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. I 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.In 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”.
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.
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. So 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.