The bricks spelt out ‘industrial decline’ in six-feet high letters. Before the weeds overran them they were kicked apart, scattered like dashes and colons across the cracking cement. Perhaps it was a local councillor or business chief who dismantled them, embarrassed at this impromptu act of social commentary.
Whether the words were the idea of a media studies professor or a socially aware teenager, Wolverhampton suffered sniggers from passing commuters for months. The bricks were in direct line of sight of any passing train bound for London, Birmingham, Liverpool or Manchester. The city suffers a reputation problem which isn’t helped by the view from the train. Coming in from the north the proposed development of the old brewery seems to have stalled. The blocks of student flats may be functional, but they’re not pretty to look at. Heading out of the station towards Birmingham a pale pink balloon is anchored high above a car dealership offering MOTs for £35. An old warehouse has been demolished and budleia sprouts virulently through cracked concrete and crumbling brick. Crumpled cars and scrap metal lie twisted like robot’s intestines. A small orange fire in a damp, peat-black yard sends plumes of smoke rising above the canal. Walls are sprayed in fluorescent yellow, lurid green and machine silver. Corrugated iron flaps in the breeze.
The motor industry had roots here and so did aerospace. Like much of the West Midlands, a fit young man followed his Dad into the factory and a job for life. To a certain age of man across Britain the city means Wolves – the Manchester United of the day. Despite recently climbing back into the Premier League the team hasn’t reached the very top since the days of Brylcreem and long shorts.
It’s easy to feel sorry for cities like Wolverhampton and Stoke, although they wouldn’t want pity. They bear the ravages of time and industry like stretch-marks. They generated huge wealth and provided a better way of life for many who escaped desperate rural poverty. Their machines and workforces provided for an Empire. But their failing these days, it seems, is being the wrong size. It’s not their failing, of course, but a failing of government. A lack of knowledge or care has seen the money and the attention go elsewhere. Bigger, trendier cities like Birmingham and Manchester, who were quicker to take to paninis and lattes and chrome and smoked glass, receive the funding and the regional fuss, while smaller cities lag behind. Market towns like Lichfield or Stafford never had to endure the legacy of steel, iron, coal or pottery. But they shared in the wealth. It seems desperately unfair.
Successive governments have sold the city short. It will take strong vision and leadership to address decline. There are green shoots, such as the wonderful art gallery, the re-development of Queen Square and the steady rise of the Wolves. Nightlife is good and the Civic has some great shows and concerts. But some great old buildings lie empty, gathering mildew and pigeon-shit; buildings which would be lamented as a terrible waste of architectural heritage in many other cities.
Much is made of the spirit of Scousers or Eastenders, but Black Country people also have a wicked sense of humour and a friendly nature. As a child I remembering visiting my Dad’s friends in Willenhall. The people were among the friendliest I’ve met. The accent is criticised, but do you want to hear educated Home Counties or Estuary English when you hear the news? It’s fantastically rich and in this age of globalisation I love to hear it spoken. ‘Home’ becomes the two-syllabled ‘Ho-um’ and ‘Where are you?’ becomes ‘Where am you?’ The superstore Toys ‘R’ Us is jokingly referred to as ‘Toys Am We’ by Black Country folk. Under Labour too much focus went on regional government. It should be a priority of the Coalition to get to grips with our forgotten towns and cities. Instead of Cameron’s Big Society a grip on local pride and development should be key. Frank Skinner, who grew up in the Black Country, said in a recent Times column that ‘local’ could be substituted for crap in almost any sentence. That sums up the failure of our regions. Local shouldn’t mean rubbish and shouldn’t need rebranding. It’s time for cities like Wolverhampton to seize the initiative, but this shouldn’t be some glossy wafer-thin marketing campaign. Pride has to come from the streets and communities. I’d like to see the city build on its strengths and restore its civic pride. Otherwise they’ll be rearranging those bricks and spelling something worse.