‘Most people I meet, they’re just trying to get by’ – Emma, Wolverhampton.
I awake in Wolverhampton, my dreams reeling from the intensive tracts of suburbia I’ve passed and the innumerable number of local accents here. Despite feeling to me like an area smaller than London, there are many small towns spangled in a much larger urban fabric that each have their own identity. This is not the greater Birmingham area, but the independent confederation of the West Midlands.
I’m given a quick crash course in accents and identities.
The Black Country, named after the soot of its industries and collieries, in fact refers only to Dudley, Tipton and Sedgeley, caught in a kind of triangle between Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Stourbridge. Here the accent is uniquely thick in a way I struggle to describe. But just a few miles up the road, say in Walsall or Wolves, the accent completely changes again. Brummies by contrast have a far more lilting, sing-song accent. There is nothing quite like it. People from Wolves are jokingly called ‘yam yams’ for the way they speak. I hear some great local phrases, have a guess over their meaning: Ah bist ya? Ah bin? Dark over bill’s mum’s ay? Whatever you do, don’t call people from Wolves Brummies.
There’s much to see in the town, although it feels like a depopulated place at whatever hour. The public gallery here contains the largest collection of Pop Art in the world, and is entirely free. As well as the usual malls, the Victorians have left the city some beautiful streets, a large and fine library, and a grand civic hall, all residues of the Mander family who once owned much of the town. It was here on 22 December 1988 that Morrissey played his first solo concert, letting everyone in for free who came wearing a Smiths t-shirt. Only half of the fans who descended down into the town managed to fit in.
The town is full of curious firsts. Just by the gallery, the first ever traffic light and pedestrian barrier was set up. Wolves has a particular fondness for traffic regulations it seems, and getting in and out of the city involves passing countless checkpoints. It’s the most distant place on the mainland from the coastline, driving the locals up to places as cold as north Wales in search of sea and shingle. We can thank Wolverhampton for electing Enoch Powell, who in 1968 predicted full race war as a result of commonwealth. One poll at the time found that 74% of people supported the ‘rivers of blood’ rant. The speech is a case in point about how public opinion can be transformed for the better. The town’s motto is apt here: out of darkness cometh light.
I’m told that the last man trap was made and sold here in 1959 to an American plantation. It’s an unlikely tale, but in keeping with the mood of the town, tough, shabby, bland, yet oddly dignified. It’s even reflected in the tastes of the local beer like Banks’s, perhaps the most tasteless yet robust mild beer I’ve ever come across.
Like the surrounding towns, Wolverhampton boomed through manufacturing. A huge number of bicycles and motorcycles were once made here, as was ‘japanned’ furniture’ and, above all, locks. Today most of the manufacturing has gone, and the service sector takes up three quarters of the local economy, a sorry result for this once-proud industrial town.
Deindustrialisation has blighted some parts of the West Midlands worse than others. I talk to Emma, who tells me about her work as a part-time pub manager, part-time teacher of maths, leisure and hospitality, childcare, and other vocational subjects I now forget. She tells me that ‘people complain about scrounging, about workshy lazy bastards. Most people I meet, they’re just trying to get by’.
She mainly works in nearby Tipton, but knows the wider area well. Very few people come to public money advice sessions, she tells me, as there is a great deal of embarrassment and stigma in these once-proud communities about money. Many people are caught in a Catch-22 situation. Often without qualifications, there are very few new jobs in the area, and those that appear often pay so little that even remaining on the dole with housing benefit makes greater financial sense. In Tipton there are also a lot of young single-mums. In the current benefits system, mothers on minuscule incomes can claim ESA (formerly Income Support) until the child turns seven, after which they’re thrown onto jobseekers. Finding work that can fit around school times is very difficult. Many have little over £15 a week to spend, and existence is often hand to mouth, aided by store cards and easy credit. Teaching maths is made easier when Emma uses examples from credit stores like Bright House, whose hefty hire purchase interest rates allow some basic comforts into people’s homes whilst punishing them with future repayments.
These stories of a Britain left behind won’t be found in a café or pub. My conversations will only indicate so much. It saddens me that I can’t make greater reach with immigrant communities, with the hidden poverty behind estates’ net curtains. But this project was always limited in that way.
Emma empathises with these people, as I do, and did, when I had a similar job helping carers as a community worker in one south London borough. ‘I see exactly why they do it. They play the system in the nicest possible way’. Families with multiple children often require an income just shy of £30k which just isn’t possible for someone without qualifications. Without any kind of long-term structured skills training programme turning young unemployed people into skilled workers like engineers, biochemists, doctors, or self-employed business-people, whatever – and not simply supermarket checkout staff – these generational experiences of poverty will continue.
But she does tell me of one good idea. She encourages mums to volunteer at their local school. If they stick it out, it can lead to free classroom assistant training, free CRB checks and, eventually, a good job that fits around their children’s school day.
I wander a little more round Wolverhampton, checking out the pretty St. Peter’s Church, with its ancient Saxon cross. I’m jokingly warned not to visit Heath Town, that one must always lock all one’s car doors when one passes through. Being naturally curious, and quite familiar with other ‘no-go’ areas in London, I take a look.
Heath Town is a large planned estate from the 1960s or 70s by its appearance. It is isolated from the remainder of the town by large snaking roads and a design that pits each building against each other, creating the impression of entering (like in Leicester) a leper-colony built as much to contain the locals as repel outsiders. There are few signs indicating I’m here, but I follow up roads named after battles of the Crimean War, before wandering through the high dark blocks and pedestrianized passes. Children play and music booms out from the estate, and I pass peoples from all across the world, particularly recently war-torn lands.
Wolverhampton council has sent virtually all its asylum-seeking refugees to this estate. Such devices reinforce the effects of the architecture which is to identity and corral in the poor. These estates are mass concentrations of poverty and unemployment. Asylum seekers are so restricted by anti-immigrant legislation that finding paid work or a much scaled-back form of welfare is very difficult, and many are necessarily pulled into the black or grey economy simply in order to live. Estates like this suffer for their social homogeneity, as well as gaining that ‘no-go’ reputation from more socially-aspiration working-class neighbours.
Lynsey Hanley has recently written a superb social history of council estates. She argues that there are two common perceptions around estates which cloud a fair appraisal of them. One is that the golden age of estates has passed, a dream that necessarily went sour. Though intended for all working-class people to provide modern facilities that gave a fair stake in a new progressive society, they ended up becoming ‘sink estates’, prisons of the very poor. The other perception is that the poor will always be with us, and that they should be grateful for their faraway cheap housing. This perception has ratcheted up in recent times with the growing prejudice against welfare claimants as ‘scroungers’. Either way, what was intended as a public good becomes a signifier of poverty.
Hanley writes from her own experience growing up on ‘The Wood’, large purpose-built estate at Chelmsley Wood, a north-eastern suburb of Birmingham. She describes the isolation and stigma of growing up in such a dislocated and soulless place, a ‘proletarian hell’, a ghetto. Her remarks reflect the kinds of estates I’ve passed of the 1960s, where town planners have truly walled in the poor into out-of-town communities, away from most amenities or things to do. They fail where Bournville succeeds, which treated its tenants like equals and sought to cultivate them to reach their potential, through education, exercise, clean sanitation and health, and religion.
I live on a council estate in Oval, south London, which now belongs to a housing association. I am immensely grateful of the cheap rent and good conditions, and have no issue with living here. But my experience is different to Hanley’s, whose case seems more common, and reflects the vast estates of south London like Downham, Mottingham, or St. Pauls Cray or Ramsden in Orpington, or New Addington, more than it does the estates that more often are discussed in London like the Heygate. These are isolated and often grim places.
Owen Hatherley is an excellent historian of 20th century urban design and architecture, and a persuasive defender of the kinds of Modernist or ‘Brutalist’ council housing built in the 1960s. Writing about Chelmsley Wood, he appeals that we must defend social housing and not be ashamed of it:
‘if we want to shake off the legacy of thirty years during which council housing grew to be an insult, perhaps the best way to start is by not being ashamed of it; by creating something with pride and grandeur, something that we could point to and say we want the future to look like this.’
It’s a stirring point, but the problem is that very few of these estates seem like the future, or seem worth defending. They were cheaply built at the time and often blighted by damp. Whilst Hanley over-relies on her own negative feelings growing up, Hatherley never seems to talk to local people who live in these places either. As an outsider coming in, and talking to local people, I find little with pride or grandeur. I remain fully committed to the idea of fully nationalised, public housing. It is something which I don’t think has ever yet been realised. With a huge house-building programme to good long-term standards, as the Victorians worked under, and with a state-enforced cap on rents, we could have a new era of public housing where the future looks far brighter, and more appealing, than these strange and isolated prisons of the poor.
Most of the shops are boarded-up and there is clearly nothing to do for young people here. I pass a young man with a slashed up face. Later, I get talking to one local man who tells me something which probably fits everywhere I meet. I ask him what he thinks of the place. “Very bad!”, he starts. But as I quiz him a little more, aware of this problem of pessimism in correspondents, he struggles to tell me of any specific thing wrong with this place. Later, he amends his view. “Very bad here, and very good here. You get good and bad everywhere”.
I’m introduced to other local people briefly, and warned not to come here at night. A man gestures at my camera and says I’d probably get beaten up and have it robbed. I can’t quite tell if it’s fair advice or a vague threat against an obvious outsider trying to make some journalistic or cultural capital out of the suffering of the poor. Some mix of the two I think.
I cycle out of Heath Town and follow the canal up to Birmingham, a 15-mile journey along some extremely bumpy terrain. I pass travellers and local people fishing. One man tells he he’s hoping to catch Perch, or maybe even Carp. The fish are actually edible though I’m not sure how many of these fisherman expect to do so, or even catch them. It seems like a fine excuse to meditate by a body of water, one of humankind’s greatest enjoyments.
Following the canal also gives an opportunity to see what remains of the industry of the West Midlands, which is a good deal more than one would expect. The combination of grey canals, derelict factories and low warehouses will be familiar to Virgin Train users passing through Birmingham, and I’ve seen this landscape once from a train. I remember seeing Wolverhampton and thinking how awful it looked, like a decaying town in late-80s East Germany. Cycling on the ground gives a much fairer and more nuanced view of things. There is plenty here thriving, and I pass friendly locals who greet me and cheer me as I huff up steep canal bridges and broken-up paths. I pass busy locals’ pubs and little streets. The broken path takes it out of me, and the journey feels three times as long. Eventually I find myself facing perhaps the most unlikely building in this area: the national sea-life centre, situated by a filthy canal, and a large yuppie flats development. Welcome to Birmingham.
Birmingham is largely considered a joke in London. It’s one place that friends back home have found most bemusing. Why would you want to go there? The shopping centre is an eye-sore, there is no music or whatever there… As I will discover, this is perhaps the most ignorant and inaccurate view of Britain so far. Birmingham’s a very exciting and interesting place, and I’ll explain why.
We are in the industrial heart of Britain. Birmingham was once known as the city of a thousand trades, with workshops across the city turning the metals and minerals cut out of the surrounding terrains into workable things. Everything feels tough but fair. It’s even in the water, so hard does it taste that it leaves a chalky residue on the back of your teeth. Birmingham is the birth-place of most hard rock and metal too. Lemmy of Motorhead hails from here, as does Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath, Napalm Death, Judas Priest, and half of Led Zeppelin. Their music feels like an atavistic expression of the dark energies of industrialisation, of turning rolling forests like those intact in nearby Arden into a pockmarked landscape of dirty canals, collieries and ‘satanic mills’. I say atavistic because much of this noisy and dirty industry has now gone, and seems to have its swansong in this dark, intensely-rhythmic, bloody loud and surprisingly sophisticated music.
It feels opposed to London too. There are no towering cathedrals or stately palaces, no royal residences or venerated heritage. Roy Fisher calls the place an ‘off-shore island in the middle of England’, where individualism, cooperation, public-spiritedness and hard graft are prized over old school ties and traditions. I wander through the city centre, past the regenerated canals towards the old town hall and a very impressive town square, where a security guard chases out a surly lad riding a bike.
In the distance are huge 1960s office blocks and luxury hotels, and countless new malls. Much of the centre looks like the 1960s indeed won. The architecture largely resembles the bland concrete blocks of Richard Seifert like Centrepoint, but much of it is still in good condition. Alongside the wide roads and over-complicated road arrangements, the town is perhaps one of the few places where such town planning kind of makes sense. There is no hiding its ugliness though, but Birmingham’s one of those places that has no problem with its ugliness.
I pop into the Birmingham City Museum, where there is a large pre-Raphaelite collection and a portrait by Modigliani. It also features a very curious sculpture by Jacob Epstein that perfectly suits its location. ‘Lucifer’, made during 1944-45, combines male and female anatomy into an unsettling figure whose intentions are impossible to fathom. Lucifer is the morning star, the bringer of light out of darkness, a relentless pursuer of knowledge and self-mastery. He becomes the rebellious angel, one who seeks to usurp God through mastery of nature, and is suitably punished. I feel it is a neat parable for the industrial revolution founded right here in Birmingham, and which over the course of little over two centuries has turned a small and largely rural humankind into a gargantuan, technologically sophisticated species, one that may well annihilate itself through the effects of its poisoned flourishing.
I leave the City Museum and pop into the Ikon gallery, another free public site where there is a highly cerebral and somewhat dull exhibition on. The assistants are very friendly, as is everyone I come across in this city. I cycle around Digbeth, where a community of punks have been settled a while. Though some complain about gentrification here, I come across pubs that haven’t seen a lick of paint in decades and vegan co-op shops, as well as cannabis stores and homeless Muslims drinking beer in the street.
Though I’m too late to pop in, I visit Inge street, close to China Town, where some of the last back-to-backs have been preserved by the National Trust. Ozzy Osbourne grew up in one of these cramped, 19th century houses, where overcrowding and bad sanitation were rife. As with the rookeries in parts of London like St. Giles and Holborn, the urban middle-classes connected the bad sanitation and health of the local workers with a moral contagion and a perverse otherness, compounded by the fact that most residents were Irish Catholics, Jewish or Irish. Joseph Chamberlain attempted to ameliorate conditions by building Corporation Street, knocking down many of the back-to-backs in the 1870s. Today none survive except here and, while I’m grateful to glimpse life as it was, this act of preservation juts with a landscape with very little interest in the past.
Jane Jacobs is quite right to call Birmingham a ‘great, confused laboratory of ideas’. It boomed from nowhere from the 1550s on the back of metal, which would continue to become the city’s major industry. The first authorised English version of the Bible was created here in 1537 by John Rogers, known later as the ‘Matthews Bible’. A rebellious place, it supplied the parliamentarians with metal and weapons during the English Civil War, and was subsequently burnt down by Prince Rupert in 1643. Unphased, trade continued.
The town had its own ‘Midlands Enlightenment’ in the 18th century, and was a hotbed of non-conformist ideas, with its Lunar Society meeting on the nights of full moons to discuss the latest scientific and intellectual developments. The slave abolition movement was huge here, as in Hull, and former slaves had an important part in the community. Olaudah Equiano was here in 1790 to build support for abolition, and Frederick Douglass later came here too to address the popular movement. Peter Stanford, born a slave in America, became the city’s first black minister in 1887.
It is a place where being street-wise and irreverent is the norm. From Samuel Johnson and J.R.R. Tolkien to W.H. Auden, Benjamin Zephaniah and the Streets, British culture owes an immense amount to a city that has no interest in taking any credit. From Dexys Midnight Runners in Coseley to UB40 and the Fine Young Cannibals, the great music that the town has spawned has always been a cocksure mix of styles and identities. That Cultural Studies, a superbly flexible tradition of investigating power relations in popular culture blossomed here in Birmingham, under Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall, is no surprise when you wander round the streets here.
The city is entirely founded on immigration. As I wander through the streets, I pass a kind of multicultural integration that I have never seen before. It is everywhere. I pass China Town and enter the Gay Village, before cycling past a large Hind congregation to reach Moseley and Sparkhill where there is a huge Indian community. Later, I wander through Lozells and Soho road, where I’m light-heartedly mocked at one street corner by old Jamaicans smoking skunk, and a block later, drunk Poles and Czechs. I pass sari shops next to Chinese takeaways, Irish pubs next to Vietnamese supermarkets, Caribbean bakeries next to Czech and Polish off-licences. Improbably, even the Archers is recorded here, Radio Four’s quaint rural drama and the longest-running soap opera in the world.
Everything is in flux. Whilst the city has produced some famous visions, like the photography of Bill Brandt, images from the past make little sense now. The town is attracted to its busy nature, its material transience. If one thing might remain true, it is this observation by Alexis de Tocqueville,
‘Its inhabitants work as if they must get rich by the evening and die the next day’.
There’s little sign of anyone in the city-centre getting reach, compared to say the leafier suburbs, but that vivacity remains. It’s also a very hospitable place. I figure I would need at least a month to properly get to know this city, but I do my best, cycling all around the town, talking to whoever I can.
William Hutton has a good story about first visiting the place which, though not true for me, seems quite probable today. As he describes it back in July 1841,
‘I perceived two men in aprons eye me with some attention. They approached near. “You seem,” says one, “by your melancholy situation, and dusty shoes, a forlorn traveller, without money, and without friends. I assured him it was exactly my case. “If you choose to accept of a pint of ale, it is at your service. I know what it is myself to be a distressed traveller. … They took me to the Bell in Philip Street, and gave me what bread, cheese, and beer, I chose. They also procured a lodging for me in the neighbourhood, where I slept for three half-pence.’
I can empathise with Hutton’s situation!
The town makes the most of its curious hybrids and has plenty of curious inventions of its own. I cycle to Moseley to eat Birmingham’s local food, a Balti curry. Invented sometime in the late 1970s, it is a bland curry cooked in a bucket or wash-bowl. I’m unsure whether it was done for expediency or as a cheeky finger to drunken British diners. As I sit at Shababs and order the most bland and English of baltis, prepared with potatoes, spinach, mushroom and peas, I look around at the diners, all exclusively local and white British in a largely Indian area. People order chips instead of rice, and the Indian waiter addresses me jovially as mate.
These Balti houses had their heyday in the 1980s but are now much rarer, replaced increasingly by more authentically Indian restaurants. But these are wonderful instances of multiculturalism by way of experiment and opportunism, like the mouth-watering vindaloo or today, our national dish, the ultra-mild Tikka Massala curry.
I find Birmingham fascinating. Sadly the town-centre is marred by the Bullring, a stupid and ill-thought out shopping centre full of bland high street brands and lurking security guards. Some say it has had a bad impact on local trade, making the town more boring, with less ‘going on’. Others like the shops, the pubs and the cocktail bars, the surety of getting a product one is familiar with that the chain store provides.
I thread out through the town, visiting Chamberlain Gardens in Ladywood, an area blighted by unemployment, and with fairly obvious drug-dealing happening, but also very pretty. Its high-rises are shielded by a large park and country grounds, which although exacerbating its remoteness, offers a Bournville kind of concession to the need for beautiful outdoor spaces to boost people’s moods and give something to do, a thing which Heath Town suffers from. I cycle round Lozells and Handsworth, home of Benjamin Zephaniah and Steel Pulse, where once an excellent British reggae culture blossomed in the Afro-Caribbean community here. Today the area is more multiculturally mixed, but amidst the closed shops and obvious boredom, there are glimmers of the kind of unrest that has led to major riots here, back in 1981, 1985, and later 1991 and 2005. Unemployment remains an unsolved problem, as the service sector hoovers in increasingly young people into its low pay, and industrial jobs continue to wither.
I take a large A-road back to Wolves, threading through West Bromwich, then Moxley in Walsall and Bilston, places which are far more white British in composition to the places I’ve passed. Multicultural integration isn’t always everywhere, but I very rarely spot any St. George’s flags round here, which I consider a healthy sign of a lack of parochialism. I head up to Wednesfield, where the final Viking army of Danes were driven away by Saxons from Mercia and Northumbria in 910. There is little evidence of such a climactic historical moment among the sleepy industrial estates or the retail park and hospital that characterise the place, but in a place like the West Midlands, this is to be expected. I pass Sikh temples and Christian places of worship. I must reassert it again: this is the most multicultural and interesting place I’ve been to, more so than London or anywhere else. The West Midlands is a remarkable place.
I head back to Wolves, grateful for a second night at the Posada. I’ve been able to clean my clothes at last, which have quickly acquired a trampy and goaty smell from the continuous sweating. I am missing some of my home comforts. There has been no coffee or books, and very little music, the very things which made up my life before I left. Travel is changing me, making me find other people and the outside world far more intriguing that I ever expected. But I really miss my wife, and homesickness kicks in bad in the evening. I wander from the local McDonalds for a McFlurry dinner to the Gifford, a deserted goth pub with a bad jukebox and spooky masks on the wall. I get very little sleep and awake early the next day, heading out to a local Greggs where I’m now writing this.
I’ll end with a conversation I had with a young Afghani guy I met whilst out on my travels today. Describing the Americans in his country, he told me
“I don’t know why they’re there. There is nothing. Lots of mountains, very big mountains. Maybe they want the stone?”
He is a refugee from Helmand, where his father, uncle and grandfather have since been killed by the Taliban. He is worried not to be identified, and tells me that Afghanis here have brought with them divisions from home. “Some are army, some are militia, some American”, referring to allegiances. It is quite an accident how I meet him, and I am a little saddened that he has not found this country so welcoming. Britain should be proud of welcoming in and giving hospitality to those refugees and migrants it has, which has not always been many. Our common anti-immigration politics is not simply small-minded, but completely against the grain of this island’s history of migrations and movements. He’s a witty guy, and while I enjoy talking to him, I reflect on how difficult it would be to facilitate conversations between refugees, immigrants, and local people.
Like everywhere, Birmingham has very few places where any kind of cross-community fertilisation might occur except accidentally. Public facilities are increasingly few, with funding cut back of course. But it’s also reflected in how we live, from the isolated estates to the cultures of consumer shopping and suburban home entertainment. It’s not simply this current young generation, but several going back now who have been socialised into preferring private comforts to public goods, to uncritically accepting newspapers’ stories of crime and collapse over going out and talking to strangers.
Stories like this man’s, and many others, have still yet to be heard.