Farewell to the spirit of the Midlands

6th April 2007 at 01:00

I shall miss the Midlands. I never thought I'd say that. My first experience of them was sandwiched between Newcastle upon Tyne and Dublin.

Coming from the sprightly cadences of Geordieland, I thought I'd never met language - and, to my shame, people - so solid and dull as those of the industrial Midlands.

The very first day I was a student in Newcastle, I found myself sitting next to a middle-aged man on a bus. We got talking, as you do up there. He told me he was on his way to start a new job, as an electrician. "That must have been hard to learn," says I. "A couple of years' study?" "Not at all!"

says he. "I got a book out of the library. Any intelligent man could do it."

That, it seemed to me, was the spirit that took the ships and locomotives and pits, and the engineers with them, out of the Tyne and all over the world. They're go-getters in the North-East and their language tells you so, the first moment you hear it: confident, quirky, rhythmic, inventive.

The speech of Dublin is no less so. It has the same adenoidal containment as you find in the cities of Britain, kissing-cousins with Scouse. But the lilt and music of a tongue meant to be rhymed and sung and played upon comes through in every conversation. We left, sadly, just as my three-year-old daughter was settling on the delicious emphatic "At all, at all." She lost plain song for the burr of the English shires.

Then I came back to the Midlands with the ALI. Not "solid and dull" at all, I found, but dependable, wry, realistic, even a bit fatalistic and full of laughter. And much-mocked Dudley is different from Brummie, which is different again from Coventry a dozen miles down the road, which couldn't be more different from the Northamptonshire and Warwickshire hinterland.

What makes the Midlands special, I've come to believe, is the rootedness of its cites in the surrounding counties. It might also be the case in Leeds and Bristol, but it is certainly not so in London and much more tenuously in Manchester. Partly, it must be a factor of size; of the relative accessibility of countryside.

Last summer, I took the chance I should have taken for five years past, of going walking each evening after work and ending up in a country pub. It was easy to find a five or six-mile stroll through fields and along rivers or canals to somewhere pleasant for a pint and anything from a curled lunchtime leftover sandwich to a slap-up dinner. I "discovered" everything from the most sublime Palladian mansion, its golden Northamptonshire sandstone flaring in the setting sun, to the new gypsy life of retired folk and New Age travellers on narrow-boats, to the excruciating din of a motorway when you are forced to walk beside it. It was my farewell.

David Sherlock was chief inspector at the Adult Learning Inspectorate which has just been merged with Ofsted

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