It’s not often that you find novels about provincial British cities.
In America they’re all the rage. Jonathan Franzen writes his big, serious novels about places in the Mid-West, there are all those Southern Gothic type things from the past – cities in America other than New York and Los Angeles are considered appropriate settings for serious fiction, without the fact that they aren’t New York or Los Angeles being an essential part of the premise. In the UK, however, every novel set outside of London usually contains some air, or tone, that this is significant.
“London is not the only fruit,” I often say (mentally, never aloud – I don’t want to get stabbed), but in British literature it usually is. Think of great British novels not set in London, and one swiftly thinks of rural novels, rural where the surrounding provincialism is a key factor in the events that happen. What is more British (though it’s a film) than The Wicker Man? One of the greatest urban novels of recent years is Trainspotting, but even that features an extended section in London. It is rarely forgotten, it is rarely ignored, and its inverse is often present. Would Lady Chatterley have had to shag the groundskeeper if her husband had shifted them to Kensington? Would returning to Brideshead have such import if life hadn’t happened either side of it? Would Macbeth have been able to exaggerate the mysteries of the north if the audience hadn’t been grouchy, untravelled Londoners?
Woolf is London, Dickens is London; the Brontës, Austen, Walter Scott, Murdoch, Conrad, Lawrence (though London pops up at least once in most of their oeuvre), are not-London: they are defined by London even when they are outside of it. Where is the great Manchester novel? The great Glasgow novel?1 The great Bristol novel? The great Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Swansea, Portsmouth novel?2 We’ve got a thousand novels about Oxford and Cambridge and a hundred thousand about London: but where is the rest of the urbanised United Kingdom? Where are the 35 million urbanites in the UK who do not live in London?3 Well, for a start, about 2 million of them are in Birmingham, the setting of Honor Gavin’s wonderful contemporary, modernist, feminist novel about the second city: Midland: A Novel Out of Time. This, to answer my unasked question from a few sentences ago, is the great Birmingham novel. And I should know: I’m secretly a Brummie.4
Let’s start by offering some insight into the book. This blog is already massively out of hand.5
I did it again. No more digressions, no more footnotes.9
Midland is great. To put it simply, I loved it.
The novel is about the city of Birmingham (some chapters from its perspective) and three generations of women living within it. There is “the bab”, a young woman working as the secretary for the man in charge of the construction of Birmingham’s inner ring road in the late 1930s/early 1940s, but when the war begins to call the men away and, later, when bombs start to fall on Birmingham, she becomes the person who looks after the map that marks down the destruction. The next generation is a young “working woman” (she is named in the text only as “the ww”) in the 1960s, a progressive, clever, individual who wants to work in construction. Her father was wounded in the war and her mother is bitter, having had a career when the men were absent but was forced out of it once they returned. The third generation is Rita (the only central figure with a name), a girl on the cusp of adolescence, going to school in the 1990s. Rita is about the same age as I am, and I know this for a fact because she describes her favourite television show as Aquila (see Wikipedia), a show I watched and loved in my own childhood. The blurb of the novel says it’s set in the ’40s, ’60s and ’80s, which I know isn’t true. However, the novel plays with time and plays with tropes meaning that the transposition of this show – about a time machine – may in fact be deliberate, and all the other period detail may point to the (marginally) earlier decade.
The subtitle of the novel – as you can see above – made it clear what I was getting into. Things slip, things move: slang is repeated out of time, people (particularly when close to death, sex or other extremes of emotion) are able to see the past and the future of the city. The built environment is key – concrete and tower blocks, but also the early glamour of the industrial powerhouse: cinemas, hotels, libraries, the worker’s village built by Cadbury. Buildings are important, transport is important, postcodes are important, maps and clocks and street names. The city is important in this text, in this novel free of London, Birmingham is King.
Actually, more correctly: Queen.
Because, in terms of gender, this is an interesting piece too. Three female protagonists, all intelligent and hard-working and motivated, all deeply interested in their city and the changes wrought to it by the 20th century, by the exploration of ideas as they are played out in the heart of an urban space, the bombs of the Nazis being convenient in their destruction. Roads that are real, people that were real, are ever-present: planning schemes that were enacted, building roads that I’ve driven on, changing a settlement into a City. And part of all of this are, and were, many women. Midland dramatises and focuses on the experiences of women – the good and the bad parts of that – and is unremitting in its progressivism. In one of the bab’s first scenes she gets drunk and pisses in a graveyard; the ww is proud that she’s not a virgin; Rita skips school to learn more about her city with her radio reporter father. There are close bonds here, there is lots of equality inherent in the central characters and – almost always – with the men close to them in their lives.
This is a feminist text – not because women are the central characters, but because the city is on their side: this is a story of Birmingham and its changes over the 20th century, but we see those changes from the perspectives of three women (primarily – there are periphery characters, including the bab’s father) and we see them with as much insight and intelligence as any other format would have given us. Gavin explores race and class, urban/rural divide, changing attitudes towards sex and sexuality, and she explores Birmingham too, far better than anything else I’ve ever read.
I don’t know Birmingham as well as I should (it being my closest thing to a home city), but there were plenty of locations in here I recognised, but the thing most nostalgic for me was the language. It’s been yonks since I’ve heard anyone say “it’s been yonks”, it’s been a while since I felt the need to mentally dictate anyone’s pronunciation of factory as “facteroi”. It was nice, comforting almost, to be overwhelmed by the voice of my own childhood in a novel, novels being something I’ve always thought of as elite, fancy, suthen.
Take them back, is my reaction and rallying cry.
Novels don’t have to be about middle class white straight men any more than films have to be. The page is not the preserve of the wealthy or the male. Anyone can write. Not anyone can get published10, but there is nothing preventing the sharing of material on the internet. London is not the only fruit, but nor is print media. Yeah, maybe I’ve failed in my ambition to be a 19th-century type white male novelist,11 but that doesn’t mean I have to give up writing. I can write about the glorious parts of England that aren’t fucking London, I can write about working class women who drove ambulances during the blitz then went home to their parents FOREVER, I can write about wanting a toy boat on the East Anglian coast, I can write about being sharp and being bullied. I can write about having a breakdown because the unworldliness of my provincial upbringing left me absolutely unprepared for adult life. I can write about things that aren’t this city but are still rooted in truth.
I can write something real without basing it in London. Next time I get paid, I’m buying myself a computer. I need to be writing, and more than this. More than this.
Something like Midland. I would love to have written Midland. I’m going to email a link to this to the author, as I’ve found her address on the internet. Let’s chase feedback!
Midland is a belter. Highly recommended.
As is the rest of the country. It’s not just dogging and despair.
1. Because Trainspotting, already mentioned, is the great Edinburgh novel.↩
2. These are not rhetorical questions – please send me recommendations for any/all of these.↩
3. Statistic from here: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/census/2011-census-analysis/rural-urban-analysis/comparing-rural-and-urban-areas-of-england-and-wales.html – no fucking citations lacking here, mamma!↩
4. I’m not from Birmingham itself, and nor am I even from Birmingham’s county, the West Midlands. I instead grew up in a mid-sized town just over the county border in Worcestershire, called Redditch.
Redditch is literally at the end of the line, the terminus of a Birmingham railway branch that offers a direct route to Lichfield, somewhere I have never been and a place I only know anything about from the BBC3 sitcom Cuckoo. My accent – before it was bullied out of me in a Stratford-upon-Avon grammar school – was described as Brummie, as would be the accents of most of my family. Not particularly strong, because it is a satellite town rather than the planet city itself, but certainly it is always clear where from the country my family resides (though not me any longer). For a long period of my life, I was glad to have lost my accent, but as an adult I’m aware that the way I speak now imbues me with a geographic placelessness, but a clear class location as of the middle.
You can be middle-class and have a strong regional accent, sure, but there aren’t many people with the clipped, generically non-working class Southern accent that I have who find themselves working on a production line. There is a certain anonymity afforded by a voice that reveals location rather than education history. Yes, I do sound like someone who went to a good provincial grammar school (or entry-level private school) and has a degree from a fine (not “fine” as in the “fine” of “fine dining”, but “fine” as in “adequate”, “good enough”, “nothing special but does the job”) university – but I sound unrooted in place.
I could’ve spent my teenage years in the West Country, in East Anglia, in Nottingham, in Hong Kong or in Swansea – I’m listing these places because I’ve known people with exactly the same accent as mine who grew up in each of these places.
My identity as a Midlander isn’t immediately obvious, but there are certain personality tics I have that are strange to the Southerners. I still secretly like rock music, the last major cultural export of my homeland (I went to the same primary school as the drummer from Led Zeppelin, John Bonham); I find Frank Skinner funny; I warm towards the rare people with Midlands accents I encounter in London, though I can’t stand to be on a packed train with 100 of them when I travel up to see my parents; I have a strong work ethic, particularly as regards illness (that’s perhaps more generally working class and Northern than it is Midlands); I think there is too much Shakespeare going on everywhere (there’s nothing worse than another local boy done good who’s done better than you ever will); and I do, as made clear above, think of and visit places within the UK other than London.
I like railways and industry, concrete and fields, parks that aren’t owned by the fucking Royal Family and chocolate factories with placid rollercoasters inside.
I’m pro-HS2 because I think the Midlands and the North should be able to directly access the continent – for both touristic and business purposes.
I think the media is too London-centric, I think British fiction is too London-centric, I think the government is too London-centric and I think the new Labour leader is too London-centric. Well, that’s me as a Midlander. This is technically still the opening of the blog, I’ve already hit 1,000 words and I’ve written almost nothing about Midland. I need to get back to it.↩
5. Last week, after reading Ellis Sharp’s To Wetumpka, I did make the trip to East Anglia I mooted in my blog (here: https://triumphofthenow.com/2015/09/22/to-wetumpka-by-ellis-sharp/).
I visited the village where I used to regularly go as a child. My first destination was the grave of my maiden aunt, somewhere I had never before visited. I hadn’t been to Pulham St. Mary (that is the name of the village) for about a decade – my second year of university had just started when my great great aunt died and my mother didn’t bother to tell me when her funeral was happening, thus I missed it. This is her picturesque resting spot:
The freshish flowers on her grave had not been put there by me, and I found it oddly pleasing to know that other people still think of her. I cried at the grave, mainly because I thought I should, also because it was quite overwhelming being in such a familiar place but with the person because of whom it was familiar being dead, and rotten, beneath my feet. Thankfully, the post office/convenience store over the road from the church hadn’t changed at all. I think some of the newspapers hadn’t either. (Ho ho hum.) Obviously, the newspapers had been replaced, but the canned goods and the greetings cards: probably not.
I drove on and (yeah, this blog has really lost its sense of purpose) and passed the house Muriel M. Harvey lived in almost her entire life. During the Second World War she worked as a paramedic in London, during the Blitz. Before that, she was a nanny for the children of a publisher of sheet music. The man she was engaged to died during the war, and she returned to her family home in the sticks and never left again. This was it:
My parents used to take me and my sister to visit most school holidays during primary school, then a few more times when I was a teenager. By the time I was 15, I’d be left at home to feed the cat while they went without me.
On the times I was there, my father would often wander off of an evening, go walking in the many fields and lanes that surrounded the village. One spot we used to go to a lot was a football pitch, down the lane from Auntie6 Moo’s house (“Muriel” being a word too difficult for one of the many children she knew (but never had) to pronounce, she was known most of her adult life – and by most of her adult friends – as “Moo”). My father would often practice golf here, and sometimes I would try (and fail) to make anything other than divots fly through the air. This is the spot now:
That sign definitely wasn’t there before. Knowing the kind of child I was, I would have been scandalised to see my father flout such a publicly visible notice. Back then, it was a large field full of goal posts with netting, there was a shack in the corner for changing rooms, there were often training sessions for local teams – children and adult – and it seemed to be a busy spot for local sports. Last week, the Pulham St. Mary football pitch looked like it hadn’t been played on for years. The grass was long, there were mushrooms everywhere and there was only set of goalposts remaining. And they had been left like this:
I left the village and drove on to Southwold, on the coast. There I found the toy boating lake I wrote about in my last blog and approached a stranger to take a photo of it as my phone had run out of battery. The man complied, said he’d email it to me later but he never did. By way of explanation, I told him I was a writer looking into my own childhood.7
I went for a quiet walk down the pier, ate an ice cream and enquired in the pier’s gift shop about a USB car charger, so I could use my phone again as a sat nav. The young man (younger than me, but dressed very similarly (though obviously in cheaper versions of my clothing)) nodded and knew what I meant, told me they didn’t have them in his shop. “Actually,” he said, not in a thick bumpkin accent but in a placeless, Southern English drawl like my own, “There’s not going to be anywhere selling those in Southwold. If you want that, you’re gonna have to go to Lowestoft.” I got back in my girlfriend’s Beemer8 and drove back to London by instinct.↩
6. I was, of course, a Midlander there: “auntie” was always pronounced as a homophone of “anti”.↩
7. I haven’t self-identified as a writer once since my eulogy at my grandmother’s funeral, which was the pinnacle of my writing career. I suppose that, rather than the mediocre results for my MA and the numerous rejections from agents and publishers, was the real reason why I gave up on my dreams. Never again, I know now, will I have a whole room of people alternating between laughter and tears, never again will I capture the essence of an existence, show sadness for a loss but happiness for the memories I had. It was my finest work, it will always be my finest work, and there is no way I will ever top it. At least I know where my peak was. Many people don’t even get that.↩
8. As I texted on the day to a friend: “If it’s a mid-life crisis to buy a fancy car and try to relive the hedonism of your youth, what is it to borrow a fancy car and try to relive the tedium of your childhood?” He didn’t know. Neither do I.↩
9. Unless they’re really little ones. I cannot stop these posts from becoming about me any more, instead of just about the books. Is this providing a better reader experience or, instead, defeating the entire (previous) point of the page? Again, feedback please.↩
10. Not even if you are white, male, heterosexual and middle class, believe me!↩
11. living off the pen from my mid-20s (they’re over) until drinking oneself into an early grave c. 50.↩