Michael Parkinson at home in Berkshire, 14th February 1981. (Photo by Staff/The People/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)
On Radio

Spotlight on the Black Country

BBC on the Black Country and on the passing of Michael Parkinson

But let me say before it has to go,” proclaimed Wystan Auden, “it’s the most lovely country that I know.” proclaimed Wystan Auden, “it’s the most lovely country that I know.” Which part of England was he describing?

Full marks for “the Black Country”. Brought up in Solihull, on the bear-and-ragged-staff side of the second city, Auden had a youthful fascination with the foundries and pits which turned that country north of Birmingham black. In his amusing “letter” of self-revelation he told Lord Byron about a childhood train journey:

Clearer than Scafell Pike, my heart has
stamped on

The view from Birmingham to Wolverhampton.

And added:

Tramlines and slapheaps, pieces of machinery,

That was, and still is, my ideal scenery.

Not many visitors have sought the ideal in those cramped parishes. But Uncle Wiz was never bound by conventional thought.

Where precisely is the Black Country? Visit Wolverhampton, goes an old saw, and they will point you towards Walsall. Once there “the saddlers” will march you straight back. Historically this fabled territory yokes those neighbours, covers Dudley and Tipton, and offers “country membership” to West Bromwich, on the buffer zone with Birmingham.

Matthew “Sweety” Sweet, on Radio 3’s Free Thinking, invited a quintet of “yam yams” to define their inheritance, and pulled up short, for none could describe clearly the qualities which shape this mythical land. It was a bit of a swizz, as south Staffordshire (in old money) is an undervalued part of our kingdom.

The locals, thought Liz Berry, a poet, have “a down to earth sense of humour, and an incredible warmth”. Wetter than a taproom floor! There are people everywhere who are “down to earth”, and “warmth” is merely a crutch for the verbally lame. The rhymester also sliced some tripe about a place where “exciting, transgressive things may happen”, though she didn’t specify what they might be.

Invited to offer a Black Country experience, an “accent specialist” (who capped every phrase with “right?”) said she would take outsiders “to a café in Dudley”. Perhaps they might then visit the market place, and the memorial to the town’s most celebrated son, Duncan Edwards. Yet the Manchester United colossus, who perished in the Munich air crash of February 1958, didn’t warrant a mention.

Nor did anybody refer to the Wolverhampton Wanderers team which won three First Division titles in the Fifties under the leadership of Billy Wright, captain of England, and the first footballer in the world to earn 100 international caps. Wolves, in their famous black and gold togs, remain the most visible symbol of Black Country identity. Clearly they weren’t transgressive enough.

A glottal-stopper from the Centre for the Study of Legacies of British Slave Ownership (and we couldn’t leave them out) thought the traditional view of the Black Country was forged by “privileged outsiders”. Translation: duffers like Dickens. “Sweety”, spotting a slow horse, swiftly moved on but while his questions were clear the responses were dull or evasive.
In this tickle-me world, where “poets” share banalities with “scholars”, there is little independent thought. This panel didn’t even record the programme within the realm of their deliberations, preferring to favour an audience in Birmingham. After all, New Street is closer to London.

But gather ye rosebuds. At least we were spared that thumping bore Sathnam Sanghera, who imagines he is to Wolverhampton what Aeneas was to Rome. Now that really is free thinking.

Parky has gone, and we are poorer. While he was best-known for his work on television, where he wrote the first (and last) words on the British chat show, Michael Parkinson was also an accomplished all-round radio man.

Those moulders of taste, who would struggle to distinguish between salt and sugar, scorn the art form which, along with cinema, forged the twentieth century imagination

At various times he presented Desert Island Discs, a mid-morning Sunday Supplement for Radio 2, and a Friday night sports forum on Five Live. But he will be remembered most fondly for his loving programmes about the Great American Songbook.

We won’t hear such expertise again. The people who prepare the schedules for evenings and weekends on Radio 2 have run up the white flag. Popular music is now held to have started between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP.

He fought the good fight for the Gershwins and Jerome Kern but in the end even Parky realised his rapier was no match for the tanks mustered outside Broadcasting House. “They’re not interested”, he said one lunchtime. “I wonder at times whether they know what I’m talking about”.

Those moulders of taste, who would struggle to distinguish between salt and sugar, scorn the art form which, along with cinema, forged the twentieth century imagination. “Tragic” is not too strong.

At our last lunch we returned to our mutual favourite, Johnny Mercer, and his lyric for Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark”: “faint as a will o’ the wisp, crazy as a loon, sad as a gypsy serenading the moon”. They don’t write songs like that any longer; not that many did in the long-ago. Mercer, Carmichael, and the other bar-room sonneteers, are propping up the great saloon in the sky.

It was a magnificent innings, dear friend, and we who cherish those life-defining songs shall drink deep to your memory. And by the way, this time the dream’s on me.

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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