D H Lawrence and the Men of the Midlands: Does that include me?

Municipal buildings, Cheltenham
Image caption Cheltenham - at the heart of the Cotswolds

As part of a BBC Radio 3 series marking the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth five essayists are shedding light on the history and culture of the Midlands. In the first essay, novelist and journalist Geoff Dyer tries to work out what is the true home of the Midlander.

I was born and grew up in the mid-west. This causes some confusion in California, where I'm now living, since I don't sound like a native of Illinois or Iowa. No, I'm from Cheltenham in Gloucestershire. The sign welcoming you to town announces that it's "the centre of the Cotswolds" - which I suppose it is even though the idea of the Cotswolds seems so at odds with that of a town.

If Cheltenham is the heart of the Cotswolds then the Cotswolds are the heart of the mid-west. Logically enough the expanse of the west country - Somerset, Devon, Dorset - lies to the west while the Midlands proper actually lies to the north. More important than the actual physical or administrative boundaries of a region or area is the experience of where it is felt to be. So I ask myself, somewhat in the style of a McCarthyite anti-communist, are you now or have you ever been a man - or child - of the Midlands?

One thing I am sure of is that Cheltenham was, for many years, not just the singular centre of my world - it was my world. The accents I grew up surrounded by were versions of the stronger ones you hear further west. My dad had a slight Gloucestershire burr, my uncles had much broader accents. My parents warned me not to speak like this and by the time I was 18 I didn't speak like them either. Then, when I went to Oxford, I was told that I sounded like a cross between an angry young man and a country bumpkin. I was more westerly than I imagined.

The key thing here is the incredibly small distances: Oxford was a mere 40 miles to the east. And maybe it's because Gloucester is even closer, that we, in Cheltenham, were so keen to distance ourselves from it. We looked down on Gloucester. To ask "why?" is to miss the point. It was just assumed to be the case that Gloucester was inferior to Cheltenham.

Many things other than proximity configure one's relation to a place, one's sense of belonging or not belonging. One of these, obviously is the transport system. The trains to and from Cheltenham to London still go either via Bristol or, more usually through Gloucester, Stonehouse, Stroud, Kemble and Swindon.

Image copyright Google
Image caption Geoff Dyer writes: Birmingham, the capital of the West Midlands, is represented by precisely two things: the Bull Ring Shopping Centre and Spaghetti Junction

By contrast I rarely ever went to or via Birmingham, was never railroaded in the direction of the Midlands. Once, driving from London to Cheltenham soon after the M40 had been extended, I missed the Oxford exit and found myself hurtling inexplicably off-course towards Birmingham. It felt like a perverse and potentially calamitous navigation error. For while our accents acknowledged the gravitational pull of the west, those to the north - the voices of Brummies - sounded entirely alien: a symptom of how, culturally, we had nothing in common.

In other ways, though, we were tugged north towards Birmingham and the Midlands. The most important of these forces were the television networks. In the "regional variations" we were part of the Midlands and the epicentre of the local news and magazine programmes that came after the national news was Birmingham. Several things followed from this televisual shaping of regional identity, in the form of adverts. There was, for example, an ad for a beer, I forget which one, but I'll always remember the slogan claiming it was "specially brewed by M and B for the men of the Midlands".

At some pre-feminist level that ad quite possibly had a negative effect, unconsciously instilling in me the idea that the men of the Midlands or MoMs might be a BoMs: bunch of meatheads. And it predisposed me to a great man of the Midlands who said - in a book set in Australia - that there was more to being a man than manliness.

The tug of regional identification manifested itself in another important way: football teams. Back then, in the pre-globalised world, the idea of supporting your local team still held good. I say this even though I was, to be quite frank, a Chelsea supporter. But this was only because I didn't have a decent local team. I think I also supported Chelsea in opposition to the pressure exerted by football TV shows such as Star Soccer, which always featured Midlands teams. We were expected, even if only by dint of repeated exposure, to identify with and support these teams. But we didn't and couldn't - no-one in my class at school supported any of them.

As for Birmingham itself, the capital of the West Midlands, that was represented by precisely two things: the Bull Ring Shopping Centre and Spaghetti Junction, any pulling power exerted by the former instantly cancelled out by the latter's suggestion that you might never find your way home again.

Image caption William Shakespeare was born in Henley Street, in Stratford-Upon-Avon

Not like Stratford-upon-Avon. Now that was a place in the homely. Stratford-on-Avon was like Bourton-on-the-Water - with Shakespeare thrown in. One day my grammar school arranged a coach trip to see Henry IV Part II. I had recently begun to love Shakespeare and literature but I loved beer even more. We had a few pints at the Dirty Duck before the play and then, after the first act, ducked back there for a few more. We didn't see the second or third act. Of course I've been back to Stratford many times since then as a fully cultured adult but no subsequent visit has stuck in my mind like that first one. Yes, it was a magical outing - a taste of what it really meant to be a cultured man of the Midlands.

Which brings me back to the author who reassured me that there was more to being a man than manliness - D H Lawrence. If anything or anyone made or makes me feel connected to the Midlands, the industrial land to the north of Cheltenham, it's Lawrence - and Lawrence alone. He grew up in Eastwood, near Nottingham, but left England as soon as he was able, after World War One, and spent the rest of his life travelling and living all over the world. Much of his work, both early and late, from his first famous novel Sons and Lovers to his last infamous one, Lady Chatterley's Lover, is set in the Midlands.

It was while writing Lady Chatterley, in Florence, in December 1926, that he wrote to Rolf Gardiner, directing him through his past and, in the process, changing the actual physical countryside of Nottinghamshire into the semi-mythical realm of Lawrence country.

"If you're in those parts again, go to Eastwood, where I was born, and lived for my first 21 years. Go to Walker Street - and stand in front of the third house - and look across at Crich on the left, Underwood in front - High Park Woods and Annesley on the right: I lived in that house from the age of six to 18, and I know that view better than any in the world. Then walk down the fields to the Breach, and in the corner house facing the stile I lived from one to six. When you've crossed the brook, turn to the right (the White Peacock farm) through Felley Mill gate, and go up the footpath to Annesley. Or better still, turn to the right, uphill, before you descend to the brook, and go on uphill, up the rough deserted pasture - on past Annesley kennels - long empty - on to Annesley again. That's the country of my heart."

Image copyright Google
Image caption The hills of D H Lawrence country

Lawrence's highly detailed instructions somehow melt away and become a palimpsest through which we see - or are directed to - the formative places of our own early lives. An absolutely specific experience of a place becomes universal. Or maybe that's over-generalising, maybe it's just me, maybe I'm especially susceptible because what Lawrence sees - and makes me see - is both literally and metaphorically not a million miles away from the country of my heart, the views I know better than any on earth, from Fairfield Walk and Woodlands Road in Cheltenham, in the centre of the Cotswolds, in my little corner of the Midlands.

We must beware of sentimentalising or simplifying. While much of Lawrence's work is set here, in the country of his heart, much of it is set elsewhere. And Lawrence's attitude to where he was from was nothing if not ambiguous. In one of his last essays, Nottingham and the Mining Countryside, the rhapsodic tone of the letter to Gardiner gives way to a more uncertain account of the area where he "came into consciousness". Lawrence deplores the ugliness that blighted a region in which, as a child and a young man, "the mines were, in a sense, an accident in the landscape, and Robin Hood and his merry men were not very far away".

By the end he's worked himself up into such a lather about the state of his native land that the only way forward is, he says, to "pull down my native village to the last brick", and "make an absolute clean start". Pre-empting, in more extreme form, my own uncertainty as to whether the country of my heart is or is not part of the Midlands, Lawrence's true feelings lie in this fierce contradiction between rhapsody and rage. Maybe that, the contested middle ground, the shifting middle land between definitive answers, is the true home of the man of the Midlands - or of the mid-westerner at any rate.

The essay will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 21 April at 22:45 BST.

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