Wolverhampton and its Black Country environs are weird, borderless, off-kilter places and that is why I love them. A significant marker of the Black Country environment is found in spaces that are in-between or liminal. When I think of my region it conjures spaces where urban and rural mix, where industrial decay and the weeds of semi-rural space tangle for territory. There is a sense of pride and nostalgia for the area’s industrial heritage and working class ethics, as well as a sense of despair towards the ruins, waste grounds and new enterprises that now replace it. We’re not quite the north and not quite the south. We’re not quite city and not quite countryside. We sit in the shadow of our bigger, more successful brother, Birmingham. We’re definitely not quite the same as brummies. We can’t even decide where the Black Country begins and ends!
This unmappable, in-between, uncanny arena is why the region is so overlooked and sneered at, but is also that which gives rise to the unique Black Country character.
Much work has been done in the field of environmental psychology in terms of how the formation of identity is linked to sense of place. They argue that place-identity is formed by the ways we attach or distance ourselves from our environments – our engagement with the locale’s cultures and geographies. This runs so deep that for many, our sense of place is even strengthened when it’s under threat. Our notions of self are inextricably connected to our sense of community and place, which is built up from our relationships with history, heritage, landscape, family and communal memory. Even nomadic communities measure part of their identity by where they’ve been and where they’re going. The perceptions we have of ourselves are harnessed by our relationships with our place, space, community – and all their multiple contradictions.
What then, if yo’m from the Black Country – where we don’t really have a map of where it starts and ends, where our industrial heritage is quite far removed from our modern life, where strange patches of rural space cosy up to rusted forges, where Merry Hill Shopping Centre, built on the remains of Roundoak Steelworks, shares the same patch of land as Lodge Hill Estate and Saltwells Nature Reserve. What does this do to our sense of self and sense of place then?
Sigmund Freud argued that experiencing the uncanny is one somewhere between familiar and unfamiliar, between homely and unhomely. It is that which is known, but out of place. And within this ambivalence, something weird, primal and feral lurks. I think we can link this psychological state with ways we might see this area. It’s defined, in part, by how off-kilter it is. So, perhaps what Wolves and the Black Country express in us best is the uncanny conflict we have here between loss and progress, between looking forward and looking back, between being part of a gang and yet difficult to pin down. Not only are we not quite north, not quite south, not quite Brummies, not quite city, not quite country. We’re the sum of all these parts on top of a world that is turning further and further to lives and cultures lived through screens. And because we have this constant reminder of what Black Country is, but also no concrete idea of where it is or what it means, I think we’re subject more and more to these feelings of borderlessness. But this is not all about being down-at-heel, sidelined or disempowered. What we have is a lush, gorgeous marginality.
So next time yo’m down Bilston Market, walking the cut or up Sedgley Bonk, look out for that lush, lurking, beautiful liminality that is part of me and part of you. It’s this I’m proud to be shouting about at the inaugural TEDxWolverhampton.