I had an interesting email exchange today with a BBC staff member from Nottinghamshire who claims that Midlanders are not unified by a sense of belonging. More specifically, he says that people in Nottingham have no interest in what's happening in Birmingham and that Derby residents aren't bothered about hearing the news from Staffordshire and so on. He doesn't believe that the Midlands, as a single entity, actually exists. He says the people who live in his corner of Nottingham are much more interested in places like Sheffield and Leeds. I was quite surprised by his comments. In fairness, he does live in the North of Nottinghamshire, north of the River Trent, which, I discovered whilst making A1 The Road Musical, is generally the point at which Midlanders suddenly start calling themselves Northerners, but I still maintain that Midlanders, true Midlanders, have a strong sense of kinship.
What unites us is undeniably intangible. I guess we all know how it feels to live miles from the sea in locations that people are usually passing through. I think, as a result of this, that Midlanders can have a somewhat inward-looking stance which has a fairly catastrophic effect on self-esteem. I have discussed this in several previous blogs, so shan't enter this particular verbal cul-de-sac here.
The media doesn't encourage any of us to label ourselves as Midlanders or feel any pride in our Midlands heritage. It seems that they want everyone to be either northern or southern. To entertain anything else would mean that the world can't be painted in clichéd shades of black and white. The BBC, for example, has a large pot of funds which it dedicates to projects which celebrate "the north" (whatever that is.) Senior BBC figures whom I've spoken to about the Midlands identity have all felt the need to talk about the Asian community in Birmingham as somehow representative of the Midlands. I often feel they think everything else that goes on in the area is bland and vanilla. No wonder we struggle to find our identity.
I called my parents at lunch time to see if they could throw any light on the matter. My Dad feels the East Midlanders care more about their rugby than those in the West and that the north-south-biased transport networks in the UK have traditionally prevented Midlanders from exploring their own region.
And yet, despite all this, I continue to feel a great affinity with all Midlanders whether they're from Brum, Cov, Newton-In-the-Willows, Clun or Corby. I have even grown to accept Derbyshire as part of the gang! As a lad, I didn't used to feel I had a great understanding of Derbyshire, which always seemed an other-worldly sort of place, covered in hills and snow and really only the place where Simon Groome and Goldie used to go tobogganing.
I wonder if I maybe place too much emphasis on searching for my tribe? Perhaps it's because I've lived all over: born in Shropshire, grew up in Northants with ancestors in Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Birmingham and Staffordshire. To an outsider, they may seem like disparate, somewhat random places, but they're all in the Midlands. My family have stayed within the confines of this geographical area, never moving south or north (apart from the Welshies!) I feel very proud to be the grandson of a man who ran a soup kitchen during the Coventry blitz and I think Midlanders will have more of an idea of the significance of this statement. When I go to the Midlands, I see names that I recognise on gravestones and hear speech patterns and inflections that make me feel comforted. These feelings are too powerful to ignore.
Any thoughts from Midlanders on this issue would be interesting. Do I simply need to acknowledge that the Midlands doesn't exist and move on? Or is it okay to cling to a romantic ideal that all Midlanders have something inexplicable in common?