SIGNALS IN THE SKY
Preface to UFOs over Desert Towns
At some point during my sad second year in London; a stint marked by impossible fees, Payday loans, and Britain's first ever Minister for Loneliness, I started watching the skies. Having felt more and more alien as the Art School tribes got in my head and my pub job got under my skin, I carried a loss of faith with me on the coach back to Gloucester after choosing to stop my studies and start sharing a bed with my mum. I watched the sky in motorway motion through the Megabus windows, searching for the same clouds my parents used to get me to find groovy pictures in on nearly every single back-car journey. I was looking up for signs that I had made the right choice, I was looking up on the off-chance that someone or something out there might be watching over me. And the joke of it all? Skies turn on us - all the time! They come crashing down, always rain on us, force us to carry the weight of its world on our shoulders. Still when all else fails we'll come running to put our hope back in its hands; we look to the sky when we can no longer look to each other.
So there you have it, I was back in Gloucester - the only English city on a list of towns to be called a 'culture cold spot' by The Arts Council. At my lowest point I worked for Cineworld Glos dressed as a human hot dog - all the while contemplating how the dying town centre and fading shopping halls here would ever inspire me to believe in art again. And that's when all this sky watching started to pay off. It came first in the form of a silent, cigar-shaped rocket hovering above a school playground on London Road, disappearing into the orange sun. Then I joined some local teenagers to go out looking for more, finding luminous flying objects among the trees on Robinswood Hill, mysterious lights above the old Blockbusters, silver discs dancing in the sky over drunk arguments outside Liquid Nightclub.
And those in the big cities either didn't care, or didn't believe us! Even after I went to other desert towns and found even more sightings; the diamond spinner sailing through the clouds over Blackpool Pleasure Beach, the cartoon saucer in a Wigan car park, a wingless aircraft gliding over the race tracks of Doncaster like the sway that only tipsiness brings. You don't have to say anything, I can guess your questions just by the looks on your faces. Why would a spaceship choose to visit a cultural desert over the nation's fairer scenes? Could it really have been aliens? Are you sure you haven't just made the whole thing up? Did you even really see a UFO at all? And maybe we did, and maybe we didn't. But maybe if people spent less time trashing parts they've never even been to, and more time recognising the culture they took for granted or never even noticed, they'd see that it's not culture that divides us - but real inequality.
A third of kids in Gloucester are living in poverty, a number that's climbed with the Universal Credit two-child benefit cap. 80 years on from the bleak tales of deprivation told in The Road to Wigan Pier, struggling Wigan locals are left asking if anything has really changed since Orwell. The ladies of Doncaster's football team might not be working at checkouts like they did in the 90s, but they've still changed their name to match the men's, and nobody is asking to switch on their game at the pub. GPs in Blackpool have coined the term 'shit life syndrome' to describe the combination of problems that have led to the town's worsening health crisis - Blackpool's director of Public Health said that people settle there from all over when they're down on their luck and running away, chasing memories of happier times on childhood holidays.
When I next catch a UFO escaping from the despair of a faraway planet that's let them down, I'll tell the aliens inside to go to Blackpool - have a go on the Big Dipper, sing your heart out at a show bar, go see the Meatloaf tribute act at The Grand Theatre. Or head down to Gloucester - hear Gloucester FM share the Caribbean news on your drive down to All Nations Social club, listen to ghost stories at the New Inn and lose your phone and dignity with the goths in a Guildhall mosh pit. Or re-enact Northern Soul at a karaoke bar with the Wigan Young Souls, or go cheer on the Donny Belles at Keepmoat stadium. Don't be a stranger honey; engage with the arts here on earth.
This book documents the written, spoken, and photographic accounts of UFO discoveries in these unlikely places over the past 6 months - all miraculously collected just after The National UFO Reporting Centre recorded an all-time low in sightings. It's impossible to know the untranslatable messages the UFOs were trying to send, but I'd bet it wasn't about life out there at all. I'd bet what they were really trying to tell us is that there's life right here on earth, here in the so-called desert towns.