Name a city in the Midlands. Birmingham. Well done. Now name another one. Err… Having trouble? You’re probably not the only one. A friend of mine certainly did when I asked him to think beyond Birmingham, and he lives with two Midlanders. He wrinkled his brow and said I should give him time to think, so I left the room to make some coffee. His brow was still wrinkled when I came back in and he was staring at a fixed point in deep concentration. I drank my coffee. “Nottingham?” He eventually ventured. Finally! It was a bit of a shame that it took him so long when one of his housemates actually lives in Nottingham I thought, but then I realised that he hadn’t finished yet. I waited expectantly. “Isn’t Nottingham really in the North though?” he asked.
Sigh. Why do people find it so difficult to accept that there is such a place as the Midlands? Ok, they find it pretty hard to ignore Birmingham – it is England’s second city after all, so most people can vaguely point to it on a map. But, Brummies aside, the rest of us have to jostle for position in the varying arguments about where the north/south divide is and try and plead that we are most definitely on one side or the other.
I’m not just blaming people from outside the Midlands for this. In fact, the worst culprits are those of us who actually live there and still pretend that it doesn’t exist. I’ll admit it: I was one of the offenders when I first came to Oxford. I came from Derbyshire and I thought that made me northern. I liked brown sauce, I expected gravy with my chips and I was certain that the word ‘bath’ didn’t have an ‘r’ in it. As a scared first year surrounded by so many Londoners, I felt it safest to ally myself with the northerners. They seemed cool.
But where was the gang of friendly Midlanders? Why couldn’t I stand there during the inevitable North vs. South debate and say, hang on, the Midlands is clearly the best place to live? Why was I so sure that if I said that, no-one would be on my side?
Maybe it’s because that ruins the whole point of the debate. If there isn’t a definite line between North and South, if it is possible to be something ‘in the middle’, then things become much more ambiguous. In the southerner’s imagination, ‘bloody northerners’ live practically at the north pole, not just a couple of miles away in the next county. And for northerners, the south is practically France. It’s an alien nation, not t’other side o’ hill.
Someone from the middle is left to feel a bit like a pariah. We complicate matters and thus are ignored. The worst thing though, is that we don’t have our own identity. I was keen to be one of the northerners because they are seen as being down to earth, tougher than southern ‘pansies’ and good for a laugh, but what are Midlanders? Well, we’ve got Robin Hood, the birthplace of rugby, lots of ex-coal fields and the Peak District. I’m not seeing a unifying theme here. Maybe it is false to look for one, but, dammit, our region is just as good as any other!
Until more of us Midlanders start thinking like this though, we might as well not exist. We can’t expect northerners or southerners to do it for us. Sticking up for the Midlands would be the first step on the slippery slope to admitting that the north/south divide isn’t such a big deal. So we have to start doing it for ourselves.
Picture: Birmingham Bull Ring
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