, please" at the counters of the various parmo houses.
And to show how fair minded we are in Middlesbrough, here's a proposition for Phil Spencer and Katie Allsopp, the presenters of Best and Worst Places to Live 2007.
If they come up to Middlesbrough to see the town for real, we'll treat them to a free parmo. You see, property prices aren't silly in Middlesbrough, so we can afford it.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Originally a smoggy myself I hate to hear people only quoting the bad things about Middlesbrough, did you know that it has cleaner air than the city of Bath? Not every young girl's ambition is to "have lots of babies and get a free house". I have plenty of friends who have gone on to be extremely successful in Biochemistry, Maths, Architecture and even a couple who went to Cambridge, all from Middlesbrough, and all went to state schools. Up the Boro!
Marion Reddy, York
I don't like the fact that the television show concentrates on only the bad points about my town, making it sound worse than it is. We breathe cleaner air than the Queen, and the regeneration projects are very well deserved. You also forgot the towns excellent education. The Macmillan Academy on Stockton Road was named the best state school in the UK last year after researchers compared 1.2 million state school pupils nationwide.
Last, but not least, the pride and spirit of its people. We've proved this by standing up to such an outlandish claim.
I was saddened to see Boro coming top of the worst place to live in Britain. I was born and bred in Middlesbrough only moving to Warwickshire for employment in my mid twenties. I enjoyed living in Middlesbrough for all sorts of reasons which become more apparent when you move away from the area, such as the closeness of beautiful coastline, excellent shops either in the town itself or nearby York, Durham or Newcastle. Whitby was a favourite day trip, the moors are something else which I now appreciate even more, especially when the heather is in full bloom during August. The contemporary artist Mackenzie Thorpe comes from the Boro - South Bank if I remember correctly. Many of his pictures are industrial based or influenced by his background eg shipyards, factories, streets with children playing "alleys", football matches etc. The likes of David Beckham, Elton John and other celebrities collect his work as they must enjoy looking at these images. Don't knock the Boro until you have experienced it!!
Bev Varney, Warwickshire, Warwick, England
This town is regenerating at a rapid rate and I for one am proud to say I'm a smoggie. We've got a whole new district being built - Middlehaven - which is set to rival many modern town centres with up to the minute first class facilities, hotels and shopping. We have a University that expands year upon year because of the overwhelming demand it has for places due to the amazing standard of its students. We've got swanky wine bars, coffee shops and restaurants. We've about to welcome a new £2bn pound oil investment to the region. The people in 'Boro' are proud of this town. If Middlesbrough and surrounding districts are so bad how come we've suddenly got an influx of southerners buying up houses in the area?
Reading about my beloved home town brings a little tear to my eye. Where else in the country can you drive half an hour in one direction to some nice coast line, and half an hour in the other direction and be deep in the North Yorkshire Moors? I'll be back on the 27th October Boro, and look out Parmo, I'm coming to get you
Chris Sanderson, Leighton Buzzard (Formerly of Middlesbrough)
The stark contrast of sprawling industry and beautiful countryside make Middlesbrough a compelling place to live. Great nightlife too.
Richard Horsman, Middlesbrough
"...arguably the most successful English club outside the 'big four' in the past 10 years.." Sorry, I've only just finished laughing at this bit. So you think that one trophy since Gibson arrived somehow negates the 10yrs of struggle in the Premiership? That despite finishing in the lower echelons of the League this is a success?
Chris Manning, Bury
You're living in the past! Okay, in the PAST Middlesbrough did a lot to contribute to the country and HAD a lot to be proud of. You also highlight surrounding areas for the beauty but based upon what Middlesbrough has to offer now I agree with the "worst town in Britain".
John Brugmans, Middlesbrough
Can I just say what an excellent article. I'm from nearby Hartlepool who also came in for a slaying in this poll. Much of what is said above also rings true for Hartlepool. I can't help feeling that the southern producers of the show probably didn't even visit our towns. So much for the North-South divide eh?
Stunning comeback. Honest and passionate - I respect you! You make Middlesbrough sound great.
I work in Middlesbrough and find the people extremely proud of the town and so they should be. Obviously this survey, was yet again, taken by southerners who haven't discovered anywhere above Birmingham. It has its problems, like every other place in the UK, but is a place that, like a phoenix, manages to rise from the ashes every time industry is taken from it.
Chris, Bishop Auckland
My endearing memory of Middlesbrough from when I worked in the locality in the mid to late 70s was Brass Castle Lane and the difference between how the locals pronounced it (short 'a's) or how the rest pronounced it (long 'a's). And whose castle was it anyway?
Michael, Newport, Shropshire
Moved to the area from York a couple of years ago¿ cannot wait to move back, M'boro is one of the most intimidating towns in the UK. In fact we as a family no longer go shopping there, it's that bad. Plus the low expectation of a lot of the locals beggars belief, no incentive to improve their lot. To quote a primary school girl in what she wanted to do when she grows up, "I'm gonna have babies and get a free house" Maybe I am being unfair, and they are just a consequence of the environment they live in, but come on you Boro, you can do better!
Colin Brown, Saltburn-by-the-Sea
Spent four wonderful years at The University of Teesside and I still miss the Parmo...
Mike Parsons, Horsham
I was born and bred in Middlesbrough but have been living in the south of England for some 21 yrs. Like your writer I am still proud to say where I hail from, something which softy southerners don't seem to understand. Life in the south is definitely faster and there is less time for each other. I think it's worth noting that the majority of friendships made since living in the south are also with people originally north of Watford. We are warm and friendly and we try to share that with people we come in contact with but I do find in the south it's not always appreciated or it's all too easily misunderstood.
Anne McMahon, Fareham