The Money Baggers, Dennis Barker on the Midlands, 1965

The Midlands is rich, brutal and lonely. Few ideas men go into the place, and few ideas come out. Products come out, and people who can produce products go in. The area is full of immigrants, most of them white. They are not especially happy there, and do not expect to be. The money is good. In due course they will retire to Bournemouth or Hastings. In the meantime, they keep their noses down and drive to Rhyl as often as they can in a car rather better than they would be using if they actually lived there. They see no illogicality in this. They know the language of production, not of happiness. If the tone of the Midlands can be grating and sour when it is not simply sterile, the Midlander (born and bread) tends to be mercifully tone deaf.

They know the language of production, not of happiness.
Guardian journalist for the Midlands Dennis Barker who died in 2015 (image: the Guardian)

Guardian journalist for the Midlands Dennis Barker who died in 2015 (image: the Guardian)

 

 

This is not to condemn the Midlander. The Midlands, after all, is not there to be enjoyed. It is a factory; a factory in which the processes and observances have assumed the intensity, the solemnity and (yes, sometimes) the bigotry of religious dogma and ritual. In the Midlands production is not an activity, to be evaluated alongside any other. Production is a religion, and work is its worship. It fills all horizons, and even now every deviation from it smacks of sin. Hence (like any other sin) organised culture is both assiduously practised and reviled.

The exceptions are the small cities and towns with history and plenty of visible oak beams; places like Lichfield. Here the olde-worldiness, among the partly completed new shopping arcades, seems to have become almost psychotic; oak panelled cafes with wobbly round tables, Styfian lighting, lamb in thick Merrie England slices, formidable contralto manageresses, and "all sauces 4d per person". Here the middle-aged now act out fading values, like gallant passé actors in a bewhiskered musical comedy.

The industrial midlands pays homage to the needs of the factory floor; but even here the worship varies in force, breadth, and intolerance.

In Nottingham, with its pleasant, airy central square, its charming Council House, and its distinctly charmless local politics, the craft tradition and a form of industrial feudalism are leaveners. In Coventry the ideal of Progress is pursued with too much essentially visionary verve (the first shopping precinct after the war; the Belgrade Theatre) to leave production entirely unchallenged as a deity. True, Birmingham has just built a temple of commerce in the Bull Ring Centre, but Birmingham also pursues culture (the new Birmingham Repertory Theatre project; the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) with what, in view of the usually "safe" nature of the programmes, could be called temperate obsessiveness.

Birmingham has just built a temple of commerce in the Bull Ring Centre, but Birmingham also pursues culture [...] with what, in view of the usually “safe” nature of the programmes, could be called temperate obsessiveness.
The Bull Ring Centre, opened by Prince Philip in 1964

The Bull Ring Centre, opened by Prince Philip in 1964

 

It is the Black Country that the religion achieves its crudest and darkest forms. The whole place is a formless and dark muddle, in spite of the Clean Air Act. Most of it looks about the same today as if did 10 years ago. It is a teaser for planners. Not all of them have fallen back defeated: West Bromwich, a place with all the cosiness of a wind tunnel in winter, has one of the most ambitious plans for central redevelopment in the whole country, and needs it no more than other Black Country towns. The whole area, in the nature of things, is rarely entered except by people who have to go there. Wolverhampton, virtually the capital of the Black Country, is still a centreless small town that contains big money and an indifferent bronze of Prince Albert. It retires to bed early not merely out of boredom or reluctance to look upon itself any longer, but also of a belief that only louts and ne'er-do-wells are abroad after 11. The belief has helped to create the reality, so that at one stage Wolverhampton bus crews considered refusing to man the last buses.

PEOPLE who have never lived in the Midlands make one great error about it. They assume it is the same as anywhere else, except that it makes products, and different products from, say, the North. But it is not the same. The people are not the same. They are tough, enduring, clannish rather than loyal, cunning rather than clever, naive rather than innocent, suspicious rather than enquiring. These are the attributes that have served them best. Their possessors seldom leave the Midlands for fresh pastures; and they are usually not too happy when they do. At home they are not fully aware of the outside world, because they have no immediate need to be; presented with it on its own terms they clam up, think they are being laughed at or bested. Their lamed capacity for unclouded enjoyment, irrelevant in their own context, makes them aware of dragging their feet elsewhere. "You can always tell the Midlanders," said the proprietor of a Blackpool hotel. "They're the ones who don't look as if they are enjoying themselves."

“You can always tell the Midlanders,” said the proprietor of a Blackpool hotel. “They’re the ones who don’t look as if they are enjoying themselves.”

But, taking him in his own context, nothing could be more naively self-congratulatory on the part of the South than to think that the Midlander resents the Londoner as the man at the centre of events. The Midlander - particularly the Brummie - simply does not regard London as the centre of events. He regards London as the talking shop, and Birmingham as the workshop, and he regards the workshop as the real centre. Objectively, in our industrial society, his point of view may be becoming increasingly true. He certainly does not regard Birmingham as a second-rate London. He simply does not compare the two on the same basis. In the main he does not know London; dislikes the feel of what little he knows; is not interested in what it has to offer (They're a smooth snobbish lot of custards down there"); is less bound by its snobberies than by his own (new Ford preferred to old Bentley, new Burton suit to worn hand-sticthed one); and is sure, without knowing what the way is, that Birmingham is probably leading it.

If our society in general is becoming more accessible to the hack, the creep, the arranger, the intriguer, and the plodder rather than to the innovator, the philosopher, the artist, and the creator, the Midlands is not the area with most to lose by the change. Except at the start of the Industrial Revolution, when inspired cranks laid the groundwork for uninspired conformity, the area has inevitably been one for sturdy cart-horses rather than temperamental racehorses.

There are few eccentrics now; only nut cases and derelicts. This axiom is less true where the craft tradition still lingers. In Leicester a man may be seen walking in a plum coloured corduroy jacket and bearing on his shoulder a cat held on a lead. Few people stare. He might also get away with it in Nottingham; he would pass quite unnoticed in Stratford upon Avon; but in Birmingham, Coventry, and Wolverhampton they would only be mollified if they could be persuaded it was really a money-making publicity stunt.

The Midlander marries earlier than anybody except the Geordie. He sinks into his home not only as a retreat but also as a status symbol. Thus, if you produce metal products in the Black Country, it is essential to have a house to your own design somewhere like Perton Ridge, a spot near Wolverhapmpton with extravagant land prices and a modest undulating view. It is essential too, that the house should incorporate floor heating, double glazing, triple garages with forecourt, rock pools of teasing complexity, and a bar built like a Tudor minstrels' gallery.

Your pretensions to social weights are unlikely to be accepted in Birmingham unless you live at Solihull, 10 miles over to the east. Solihull has the Midlands equivalent of Kent and Essex stockbroker Tudor. It was satirised in his play "Semi-detached," by David Turner, who nevertheless chose to live there at the time.

Midland householder, Fred Midway (Leonard Rossiter) lives with his family in a semi-detached house in a leafy suburb of Dowlihull. But when his carefully maintained world threatens to disintegrate about him, the scheming suburbanite will do whatever it takes to hang on to his respectable position... [source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08071rx]

Midland householder, Fred Midway (Leonard Rossiter) lives with his family in a semi-detached house in a leafy suburb of Dowlihull. But when his carefully maintained world threatens to disintegrate about him, the scheming suburbanite will do whatever it takes to hang on to his respectable position... [source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08071rx]

The path is gradually being smoothed for culture by grants, by the genuinely enlightened attitude of some local councillors, by the willingness to provide blueprints for action and bricks and mortar. Potent ideas in the arts are none the less slow to emerge, and even slower to take root. Heresies are regarded incomprehension, perhaps purposive. If the writer expresses himself unambiguously he is likely to jumped upon, accused of lack of civic pride, lack of fellow-feeling, and lack of humiliate; so that, if he is not a very steely character indeed, the trims his sails to the detriment of art. Kenneth Hill, the Birmingham playwright, was attacked, in a manner of an outsider might have regarded as plainly neurotic, for his television film which made a comparatively mild statement that Birmingham was a rather dull place. He was left murmuring sweet nothings about how much he loved the people really. The reaction of the Midlands to an original idea still tends to be that of the possessive mother urging her son to get married; she approves of girls, of course, but not this one.

The man at factory floor level is not likely to walk out of this impasse unaided; he is comfortable, if not radiant, the way he is. At Wolverhampton, a play that is not intellectual but merely intelligent will practically empty the very pleasantly modernised theatre. Coventry, Leicester, and Nottingham, with the stimulus of new theatre buildings, are building a new tradition, but it is hard going.

the Midlander still thinks that “life” is telly and bingo or the Bentley and the phoney weekend village in Wales; pleasure is something you do rather than something you feel.

At the moment, the Midlander still thinks that "life" is telly and bingo or the Bentley and the phoney weekend village in Wales; pleasure is something you do rather than something you feel. If he want to see the countryside the can drive to the Clent Hills, on the fringes of both Birmingham and the Black Country, but there is now a sort of amusement arcade even there. What is difficult for him to do is to get away from the man-made altogether and develop entirely fresh perspectives. He is doing his unconscious best to protect his own form of pietistic materialism; and with any luck he may not succeed.

 

The Money Baggers_Dennis Barker_Guardian_10/4/65

 

 

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/mar/03/dennis-barker