The Elephant Building in Coventry

In praise of the Midlands

The Midlands are more, much more, nuanced and modest than the North

Columns

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


Among the pieces occasioned by Harold Evans’s death was a fond and generous memoir by Donald Trelford, his rival Sunday newspaper editor: “We found we had much in common — both of us short men with northern working-class backgrounds (his family in the railways, mine in coal-mining) who had come up through regional papers . . . If Harry had a fault it was a kind of northern boastfulness though delivered in the gentle manner of Michael Parkinson rather than Geoffrey Boycott.”

Now, a few years ago Trelford became a gerontological sensation when he fathered a child at the age of 73 and then repeated the feat at 76. Even though he had lived most of his life in London and more recently Majorca the Coventry Telegraph was proprietorially proud of the city’s fecund son: “Is Coventry man Donald Trelford Britain’s oldest new dad?” Probably.

He is certainly the most joyful to judge from his beaming smile. It is possible that he is also the most forgetful. Maybe it’s so long since he visited his home city that he fails to recall that it is in the midmost Midlands, equidistant between London and Manchester and closer to Southampton than it is to Bradford. It is not northern, though the idea of Trelford in his superhero Atlas guise dragging the city, cathedral, Elephant Building and all to a site between Parkinson’s Barnsley and Boycott’s Wakefield is an attractive one.

Being a Midlander is not something you shout about: people will affect not to understand thou

Having accomplished that task he could join The Four Yorkshiremen (originally Feldman, Cleese, Brook-Taylor and Chapman in At Last the 1948 Show) in a competitive hard knocks symposium. Seamus Heaney might have been referring to the mentality and mores which that sketch mocked when he spoke of “the swank of deprivation” though he might equally have been alluding to Coventry non-dad Philip Larkin.

The northerners’ boast is that their patch is somehow more “real” than any other loosely defined part of England. It is an odd boast, for as Gordon Burn demonstrated in Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, his gruesome portrait of the milieu which the Yorkshire Ripper frequented, “real” in this sense is measured in complaints, xenophobia, misogyny, suffering, special pleading, self-pity, brutality, the masochistic pride of endurance, pecuniary and climatic hardship, boorish localism and the fact that there is no building stone with so butch a name as millstone grit.

Halifax’s cobbles are no more real, without quotes, than, say, the clipped verges of Kenilworth or Leamington where “the quality” of Coventry beds down.

Trelford is hardly alone in this harmless alteration. Ian Nairn, born in Bedford and brought up in Frimley, an adjunct of Camberley, used to pretend that he came from Jarrow. It was pointed out to David Storey, a genuine northerner, that for all his leftish principles and loyalty to Wakefield he lived in Hampstead: “Yes I do — but in a working-class part of Hampstead.” Parkinson, then, presumably lives in a working-class part of Bray. Do there exist aspirant South Walians? Improbable. Wannabe Ipswichians? Pull the other one.

Does anyone long to belong to Nottingham? Very probably. We are in dodgy territory. My uncle, Harry Turner Meades, was Town Clerk of Burton upon Trent from the mid-1950s till the early ’70s. He was a committed Midlander, a seldom acknowledged species which does not advertise itself, nor does it travel.

Born Evesham, University of Birmingham, working life there and Burton. He loved, could recognise and mimic its many accents, which are routinely mocked. His Lawrenceolatry would have been attenuated had, say, Sons and Lovers been the work of a Lancastrian writer. He felt at one with Housman. He longed to hear Shakespeare’s work spoken as it would have been in 1600.

The Midlands are hurried through, unappreciated on the way to somewhere else

David Rudkin’s Afore Night Come — the greatest-ever play about ritual murder in the Vale of Evesham — fascinated him, not least because it had correspondences with an unsolved murder at Meon Hill, south of Stratford, in 1945. He claimed Gerard Manley Hopkins for the Midlands on account of the young priest’s sojourn in Edgbaston. He considered these wholly different writers to be his familiars.

Being a Midlander is not something you shout about: people will affect not to understand thou. His definition of the Midlands and its precise if often redrawn border with the North was adopted with amendments by his nephew in a film about Birmingham 20 years ago.

I attempted to delineate the Irony Curtain that stretches across England from roughly Lincoln to round about Chester. Essentially, with the exception of Liverpool, north of the Curtain it’s all “Me, I speak as I find, I do — I can tell you’re not from hereabouts.”

Whilst the Midlands are more, much more, nuanced and modest. Black Countrymen’s stoic uncomplaining humour is at their own expense. Reticence and irony are in the blood. They are passed down unknowingly from one lot to the next, a blessing or a burden like the family face which Thomas Hardy (evidently not a Midlander) has “projecting trait and trace”.

Irony is also, according to Gore Vidal, “the weapon of the impotent”. It gets you nowhere. Its reward is the satisfaction it affords the ironist. Which is perhaps why there is a reluctance to “identify” with the Midlands and why Midlanders hide in plain sight. It is a place that’s hurried through, unappreciated, on the way to somewhere else, which reveals itself by being excitingly self-caricatural, grossly self-parodic. Hence the name of that film: Heart Bypass. Even the inhabitants overlook it. They are perhaps not as centrifugal as they were but the ease with which Midland cities can be escaped is held up as a magnet: Cannock, Malvern, Clent, Kinver, Lickey, Bredon, Clee . . .

Will, 75 years hence, meritocracy restored, the junior Trelfords at the end of their own distinguished bilingual careers follow their father’s example and summon Balearic cred by claiming that they came from a humble background, that they lived in a beached boat on Formentera and fished tuna with their bare hands? We must wait and see.

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