I searched for a parking space where I could leave my car for a few days. 3 shirtless lads headed into the park with a 24 pack of Budweiser and a large waddling dog off the lead. I walked towards the centre idly wondering why vaping shops are always so masculine. Devils, skulls, monsters. Dudley was another concrete paradise. A department store in a faded building that had aimed at art-deco and missed was closing down. This was an England reducing to the unholy trinity of Essentials, Desperation, and False Hope, as represented by discounters, pawnbrokers, and fixed-odds betting machines. This is an England whose reserves have been sucked dry. Whose meagre wealth has been spent getting through the last decade. Whose valuables are pawned or Ebayed away. A camel whose hump is spent, hoping another unsurvivable shock isn’t coming soon. An England that can’t afford for Brexit to be a failure.
Drawn as graphs, the recent economic shocks look much like the great depression. One reason it hasn’t caused the same levels of mass suffering is that this time the country was generally richer, and more people in nearly all communities had some sort of reserve to draw on. Those reserves are gone now. Household debt is high, and the valuables are sold. There’s a huge number of people who are now only a whisker away from missing the rent. The shops on Dudley high street tell that story.
I walked round the centre for a while. At the lights, a car drew up with tinted windows rolled down. Rap music was emerging at an astounding volume. The lyrics were “F*cking N*gger Shit, F*cking N*gger Shit” over and over.
The centre of Dudley has a fixed market place where the road is widest and pedestrianised. I set up outside an empty unit and gave it a go. I could see a Muslim gentleman selling religious head dresses. He had his stock on mannequin heads, and was sat on a stool. From where I was, he seemed like an animated part of his display. There was a flower seller, fruits sellers, clothing, and a cake stall. About half the available market stalls were in use.
I made a few pounds. People were generous, but often with just a few small coins. That made sense. The town was clearly very poor, and I was grateful for anything. As I was about to call it a day at about 4:30pm, a group of black teenage schoolgirls came by and dropped off a scrap of paper. I picked it up before it blew away. It was a note; “Love your music! Keep playing!” I was genuinely moved. I wished I could have spoken to them but they had already gone.
The next morning, I had a good wander round before starting to busk again. There was one sort of shop bucking the trend all over the country, and that was the quality coffee shop. It had been possible to get a decent cup of coffee just about everywhere I’d been, no matter how economically ruined the place had been. There were several decent options. I loaded my cup up and walked around the edge of town.
Dudley really does have a literal edge of town. Once you get out of the immediate centre, the views are excellent in every direction. Built right on top of the hill, this location is a legacy of Dudley’s historical significance, having been a castle worth sieging in the civil war of Stephen and Matilda in the 12th century. Excavations in the castle grounds have also uncovered what are thought to be the world’s oldest condoms. From here, you can see right across the black country, surprisingly green and leafy, spaced out, town after town, not quite merging into one mass.
Dudley grew in importance in the industrial revolution, mining coal and iron, and fostering a whole range of industries. It had the good fortune to be at the heart of the burgeoning canal network, several of which wind around the base of the hill, including a two mile canal tunnel right through the heart of it. The railway has similar issues, unable to climb the hill, both Dudley’s stations are a good mile away on lower ground. It’s a island, left high and dry by the falling economic tide. All the flows are with gravity, away from the hollowing centre.
I passed what might be the most derelict office block I’ve ever seen. Once called ‘Cavendish House’, letters had dropped until it was just ‘Cave dis House’. Every window was smashed, and the site was fenced off. Apparently it was slated for redevelopment. But into what? What could be done that wouldn’t be a waste of money in a declining town? I’d seen ‘The Public’ in West Bromwich, a noble attempt to bring a major art gallery into a subsiding Black Country town, which had failed in a few years at vast expense. There’s nothing approaching a coherent strategy to deal with our town centres. Just a willingness to let them slowly collapse on themselves, occasional unfocussed redevelopments throwing money like small and helpless sandbags into an ever-widening breach.
The edge of town hosted straggler shops left behind by the falling waters like starfish on a beach. Quiet, without footfall, lone and scruffy proprietors stood on doorsteps, vaping to fill time and staring across at closed units. Military paraphernalia, second-hand household goods, a giant furniture shop looking like a small child lost in the woods, surrounded by wilderness. Smartly besuited, the manager was stood by the front doors too, staring out, hopelessly wishing customers over the horizon.
My walk took me through acres of empty pay and display, weeds emerging, blinking into the unused spaces furthest from residual town, undisturbed, amazed at their luck. This must have been what a medieval plague village felt like.
Back in the centre, the market had all changed round today. Different stalls in the same spaces. A vocal lady forcefully shouted “Six crusty cobs for a pound!”. A shopper passing by turned to me and said ‘God, what a big mouth.” They were all at it, a lady selling 3 peaches for a pound, a man selling two punnets of strawberries for one pound fifty. I bought three peaches and ate them, whilst recording the sounds of the market on my phone. The peach seller had the toughest hands I’d ever touched, a lifetime of fruit juice and lifting boxes.
It wasn’t that were weren’t shoppers. There were lots, but they couldn’t afford to drive in, and when they got there they weren’t spending much. The bus station was the busiest part of town. Frugality was the order of the day. Every pound had to achieve its maximum, pennies couldn’t be wasted. Against this backdrop, I busked again, making a few coins as time went by. The Sikh flower seller came by and said that whilst he didn’t mind the music, perhaps I’d do better on the other side of the street. He paused, then flipped me 20p to prove his sincerity. I gave it a go. It didn’t work. When I moved back, there was a Eastern European piano accordion player in my place. I gave him 50p. He was noodling without any apparent aim, but it was nice enough.
I busked a bit more at the other end of the street. Eastern European perfume selling gangs were operating here too. A group of Down’s syndrome people danced to the music for a while. I had to keep it really steady or they got carried away in it. A woman wearing headphones gave me a pound. One young gentleman watched for a while, before handing me a fiver. This was a welcome contribution as I could now afford my lunch. I had a pork pie and a sandwich sitting beneath the statue of Duncan Edwards, the outrageously talented Dudley born footballer killed in the 1958 Munich air disaster.
Dudley is also home to the Black Country museum, a collection of buildings and artefacts saved from around the region and combined to create an entire village showcasing Victorian Black Country life. It’s well worth a visit, and I have been many times. It covers a large area, and numbers of costumed volunteers bring it to life by manning the shops, the tram, the boats, the furnaces.
In common with my previous experiences of historical presentation though, it leaves me slightly uncomfortable, as it can only re-create the best of it. It’s one thing to walk around an authentic looking village with people in costume, but it’s very hard to get across the devastating pollution that the area suffered and indeed got its name from, the diseases, the poverty, the patriarchy. It makes it seem like a thoroughly nice place to be, with decent fish and chips and a good pint of beer, and the simple pleasures of chasing an iron hoop down the street. This is not a criticism. A museum that infected children with Polio and lost every fiftieth school group to an explosion of firedamp would not really be the solution.
But how to accurately teach history in a setting like this? In the boatyard, where repairs to the historic fleet would be made, you are shown around by a youngish Asian lady. She is excellent, knowledgeable and engaging. She is also entirely out of context, as this was not a place where ladies would work, and in that era, Asians were basically unheard of in the area. What is the right way to handle history? Does the sanitisation, necessary or otherwise, lead to rose tinted views of what was actually often an awful past? Rose tinted views that shape how we take decisions about our future?
As in Ashington, where the simulated pit experience in no way resembled the claustrophobia and danger of the real thing, as in Sheringham where the North Norfolk railway was spotless and floral, it all conveys a past where things were simpler and better. Having been to industrial regions in China on a number of occasions, cities where the sun doesn’t shine through the pollution, where health and safety is a personal responsibility, incompatible with the pressure of making a living, it was never like this. The implied argument in Ashington is that things would be better if the coal mining jobs came back. A better argument would be for a future with neither the unemployment and purposelessness of today or the dangers and miseries of the past.
But museums exist in a market. Give people a miserable time and they won’t come back. Make them happy and they take home the wrong ideas. The Imperial War Museum manages it, but certain subjects come with an expectation of misery. We’ve sanitised that out of other areas of the past. It is hard to see how it can be brought back. It is very much to our detriment.
The true museum of the Black Country might be said to be Dudley town centre. Almost all independents, market stalls. Few cars, cash economy. Here you see both sides of the coin.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. My ‘Busk England’ project is entirely funded by what I make as I travel round. If you’ve enjoyed it, and would like to support me as I do this, please consider making a paypal tip to email@example.com or through the button in the archive – link here.
Treat it as you would a busker — a few coins in the hat all add up. Everything I get from this will be put back into the project. Ta!