Frivolous Monsters

Three Towers, Five Ways – Part 01

I occasionally think that I’ve run out of life stories to blog about, but then this week a British pop culturist brought together me, an author, and a very, very famous neighbour of mine in the most surprising way. Plug denoting three towersI spent three lonely years in Birmingham, having a genuinely miserable time, and my main psychological crutch to get through this was the radio: Nick Abbot, Martin Kelner, and Edouard Lapaglie may all be names that mean nothing to you, but to me they were bastions of the airwaves. And then every Saturday lunchtime on Five Live there was The Treatment: an hour-long topical comedy review that was presented by Stuart Maconie who’s since become a best-selling writer and is now rushing towards achieving “national treasure” status.Stuart Maconie BooksIn his book Pies and Prejudice (2007) which set out to discover the north of England I read a lot of very familiar tales of buying black puddings off my hometown market, childhood trips to Blackpool, strong opinions on tripe and Lancashire cheese, the merits on rivers running through cities, tales from Liverpool’s Albert Dock, and an odd day lesbian spotting in Hebdon Bridge. I know we’re both northerners, but it was like Stuart Maconie had stolen my life and rendered any book I tried to write completely unoriginal.

Whereas in Adventures On The High Teas (2009), the search for “Middle England”, Maconie dedicates eight-and-a-half pages to Burton-on-Trent and finds little to say about it beyond the breweries and Marmite. His only alternative observation was:

Almost immediately I am accosted by two policemen on bikes. At least I thought they were policemen, an easy mistake to make given the black padded vests and combat-style trousers. They in fact turn out to be Mormons, evidently from the paramilitary wing of the Latterday Saints.

And as Burton-on-Trent is where my brother now lives I diarised a visit there in 2011 much more succinctly with just forty-three words:

I’ve just been done over by the Mobile-Mormons on patrol. They’ve evolved – possibly an irony? – and gained wheels in their fight to deliver the good word. As he was cycling on the pavement though he’s surely going straight to hell.

Maconie so far has yet to visit my other hometown of Bangor, North Wales, where just the other day I was mulling how I used to take for granted living in-between a 15th century cathedral and a Victorian pier with a teashop at the end of it. You just don’t appreciate these things at the time. And therefore, as I continued reading Adventures on the High Teas, I was staggered to find mention of Five Ways.

Five Ways south of Birmingham is where I lived in the nineties. I always considered it to be a downbeat place, unlike Harborne where the trendy people lived it up, and nothing more than an aptly-named traffic junction, full of tramp-inhabited subways which I had to negotiate every time I walked into the city centre. And certainly nothing that should be named in the same breath as the phrase “tourist attraction”.

It turns out Five Ways has a surprisingly long history with its earliest mention recorded as far back as 1565, with an interesting footnote that by rights it should have been renamed in 1820 when Calthorpe Road was added as it’s now technically “Six Ways”.

A picture of Five Ways from Google. Count them. All six of them.

A picture of Five Ways from Google. Count them. All six of them.

To me Five Ways was where I did my weekly shopping and where I got involved in the first Supermarket Bean Wars, of 1996, where at it’s height tins of baked beans were changing hands for just three pence a can. There were many student casualties. But in Stuart Maconie’s account, just down the road, he writes:

…and there, towering above the newsagents, you will see Minas Morgul, the Dark Tower, lair of the Witch King Sauron. I wonder if he ever gives the people at number 62 any bother.

Now I’m no great fan of Lord of the Rings, mainly because I sat through them all at the cinema and was disappointed by the first two endings and doubly so by the next eight, but even I was left open mouthed to discover that for three years I’d lived within walking distance of where JRR Tolkien grew up and from the tower which he channelled into his thousand page fantasy tome as one of the famous Two Towers. And I never, ever, went and saw it.

I think this is the wrong tower, but I tried. Don’t hate me.

I think this is the wrong tower, but I tried. Don’t hate me.

Perrott’s Folly was built in 1758 and apparently it’s one of Birmingham’s oldest surviving architectural features. Although since Tolkien’s day, according to Google Street View, Midland developers seem to have left it untouched all this time and just plonked a council estate around it. Perrotts Folley BirminghamSo I didn’t see the tower, but Tolkien did, and it caused him to imagine up Middle Earth – a realm of Hobbits, wizards, dragons, and magic rings – and then to write several bestsellers about it all.

Whereas when I went wondering it was always in the opposite direction, where I saw other halls of residence, which caused me to imagine up other students with more dynamic lives, and then to go home and get depressed about it all.

I could have turned left at the end of the road, but I turned right.

JRR Tolkien: There but for the grace of God, go I.

And I’m sure I would have gone to see the tower, if I’d have known about it during my time there, as I did go to visit another one when the G8 Summit of Industrialised Nations rolled into town and the world’s leaders were put up around the city.

I only knew the location of one of these as he moved in just down the road from me. I may have messed up on visiting Sauron in his dark tower, but nothing was going to stop me missing out a second time because in 1998 my neighbour was the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, and sitting in his tower old Slick Willy was the King of Five Ways.

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23 thoughts on “Three Towers, Five Ways – Part 01

  1. Mormons on bikes dressed as Sly Stalone, how bizarre!

    • Living in the north-west I took Mormons for granted, like any other religion, as I assumed they were everywhere. I never realised that we are a stronghold for them. According to a BBC web page: “The oldest surviving branch of the church is not in the US, but in Preston.” So I’ve seen lots out and about, but never anywhere else with this almost aggressive cycling up to you. It’s odd, but these two experiences – in the same place – probably occurred three years apart, so it must be the done thing in Burton.

      • Living in the North West I very rarely come across them but they do post a heck of a lot of judgemental junk mail through my door, trying to save me from hell (as I’m obviously an evil sinner) and the like. Ha!

  2. Something must be wrong with me, I can only count five ways from the photo. I also couldn’t count how many times I laughed (out loud!) while reading this. There were too many.

    • You have the four big ones, on the clock face, at 11, 2, 4 and 8. Then there are the two little ones between 6 and 7 with the former listed as Calthorpe Road, which is what I liked down. The other one goes past (the pictured) Swallow Hotel (which looked a lot bigger at the time) which is what the Clintons took over.

      And thanks for that. I sometimes struggle to work out if these are entertaining in any way whatsoever. I know you’re political, but I can never remember which side you said you worked for at the last election. For all my life I’ve failed to work out from the names which side is the Democrats and which the Republicans. The only way I used to work it out was from when Arnold Schwarzenegger did some joke about being Conan the Republican, as it rhymes (a bit) with Barbarian, and to work backwards from there knowing he was in with Bush and Reagan.

      So I can’t tell how much you’ll be interested in the other half as I detail my attempt to see Bill Clinton, and describe how Bill ripped up Birmingham. I know there’s a big difference of US/UK opinion as a group of American school kids visiting Bangor were all flying the flag for George Bush (Junior) and were quite surprised when it didn’t go down well with the locals, as he’s not popular over here. I think they were quite shocked. Whereas the converse is true for Bill Clinton, certainly over here.

      • In the last elections I worked for the democrats, but I’m neither a democrat nor a republican. (Campaign staff tend to be a bit ‘hired-gun-ish’, mercenaries with no real loyalties.) As for the US kids in Bangor, they shouldn’t have been surprised, George W isn’t exactly a beloved figure in the US either, not even here in his home state of Texas – he’s more of an embarrassment we’d rather forget. Clinton, on the other hand, is beloved – I think it’s because he appears so ‘human’, and maybe there’s a bit of sympathy about his having to live with Hillary – who’s also not much of a beloved figure.

        Looking forward to the next installments, when reading you I’m often reminded of Douglas Adams. Not so much in subject matter, but more so in style.

    • Oh, that’s interesting as I’m pretty sure all the people who help with elections over here – apart from people who man the polling stations, etc – do it for free because they’re supporters of that party. I’ve never quite understood how people align themselves so strongly to a “party” where they don’t benefit so directly even if they win. Having read Hunter S. Thompson covering the 1972 campaign I remember he managed to get into one of the party rallies, where he wasn’t supposed to be, which was full of young people who might have been hired.

      The American kids were about ten years ago, so during the Bush era. There’s some programme that brings kids over on differing tours of the UK from all the different states. Not sure where they were from, but they were variable depending on where they came from as some were impressed to see our Welsh mountains, whilst others thought: They’re not mountains, we have much bigger!

      The US views in general chime with those over here then. Clinton came over very well, despite his “troubles”, as I cover in the other part (which I put up now already). We couldn’t move for World leaders in 1998 and all anyone cared about was yours! We voted in Tony Blair in a landslide of a generation in 1997 and yet he paled in Clinton’s shadow. And as you say about Hillary I don’t think she has the warmth nor the credibility., especially since she was blatantly caught lying about flying into some country under sniper fire, until they found the video footage…

      I think Hunter S Thompson did have some odd things to say about Clinton though.
      Thanks for the Douglas Adams comment. Always a help.

      • I have a friend who works as a tracker – he basically gets hired onto campaigns to shadow the opponent, getting into events which are thought to be private. He once got video of a republican candidate making jokes about his Mexican gardeners at some function at a private country club. Heavy stuff in what is a largely Mexican-American community. And yes, the headquarters do tend to have a lot of volunteers hanging around but they are mostly just around when they want to be, mostly working for college credits, and mainly to socialize. Unreliable. To get someone willing to travel, willing to knock on the doors of your opponent’s neighbors and ask questions, willing to dig for dirt, you have to actually pay someone.

        I noticed your next post hitting my inbox. Will check it out!

  3. I wonder if Stuart Maconie was having his bathroom renovated.

    • You know that’s one thing he hasn’t written about, and I can’t imagine him encountering the bother I did! I haven’t read his music books, but the three travel ones, and spotted whilst doing this he has a new one out, and whilst I do wonder how he gets onto some of his stories, about people and history and places, I do find them very entertaining and eye-opening!

      I will say, regarding the bathroom stories, I think it was SM who put me onto the fact that the World Cup football was defaced by Uri Gellor. So he got there, to the football museum, before me too! Not sure if I credited him at the time.

  4. Minas Morgul might be in Five (or six) ways, but Port Talbot is Mordor… just drive along the M4 and you’ll see what I mean.

    • Looking at a map I’ve been to Cardiff and Weston-super-Mare, but not as far along as Swansea or Port Talbot. But by putting the terms Port Talbot and Mordor into Google I see a lot of people agree with you. I can’t remember where, as a child, but we used to drive past (I think) three consecutive industrial works on some motorway. They always looked impressive, almost alien, especially the scale of them.

  5. I’m sad to say that after an extensive search for Mr. Maconie’s books they are next to impossible to get from an American public library although Cleveland Public Library has a copy of Pies and Prejudice in Russian…

    • I can’t imagine why there’s a copy of Pies and Prejudice in Russian! The mind boggles. I know they’re all British-based, so I guess it was a long shot for you. Hope and Glory is less geographical (although they all go off at wonderful tangents) and it takes one defining moment from each decade of the last century. The fifties was the ascent of Everest and SM went along to the climbers “hotel” in Wales which is where they trained and is now full of their stuff.

      Coincidentally someone’s blog who I follow outed herself as the granddaughter of one of the Everest climbing team – she did a blog about going to meet the Queen for the anniversary, representing Tom Bourdillon, you know as you do – and so I tried to let her know there’s an odd story about him in this book as apparently his ghost has been sighted at this Welsh “hotel”. I didn’t say that in so many words, as I don’t know if it’s upsetting to have strangers telling you about your dead grandfather, but I dropped a hint. Not sure she was too interested, but I pointed her towards this book.

  6. Attack Mormons. Wow. I wonder how many times they have quietly ridden up to an old lady, seeing easy prey, only to be slammed by an expertly wielded handbag swung headwards?

    • You know it’s going to happen someday. Actually I think I may have underestimated them as I put Mormons and Bikes into Google and there’s loads of hits with one saying: “You have probably seen them riding bikes or knocking doors in your neighbourhood”.

      Around here you see them on the bus a lot, not always sitting together, but all of a sudden they all silently stand up to get off at the same stop, to reform into a critical mass of Mormons. I’ve always found that quite creepy, as though there’s secret signals going on.

      Perhaps we just have a better public transport system than in most places. I have eyed up the Burton-on-Trent timetables, to get to my brothers if they couldn’t pick me up from the station, and it doesn’t look too great.

    • I have to say I had a vision in bed last night. I don’t wish to do the Mormons down too much, but their coming together on the bus which I see gave me the vivid mental image of mercury how the different drops of it come together. A bit like the robot in Terminator 2…

      • He was always scary that Terminator. No amount of hacking off bits would make him go away when he could just ooze back together…. The thought of Mormons being something of a hive mind, all existing separately but ready to swarm together at a secret signal is quite disturbing!

    • But, rest assured, for those trying to sleep at night we all remember that after Terminator 2 came Terminator 3 where the indestructible molten metal unstoppable robot was replaced by some blonde woman in a red leather jacket… I was as disappointed by the ending of T3 as I was of LOTR 01 and almost shouting out in disgust, in the cinema: “What? That’s not a proper ending!”

      • I love the Terminator movies but T3 wasn’t as good as the others, really, a scenario involving a hot blonde in red leather is probably never going to end as well as anyone had expected no matter who you are….

        LOTR books were my favourite as a child so I can’t pick on the ending to the first movie, it followed along with the book. Still, I would rather the movies came out at the same time so we didn’t have to wait to find out. The sudden stop to the story seemed they were just stringing us along for the next show.

    • I didn’t even think she was hot.

      I grew up with the Hobbit, as I had the very long audio tape version and think I still have it somewhere, but the only person crazy enough to read the thousand page LOTRs at primary school was Steven Evans. I just couldn’t have done it then, and it would take me ages now.

      My problem with the film is that I just didn’t know it was literally one story, cut into three, so it just stops. I thought it would be three individual stories that build into one big story, like Star Wars. No one’s disappointed at the end of Star Wars.

  7. The oldest surviving branch is in Preston you say? I can quite believe it. When the Freshers start in September the Brotherhood descend. I see them outside my house, always smartly dressed in black and white and always in twos. They can be quite persistant. I always wonder where they stay…

    • Well that was according to the BBC so I guess so. The North-West of England has some strange significance to the Mormons and I’m not quite sure what. Recently a woman who wrote a novel about someone from around here who left the community gave a reading and talk in our library. I was only there by accident, but I’ve heard her on the radio too, so she must be quite a popular person.

      I’m not too onboard with the Mormons, but as a Doctor Who fan one thing I will be eternally thankful to them for is that they discovered two missing episodes in one of their churches! Without boring you with the details it was two of the most-highly sought after episodes from the sixties that should not exist. I’m grateful for that.

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