The Black Country and Me
By Charlie Hill
I was born in the Black Country – Smethwick, so only just but still – not that you’d know it from my accent. This is because I’m posh on my mum’s side. A family friend and the godfather of my sister was the vicar of All Saints in Netherton, even if he used to get his Communion Wine from Ma Pardoes.
On my dad’s side I am a boozer. This has resulted in a deal of opprobrium, much of it unsaid. On a visit to Langley Alcohol Ltd to speak to the gaffer about a work experience placement, the old man left me in a pub while he spent the afternoon drinking the gin they sell for export. ‘Would you like to try some of this Mr Hill?’ and, well, you know me son. Later, he took me to the Bull and Bladder on Brierley Hill – a pilgrimage! – and I had my first Bathams. It went down like pop. So much so that I thought it wasn’t particularly strong, until I stood up to go to the toilet.
I enjoyed Stourbridge too. I’ve never been into football, but I went to Stourbridge one May Bank Holiday when Bully made his debut against Scotland. I stayed with the cousin of a kid at work. We got sunburned and we watched the match then drank tequila and the next morning I was nearly sick at a bus-stop, presumably because of overexposure to the sun. Another time, I was twenty-four in a pub in Brum and it was gone eleven and a woman who was with a group of people I knew but hadn’t spoken to turned to me and said ‘do you want to come back to mine?’ and I thought why not, so she drove me to Stourbridge. She had three kids and drank coke in bed and is now one of my oldest friends.
This is my Black Country. Not a central part of my life as such, but always there, only once-removed, welcoming, old-skool, non-judgemental. Almost the stuff of myth. Not that I’ve been for a while, not on the pop anyway (Wolverhampton has a brand new bus station: I don’t like it.) I should probably go more often. The other day dad suggested a return to the Bathams Brewery tap but we decided against it as he has a weak heart and he didn’t know if he’d be able to walk up the hill, so we sat at home and reminisced instead. I’m not sure when I’ll get back there for a drink, to tell you the truth.
Charlie Hill is a highly praised Birmingham based novelist and short story writer, known for his peculiar wit, succinct and sharp prose and acute observation that leaves one both chuckling and teary-eyed. In this piece, that mixes biography and travel writing, he uses the pubs of the region – something of an important marker for Black Country identity – to explore issues of memory, sense of being and ancestry. His dry sense of humour and terse prose, provide a sense of the liminal – in terms of untraceable selfhood and in the borderless quality of the Black Country itself.