“It’s nice around here, peaceful. You should see the castle.”
“Have you been?
“No, no, ha ha”. – me talking to an elderly Jamaican lady in St. Ann’s, Nottingham
Does history begin with a set of stories we tell ourselves about our place in the world? I’m increasingly thinking so, and it’s leading me to wonder how certain historical narratives get set in place.
I’ve been surprised by the frequency of St. George’s flags fluttering, usually in working-class suburban estates surrounding larger towns. Seeing them makes me feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, in the way similar to being out with a friend who unreasonably loses their temper and lashes out at some hapless victim. Yet as people have suggested to me, we don’t feel the same way when we see a Cornish flag in Truro, or a Jamaican flag, and so on. These don’t carry the same suggestions of aggression, parochialism and defensiveness. The model of Englishness on offer here doesn’t tally with the values many of us feel we hold.
‘You can’t just change brain chemistry, we’ve been like this for hundreds of thousands of years, millions of years.’ – man in pub, Lichfield.
So far on my trip I’ve been quietly absorbing the landscape, conversing with strangers without much of a prior agenda. Though I’d set out to talk about Englishness and identity, I’ve found that the conversations can become tense and confused, as people struggle to articulate a position between what they first think I should hear and, a bit later, their own doubts and concerns about society at the moment.
There’s a pessimism in the people I meet, but I expected that. One cliché of Englishness is ‘mustn’t grumble’ – an outlook that suggests both that things will go wrong, but that there’s little achieved in complaining about it. That said, people do enjoy complaining too. I wonder if it’s really a pessimism at all. There’s a positivity underlying all these doubts: things are bad here, but let’s think for the best, let’s make a joke of it. Maybe there’s a happiness at work here, one that has the capacity of weathering all kinds of misfortunes from bad weather to scandalous mistreatment by Atos or the DWP with a series of bitter, sardonic jokes. I’m continually laughing on the road.
‘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.
“It’s got a lovely history and heritage. Shame it’s a shit hole now” – Ian, Wolverhampton.
There’s a shared experience of pessimism among the people I’ve so far met. At first it comes across as ironic: why would you want to come here?! As conversation progresses, this pessimism breaks down into either a belief that the area’s recently fallen on hard times due to some particular influx of immigrants. Or, the belief is soon retracted after a moment’s reflection: no, it’s not really that bad, it’s just got a reputation. Either way, pessimism is the most common expression people tend to make about their environments, and about society as a whole. This pessimism and cynicism remains a major obstacle to establishing a belief in social change.
One thing that also increasingly occurs to me, and from some of my interactions so far, is a common dislike of eastern European immigrants. It strikes me as a kind of safe racism, one that can negatively characterise a huge group of people whilst seemingly not being prejudiced (they’re white, like us). I am also finding this increasingly worrying.
“I don’t know what I’ll be when I grow up” – Ben, Leicester.
With each place I reach, it seems like most people aren’t quite sure why they’re here or what they’re doing. People laugh when I ask them my usual opening question, how’s life in this place? Every conversation begins with a series of jokes. Life seems like a series of accidents and coincidences, with a vague hope of work or family connections steering people into lifestyles and occupations they’ve never really given much thought to.
In the morning I talk with my good hosts, Laura, Caitlin and Ben. We have similar backgrounds, being postgraduate students with experiences of unemployment and being skint, of trying to complete a PhD, a silent and mind-numbing ordeal. We share concerns about the difficulties of finding any kind of stable job in the future.
“You know, go see Broken Britain, ha ha!” – good man in pub, Corby
Let’s play a game of English suburban house bingo. Heads down! So, with the next house you pass by, do you see…
- A rose-bush at the front with all leaves removed
- An aggressive handwritten sign about parking, dog-fouling or similar
- A rustic yet mass-produced house name stuck on its side, e.g. ‘Riverdene’ or ‘Oak cottage’
- A beware the dog or CCTV warning
- A large front garden with nothing in it except pebbles
- A bird-feeder that’s never been used
- A four by four or other very large car
- Mock-Tudor windows or frames
- A St. George’s flag fluttering or stickered at the front
- A satellite TV dish
- Chintzy ornaments on the front window-sill, like plastic frogs, gnomes, teddies, ceramic plates.
To get a full house, tell me: does this building look so similar to every other house you pass that, were you blindfolded, driven in a car for many hours and then dropped of this very building you’ve just scrutinised, you would have no way of knowing which part of Britain you were in?