by Kerry Hadley-Pryce
For some people (academics, mostly), the English post-industrial Midlands called the Black Country is an “imagined community” which exists only in the minds of residents of the four Metropolitan Boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall, and Wolverhampton. For others, the Black Country is an ugly, grimy, industrial hinterland, known as the birthplace of the industrial revolution, often inaccurately regarded as a “run-down part of Birmingham,” a place where people talk as if black smoke is all there is to breathe. To describe the Black Country as “grim,” though, is wrong and tiresome. There is absolutely nothing grim about it.
Place names, these are. Black Country place names. There are plenty more. You wouldn’t think that place names like this would be part of something ugly, would you? These are historic names, pastoral in quality, a bit like poetry. A bit beautiful, really. Arty, almost. If you look at the landscape, there are housing estates high up on hills, as if spilling out of volcanos. Perhaps that’s what this place is—something waiting to erupt. Looking at it, it seems as if it could have been here before any of us, before anything at all, in fact. You can see the layers of it, even from a distance— especially so if you care to look for it. And you should look for it. See, the Black Country is more than just a post-industrial sprawl lined with canals and flush with shopping centres. It’s more than just a liminal zone that defies maps. It certainly is not a suburb of Brum.
To experience the Black Country is to experience an edgeland within an edgeland. There are extra-urban spaces, wild spaces, and wilderness. Go and have a walk under the viaduct in Lye and out towards the river if you want to see how quickly you can morph from the urban to the rural. You’ll be able to smell that lowish hum of rapeseed, ammonia and diesel, old rain, and charcoal there. All of which makes you cognizant of a very particular interplay between the urban and the rural; both press against each other, just to confuse you, or enthuse you, or both. Look closely. See the hidden working farms just the other side of Stourbridge, and up Gornal way. There are lines of footfall alongside dry-stone walls and hawthorn hedges there. No proper paths. They call them desire paths: lines made by walking. And yes, there are factories, of course, and the sudden juxtapositioning of claustrophobic urban space next to open fringes of land, which makes any definition or location of a border or threshold of the place a bit blurred. But watching, for example, a Black Country sunset can actually be like watching something emerging out of your deepest, deepest imagination. The Black Country sky is big. Huge. Blink and it can stop being stone grey and can suddenly be the very beginnings of the reddest streaks and torn ribbons of spectacular silver emptied-out cloud, before it pinks out into that ambiguous zone that is just-before-night. It’s quick, that transition, as if time is of the essence. You have to see it to believe it.
You might think there are peculiar patches of greenery, and sometimes there is a pony, or a goat, or both, tethered on a corner. This is normal. Children still learn to ride horses bareback—and will do, through the streets of Pensnett— and no-one bats an eye. And the Fens Pools simmer like lochs, like an oasis, in a patch in the middle of strings of local authority housing on an undulating path, seemingly into infinity. It’s a mini-wilderness. And even though some of those houses and flats there are like bomb-shelters in design, at night, the lights of Lye town and Pensnett and Stourbridge and Merry Hill and Dudley shimmer in dips and ridges. There’s something enchanting about that.
Understand that the Black Country is not of the now. Its sense of time is its own. And there is this mix of old and new, of history and new development, of urban and rural, yes, but also of the future. That might appear a complicated mistake of urban planning or simply strangely out of focus; on the contrary, everything is linked and clear, everything nudges against everything. There is no threat; instead, there is a particular cohesion— even between the now-unused and still-unused spaces, and between communities there. You might, from the outside, think of the Black Country as having an otherness that is unusual or uncomfortable: the cadence of the accent, the abbreviated words of the dialect, and you might hear a certain menace in that. You might inhale and catch a breath of Tipton as warm, wet metal. You might sense the casting of iron. You might hear the furnace flames and feel the sensation of the honeyed smoke and the sweat of glass making. Imagine that now as a cone of heat, a funnel-shaped thing, sitting close to a horizon where trees stand like shambling academics.
Which surely is enough to fire up anyone’s imagination.
Click on any photo to begin the slide show.
Kerry Hadley-Pryce’s first novel, The Black Country, published by Salt Publishing in 2015, was part of her MA in Creative Writing, for which she gained a distinction and was awarded the Michael Schmidt Prize for Outstanding Achievement in 2013–14. Her second novel, Gamble, published by Salt Publishing in June 2018, was shortlisted for the Encore Second Novel Award in 2019. She has had several short stories published in various anthologies and online at Fictive Dream and The Incubator. She is a PhD candidate researching psychogeography and the creative writing process, and works as a creative writing tutor. She is currently working on her third novel.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 7 · January 2021
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