Geology is destiny.
The Black Country is porous, like its limestone, and hard as Rowley rag, the dolerite in its quarries. For a time this was the most heavily industrialised few square miles on the planet, and yet, as its name suggests, it has never been fully urban. Its hills mark the watershed between the rivers Severn and Trent, the wrosne of Old English, a word that translates as ‘the link’. The Black Country’s borders are ill-defined, corresponding roughly to the old South Staffordshire coalfield (which incorporates enclaves of Worcestershire and Shropshire). It is in the English midlands, to the west of Birmingham, but not of it. On that, at least, we can all agree.
When I ring my dad on the day of the referendum he tells me that he has seen people queuing off the Rowley Road to vote. The hills fall away south below the line of voters, past the blackened brick of the air shaft that comes from the tunnel bored through the land below, past the shell of Cobb’s Engine House which used to pump water from the nearby mines into the canal, past Clent and Walton and the woods that once belonged to King Offa and Saint Kenelm, webbed with lanes where they say Harry Ca Nab, the leader of the devil’s hunt, still sometimes rides on his wild bull. He will surely be out tonight; Lord of Misrule. Those queuing can see all the way to Malvern, always blue in the distance, under the Severn Jacks, soft clouds that come from the west. This is an old country, layered, like the coal and limestone and ancient seabed buried within it.
My great-great-grandad settled his family here, in a hollow of the hill near the tunnel mouth, in one of the cottages covered by the engine house’s shadow in the late afternoons. Llewellyn Williams: Grandad Williams, remembering the sun’s glitter on the River Dee fading in a soft rain come from Wales. My dad’s Uncle Sam told us how he could hear the thud of the engine as it pumped through the dark nights and shook the land around it.
The family moved on some time after, down the hill again into Cradley Heath, eventually to the chainyard where my dad was born years later, the same year as the NHS. They banged chain: men, women, children. Almost all the world’s chain, the cables and anchors of Empire, came from five towns visible from this hillside. A study in 1897 called the chainmakers ‘the white slaves of England’, making reference to an outbreak of typhoid in the notorious Anvil Yard a decade before. These were skilled workers kept in squalor, holding their heads high and proud. When the women led a strike in 1910 to secure the country’s first ever minimum wage and won, John Galsworthy called them ‘the chief guardians of the inherent dignity of man’.
The flags will be out soon for 14 July, Black Country Day. Red, white and black tricolours, links of chain emblazoned across them. The flag of the Black Country is a recent invention, created this century by a schoolgirl called Gracie Sheppard for a competition. The region was ‘Black by day, red by night’, according to Elihu Burritt, Abraham Lincoln’s consul to the industrial midlands and the man credited with first using the term Black Country. The pattern of the flag is shaped like the Red House Cone in Wordsley, where they used to blow glass. So much of the Black Country is in the past tense.
14 July 1712 was the day Thomas Newcomen fired up the world’s first working steam engine to pump water from the Earl of Dudley’s mines. This is the machine that James Watt later adapted, and which shapes the world we live in today, for better or worse. Newcomen had come to the Black Country from elsewhere, like so many of the others that came afterwards, from Devon in his case. It was one of his engines that pumped in Cobb’s Engine House. Henry Ford bought the engine in the 1920s, took it to Detroit as a holy relic. Cobb was the farmer whose fields they undermined. Anyone trying to understand what has happened to England, what happened on 23 June’s referendum, and in the many years before, might do well to visit the silent engine house ruin in its green field with black crows, and ponder.
I remember a class trip once, a walk down through the fields and along the canal. This was in 1983,’84, possibly later, one of the lowest years in any case, Thatcher’s malice doing more to undermine us all than cutting coal and limestone ever did. There were kids inside the ruin that afternoon. I say kids, they were young men and women in their twenties with bags of glue in their hands, with shaved heads, one holding a bottle of something. I remember the teacher veering us away. But the young people smiled and waved at us and looked so utterly lost, as if they were their own ghosts. I think of them and wonder if any of them were queueing to vote in the line my dad told me about, men and women in their fifties now, if they made it this far, if they are still here, looking out across English hills and waiting.
Last summer we brought my son here, a boy named for a Welsh king over the mountains, dressed in his England shirt, to feed the ducks and climb through the engine house’s vacant window. The grass has grown over the slag heaps that we would sometimes run up at football practice. The whole place is a nature reserve, Bumble Hole, so named for an old clay pit filled with water, and it has the soft feel of the English countryside, lichen on the stones of the ruin, faint lettering like runes.
‘No one’s queued to vote round here since the days of Attlee,’ my dad says.
And it’s true. In the local elections in May the Labour Party managed to lose overall control of Dudley Council by defeats in two wards on a 30 per cent turnout, one by 3 votes, the other by 13.
‘There were some who queued for Powell,’ is what I might have said. And that is also true, not so far from here. Enoch Powell’s constituency was five miles north-west from us in Wolverhampton; his anti-immigration rivers of blood speech was made in Birmingham; he was born eight miles to the east. ‘As I look ahead I am filled with foreboding, like the Roman, I seem to see “the river Tiber foaming with much blood”.’
The River Tame is our Tiber. It is ‘A tired and sad little river,’ says a poem by Ian Henery.
‘That’s forgotten its ancient name . . .
Realigned, under motorways,
By Wolverhampton, by Dudley,
Miserable in its canals.’
People never called him Powell, always Enoch. As in, ‘Enoch was right,’ words that you sometimes still hear whispered in Black Country pubs. I used to think about the rivers of blood when I worked in the Three Crowns at the top of Dudley High Street in my late teens, in between the clack of the dominoes played in the tiled bar by white, black and Asian men, with barely a raised voice between them. I wondered if we mocked Powell’s curse with our actions, or whether his words will come to mock us.
I consider this and look out across North London, because, of course – like the writer in the Victoria Wood sketch who bemoans the destruction of ‘My north, my north!’ and confesses he lives in Chiswick – I moved long ago. I would not be writing this from a kitchen table in Dudley. The distance from here to there is far too great. And that social divide is one of our country’s main problems.
The gulf between us was something the referendum exposed rather than created, although the histrionics of the reaction to the vote seem to be widening the division still further. That the vote was somehow, on one level, turned by the political and media classes into a referendum between middle-class entitlement and working-class self-respect, with the EU as collateral damage, was a huge, miscalculated gamble, something we should reflect on with a great deal of horror.
Perhaps the ground beneath our feet was never that secure. The Dudley cricket ground disappeared down a hole one day in the eighties, collapsed into old mine workings, undone by old wounds, some kind of metaphor for the state we are in, how a gulf opens up, swallows the world you thought you knew.
Further up the hill from the engine house is where I was grew up. Most days on the way to school I would walk up or down Cawney Bank, where you look across at Dudley Castle, the brick softened in the rain and by the years; hard to think of it as once a fortress of an occupying power, Norman blood no doubt now in us all. Lubetkin’s pavilions dot the hill below the castle: Dudley Zoo. When it opened, in 1937, it was one of the biggest tourist attractions in England. Lubetkin, a Jewish Georgian from Russia via Dessau, built a shining city on a hill in the English midlands.
I filmed an interview on Cawney Bank last year, looking over to the castle and the zoo, in praise of the Black Country, of our voices, our accent, in the face of our obsolescence. Through a window in the nearby flats I could see my nan. She’d grown up in streets below the castle, demolished in the years they built the zoo, and I could see the families who lived there, part of my own, Roman Catholic, Villa-supporting, in an area where you followed the Albion or Wolves, who had been blown in from who knows where with the clanging of metal, a travelling people, come to settle and work beneath the fortress walls, then scattered over the nearby hills. Just like all those come later, via Peshawar and Muzaffarabad and Kingston and Bridgetown. Our people came to tend the fires of a revolution, drive the buses, keep the hospitals healing. Our people of the green hill.
There were pleasure gardens here once, way back in the eighteenth century. You climbed the ladder and looked through a telescope, all the way through Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, to the Bristol Channel. They say you could see Lundy Island on a clear day. Ours is a country of hills, of long views. We, so far inland, are obsessed with the sea, which fossilised its creatures in our rocks.
The council tried to revive the idea earlier this year, to sell the views back to the people. A giant ferris wheel stood in Stone Street, where we used to wait for the bus to Wolverhampton, or came gambolling drunk or rolling and fighting out of the Saracen’s Head and onto the slabs on a Saturday night.
The town was ridiculed. The national newspapers and TV enjoyed the idea no end. Unaware of the history, people who had never even visited Dudley queued up to sneer about views they had never seen. But the idea worked. The people of Dudley queued up to get on the wheel, it was full every day for a month, raising money for the air ambulance (because ours is a country that funds ambulance services with fairground rides).
After the circus came the clowns. Farage came on his big purple bus and waved his passport around in the market place. He missed a trick that day, bemoaning the word European on British citizens’ documents, he never talked about England, English passports; Black Country passports in red, white and black. It was only recently I was told that to describe yourself as English – not British – was to belie your working class roots. I am English, bizarrely proud of this fact. I was there that day, sat on the 140 bus in the sunshine on Rowley Road in fact, when a woman got on, laughing. ‘Quick! The UKIP’s coming!’ she told the driver, and we made our escape.
Then came the vote. More than two to one voted in favour of Leave across the Black Country, with over double the turnout of the local elections held just a month before. The West Midlands as a whole returned a 59 per cent leave vote, the highest of all the country’s regions. If those liberal middle classes scorned us before, they surely do so now. Us, them, and which side are you on? I have often buried the question of whether you can be a Blackcountryman and a Londoner too. I always tried to persuade myself I could be both.
But consider that we live in a country where a section of society might impoverish people, a people (and this is where we might choose to go down a long, dark tunnel), and then blame them for their impoverishment, mock them for any attempt to either change or ease that impoverishment. And when they rise up, in their polite, English way after all, and queue past the ruins of their culture in order to put an X in a box that says either/or, them/us, make-your-mind-up time, and they tell you that they have had enough, that something has to give, that they will not go along with you because look where you have led them to already, you blame them for that as well.
‘Are you still here?’ says a man in a distant parliament, and that is the question read by some on the midlands ballot paper. Jean Claude-Juncker breaks off from a speech in his mother tongue to ask this question in plain English. Another grey man replies, and how this ex-public school, City of London trader from Kent installed himself as some kind of spokesman for the English and Welsh industrial working classes is yet one more mystery in a country where all reason left with the coal. A man of greater wit might have chosen to reply in another language of these islands.
‘Ry’n ni yma o hyd,
er gwaetha pawb a phopeth,’
is what he might have replied.
‘We are still here
in spite of everything and everyone,’
from the song Yma o Hyd, a hymn to Welsh nationalism, like the Black Country flag, more modern than it seems, a song that harks back to the departure of the Romans and through the years, to those of the destruction wrought by Thatcher.
And there’s a sense, I think, that what that X in the box translates as is seventeen and a half million voices that say, we’re still here. Because what is clear is that for a long time too many people have felt that they have been ‘jamming a key in a changed lock’, like the character in Black Country poet Liz Berry’s poem, desperate in the snow on a Christmas Eve. People talk of the vote to leave as a catastrophe, and they might be right, but what we must surely, finally, acknowledge is that for some places in our country the catastrophe has been going on for forty years or more and counting, counting.
The River Tame, the canals, do not foam with blood. But the ground has shifted, as it does so often in the Black Country, our hills hollowed out so many years ago now, forever subsiding, but still here, still here, and we must look at each other honestly, across whatever gaps are opening between us, and step away together from the abyss, try to find some firmer ground.
Painting by Constantin Meunier, ‘In the Black Country’