Americans may have created Superman and Batman, but it was a Midlander who reinvented the superhero genre for the post-Cold War era. Alan Moore’s Watchmen even made Time magazine’s top 100 novels of all time in 2005 – the only graphic novel to do so. Despite his success, Moore continues to live in his native Northampton. When he was invited to appear in The Simpsons in 2007, a producer had to fly from LA to the Midlands to record his part. Rorschach, Doctor Manhattan, Silk Spectre – secretly, behind those masks and disguises, they’re all Midlanders.
Midlanders are very grounded people, so it should come as little surprise that it was a Midlander who discovered gravity. Former Grantham schoolboy Sir Isaac Newton first hypothesized the inverse-square law of universal gravitation in his 1687 page-turner Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. The Royal Society recently named humble Midlander Newton as the most influential scientist of all time (Einstein came second).
The recent recovery of the Staffordshire Hoard from a field in Hammerwich has provided a useful reminder that Mercia (the Anglo-Saxon antecedent of the modern Midlands) was politically, culturally and militarily far superior to Northumbria (precursor of the modern North) and Wessex (the South). Mercian pre-eminence was most visibly set forth in the great earthwork that King Offa had built from the Bristol Channel to the river Dee. ‘Offa’s Dyke’ is quite simply one of the wonders of the medieval world.
41. Jonathan Agnew.
He may have been born in Cheshire (i.e. in the North) but few have done more to promote the splendours of the Midland landscape than Jonathan Agnew, who has fearlessly used his platform as England’s leading cricket broadcaster to promote the beauties of the Vale of Belvoir in the East Midlands. Not only a great commentator (he was responsible for rendering Brian Johnston helpless on air with his famous Ian Botham ‘leg over’ line), Aggers, as regular listeners to Test Match Special know him, was a fine bowler in his day too – he played for Leicestershire, naturally. It’s not his
fault we lost the Ashes.
40. The Sistine Chapel.
Did you know that the Midlands is home to what archaeologists have recently dubbed ‘the Sistine Chapel of the Ice Age’? Creswell Crags, an unassuming-looking limestone gorge on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border, contains the most extensive cache of prehistoric bas-reliefs anywhere in the world. The subject matter of the engraved images – created by modifying the natural limestone topography of the caves – includes animals as well as what appear to be the earliest human nudes in the history of British art. That’s right: Ice Age Midlanders invented BritArt.
39. A Sense of Centredness.
In the little village of Meriden, situated on the outskirts of Coventry, a sandstone pillar carries the following announcement: ‘This ancient wayside cross has stood in the village for some 500 years and by tradition it marks the Centre of England.’ The Ordnance Survey doesn’t agree – it thinks the geographical heart of the country is eighteen miles away, at Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire; the Midland Oak in Leamington Spa likewise stakes a plausible claim to standing at the centre of England. But however you calculate it, England’s heart is somewhere around here. If you want to feel really centred, this is where you need to be.
38. Walkers Crisps.
11 million bags of crisps are produced in the Walkers factory in Leicester every day. Mansfield exile Henry Walker first set up shop there in the 1880s, but his business only diversified into crisp production in 1948. It was a shrewd move – Walkers currently holds around 50 per cent of the British crisp market.
The idea of the USA was first cooked up in Scrooby in North Nottinghamshire by a group of religious Separatists who would eventually set sail for America on the Mayflower. The Pilgrim Fathers have bequeathed several important legacies to the modern US, beginning with the ‘Mayflower Compact’. As President John Quincy Adams would later claim, the Compact was the foundation stone of the 1787 US Constitution, perhaps the most influential document ever enacted in the name of ‘the people’. You could say, then, that those first persecution-fleeing Midlanders invented the concept of the Land of the Free.
36. Spaghetti Junction.
Opened to great public fanfare in 1972, Spaghetti Junction in Birmingham links three different motorways and features not a single set of traffic lights. Clever stuff, and the very quintessence of motoring freedom. Of course, some people say that Spag Junc is really just a big car park trying to pass itself off as a motorway junction, but we won’t give such dissident voices publicity here.
While we’re on the subject of free-flowing traffic, let’s consider Midlanders’ supremacy when it comes to roundabouts. These marvellous circular traffic intersections didn’t originate in the Midlands but Telford in Shropshire is the centripetal heart of twenty-first-century England, boasting the highest density of roundabouts per capita of population. Motorists have been known to use up a whole tank’s worth of petrol driving from one end of Telford to the other: it’s only a few miles, but the roundabouts are addictive. Other Midland roundabout towns of note: too many to list.
34. The Great Reform Act.
Shortly after the current Coalition Government assumed power, Nick Clegg promised the ‘biggest shake-up of our democracy since 1832’. He has delivered nothing of the sort, of course, but it was good of him to remind us all of a genuinely defining event in British politics: the 1832 Great Reform Act, which laid the foundations of our modern electoral system. The foremost public campaigner was the visionary Brum-based economist Thomas Attwood, who founded the Birmingham Political Union (BPU), and played a crucial role in securing the reform of the franchise in the 1830s. As Lord Durham declared: ‘the country owed Reform to Birmingham, and its salvation from revolution.’
33. Arthur Seaton.
Nottingham novelist Alan Sillitoe created the ultimate modern Midland folk hero when he penned his classic Angry Young Man novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958). Anti-hero Arthur Seaton is a fount of thrillingly rebellious quotations. Arctic Monkeys adopted one of Seaton’s most resonant phrases for the title of their album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, while Morrissey drew on the novel for his finest lyric, “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”. Which neatly illustrates a general truth: whenever (if ever) you think of something good about the North, it’s usually the Midlands you’re really thinking about.
32. Gary Lineker.
All Midlanders are nice people – that’s a scientifically proven fact – but that doesn’t stop them being high achievers. The sporting world’s Mr Nice, Gary Lineker, is a Leicester lad and was noted throughout his footballing career for his commitment to fair play: he was never even booked, never mind sent off. That didn’t stop him from becoming England’s second-highest all-time goalscorer on the international stage, of course. The Match of the Day host isn’t above poking fun at himself either: since 1995 he’s played an arch-villain in advertising campaigns for Walkers Crisps – who, as noted above, are also from Leicester.
31. Rebecca Adlington.
Midlanders are also modest, almost to a fault – it’s one of the main reasons the splendours and accomplishments of the region are such a well-kept secret. Can you think of a more self-deprecating sporting over-achiever than Mansfield-born swimmer Rebecca Adlington, who, on I’m A Celebrity…, was (I’m quoting) “so starstruck by Westlife singer and eventual victor, Kian Egan, she blushed heavily and couldn’t look him in the eye”? And she wept about her self-image too. She’s England’s most decorated female Olympian ever, for heaven’s sake.
30. The Major Oak.
You haven’t lived until you’ve stood beneath the thousand-year-old, 52-foot-high Major Oak in Sherwood Forest – history, mystery and majesty all rolled together in one great eye-filling spectacle. (Sort of.) This is where Robin Hood, Alan-a-Dale, Friar Tuck and the other Merry Men would conceal themselves to evade the attentions of the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham. ’Oodie and Maid Marian tied the knot a few minutes down the road in St Mary’s Church, Edwinstowe. They hold a festival here every August in celebration of the great Man in Tights: “For he was a good outlaw / And did poor men much good.” How very Midland.
29. The Olympics.
The Midlands didn’t get much of a look-in with the 2012 Olympics, despite the fact that Becky Adlington was born here and – perhaps even more significantly – the modern Games were essentially invented here. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French aristocrat who founded the International Olympic Committee, admitted as much: ‘It was to [Thomas] Arnold that we turned, more or less consciously, for inspiration.’ Arnold was the headmaster of Rugby School – just down the road from Coventry – which in the nineteenth century pioneered the use of sport in education. Coubertin’s other big influence was the Wenlock Olympian Games in Shropshire – also in the Midlands, of course. It’s no coincidence that one of the 2012 Olympic mascots was called Wenlock.
It was also at Rugby School that the sport of rugby – there’s a clue in the name – was born after some knucklehead who was supposed to be playing football got confused, picked up the ball and started running with it. Rather than telling the poor chap he’d got the rules wrong, his pals played along and in the process invented a new sport. (Something like that, anyway.) Now that’s the classic Midland spirit of innovation for you.
27. The Sally Army.
The East Midlands has been home to a long line of spiritual radicals, not the least influential of whom was William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. Booth was a notable equal-opportunities employer, an idea to which Booth gave memorable verbal form when he exclaimed: ‘My best men are women!’ Indeed, Booth’s heady strain of Midland eccentricity was his greatest spiritual weapon: one survey estimated that on a particular weeknight the Salvation Army attracted 17,000 worshippers while the Church of England got only 11,000 through its doors.
The distinctively doomy sound of heavy metal was born in blood and anguish in a sheet metal factory in the West Midlands on the day that fifteen-year-old Tony Iommi – future guitarist with Black Sabbath – lost the tips of two fingers on his right hand in a gruesome industrial accident. Lemmy, the iconic hard-living Motörhead frontman, was likewise born in the West Midlands, amid the slagheaps of Stoke-on-Trent. In fact, most of the great hard rock musicians were born around here. No wonder the Download Festival – ‘Monsters of Rock’ as was – is held annually in the Midlands.
The Olympics, rugby… most of the major sports and global sporting events originated in the Midlands. The region is also home to the World Conker Championships, which were established in 1965, when they were played out to a thrilling climax on the horse chestnut tree-shaded village green of Ashton in Northamptonshire. Since then, the competition has grown in scale and importance to such an extent that it’s had to be relocated to a larger venue, where one Sunday in early October gladiators mount a series of white podiums to do battle armed only with a nut and a bit of string.
24. Lampy the Gnome.
Lovely Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire contains portraits by Van Dyck and Lely. And that’s not all. There’s also little ‘Lampy’, reputedly the oldest surviving garden gnome in the world. He was imported from Germany in the 1840s by Sir Charles Isham, who is said to have been an ‘eccentric spiritualist’. Apparently Sir Charles’s daughters hated gnomes and later banished his collection. Lampy was secreted in a crevice, however, and survived the purge.
23. Mass Tourism.
Leicester cabinetmaker Thomas Cook effectively invented mass tourism in the 1840s when he arranged for some 540 temperance activists to be carried by train to a rally in nearby Loughborough. This short anti-booze cruise was just the beginning: by the 1850s Cook’s travel agency was transporting visitors in their thousands across the Channel to gawp at the splendours of the Paris Exhibition; by the 1880s it had its own fleet of steamers on the Nile. Note that there is very little tourism, never mind mass tourism, to the Midlands.
22. The Industrial Revolution.
Britain entered the eighteenth century an agricultural nation and left it the world’s foremost industrial power – almost entirely thanks to Midlanders. Abraham Darby’s iron-smelting experiments at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire laid the foundations of the Industrial Revolution. But even more influential were the members of the Lunar Society, assorted Midland entrepreneurs, enthusiasts and inventors (including the great engineering duo of Matthew Boulton and James Watt) who gathered every month at locations around Birmingham to discuss their latest ideas and innovations. The result, as travel writer Arthur Young pointed out in 1791, was that Birmingham became ‘the first manufacturing town in the world’.
21. Jet Propulsion.
It’s ironic that Coventry-born engineering genius Sir Frank Whittle, whose pioneering work would carry air travel to ever greater heights, was initially refused a place in the Royal Air Force on the grounds that he wasn’t tall enough. But little Whittle did not give in. Oh no. Early on in his career he realized that, to enable them to travel further and faster, aircraft would need to fly at greater altitudes to reduce air resistance. So he set about developing an engine capable of carrying air travel beyond the sound barrier, earning himself the title of the ‘father of jet propulsion’ in the process.
It was a German scientist, Justus von Liebig, who first hit on the idea of concentrating, bottling and eating brewer’s yeast, but it took Midlanders to turn the dark, savoury paste into a worldwide phenomenon: the Marmite Food Extract Company was established in the great Midland brewing town of Burton-upon-Trent in Staffordshire in 1902 – the local Bass brewery provided the yeast. Catchphrase: ‘You either love it or hate it.’ Little-known fact: all Midlanders love it. Related tourist attraction: the magnificent Marmite Monument – or ‘Monumite’ – in Burton-on-Trent. It’s the Midland equivalent of the Angel of the North.
19. Diana, Princess of Wales.
Princess Diana’s family has resided at Althorp in Northamptonshire for the past four or five centuries and it is here, on a small island in the middle of a lake – like a modern-day Arthur, another much-mythologised royal who reshaped the sensibilities of his nation – that her body now lies. The ‘People’s Princess’ was a folkloric figure with the instincts of a Robin Hood or Lady Godiva, whose life was given ultimate form by her bitter conflicts with the Establishment and the ways in which she didn’t quite fit in. In that sense, the People’s Princess was also the definitive Midland Princess.
18. Philip Larkin.
When Hull was recently announced as the 2017 Capital of Culture, the BBC noted that the East Yorkshire town is principally ‘known for being the home of poet Philip Larkin’. That might make you think that Larkin – named as ‘the nation’s best-loved poet’ by the Poetry Book Society in 2003 – was a native of God’s Own County, as humble old Yorkshire likes to style itself. Not a bit of it: his formative years were spent in Coventry and Leicester. Larkin’s famous four-letter variation on parents tucking up their children in bed at night is a classic piece of caustic Midlander wit. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Bard of Coventry chose not to have any kids of his own.
Lacking natural ports, Midlanders with a hunger to trade simply invented canals instead. Through their proximity to major rivers and the sea, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol and London had long enjoyed an advantage over their Midland manufacturing rivals. To even things out, the Derbyshire-born engineer James Brindley created a great inland network of artificial waterways that allowed landlocked sites to behave as though they were ports. It was through the development of Brindley’s canal network that Birmingham was able to emerge as the leader of the Industrial Revolution in the early nineteenth century.
The most famous character in stage history is known to many as Hamlet the Dane, but Hamlet the Midlander would be more accurate. His creator, William Shakespeare, hailed from Stratford-upon-Avon, which is not so very far from Birmingham – Old Bill probably sounded a lot like Jasper Carrott when he opened his mouth – and had a son called Hamnet (a name that was often spelled ‘Hamlet’ in contemporary documents). Based on an old Danish tale, the play is a psychological study of procrastination, with its hero going round and round in circles. Basically, it’s the dramatic equivalent of driving through Telford (see roundabouts, above).
15. “Land of Hope and Glory”.
According to a 2006 survey, “Land of H&G” would be the popular choice for a specifically English national anthem. Naturally, it was written by a Midlander – Edward Elgar. Indeed, it is to Elgar that the nation almost invariably turns on occasions of great moment: massed bands perform “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations at the annual Remembrance Day ceremony. Elgar’s music isn’t the sole preserve of high or official culture either – the Midland composer also wrote the first modern football chant, ‘He Banged the Leather for Goal’, inspired by Billy Malpass, striker for Elgar’s beloved local club, Wolverhampton Wanderers, in 1898.
14. Dr Samuel Johnson.
To get an idea of the scale of the eighteenth-century polymath’s extraordinary talents and achievements, imagine Stephen Fry, only ten times cleverer, fifty times more eloquent and a thousand times more industrious. Not quite as good-looking, mind – badly scarred on his face and body, old Sam was no pin-up. Though he famously declared ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’, Dr J was also immensely proud of his Midland roots, hailing his native Lichfield the ‘City of Philosophers’.
13. Sexual Intercourse.
It was somewhere in the wilds of north Nottinghamshire that saucy gamekeeper Mellors first told Lady Constance she had a nice tail and threaded her pubic hair with forget-me-nots. Originally published in 1928, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the first novel to be prosecuted under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act; no sooner had the jury found in the book’s favour than the Swinging Sixties began. That great Midland poet Philip Larkin famously observed as much when he wrote that ‘Sexual intercourse began’ right after ‘the end of the Chatterley ban’.
12. The Archers.
The biggest TV soap operas – EastEnders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale – are all distinctively Southern or Northern, but radio’s longest-running saga is quintessentially Midland. In 2010 Corrie marked fifty years on the air with characteristic over-egged hoopla featuring a collapsing viaduct and an exploding bar. Meanwhile The Archers, recorded in Birmingham and set in the fictional West Midland county of Borsetshire, was celebrating its sixtieth anniversary. A major, earth-shaking storyline was promised. ‘There had been rumours of a traffic pile-up, a church steeple collapsing, a shooting spree or an out of control fire,’ one newspaper reported. ‘In the event, a man fell off a roof.’ The Midlands doesn’t need Northern histrionics to keep the nation tuning in.
11. Paul Smith.
Midlanders are better dressed than other Britons – that’s another scientifically proven fact. From Margaret Thatcher to Noddy Holder and his Slade bandmates, the region has been rich in fashion icons in recent times. It comes as no surprise, then, that Britain’s most respected and internationally successful menswear designer should be a Midlander: Paul Smith began his illustrious career in his native Nottingham, where he has a flagship store to this day. Classic-with-a-twist tailoring is a Midland thing; stripes too.
10. The Enlightenment.
The Lunar Society (see The Industrial Revolution, above) counted among its members many of the most innovative thinkers of a particularly innovative age: not just Boulton and Watt, but the great chemist and freethinker Joseph Priestley (he discovered oxygen), Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood… These are major figures not just of the Industrial Revolution, but of the wider, globe-reconfiguring Enlightenment. Their individual contributions were at least as significant as those of Voltaire, Goethe and Benjamin Franklin, so it’s only fitting that the Brum-based movement has been honoured with the geographically specific designation of the Midland Enlightenment. London had nothing to compare with it.
9. Robbie Williams.
Why has Robbie Williams always been a bit of a square peg in a round hole in Take That? Because he’s from Stoke-on-Trent in the Midlands and the other four are all dyed-in-the-wool Northerners, of course. Mercurial, insecure, restless, a natural experimenter, Robbie is the interesting one, the one with charisma – the Take That Midlander. By comparison, the other band members (no offence, chaps) are a bit plodding, a bit stereotypically Northern. Inevitably, it’s ‘Sir’ Gary Barlow – the really Northern one – who’s being groomed for the Establishment, but it’s Midlander Robbie who’s the national treasure.
8. The Battle of Britain.
It wasn’t just Midlanders who took to the skies in the Battle of Britain and chased the naughty old Luftwaffe from our airways, of course, but it was entirely and exclusively a Midlander – R.J. Mitchell, to be precise – who designed the iconic fighter plane that made such a vital contribution to that great aerial triumph: the Spitfire. The Staffordshire engineering genius had a marvellously bluff and unimpressed Midland turn of phrase too. ‘If anybody ever tells you anything about an aeroplane which is so bloody complicated you can’t understand it, take it from me: it’s all balls,’ he told one of his test pilots. Quite.
7. Lady Godiva.
According to legend, the eleventh-century noblewoman rode naked through the streets of Coventry to get her husband, Leofric, Earl of Mercia, to lower the taxes. Along with Robin Hood’s robbing from the rich, Godiva’s selfless act of stripping for social justice provides one of the defining myths of the Midlands (the selflessness-in-pursuit-of-social-justice bit, not the nudity).
6. 2 Tone.
One of the best things to emerge from the punk movement – and the best thing, musically speaking, ever to emerge from Coventry – was the ska revival, or 2 Tone. Named after the label set up by The Specials’ keyboardist Jerry Dammers, 2 Tone married the energy and aggression of punk to the rhythms and instrumentation of the Jamaican ska and rocksteady genres. Recommended listening: anything by The Specials, The Beat and The Selecter, who are all from the West Midlands. Avoid: anything by Madness – they’re not 2 Tone, they’re Too Cockney.
5. Brian Clough.
Though born in the North-East, Clough, one of the most successful football managers of all time, only ever triumphed at unfashionable Midland clubs – the spoiled Northern superstars at Leeds United simply couldn’t take his abrasive managerial style. With Nottingham Forest, he won the league at the first attempt in 1978, then secured the European Cup for the Midlands the following year, and again in 1980. There’s also the matter of his celebrated bons mots. ‘I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one,’ Ol’ Big ’Ead famously opined.
Yorkshire has its pudding, Lancashire has its hotpot, but Birmingham is synonymous with the much more exciting and cutting-edge balti, a type of curry served in a pressed-steel, wok-like ‘balti dish’ which appears to have originated in the city. Balti houses are to be found throughout the country but, if it’s a curry you’re after, you’re best advised to head for the ‘Balti Triangle’, just to the south of Brum city centre. For best results, follow your Birmingham curry with a quintessentially Midland cheese course of Stilton and Walkers Crisps.
3. Tony Hancock.
Manchester sometimes likes to style itself the country’s comedy capital but in fact, when you do the math, it’s Birmingham that turns out to be the nation’s humour hub – and not just because the accent’s funny. Jasper Carrott, Lenny Henry, Frank Skinner, Stewart Lee – some of these people are actually amusing. Self-deprecating Brummie comedy – tugging at illusions, dynamiting self-delusion – defines English comedy more generally. A 2002 BBC poll declared Brummie Tony Hancock the greatest British comedian of all time. Listen to classic Hancock’s Half Hour episode ‘Sunday Afternoon at Home’ and you’ll understand why.
The West Midlands is Tolkien Country. Not for nothing is Birmingham the setting for the annual Middle-earth Weekend, when coachloads of Gandalfs and Hobbits descend on the city. The unhappily named Moseley Bog in Birmingham and the walking country of Worcestershire inspired the ancient landscape of his Lord of the Rings saga, while the Malvern Hills were translated into the White Mountains of Gondor. Tolkien’s description of Hobbits in the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings could equally have been written about Midlanders: ‘shy of the Big Folk’, they have always possessed the ‘art of disappearing swiftly and silently’.
1. Mr Darcy.
It is a truth universally recognized that a great writer in need of a sexy leading man for her next literary blockbuster will look to the Midlands for inspiration. Conservative Southron that she was, Jane Austen appears to have hated Brum (‘One has no great hopes of Birmingham. I always say there is something direful in that sound’ – Emma) but when she needed to get Elizabeth Bennett panting with repressed desire in Pride and Prejudice, it was to Derbyshire that she turned: Pemberley, the ancient family pile of ultimate toff dish Fitzwilliam Darcy, is modelled on Chatsworth. Mr Darcy was a Midlander.
Robert Shore’s Bang In The Middle: A Journey Through The Midlands – The Most Underrated Place on Earth is published by The Friday Project.