Bartley Green - it's now the academic home of our city’s newest university, Newman, and of the Post’s distinguished columnist, Chris Upton, but not a place name you come across that frequently in our national literature.
There’s the occasional non-fiction reference – some years ago now in the Domesday Book, and the reservoir features in Bill Oddie’s birdwatching guides – but novelists seem strangely immune to the suburb’s literary possibilities. So when it figured quite prominently in an extremely good novel I read recently, I thought I’d give its author, his book, and the place a combined plug.
The author is C J Sansom, and his choice, even awareness, of Bartley Green may owe something to his general familiarity with the area, having studied for his history degree and doctorate at the University of Birmingham.
For Sansom is a professionally qualified historian who, praise be, deploys his research skills in the cause of quality historical fiction, read by millions, rather than academic tracts and journal articles, read at best by hundreds.
As a top-selling novelist, he makes better money, and also his own rules. So, when the 1952 storyline of his latest book, Dominion, needed a Midlands mental asylum, he invented the institution but located it in a real place, Bartley Green.
Interestingly, though, while Sansom’s book notes imply Bartley Green was an entirely random choice, there were in 1950s’ Birmingham only about three major mental hospitals or asylums, one of which happened to be barely three miles from Bartley Green, or one junction down the M5 as it then wasn’t, in Rubery Hill.
Founded in the 1870s, it was the city’s second asylum, the first being at Winson Green. In 1905 Hollymoor Hospital – with its famous green copper-domed water tower – was opened in nearby Northfield, initially as an annexe to Rubery Hill, but in the two world wars both institutions served as military hospitals.
In the Second World War Hollymoor achieved lasting fame within psychiatry for the ‘Northfield Experiments’: innovative treatments of psychological trauma that focused less on the individual soldier than on the ward as a therapeutic community – as both the collective patient and, through mutual support and co-operation, the instrument of treatment.
But Hollymoor, therapeutically if not architecturally, was exceptional. Elsewhere the journey from Victorian ‘loony bins’, padded cells and lobotomies to community mental health care was slow-going.
The NHS assumed responsibility for asylums in 1948, but it took till 1954 for Churchill’s Government to set up the Percy Commission, leading the way to community mental health services, and until 1961 before Enoch Powell – health minister and West Midlands MP – signalled the end of the old asylums in his historic ‘water tower’ speech, surely written with Hollymoor in mind.
“There they stand, isolated, majestic, imperious, brooded over by the gigantic water-tower and chimney combined, rising unmistakable and daunting out of the countryside.” Rubery Hill and Hollymoor were eventually closed in the 1990s, Winson Green – later All Saints’ Hospital – in 2000.
But enough of reality.
Treatment in the fictitious Bartley Green Asylum was anything but enlightened – hardly surprisingly, for the Britain that is Sansom’s Dominion, far from being a welfare state, had since its surrender in May 1940 been the satellite state of the now dying but still dictatorial Hitler’s triumphant Third Reich.
Sansom’s reputation derives principally from his five-volume series of crime novels set in the reign of Henry VIII and featuring the hunchback lawyer, Matthew Shardlake.
Dominion is his first venture into both near-contemporary Britain and the genre of alternate history: how the world might have changed had one seminal event turned out differently.
The afternoon of May 9, 1940 in the Cabinet Room in 10 Downing Street was one such point at which, to quote Sansom, world history did indeed seem to turn on a sixpence – the ultimate ‘Sliding Doors’ moment, you might say.
Dominion depicts Sansom’s view of how Britain might have developed politically, economically, socially and culturally, had Lord Halifax – Foreign Secretary in Chamberlain’s war cabinet and his expected successor – become Prime Minister instead of the still widely mistrusted Churchill.
In brutal summary: Halifax ended the 1939-40 conflict by surrendering after Dunkirk and negotiating a peace treaty under which Britain would be run by its own Nazi-sympathetic government, overseen by the German military on the Isle of Wight and the Gestapo from their Embassy base in London.
By 1952 the Anglo-Canadian press baron, Lord Beaverbrook, heads a weak coalition in which Fascist party leader Oswald Mosley is Home Secretary, and the ultra-imperialist Enoch Powell not Viceroy of India (his real-life ambition), but India Secretary. The ageing Churchill is the unseen figurehead of the growing underground Resistance movement, which constitutes the focus of the book.
David Fitzgerald is a clandestine Jew, a Whitehall civil servant, and an initially reluctant Resistance recruit. He is also the university friend and sole confidant of Frank Muncaster, now confined in Bartley Green Asylum, having nearly killed his scientist brother for having endangered him by drunkenly boasting of his knowledge of secret US nuclear developments that could change the course of the war.
The mission of David and a disparate group of Resistance activists, therefore, is to get the psychologically frail Frank and his undisclosed secrets out of Bartley Green, then out of the country, before he’s found by the worryingly efficient Gestapo.
There are a couple of bits in these thriller sections that I found slightly iffy, but generally I enjoyed it quite as much as the Shardlake books. But that’s not my main reason for mentioning it, any more than the exciting references to Bartley Green.
I’ve long been a C J Sansom fan, not least because of his clear preference for that slightly distancing initialisation of his first name – in an age when everyone from call centre telephonists to over-friendly politicians want to reveal theirs and use yours as their opening gambit.
I particularly empathise because we share the same birth name, Christopher. Personally, I can get quite touchy being called anything but Chris, and I’d supposed C J might have similarly firm views.
If so, he must really have squirmed through a typically cavalier Mariella Frostrup interview on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book last year in which, instead of asking, she covered all bases with a C J, a Christopher, and three possibly over-familiar Chrises.
I’d also presumed that he would keep his own political views quite private – and here I was completely wrong. Sansom is a Scot, who at present is unambiguously on the ‘Better Together’ side of the Independence debate – as is suggested in the book itself, with numerous sideswipes at the SNP’s lukewarm opposition to fascism, and aggressively confirmed in the author’s concluding Historical Note.
Without precisely equating the SNP (or UKIP) with some of the more extreme nationalist, xenophobic parties gaining strength across much of Europe, he certainly sees ‘commonalities’ and impending dangers.
“I find it heartbreaking – literally heartbreaking – that my own country, Britain, which was less prone to domestic national extremism between the wars than most, is increasingly falling victim to the ideologies of nationalist parties … sharing the belief that national identity is the issue of fundamental, overriding importance in politics.”
So if, in this year of Scotland’s momentous constitutional decision, you want to read some passionate political rhetoric or simply a damned good thriller, give Dominion a try.
* Chris Game is from the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham