Saturday, February 23, 2008

Helot in Halesowen

I've been based at my mother-in-law's house in Halesowen (near Birmingham) for the past three days, as it was the logical place to be amidst various meetings. This morning I wandered through Halesowen's excellent street market - had an excellent spicy samosa as I walked past the stalls of paperbacks, crystals, faggots - then sat at the Kinver Sausage stall, eating a Shropshire Special in a bun and drinking instant coffee on a polystyrene mug, that was somehow better than one of my habitual Fancy Dan latteccinos.

There's a tiny secondhand bookshop at the top of the town, with aisles so narrow that I had to deploy reading glasses to read the spines, so close was I forced towards them by the facing shelves. It was a delight for all the senses, as the owner smoked rollups in the doorway, the tang of (I think) Old Holborn mingling with the delirious scent of old pages, bindings, bookdust.

I got a copy of Worcestershire by L. T. C. Rolt, published in 1949, in a series called the County Books,'an unusual combination of social history and topography'. Although it looks like a nostalgic guidebook, it is in fact a polemical work of some poetry and power. I was particularly struck by his vision of the future (of Worcestershire but also of the countryside in general):
A change comparable to that effected by the nineteenth-century enclosures will take place on the land. The smaller farmsteads will disappear, hedges will be grubbed up, coppices felled, and the land redistributed in large blocks of big fields suited to the cumbrous machines of the new "factory farms"...Wire fences will supersede hedges, and the only woods will be regimented plantations of quick-growing conifers.

I suppose that has been partially true, and may have been more fully realised if not for the work of countless conservationists.

Meanwhile the corpse of the Worcestershire which we know may linger on in a few small, scattered islands, preserved by public or private bodies as parks, or sites for holiday camps where, like children let out of school, the mass-minded helots of the Power State may go out to play, or to partake of their planned leisure.

Well, I've been to a few country parks, National Trust and Forestry Commission places in my time so maybe Rolt was prescient in this regard too. Ironically, some of the canals that Rolt helped restore would fit into this category. But am I a 'mass-minded helot'? (A helot was a Spartan, neither citizen or slave, but less free than a full citizen. It's a great word which I would drop into conversation if I knew how to pronounce it; 'hell' or 'hee'?) Rolt probably imagined a gigantic socialised industry, predicated on technology and manufacturing, spreading through the land and absorbing country towns as well as conurbations, an extension of the factories imbued with 'mechanical inhumanity that is cold and passionless' he saw springing up, fungi-like, in the Black Country. It hasn't quite worked like that - retail, transport and leisure have arguably had more of an an impact, though with a backwash of more localised micro-industries. I'm no geographer or economist, but I suspect that many of the products in Halesowen's market and shopping centre come from manufactories more distant than the Black Country - and that the chronic environmental and social disasters once found here can now be found in sprawling megacities on other continents.

Interesting stuff anyway. I expect I'll return to Rolt's thoughts on sense of place as I progress in my walk, as well as looking for more in the County Books series for insights into the places I pass through, and the forces that transform them.

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