The Black Country. Country of the blighted, country of unwanted coal and lost industry, of long-extinguished foundries and murdered steelworks. And my town, dear old Wolverhampton.
Its motto is, ‘Out of darkness cometh light.’
Its people’s motto is, ‘Out of arseholes cometh shite.’
I was born onto the floor of a terraced house one autumn night, into a different world than the one we occupy today. That world has mostly gone. Some parts remain as the ghosts of forgotten buildings but most of the people of that time are no more, and certainly the character of those people has been bleached away, watered down like beer in an overpriced pub. But in my mind, and sometimes in my dreams, they are there, living on.
Those memories are coming back more often these days. They court me, as if I’m walking with old ghosts who have risen unbidden from the sleeping graveyard in my head. A sense of the past is so strong and undeniable that I can almost see it. It wraps around me with smoky, sooty arms.
That terraced row of houses where I breathed my first is still there, but changed. Modernised, yes, but somehow so much smaller. Sometimes in vivid dreams I drift through the familiar rooms, and they are as real to me as the room I sit in right now. I wonder if the people who live in my former home sometimes wake in the dark of night and see a small child moving through the shadows, a patch of boy-shaped mist or fog, my dream self.
Time. You can’t catch it and you can’t hold onto it. It’s like air: we move through it every day, every hour and every minute, but we just can’t see it.
It’s a dank morning in distant 1963. I am walking with my mother to nursery school, past a children’s clinic. The near-rancid smell of the Midland Counties Dairy cuts through the cold, still air. Shiny silver tankers wait in their bays like torpedoes in launching tubes, off-white effluent streaming across the pavement as the trucks are sprayed down and cleaned with industrial jets. I hear the belching of the pumps, the hammering of the generators, and the sound of shouting, busy men, all in overalls, all wet with the cold spray-back of water ricocheting from the curved bodies of the tankers. Some of ‘the crafty uns’ as my Nan would have said, are skiving off, skulking and hiding around corners or hid in dark doorways and niches, snatching a sly fag, dragging deep on Senior Service or Woodbines. All are flat-capped, all grizzled and weather-worn and some wink at me and say, ‘’Oroight yung’un?’ as my mother tugs me past, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
The dairy lives and breathes; sour, milky breath caught in the rumble of big diesel engines and men coughing from smoke-stained lungs and throats. It cannot see its demise hiding just over the horizon, cannot imagine the golden arches of its headstone, the drive-thru of its grave.
The chill of the morning attacks us all. The mums drag us duffle coated and balaclava’d kids alongside them; in thick drab coats and dull coloured headscarves, they seem almost greyer than the day, and much older than their years, shaped by hard work and hardship.
A winter’s night, a few years later. I think it must be a Friday because there is no school tomorrow, and there’s the scent of fish and chips in the air, heavily salt-and-vinegared, marinated in the headlines of yesterday’s Express & Star. Perhaps it’s November, because it’s cold but there is no snow. I’m standing on the step of our front door. It’s already dark and a pea-souper is forming, slowly settling, already smothering Ashland Street chip shop. The pungent tang of burning coal and slack, of unswept soot-lined chimneys joins the already tainted air. The street lights are doused one by one as damp grey-green waves billow, then settle. It’s here now; the street light opposite has vanished in the murk. I look up at the lamp right outside our house and all I see is a dull yellow halo, a small land-locked lighthouse. Its sad, dim glow is answered by the muffled sound of a trolley bus lumbering across the top of our street, not fifty feet away. Then even this is gone, and silence and the fog reigns supreme.
I know better than to venture even a few yards in exploration. Grown men get lost forever, and mothers whisper of strange untold dangers, things that I should heed but of which I know nothing. I continue to watch awhile, and the damp chill breath of this town seeps into my lungs and its grimy, sooty touch scratches at my eyes.
My mother’s voice cuts from somewhere behind me.
‘Come inside and CLOSE THAT BLOODY DOOR!’ I turn and obey, shutting out my silent friend.
A bright March day and years have gone by. I must be at least thirteen. It’s a special day for our family, the glorious seventeenth, St Paddy’s day. Yes, even in darkest Wolverhampton, the Irish, my parents among them, have carefully unwrapped and brought out the ‘Auld Country’. The now not-so-smoggy air of this town is forgotten for a while, the tortured vowels of yam yam banished by brogues and the gentle whispers of Connemara and Connacht.
The Emerald club is alive and jigging. Older kids like me are tolerated on this the day of days. No booze of course, no pint of plain for me. Well, technically. My uncle Pat has stealthily placed a glass of the black stuff near my hand and judging by the surreptitious winks he is firing my way, this dark liquid magic is clearly meant to be mine. Sometimes, I love my uncle Pat. The men in here don’t appear any different from their outwardly Wulfrunian selves, except perhaps the worn black suits are a little cleaner, the Brylcream-lined caps a little less crumpled and the scuffed shoes and boots a little shinier. I’m confused, because I was born and bred here but today I’m Irish. I’m still too young to know that I am actually both, that this town will hammer my shape and grind my personality, and that Ireland will rain-wash and soften the Black Country corners, dampen down its angles.
The flag of Ireland hangs everywhere and the chatter of the men is loud – mostly accented English, but some speak softly in Gaelic, my father included. Some of the ‘auld boys’ shyly display the medals of their younger days, some talk quietly of Michael Collins and the lads of the Flying Columns, riding rusty bicycles along dark and dangerous boreens. Others speak more urgently of how The Officials should play their part in the Shitehole North.
The heady scent of porter and strong untipped cigarettes billows through the room as I watch the band tune-up for the Ceili. They will play Quadrilles and slow Irish waltzes. You can’t see it, but there is a cable of connection between this place and that land, forged through poverty, through history, through common needs tempered by love and marriage.
July 1976. Summer has flooded this place. We live in a golden lake; its only tide is heat. Wolverhampton has been this way for weeks, or decades, or maybe forever. Night never really comes; the hot dusk just lingers on until the hot dawn. Long-dead beer gardens have been miraculously resurrected and seem constantly full. Brightly-coloured sun umbrellas bloom around these mad oases.
On the sticky, melting streets, girls have never worn so little and boys have never been so pleased. Our parents are dazed and confused; they shrink from the shimmering air, their energies sun-leeched from them. They hide indoors from the syrupy heat of the day. We school-leavers are now Kings of All. We wear our tans like medals. Our sunburns are badges of honour.
My friends and I have sweated our way through this heat, and cursed our way through our ‘O’ levels. On this day, the last day of long and unjust incarceration, the final exam is over and school is finished. Forever.
‘Free at last!’ I yell as we burst from the school gates. Adolescence is fading, soon to be washed away by a wave of politics, music, and sex. For now, we soar over North Green, blazers flying against the bluest sky. We yell and gambol our way across scorched, wiry grass. School ties are fashioned bandana-like around foreheads, the colours of our tribe.
Our tribe. The Wulfrunians. This place has always been us and we have always been this place. We pride ourselves on denying it to others, but we can never truly deny it to ourselves. Over forty years have passed since that last school day, when we ran too quickly towards our futures. My town and I have changed. So very much. But beneath it all, we are still the same.
Martin Begley is a student of Creative Writing at the University of Wolverhampton.
Banner image: Bev Parker, Wolverhampton History and Heritage.