University of Wolverhampton

Humanities Building

 

University of Wolves

A degree of pain and pleasure in the Black Country.

17/10/05

University – A Proper One! New doors opening my mind – French philosophers, modules in theory and language of writing, writing in cyberspace, 1960s subcultures, writing the novel…

9/12/05

Another highbrow day doing Harvard referencing and arguing over why I should have to trek all the way to Walsall to hand in four sheets of paper.

13/1/06

I’m a Charlie’s Angel – always on assignment. Currently it’s Writing the Novel. Happily the tutor loves my opening chapter, which is incentive enough to continue and lay K___ to rest (and dance on his grave).

21/1/06

Being in the Midlands is like being beached whale – I’m stuck here but it’s not my natural habitat.

17/3/06

Had a two-hour lecture on masturbation (not a telling off, an actual lecture). Went on a date with a Spanish doctor; he held my hand, turned it over and said, “Juicy veins.”

19/4/06

Is it better to know your future or not? If I knew it would all work out, I’d be a feck of a lot more easy-going. If I could write it, I’d say: novel finished by Xmas, published by next year, never have to work again by the year after.

3/5/06

Another 12-hour work day but I did most of it in the garden so fuck you world.

5/5/06

It’s the eleventieth day straight I’ve worked on assignments so tonight I went to M____’s for drinks, dancing and a change of scene. I find myself staring at Melanie’s accidentally exposed, bobbing nipple. She’s so French. She and chef are dancing. Chef is entranced. Chef’s girlfriend storms out. Returns 20 minutes later in a huff. Note to self: make sure loved one spots your dramatic exit.

6/5/06

Started my last piece of new work today – an online Socratic dialogue on pedagogies for the teaching and tutoring writing module. Stayed home with a fishfinger pitta and chick flick.

10/5/06

Uni is making me fat and old. I used to be an ectomorph with 20-20 vision, I’m now an endomorph with eye strain. An endo. I wish it was the endo.

12/5/06

Handed The Fucker* in.

* AKA The Bastard.

– 78 pages of dissertation plus another 23 in the appendix

14/5/06

Finished Fucker No2 – the novel. RSI. Exhaustion. Never again.

19/5/06

Why not add some much-needed extra thrills to your dissertation deadline day by getting on a non-stopping train to Stafford and watching Wolverhampton whizz by? Handed F.No2 in at 16.21, just nine minutes to go. Sweaty.

Got life back!

20/5/06

I’m free. Everyone else isn’t. Finland won Eurovision.

 

[ends]

 

Editors’ Comments
We wanted to include a variety of forms here, and we particularly enjoyed this witty diary piece about student life at the Black County’s only university (which genuinely is one of the few where it’s possible to experience a “two-hour lecture on masturbation”). The institution is vast, located over several campuses separated by large distances, which sometimes gives rise to some of the frustrations identified here, like having to “trek all the way to Walsall to hand in four sheets of paper.” The University recruits mostly from the Black Country, and while students from beyond the area generally flourish, the regional feel can give rise to the kind of “beached whale” out of its “natural habitat” experience informing some of the humour in this piece. The author wants to remain anonymous.

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Black Country Boozers

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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 Hilla 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.

http://www.charliehill.org.uk/

 

Wolverhampton

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Coxwell and Glaisher’s High Altitude record from Wolverhampton Gas Works

Steve Harrison

They set off from Stafford Road Gas works
Sept 6th, 1862
James Glaisher crammed the basket with instruments
Henry Coxwell would pilot the crew

of six pigeons, as over ground canaries
to test pressure and cold and how
animal life reacted to altitude
Pre-empting clouds from both sides now.

You can still see the meticulous recordings
in Pounds, Fahrenheit and Feet
despite frozen fingers and passing out
still incredibly, indelibly neat.

Upwards and higher than Everest
Glaisher extrapolated the possible height
Coxwell daringly climbed on the basket
Hands useless, opened the valve with his bite.

A world record starting in Stafford Road,
look on the Science Park to so see the blue plaque
Coxwell and Glaisher landed safely in Shropshire
the homing pigeons never came back.

Steve Harrison is a poet who resides ’round the Wrekin’ (Shropshire) and has strong connections with the Black Country. In this wonderful poem he sets out to play with one of the less known historical events of Wolverhampton – the world record for the highest hot air balloon flight. Weaving in and out of historical records, contemporary observations, folk tale, science and his own idiosyncratic visions / insights, Harrison provides a beautiful and rich exploration of nostalgia, discovery, memory and cultural identity. This is a bit of a trademark move for Harrison – one of the region’s finest poets and performers.

Merry Hill, Marks & Spencer

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‘Marks & Spencer, Merry Hill, Midnight’ – by Samantha Roden
Leslie Fairacre was the smallest woman I’ve ever seen
yet the largeness of her words remain.
4ft nowt, cock, and me ‘usband’s 6ft 3
same size lyin’ dowun thow, ay ya?
She says with a wryness borne of 3 decades
of sideward glances and never once the inclination
to give ‘alf a toss.
As she shares her charred wisdom, her piston elbows
pluck, place, and return to the rail
for another jacket.
Why am I only paid £3.76? I venture to ask
after several weeks of blood-blistered fingers,
frayed nails and tutting
from the elders.
Cuz yum slow.
The words sliced deeper than the box opener
slung from my belt-loop on a plastic coil.
I’m learning.
Yow learn nowt. Weem paid double cuz
we do double. I bin watchin’ yeh: one rail in arf hour.
The diminutive woman rose,
Filled the vastness of a customerless shop floor,
unravelled my 17 years and balled them up
with the cellophane destined for the compactor at dawn.
Said I treated the minutes of my shift like clay
in one of my Mons Hill art classes. Rolled ‘em
prodded at ‘em, wondered what they’d turn into in the kiln.
But she lived ‘em. Bought a semi-detached house with ‘em.
Stood in the MEB queue and paid the leccy with ‘em.
Yowul strut in ‘ere one day and buy one o’them leather blazers
we’ve put out and sized,
the ones none of us can afford.
She was the kiln, the blast furnace, belched heat;
I was the vase.
‘alf the pay for ‘alf the work
ten times the opportunity.

We took breaks alone.
In the smoking room I sat studying
an aluminium ashtray,
working my way through the chromatic scale
of pencil shades required to render
its dullness under emergency lighting.
The day-staff received hour-long lunches,
were served hot meals by dedicated cooks
but the crepuscular stock assistants,
the semi-shadows cast in low-light
ate plastic sandwiches plucked
from mechanised carousels.
Often, the Perspex flaps failed
but there was no one to tell.
Even a rat receives a pellet at the push of a button.

 

 

Samantha Roden is a poet , critic, and educational author who was born in Shard End, Birmingham, but who’s been living in the Black Country for a number of years. Her work includes a co-authored monograph on the Jewish American novelist, Philip Roth, and a widely acclaimed poetry chapbook, Catch Ourselves in Glass (2017). She was included in Eyewear Publishing’s Best New British and Irish Poets, 2017.
Characterised by candour and incisive humour, Sam’s work has drawn comparisons with American confessional poets like Anne Sexton and Charles Bukowski, and such high praise doesn’t feel like an exaggeration. ‘Marks & Spencer, Merry Hill, Midnight,’ explores the kind of culture clash familiar to many of the educated working classes in the region, and demonstrates the author’s flair for dialect and comic characterisation. Sam is delightfully adept at finding powerfully communicative specific details, as she does here with the lovely image of the speaker “sat studying/an aluminium ashtray/working my way through the chromatic scale/of pencil shades required to render/its dullness under emergency lighting.” Such humour never feels overdone in her work, complementing rather than dominating her themes. In this piece it underscores the speaker’s former naivety, whilst at the same time augmenting the force of the poem’s social criticism. Here, as elsewhere, Sam’s unpretentious, powerfully intelligent voice is both compelling and original, marking her as a very exciting new talent.

View Sam’s website here

Wren’s Nest

Slow Burn

An extract by Joel Lane, from his short story collection, Where Furnaces Burn. First Published by PS Publishing 2012. Reissued by Drugstore Indian Press, 2014.

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[…] When Elaine and I had been courting, we’d come here a few times in the spring of 1980. In those days, the paths were less clearly marked and it was easy to get lost. The limestone cliffs, after millions of years on dry land, still had their own secret geography. The layered ash woods filtered the daylight, made you feel sheltered by some kind of ancient building.

[…]

Coming back in the autumn, twenty years later, felt strange. The place no longer seemed peaceful. Black cinders were scattered through the undergrowth, and scorched trees had fallen into the deep gullies. It was hard to see where the effects of fire ended and those of seasonal decay began: dead leaves and black fungus covered everything. Ash trees are called that because of how they look in autumn.

[…]

The real ‘Dudley Bug’, which had given the town its municipal symbol, had been found here. The Wren’s Nest was high above the surrounding area, though it didn’t feel like it. Further on, the footpath led us around the edge of a pool long since rendered inert by blue-green algae. Beer-cans and condoms floated on the dark surface. The limestone rim was yellowed and crumbly like old cheese.

[…]

Our search team walked down to the Wren’s Nest housing estate that bordered the nature reserve. It was a different world. Whole streets of pale terraces were marked for demolition, their windows covered by wire grids. The barking dogs echoed from concrete walls. Groups of thin youths on the street corners eyed us suspiciously as we approached, then turned away. I could see why the police needed some external support. Had the arsonists been driven by hatred of the past, I wondered, or by an obscure need to connect with it?

[…]

He pointed to the Headline: THEY DON’T BELONG HERE. “What belongs here doesn’t belong in the world,” he said. “Know what I mean?”

 

Joel Lane, although a Brummie at heart, understood the intricacies of Black Country culture like few others could.  Lane presents the dark and often seedy underbelly of the Black Country, places of crime, depravity and the supernatural. In this realm the natural and the unnatural are in an almost constant state of flux – one is never sure where the boundaries are between the real and unreal, the dead and alive, the past and present. In this constant in-between, this constant familiar-unfamiliar, Lane’s characters set out to investigate scenes of strange, threatening abjection. Joel Lane’s untimely death in 2013 is a sad loss to the literary world – he’s left us with a body of exceptional poems, novels and stories, all of which cement his status as a master of dark fantasy, horror and weird fiction.  

Dudley

Dudley

 

The Brush – by Wayne Dean Richards
It was late November and the sky was full of snow and the shops were already full of Christmas stuff but she stood out so I followed her into a steamy cafe.

She sat alone at a table near the window and drank a cappuccino. I ordered the same so I’d be in step with her, sitting two tables away, close enough so I could see she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring but not so close, I hoped, that it’d be obvious I was watching her.

Ten minutes passed. I wished I had on my good shirt instead of an old sweater, frayed at the cuffs. When she finished her cappuccino I followed her out of the cafe and along the high street to an office block at the top of the town.

The front doors swallowed her up. If I’d looked like I worked there, if I’d looked like I worked anywhere, I’d have gone in after her.

I crossed the road to the bus station. When she came out I was going to speak to her. I wouldn’t try and smooth talk her because I’ve never been any good at it, and since the operation I slur. My best bet, I decided, was to come clean: to tell her I’d seen her and had followed her and hoped she believed in love at first sight and felt it for me – because I felt it for her.

In the end I got so worked up I almost missed her. She was crossing the road, going away from me before I made my legs move. When I got close enough to call out to her she stopped and turned. I said: “I know this’ll sound mad, but bear with me a minute, please, because it’s really important – ”
*
I hear banging. The old man in the next room beats on the wall with the handle of a brush. I must’ve been shouting again. I didn’t mean to. Why do rented rooms have such thin walls? Through the window I see a grizzled fox nuzzling an overturned dustbin, the scars of his life in his watchful eyes, whilst behind me the banging continues.

“Alright!” I call, and when the banging stops I close my eyes and wonder how many years it’s been since I saw her…

——————————————————————————————–

Wayne Dean Richards is a well-known local writer whose stories have been published in numerous journals internationally. Some are collected in At The Edge (1999), funded by West Midlands Arts, and more recently in Cuts (2013). His fast moving crime novella, Breakpoints (2002), has a distinctly Black Country feel, despite that fact that the setting isn’t named.
The setting isn’t made specific in ‘The Brush,’ but Wayne tells us that it was inspired by an experience he had in Dudley, and this knowledge will surely augment the atmosphere of the piece for those who know the town. It is a tale of urban alienation that is typical of his style and themes.

Wayne Dean Richards blog

 

Tipton

Tipton

 

 

Tipton by Roy McFarlane

Tipton, this tongue-tipping
double syllable of a word,
this Bermuda Triangle
between Brum and Wolves.
This lost city quintessentially
Black Country, God’s belly button
of the Universe has got to me.

I’m 10 and visiting cousins,
the only black family in Princess Ends.
Streets wide enough to pass on gossip
and a horse in somebody’s front garden.

I watched cousins as dark as the cut,
larger than life, colourful as the Caribbean,
speak another language.
only laughter, sweets and pots of soup
translated us back to a common understanding.

Ow’s ower kid their father would say
with vowels big and round as his obese body,
then he’d give me a sweet, slap me on my back
and laugh his way into the kitchen.
I asked my cousin what did he say?
Yam saft, she’d say gurgling,
everybody laughing like the locks at the back,
where water poured in and everybody rises,
whether you wanted to or not,
a lock that levelled off once father
left to go to the pub or to the steelworks.
40 years later I’m back
walking past the pie factory where they serve
soul nights on sawdust covered floors.

Industries put to an eternal sleep
turning into a commuter town, it
still draws on you, pulls on you.
Yam olright it’s dem lot
that are causing de problems,
with syllables that jab and slash,
sentences like the Tipton Slasher
the bare knuckle verbosity of it.
And there’s an oss everywhere,
in somebody’s garden, along the street
and a metal oss frozen in time
by the railway station
and an anchor
on the side of the road.
Not all things are anchored
in time or in a living museum;
cultures flow, merge and make
their journeys into front rooms
as I say to me bab bending over
I cor walk past ya without
putting me onds on ya and I know that

Tipton, this tongue-tripping
double syllable of a word,
this Bermuda Triangle
between Brum and Wolves.
This lost city quintessentially
Black Country, God’s belly button
of the Universe has got me.

 

Roy McFarlane is a much respected poet, editor and performer whose excellent debut collection, Beginning with Your Last Breath, was published by Nine Arches Press in 2016. Roy was Birmingham Poet Laureate, 2010/11

In this poem the speaker celebrates Tipton, even as he alludes to some of its problems and contradictions. This is typical of McFarlane’s writing, offering a muscular and arresting personal response to place and the community that defines it. It brims with joy at the humour and eccentricity of its characters, and the distinctive texture of their voices.

Roy McFarlane’s website