Proud Hartlepool look to rise above the monkey business in FA Cup

To this day, there are still people who think the monkey story is true. That during the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century, a monkey really did wash up on the Hartlepool shore and was immediately assumed by the credulous townspeople to be a French spy. That the monkey was arrested, questioned, put on trial and – unable to account for its actions – hanged.

It’s not true, obviously. I mean, give it a moment’s thought. Hartlepool is a port town. It’s been a trading centre since Roman times. They’re going to know what other people look like. Actually, the monkey legend originates in a music hall song written by Ned Corvan in the 1850s. But part of the reason people still want to believe it is because it verifies their vague caricature of what Hartlepool must be like. A dim backwater. A scared, unworldly place. They thought a monkey was a Frenchman! Hah! No wonder they voted for Brexit.

Even now, on the rare occasions Hartlepool punctures the national news, it tends to be as a source of wacky comedy or half-baked political analysis. Hey, did you hear about the time they chose a man in a monkey costume as their mayor? Hey did you see the club issued an official statement mourning the death of Meat Loaf? Meanwhile, last year’s byelection saw the entire Westminster freakshow descend on the town for 72 hours to emote, nod sagely and point at things. Boris Johnson kicked a football. Keir Starmer drank a pint. Both disappeared within hours.

“People here saw through the bullshit, they know what they’re voting for,” says Stuart Drummond. He was the man in the monkey costume, the football club mascot who famously won the inaugural mayoral election in 2002 on a platform of free bananas for schoolchildren. Less well known is what he did next. He cleaned up the town centre. He healed rifts in local government. He was re-elected twice with a larger majority. And of course, the kids got their bananas.

“I call it the world’s biggest village,” Drummond says of his hometown. “You don’t pass through Hartlepool. If you’re there, it’s because you’re from there. We can often be quite scathing about our town, but when someone else says it, we close ranks.”

What’s missing, paradoxically, is a town itself. In 2020 the think tank Onward produced a “social fabric” index ranking UK local authorities not just on metrics like health and poverty but things like volunteering, public space, trust in politics. Hartlepool came 375th out of 380. Hollowed out by austerity, fractured and forgotten by politicians, people in Hartlepool have essentially been left to fend for themselves. And so, insofar as this town does have a beating heart, a place to come together, it’s football.

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