Good quality affordable housing, tactile experiences, landscapes retained for communities or wild architecture – things that underpin many a West Midlands town
On top of the Malverns: people, selfies and a kestrel hovering. England rolls out on one side, Wales is in the near distance on the other. I never thought of this view as important when growing up, just hills, green for miles and great (often bottled) water.
Whether it’s because everyone is desperate to get away or squeezing in anything before any future lockdowns, the August sense of urgency felt intoxicating. London appeared to empty and social media filled with chat of staycation this, Suffolk that, or ‘yassssss made it to Portugal’. I headed for the West Midlands dormitory town I grew up in.
This isn’t just about the view, the bucolic rolling hills of Worcestershire, or the de-industrialised Black Country drift of my youth. It’s about revisiting these views, with my adult, current global view: a zoo, a shopping centre, a ring-road and a chocolate factory. A tourist in the familiar.
To Dudley Zoo. Not in search of animals, but Tectons. There’s a storm so most animals are sheltering inside – the totally wild proposition of building a zoo on a hill surrounding the ruins of a castle in Dudley starts to reveal itself. There’s a view at the top, from the roof of Lubetkin’s empty Elephant House across the Black Country – Cradley Heath, Merry Hill and Lye. Dark storm clouds above. A beautiful 1930s Odeon, now a Kingdom Hall, the huge derelict Dudley Hippodrome-then-Gala-Bingo scheduled for demolition despite local campaigns to restore it.
The 12 listed zoo structures look tired but brilliant. Some have been restored, some are going to be. They sit alongside these other cultural remnants, as future ruins built within the grounds of a castle ruin. In this time, in this place, I really hope they survive, post-Covid, post-Brexit, late capitalism. All of it. I love this place.
I’m in Redditch, a place I knew in my teens as being ‘weird’. An appreciation for New Towns hadn’t hit me then, but driving around the houses and roundabouts, visiting the Paolozzi murals in the Kingfisher Shopping Centre, I get it now. My younger self is sorry. I sit staring up at the mosaics, smiling, calm, mask on. A similar feeling to when you walk in to the Detroit Institute of Arts and come face to face with the Diego Rivera murals, but this has got the remnants of a struggling shopping centre, a phone repair booth, a Muffin Break, penny sweet machines and hazard tape on the floor as your social distance tour guide. Redditch’s entire centre is a shopping centre, like many small towns, but this has the richest jewel in its crown: Paolozzi, surrounded by everyday life. If anything happens to this shopping centre, I’m coming back to get those murals.
A new day, an old ring road. Kidderminster. I lined this roundabout in 1986 to welcome Princess Diana with my school when she came to open the Forest Glades leisure centre, now just a huge gap post demolition. Behind me, 300 metres of pure stonking brilliance from sculptor William Mitchell. Low key at points, exquisitely detailed at others. I recommend you go and find it. Touch it.
Bournville. I did my Art Foundation course here. Streets upon streets of houses for workers, all different in line with the grand vision of the Cadbury brothers. A model village. Further south, standing on a castle shaped folly on top of the Lickey Hills – land, view and folly gifted to the people of Birmingham by the Cadburys – I’m looking over Brum, thinking over the last few decades and forward to the next few.
We have no idea what’s going to happen in this post-everything world. These places are underpinned by vision and public generosity. This is needed now more than ever, be it good quality affordable housing, tactile experiences, landscapes retained for communities or wild architecture for Dudley. The future view needs to be both ambitious and realistic. It needs to be optimistic. It needs to be firmly focused on public benefit, not private profit. These small places deserve this ambition and care. We all do. Holiday done.
Verity-Jane Keefe is a visual artist
This has been written in response to my brain swirling thinking about the future and the need for reform, response and action as a meaningful call to arms to unfolding events across most sectors – institutions’ decisions and the impact on individuals.
I recommend two pieces in particular: Tai Shani’s brilliant, urgent plea to art institutions in Art Review – 'Be realistic, demand the impossible' and then Stefan Collini on the state of universities: 'English universities are in peril because of 10 years of calamitous reform'.