Tuesday 3 February 2009

From the Middle of England, With Love

There are many Englands, I think.

The North-South divide is often touted as defining England, but it's deeper than that.

One could argue, that the way England sees itself geographically, is kind of Londoncentric, that our sense of where something is depends entirely on it's relationship with London. I guess this is true, in the sense that if you look at a map, Yorkshire is fairly central to this island. Yet to most English people, it's the North.

But to someone like me, the South is an alien England too. North and South are both of them other Englands. The England I know, is the Midlands.

Of course, the Midlands as defined by a Midlander isn't quite the same as the Midlands now defined by the European Union. I guess again, we come back to the fact that popular perception of what is North and South is very Londoncentric. Popular perception of what the Midlands is, perhaps makes no sense if one looks at England in terms of geography, but there it is.
Because now we are told that Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire are part of the 'East Midlands'. Geographically, I guess they are. But traditionally, they're the North. Because the accents there, are Northern accents. You're in the Danelaw, you've left English Mercia. And I guess, actually, the geography of England is that deep, it goes back to the heptarchy. The South is the old kingdoms of Wessex, Sussex, Essex and Kent, East Anglia is on it's own, the Midlands is English Mercia and the North is Danish Mercia and Northumbria.

And thus Oxford, whatever the European Union say, is a Midlands city, not a Southern city. Gloucester too, belongs to the Midlands.

Having said all that, it's interesting that England has lost a region, or a region that once existed in popular perception no longer exists. Nowadays, the term 'West Country' is taken to mean the South West. But last century it seemingly referred to the border counties, the five counties that had once been 'the English Marches', that part of English Mercia that bordered Wales, the counties of Shropshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire. And in a sense, this still FEELS correct, if one compares the rural tracts of these counties. They do still belong together, in some ways. In a historic sense. They don't belong together in a modern sense because the first three now serve as dormitory tracts for Birmingham, whilst Gloucestershire looks to Bristol and the late nineteenth century spillage of the Welsh coalfields into Monmouthshire led that county to start to look more to Wales again.

Birmingham seems to go against everything that is English. It is a curiosity that our second city is the city that it is. I think it is something so many people outside the Greater Birmingham area don't understand. But nor do those of us in it.

It's a very atypical English city in some ways, but also very representative of a side of England no other city really showcases.
It's an exception to the rule, in so many ways.

Even I sometimes find it hard to get my head round it sometimes.

Three hundred years ago, where the Birmingham and Black Country conurbation now is, was a sparsely populated part of the country. It is a city which was created by the industrial revolution. It is younger even, than the industrial cities of the north. And it has always been a symbol of the new. It has no real history, there are far more old buildings in New York, or Boston, or Philadelphia.

It doesn't look a typical English city. It isn't. It's pretty much an entirely modern creation.

And this has affected it's outlook. Even last century, it looked at the world in a very different way to the rest of England. It's attitude to the Empire wasn't one of Etonian playing fields and stiff upper lip White Man's Burden, it had an attitude that would seem very American, the Empire was there to make a profit out of.

Nineteenth century Brummies had an attitude to their city that was unique in the UK, forward looking, progressive, Brave New World almost. Birmingham had Joseph Chamberlain. He was the Mr Birmingham of his day. And some of what he did was ahead of his time. At a time when municipal government tended to get bogged down by the sheer impossibility of co-ordinating things between the numerous town boards, education boards, health boards, poor law unions, quarter sessions, etc, etc that bedevilled nineteenth century local government, Chamberlain simply pushed through reforms annexing these powers to the corporation. Birmingham corporation led the way in acquiring its own water supply, in lighting its streets, in slum clearance, in building impressive thoroughfares such as New Street and Corporation Street, he led the way to creating that uniquely MODERN looking composition that is Birmingham.

And of course ultimately, he pushed through the Greater Birmingham Act in 1911, creating the enlarged municipal boundaries which meant that, uniquely amongst large British cities, the entire area, city and suburbs, came under one authority.

And again the sixties, most of the city centre was rebuilt. Birmingham is very much the city of the motor car.
And some say it is a soul-less city. Because yes, it is largely a city of glass and concrete.

But in a sense, it symbolises the Midlands, or certainly the West Midlands. It's all pretty much new. The whole area orbits this vast glass and concrete spider, this isn't the England of history.

Where I live now, is a satellite town, today it is essentially one vast housing estate by the M5, home to thirty thousand people, about half of whom work in the city, I'd guess. And it claims to be a historic town, older than Birmingham by a long way. In fact, it was a Roman town. But really, that's a gloss. Yes, there was a little town here before the sixties, but the modern history of the place begins in the early sixties when the motorway reached it. When the centre of Birmingham became twenty five minutes away. And yes, one can see a few old streets and a couple of churches and an old canal that existed before the sixties. But most of the place was built yesterday. We used to say at school, 'Rome wasn't built in a day, but this town was'.

An outlier of Sunny Brum, fed by the vitality of the Heart of England.

It's interesting, you can tell the older generation of natives, their accent is quite country, whereas we all grew up with noticeable Birmingham accents. I don't think mine is that pronounced, though others say it's very noticeable. Then again, I've always actually worked in the city and I lived near the city centre for many years, so it's possible my accent has become more pure Brum over the years. Some even say it has a slight ghetto twang at times. It's possible. I lived in a mainly Muslim area.

I wonder how far it affects one's psyche. Sure, head just ten miles south and one can see rolling countryside, country churches, village inns, the Olde England of Miss Marple.
In fact, the village Ambridge of Archer's fame is based on is about ten miles east of here. But why would you ever go out there?

To be honest, I don't really venture outside the urban infrastructrure myself. I am aware countryside exists near here, but I guess it feels like another England. It's not the England I know. The England I see around me is Housing Estate England, connected by the M5 to an England I know as my England, a vast metropolis of glass and concrete. A city that could be an American city in so many ways.

I think the psyche of a Midlander is quite different to a Southerner or a Northerner. The South is picture postcard England, in many ways. Even London, is a city of History. The past is more alive down there, one can see history wherever one chooses to go. But also, one can feel the wealth. Even parts of the south which claim to be relatively poor, are relatively well off. I've heard it said that if one excludes London from the South East, one is looking at one of the richest places in the whole world. And yes, I would guess that to be true. Southerners are often quite insular as well, they know little of England too far north of the Thames. They take it for granted that their England is normal. An England with so much wealth on show.

But the North, the North is different in other ways. I won't say it's poorer than the Midlands, though yes, there are large parts of the North where poverty is the norm in a way I don't think we feel it in the Midlands. But they do cling to the past just as the Southerners do. It's just it's a different past. The Southerners cling to Olde Englande, the Northerners cling to Industrial England. When the North was where the wealth was made for Southerners to spend.

I think we're often seen by Southerners as being fairly brash and uncivilised. And by Northerners as lacking that good old honest old fashioned Northern grit.

But I think really, it's that the Midlands- or certainly the Greater Birmingham infrastructure- is kind of alien to the rest of England. Our culture isn't that of the rest of England, because it isn't rooted in history to the same degree.

I remember a joke used to do the rounds years ago;
Question: What's black and eats chips?
Answer: Half of Birmingham.
Question: What's white and eats chips?
Answer: The other half.

Of course, you can tell the joke dates to the eighties. In those days, anyone not white was counted as black, to the rest of England. And these days of course, everyone knows Birmingham's number one dish is curry.

To be honest, I'm proud to come from that other England, the one Birmingham showcases. And I'm proud that England's second city shouts to the world that that other England exists.

The England that is about today. The England that is multicultural, an England of White, Black and Asian, an England that loves curry and balti, an England of glass and concrete, an England of wide motorways, an England with a proud skyline.

An England which can change and adapt with the times, an England where the cold hand of the dead does not sit on the shoulders of the living.

I love history, don't get me wrong.
But the point of history is to understand how the world we live in came about.
Not to be actually lived in.

So yes, not only is it true that I wouldn't want to live anywhere else in the world than England, I wouldn't want to live anywhere else in England than the Midlands.

In my view, it's the best place on Earth.


Anonymous said...

Ah be still my heart Duran Duran - what good memories I have of seeing them as a teen!

As for england I liked the bit of history that only an insider could know. I have never been there but it is on my list of things to see before I die...

Ugh I guess I should start working on that damn list, time is running fast these days!

Anonymous said...

Hi Crushed!
Some time you should post some pictures of your everyday life there. I wish I could see it, and smell it. I'll bet it smells really different than Idaho. Here you would smell fresh plowed dirt and sage brush. Our worlds are so different...are you sure you don't live in Middle Earth?

Anonymous said...

Not that I wish to be pedantic Mr. Crushed, but I have it on very good authority (Jade Goody) that The East Anglia - is in fact, Abroad. Not in The England at all!

Anonymous said...

hitched thru your fine country, wow, 2 years ago already! from cheddar up to scotland. twas gorgeous and fascinating. definitely more multicultural than i realized [besides london, where i expected such.] but also, same old anti-immigrant rants in the rightwing press. i stayed with a family of canadian expats one night; ironically they had a newspaper on their coffee table touting the merits of a survey that found pretty much everyone in england hated immigrants (which ran completely counter to the attitudes of the people i actually talked to).

Anonymous said...

The best place in the World.

Well it's changing rapidly - too rapidly for me to fix on anything I like about it.

If you like change then England is the place for you, I suppose.