One of the most endearing qualities of people in the West Midlands and the Black Country is their unselfconscious sense of geography and the pride of identity defined by place.
No artificial gerrymandered lines on a map imposing parliamentary constituencies or council wards can divide communities into north or south or east or west or even central. Far from being a vast, sprawling conurbation with Birmingham at the centre, this part of the world is covered with thousands of distinct villages. The good people of, say, Willenhall will bristle if described as being a native of Walsall or Wolverhampton. There persists a good-natured rivalry between the inhabitants of Upper Gornal and Lower Gornal and the folks of Sutton Coldfield will choke on their G and T`s if you dare to suggest that they are, in fact, Brummies. Even within established towns and cities, territorial identity prevails. Divided only by the Hagley Road, Ladywood and Edgbaston could be a million miles apart and Bloxwich considers itself an independent republic. I have yet to hear a single living soul admit to the fact that they live in Sandwell.
This ownership of home ground is not unique to this middle part of England but it is more pronounced and strangely contagious. Born elsewhere and having lived and worked in lots of different towns and cities, I now revel in the fierce localism of my adopted home of 14 years. On Monday, circumstances required me to plan an expedition to far off West Bromwich. My home guard defence mechanism kicked in as this place is west of the M6 and obviously inhabited by dragons. Thorough internet research revealed that parking near to where I had to be would be a nightmare and so, given that the road signs would probably be in Welsh, I decided to use public transport. After years of touring and travelling and jumping on buses in strange towns to see what was at the outlying terminus, I realised that I had never, ever visited West Bromwich.
Discovering that this immense five mile odyssey would take about half an hour, I set off early from Bradford Place in Walsall because the radio and the internet were telling me that the entire West Midlands was engulfed in an inferno. The approach to West Bromwich Town Centre was not promising. The entire central business district looked like a building site and, indeed, a huge pall of thick, black smoke was rising to the south east in what can only be described as Smethwick. Having previously seen some of the images of the Great Fire of Smethwick, I was again astounded at the bravery and dedication of fire fighters putting their lives at risk to keep us safe and utterly disgusted at the useless politicians determined to make fire fighters redundant and close fire stations to pay bonuses to criminals and cut taxes for vermin. Even more worrying is the development that arsonists are now using Chinese drone technology, initially designed to kill wildlife and choke cattle, to bring destruction and insurance claims from the skies.
Without the predicted disruption to travel, I arrived very early for my appointment in West Bromwich and took the opportunity to have a bit of a walk around. Men in hard hats and high viz tabards seemed to outnumber the locals and it became clear that they were working on the biggest Tesco and the biggest Primark I have ever seen. Obviously Walsall is not the only local authority that thinks regeneration is dependent on going belly-up to exploitative tax dodgers and slave masters. After diverting around streets blocked by steel mesh barriers, I emerged from a ghastly shopping mall onto the bustling High Street. Shops and market stalls seemed to be enjoying good business and I appeared to be the only person giving concerned glances at the column of smoke away in the distance. Perhaps the shop keepers and market traders were instead gazing in trepidation at looming ruin in the towering shape of Tesco and Primark.
Still early, I went to The Public and took coffee in the rather nice cafe bar. I had read about the controversy surrounding The Public and arrived fully expecting to hate it. Any architecture described as “whimsical” or “jocular” or, heaven forbid, “provocative” suggests to this critic that the reality will prove to be bloody awful. I was completely wrong; I really liked the building. The internal space was cleverly used and, more importantly, the stuff that goes on inside is really very good. Sadly, the “whimsical” exterior is now blocked from view by steel and breezeblock retail monstrosities.
The meeting went well and, with luck, I may have the chance to return to The Public over the next few months. On the bus back to Walsall, a fellow economic migrant commented on Smethwick`s version of an Icelandic ash cloud by saying it was considerably smaller than it was first thing in the morning. By now, the BBC had abandoned any hope of understanding Black Country geography and reported that the fire was “in the West Midlands”. I expressed some sympathy for the people of Smethwick but my fellow foreign traveller responded with wonderful Walsall pragmatism.
“Nah”, he said, “they`m awlroight aer kid. It`s blowin` towards Brummigum”.