Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you have to come from a place to belong there. Just because the place you grew up in lives inside you, it doesn’t mean you have to like it, or defend it, or define every other place against it. Birmingham, where I come from, inhabits my accent and underlies my compulsive self-deprecation, but apart from that, my Brummie-ness feels like an accident. (Even so, I’m obsessed with it.)
The centripetal Midlands happens to be where the Welsh, Irish and English strands of my family combined, having moved, as humans do, where there are prospects for a better life. The centre drew them in, then cast them to the periphery as Birmingham built outwards in concentric circles following the first world war. I grew up in Chelmsley Wood, on a vast estate built on green belt land outside the city boundaries where, a Birmingham Post reporter predicted in 1971, “the city will feel a million life-miles away” to the children who would come to be raised there.
Well, it did and didn’t. The centre of Birmingham was nine miles away, to be exact: far enough to feel distant but ever-present in our voices. Every weekend we would catch the bus, which took 50 minutes each way, just to renew the connection. Chelmsley Wood was as big as one of the postwar new towns, but without the official designation and without a corresponding sense of identity and purpose. Instead it was “overspill”: yuck. Like a pan of boiled milk in need of mopping up.
Such terms didn’t bother my nan, who felt she had arrived in paradise when she was offered a home to rent in 1969. But they bothered me. For her, the quality of the house counted most; she contrasted it with the cellar she had grown up in. I had never known anything other than boxy 60s houses with central heating, and as a result directed my discontent at the landscape in which they were set.
Why were we so far from the city, where everything was happening? Why did our teachers live somewhere else, driving in and out every day as if visiting quarantined patients? Was there something wrong with us? I never escaped that feeling, so I escaped the place instead – physically, though never mentally. I moved to London for university and never came back to live, but shuttled back every two or three weeks to see my parents, watching it change and stay the same.
For nearly 20 years, I did it out of duty, not for pleasure. I was always conscious that I had done that supremely cliched thing – I’d “got out” and given nothing back, not even a new perspective on the place that shaped how I felt about every other place. It was only when I had children, in my late 30s, that my mental map of Chelmsley Wood changed. Having moved from London to Liverpool, our regular journey back to the Midlands became one from north to south and not the other way around.
To my children, this was a place and a space that had none of the baggage I’d left with at 18. The pure joy they got from trips to the park in the centre of the estate gave me a chance to remember the things I’d loved. They don’t know what estates are: I remember a time when I didn’t know what one was either, in spite of living on one.
At the back of the park, the giant slide with 37 steps was still there, and so were the brambles. The lake was still smelly and full of mallards, unchanged across decades. Then, in 2012, when my son had just started walking, we came across something new. In another corner of the park a giant climbing structure had appeared, with tunnels, frames and rope swings created as if out of thin air. It was an adventure playground – a proper one, of the kind you could imagine mucky kids in flares and tank tops emerging out of to ride home on Chopper bikes.
My son got stuck into the sandpit, pouring water down funnels made of old guttering and splodging paint over planks of wood. The older kids pushed him, and later his younger sister, in the basket swings. Every time we came back, it had changed – improved and augmented by the children who used it in cooperation with the small staff of playworkers and volunteers, working together to make the place better.
We go there every school holiday now. My children march around telling everyone, “We’re from Liverpool and we’re visiting our nanny’s house!” Being Scousers, their sense of place is strong and very positive. I envy them that, of course, but I’m – to use a Scouse phrase – made up to know they are happy in both places. When we are at the playground it feels as though my children have regained the paradise my nan saw in Chelmsley Wood when it was brand new. A place of freedom and freshness, where there is nothing to be afraid of, or to escape from.