Who can resist the eccentric allure of the Queen of the Midlands?
Nottingham takes its drinking seriously. You can tell because a lot of the local hostelries – the Bell Inn, Ye Olde Salutation Inn – claim the distinction of great age. Nestling beneath the castle, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem is said to date from 1189, the year Nottingham-loving monarch Richard the Lionheart ascended the throne. Legend has it that when old King Dickie announced his intention to lead a crusade against the Saracens, his followers had a swift one at the inn before setting off on their journey to Jerusalem: hence the name. No wonder Boots the Chemist set up shop here – there’s always been a high demand for aspirin and paracetamol to steady the raging hangovers.
It was somewhere in the wilds of north Notts that Lady Chatterley’s gamekeeper Mellors first told Connie she had a nice tail and threaded her pubic hair with forget-me-nots, and it was on Waverley Mount above the Forest Recreation Park that the creator of that saucy pair went to school and practised the wide array of four-letter words that would later pepper his infamous Dirty Book. As living Nottingham legend James Walker recently explained on Radio 3: ‘Let’s not forget that we’re home to England’s favourite potty mouth, D.H. Lawrence. The acquittal of Penguin Books in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial of 1960 would pave the way for greater freedom of expression for us all. A Nottingham man made it possible for everyone to swear more freely.’ Hurrah!
Witty, fun-loving Vikings originally named the city ‘Snottingham’ in honour of local chieftain Snot. Happily, over time the initial ‘S’ was dropped, although blowing your nose is still regarded as an act of ancestor worship in Nottingham. In more recent times, the city has been no less unglamorously known to millions as ‘Dottingham’, the go-to railway destination for all cold-sufferers thanks to a (Snot-related) TV ad for Tunes cough sweets; it’s now also widely referred to as ‘Shottingham’ owing to the high level of gun crime. Still, we shouldn’t worry – Manchester derives its name from the Latin word Mamucium, which means ‘Tit Hill’.
There are more ducks in Nottingham than in any other town or city in the UK – fact. That’s not because of the unusually large number of mallards that flock to the Market Square in spring (although that’s a factor, obviously) but because – anthropologists note – the human locals consider themselves to be ducks. As a consequence of this curious mass delusion, the phrase ‘Ey up, mi duck’ can be heard echoing around the city as young and old greet one another of a morning.
So there are a lot of ducks in Nottingham. There also used to be a lot of geese, which is how Goose Fair, the city’s annual fun fair, got its name: thousands of the birds, their feet coated with tar and sand to help them survive the journey, were brought over from Lincolnshire and Norfolk to be sold at the fair. First held in around 1284, Goose Fair used to be all about food; nowadays it’s all about terrifying high-tech rides that make your head spin and stomach churn.
6) A City of Rebels…
The award-winning Galleries of Justice Museum characterises Nottingham as a ‘rebel city’, and it’s a title the city well merits. From Robin Hood – ‘For he was a good outlaw, / And did poor men much good’ – and Lord Byron to Luddite leader Ned Ludd and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’s Arthur Seaton, the city has nurtured a long line of anti-establishment folk heroes.
7) … And (Cheese) Rioters
When the citizens of Nottingham rebel, they like to do it with a spot of humour: take the Cheese Riots in the 1760s, for instance, when discontented locals bowled the overpriced produce, conveniently supplied in wheel-like units, down the hills leading out of the market place. The mayor, protesting against the rioters, is said to have been knocked off his feet by one of the cheesy missiles and to have landed, with severe consequences for his dignity, in the mud of Wheeler Gate.
8) A City of Cave-dwellers
Nottingham folk are hyper-sophisticated but, historically, they’ve had a bit of a thing about living in caves. That’s largely because the city is built on a soft sandstone ridge which can easily be dug out to provide rudimentary subterranean dwellings for the financially challenged. ‘If a man is poor he has only to go to Nottingham with a matlock, a shovel, a crow, an iron, a chisel or a mallet, and with such instruments he may play mole and work himself a hole or burrow for his family,’ observed one nineteenth-century commentator. Asser, Bishop of Sherborne, even called Nottingham ‘Tigguo Cobauc’ (Place of Caves) in his ninth-century biography of Alfred the Great.
9) The Land of the Free
The idea of the USA was first cooked up in and around Nottingham by a group of religious Separatists who would eventually set sail for America on the Mayflower. The Pilgrim Fathers bequeathed several important legacies to the modern US, beginning with the ‘Mayflower Compact’. As President John Quincy Adams would later claim, the Compact was the foundation stone of the 1787 US Constitution, perhaps the most influential document ever enacted in the name of ‘the people’. So you could say Nottingham – the City of the Free – invented the Land of the Free.
10) A Land of Superheroes
That being the case, it’s only natural that the eccentric residents of Gotham, a village just to the south of Nottingham, should have given their name to the home city of Batman. The Notts village became immortalised as the setting for the adventures of the DC Comics superhero after Washington Irving (author of ‘Rip Van Winkle’) referred to New York as Gotham in 1807. It’s not clear that this was intended as a compliment: thanks to their efforts to dodge paying to have a highway built during the reign of King John, Nottinghamshire’s Gothamites had become legendary for their folly, even if they were only pretending to be stupid.
11) Ice Dancing
She was a humble insurance clerk, he was a common-or-garden copper, but together the Nottingham pair of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean were destined to ice-dance their way into the record books when they received 12 perfect 6.0 scores for their ‘Bolero’ routine at the Sarajevo Winter Olympics in 1984. A gold medal and a place in the nation’s hearts followed. Today Nottingham is home to the National Ice Centre, which is housed – where else? – on Bolero Square.
You may think that the original B-boys and B-girls learned to bust their moves on the mean streets on New York City – and if you did think that, you’d be right. But the specifically British break scene was centred on Nottingham, which played host to the celebrated Rock City Saturday afternoon jams in the early 1980s. Visiting B-boys included Goldie and Jason Orange – though Nottingham is in no way to blame for Take That. See the documentary film NG83 for further information.
13) Nonconformism (Religious)
Nottingham has been home to a long line of religious radicals. Chief among them in the nineteenth century was William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. Booth was a notable equal-opportunities employer, an idea to which Booth gave memorable verbal form when he exclaimed: ‘My best men are women!’ Indeed, Booth’s heady strain of classic Nottingham eccentricity was his greatest spiritual weapon: one survey estimated that on a particular weeknight the Salvation Army attracted 17,000 worshippers while the Church of England got only 11,000 through its doors.
14) Nonconformism (Sporting)
In May 1930 the whole of the Notts cricket team took to the field in lounge suits on the final day of their match against Hampshire. The previous day’s play had ended with the Southern side requiring just a single run for victory. The Notts captain, Arthur Carr, didn’t think it was worth his men’s trouble to put on their whites the following morning. Opening bowler Bill Voce even wore an overcoat. His second ball yielded the necessary runs.
15) It’s Just Not Cricket
They say Australians are tough, but Nottingham folk are tougher still. It was the efforts of two Notts fast bowlers, Bill Voce and Harold Larwood, that caused the MCC to dismiss the Aussies as squealers in the wake of the infamous Bodyline tour Down Under in 1932–33. Voce and Larwood caused uproar when they employed so-called ‘fast-leg theory’, bowling at the batsmen’s leg stump and getting the ball to rise into their ribs. The strategy worked so well that it nearly caused a riot in the Third Test at Adelaide. And it wasn’t going to be a cheese riot either.
16) The Nation’s Best-Dressed
Nottingham was once the centre of the global lace industry and hence home to a huge female workforce, which perhaps explains the modern myth that there are four women to every man in the city (the city is consequently very popular for stag nights). It’s also where local boy Paul Smith began his illustrious fashion career. No wonder Nottingham folk are so much better dressed than everyone else.
17) Footballing Genius (1)
Which means Brian Clough, obviously. As manager of Nottingham Forest, Ol’ Big ’Ead won the league in 1978, then brought the European Cup to the City Ground the following year, and again in 1980. There’s also the matter of his celebrated bons mots. ‘We talk about it for 20 minutes and then we decide I was right’ was how he once explained his manner of dealing with team members who questioned his tactics. And then there’s that sign he had placed in front of the Trent End. It read: ‘Gentlemen, No Swearing Please – Brian.’ The famously foul-mouthed Trent Enders got the point – and the joke. Afterwards away supporters were routinely greeted with chants of ‘You’re gonna get your flipping head kicked in’. Still an unpleasant sentiment, clearly, but so much more family-friendly in this form.
18) Come On Down!
Nottingham gave the nation some of its best – or at least its most popular – lines in the 1980s. Who can fail to be moved by the memory of local boy Leslie Crowther inviting lucky audience members on to the stage with the words ‘Come on down!’ in the classic ITV gameshow The Price Is Right? The prizes were rotten, of course, but what lovely good clean fun it all was. Not at all like the smut they serve up nowadays. Note that Su Pollard – famous for uttering that other immortal 80s catchphrase, ‘Hi-de-hi!’ – likewise hails from Nottingham. Roy Skelton, who voiced both Zippy AND George in the children’s show Rainbow, grew up here too. There must be something in the water.
19) Footballing Genius (2)
Not far from the City Ground, a second football stadium, Meadow Lane, hosts the oldest professional team in the country, Notts County. Now, County may not be particularly good at the game but that’s not the point – they’ve been not very good at it for longer than anyone else. That’s distinction, if you like. Nottingham also has a third team: AC Milan, created by homesick Nottingham lacemaker Herbert Kilpin in Italy in 1899. Which, if you think about it, means that, between them, Nottingham clubs have won the European Cup/Champions League NINE times. Match that, bloated footballing ‘giants’ of the English North!
20) Bigger, Taller, Longer: Simply the Best
Nottingham’s vast Market Square is the largest (about 22,000 m²) in the country. Until recently, the city was also home to the tallest freestanding work of art in the UK, Ken Shuttleworth’s Aspire, a red and orange steel sculpture that rises 60 metres into the air above the Jubilee Campus of the University of Nottingham. A Nottingham writer – Philip James Bailey – also wrote what is sometimes rumoured to be the longest poem in the English language, Festus. The stats say it all: Nottingham bigger, taller, longer and simply BETTER than the rest.
US artist Christy Lee Rogers grew up by the sea in Hawaii, so perhaps it’s only natural that she chooses to work in water. With their sensual rendering of flesh, use of bright colours and dramatic lighting effects, Rogers’s photographs are most obviously reminiscent of Baroque art. Shot at night, no digital trickery is used in their making. ‘I love what I get naturally and don’t want to alter my expression in Photoshop. My intention is to create something magical that could exist, not something that I feel people will think is fake or false,’ says Rogers. ‘I want people to know that what they see is possible and for them to connect with it because of that.
‘Every shot is an experiment and sometimes you get something unexpected, like the wind blowing across the water, which produces a fantastic effect. Even the moon can change the lighting in beautiful ways.I keep notebooks with thousands of ideas. During the initial idea phase, there’s usually a feeling of overwhelm because the collection must be profound in my mind and very precise.
‘Water can become quite chaotic, especially with choreographing many subjects together, so we practise one by one. I teach each person my style and how to position themselves in relation to me and in relation to the lights. There are key points that they have to practise and hopefully master. Posing is not something that I feel works for real expression so I have my subjects stay in constant movement.’
Her new collection, Élan, draws inspiration from the 1920s Parisian circus and the romantic wonder of the Moulin Rouge. The extravagant scenes, captured during a shoot in Las Vegas, benefited from the participation of some of the world’s premiere performance artists: dance masters, synchronized swimmers, aerialists, pole dancers and actors.
On show at The Outsiders, 8 Greek Street, London W1, until 19 July. http://www.theoutsiders.net/. Images copyright the artist.
This week I have been reading Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means (1963). It’s a short book so – unlike last week, when I (re)read A Dance to the Music of Time – I have also been able to sleep, which greatly increased my enjoyment of Ms Spark’s sparkling prose (and life generally).
Anyway, to get to the book itself: it follows the fortunes of a group of women who are holed up in the May of Teck Club in Kensington, an establishment where well-born but impecunious young ladies can reside ‘in Order to Follow an Occupation in London’. The action, largely set in the last days of the Second World War, takes place in the capital, which means that any Midlander reading the book as a Midlander – that is, pursuing my new practice of lecture midlandaise – will feel pretty much excluded from most of the goings-on.
However, I draw your attention to chapter 3 and the passage where we come upon a marginal character named Nancy Riddle. Like all the young women in the book, Nancy, a clergyman’s daughter, is trying to get on in life, to which end she ‘was trying to overcome her Midlands accent’. Moments after her introduction, we find her growing suddenly hysterical because she has become caught in a narrow window in the May of Teck Club’s upper storey (a recurrent comic – and then tragic – thread in the novel). After she escapes her entrapment, she becomes calm again, ‘as was betokened by the gradual replacement of Midlands vowels with Standard English ones’.
What are we to make of this? What is Ms Spark trying to say about the Midlands in this brief and potentially symbol-laden episode? That the Midlands is a narrow trap akin to a slit window, and that one should grease one’s body with any and all available materials (rations of soaps, creams and butter – that’s what the protagonists have to hand in the novel) in order to escape? A more pragmatic reading would suggest the following message: lose your Midland accent and stay away from narrow openings and life will be a whole lot better for you.
Ah, but is it possible to lose one’s Midland accent? In a later sequence we again meet Nancy – ‘the low-church clergyman’s daughter whose accents of speech had been in process of improvement’ – as she flees the flame-engulfed May of Teck. ‘Her elocution days were over now,’ notes Spark. ‘She would always speak with a Midlands accent.’ And that’s the last we hear of Midland Nancy, who figures in the novel only as an ineradicable, socially restrictive accent.
As a Midlander Reading-as-a-Midlander – and reading aloud in a heavy North Midland accent, moreover – I might feel slighted by The Girls of Slender Means. But on the plus side there’s not a single mention of the North in the book, which is a point very much in Ms Spark’s favour. She was a Real Northerner, of course – she was Scottish.
This week I have been reading – or, should I say, Reading-as-a-Midlander (see blog dated 18 May) – Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.
There are twelve volumes so I haven’t had time to do much else over the last seven days; the cat is looking considerably thinner as a result. But on the plus side the new academic discipline of lecture midlandaise has taken enormous strides forward.
I don’t have the time to tell you the plot – it would fill around twelve volumes. But I can assure that it’s very good, so do read it if you’ve got nothing else to do until Christmas. You know the way people you thought you’d never see again keep turning up, surprisingly transformed? It’s very good on that.
Anyway, down to the serious bit: the explicit Midland content. Here I have the pleasure of reporting that A Dance to the Music of Time turns out to be a very interesting study case. Powell has often been dismissed as a snob, and if that’s true then I have to say his snobbery is wholly (or broadly) positive in regard to the Midlands. No, he doesn’t sing the praises of Nottingham, aka ‘the Queen of the East Midlands’, or locate long sequences in Lichfield (as milieux, London and Venice are more to Powell’s taste). But he’s not afraid to reference the Midlands all the same, and often in contexts where less sharp-eyed observers would specify the North. For instance, the young Oxford social misfit Quiggin is said to have claimed that ‘his father used to work on the railway line outside some Midland town’, while the painter Mr Deacon’s patrons are described as ‘mostly business people from the Midlands’ and the narrator is described as going to meet ‘some Hunger-Marchers arriving from the Midlands’. A great novel, and the Midlands consistently named ahead of the North – what more could you ask?
* * *
In truth, in the wider world as in literature, the word ‘Midlands’ doesn’t crop up much outside specialised or technical contexts. It occurs most frequently in weather and travel reports (there are a lot of roads in the Midlands). Beyond that, it pops up in the camp argot of a certain vintage: in his letters, the (London-born) classical actor John Gielgud refers to the zone between his legs and midriff as ‘the Midlands’. We all come from there at a biological level, of course, but geographically there’s little social cachet in announcing yourself as hailing from the nation’s meat-and-two-veg.
I am debuting here a new and potentially revolutionary practice: lecture midlandaise, or ‘Reading-as-a-Midlander’.
I got the notion from écriture feminine (‘women’s writing’), an idea that French feminist critics came up with back in the 1970s, when they argued that female consciousness had largely been expunged from the world of books. As Hélène Cixous said in her manifesto for this new kind of literature: ‘Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies. Écriture féminine places experience before language, and privileges the anti-linear, cyclical writing so often frowned upon by patriarchal society.’
Following on from this, I now propose écriture midlandaise, the programme for which can be summed up as follows: ‘Midlanders must write themselves: must write about Midlanders and bring Midlanders to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their sense of their own centrality to the history of England and the wider world. Écriture midlandaise places the Midlands before North and South, and privileges the wonders of the Midlands so often frowned upon by the English establishments of North and South.’ It sounds pretentious, but it’s a hoot really.
Anyway, an important component of this new practice is what Frenchies like Hélène Cixous would call lecture midlandaise, or ‘Reading-as-a-Midlander’.
That doesn’t mean I’m only going to read books about the Midlands from now on – that wouldn’t take very long; books about the North, by contrast, are legion and take a lot of reading (I have to keep waking myself up). But from now on whatever books I do read I’m going to read bodily and intellectually as a Midlander – that is, with an acute awareness of the ways in which the Midlands and Midlanders are portrayed or ignored in their pages.
Books about England and the English are obviously a good place to hone one’s skills Reading-as-a-Midlander, so I’ve picked Harry Mount’s How England Made the English as my starting point. This is a clever and enjoyable book, which is obviously the product of serious and wide-ranging research: Mount’s sentences often seem to contain more facts than they do words, which is no mean feat. But, more than the density of the data, what I like is the obliquity of the approach, as it allows the author to tilt and reframe (or just plain debunk) some of the most often repeated clichés about English life.
I do think the writer has missed a trick in chapter 10, however. This bears the title ‘North and South: The Great Divide’ and dates the beginnings of the tiresome North/South binarism at the heart of English culture to the Harrying of the North by William the Conqueror in 1069–70. Actually, Northern consciousness can be traced much earlier, to the writings of the churchy Northern supremacist the Venerable Bede, aka ‘the father of English history’. But what’s really provoking is the way that Mount can discuss ‘the north–south divide’ while consistently foregrounding the existence of that crucial third party – the Midlands. So we find the following formulation: ‘Whether for good or ill effect, the greater scale of the industries of the Midlands and the north altered the lie of the land that much more deeply than southern industries.’ He then gives three examples, all of them drawn from the Midlands (Shropshire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire). As such, we have a chapter that bluffly and credulously investigates the phenomenon of the supposed ‘north–south divide’ while often privileging the Midlands in the illustrations it gives of this division. This is a contradiction in terms, surely? Since Mount clearly knows that the Midlands are distinct from the North, how can he continue to talk about the ‘north–south divide’? It makes no sense.
(On the other hand, Mount gets a bonus mark for putting the Midlands ahead of the north – it’s always ‘the Midlands and the north of England’ – and a further mark for giving the Midlands a capital ‘M’ and the north a lowercase ‘n’.)