It’s that time of rushing headlong towards Christmas, when I scuttle round the house and round up a few of my favourite local history books of the year. And if you still have spare cash rattling around your pocket, can I (as always) urge you to buy from a bookshop, rather than adding yet more to the inflated off-shore reserves of Amazon. It’s not that I’ve got it in for Amazon (well, I have, actually), it’s just that we need to treasure our dwindling bookstores.
The first book may seem like an unexpected choice, in that it’s about language, rather than history, and is strongly academic in tone. Nevertheless, Urszula Clark and Esther Asprey offer us a fascinating reflection on the way we speak. West Midlands English: Birmingham and the Black Country, Edinburgh UP, £65 (hardback), £19.99 (paperback) looks at the historical origins of West Midlands speech (going back at least to the Vernon MS of c1400), as well as the differences and similarities between the two dialects.
If you find the phonological, grammatical and lexical analysis a tad hard going, the rich variety of sources Clark and Asprey examine provide an entertaining counterpoint. I particularly liked the Black Country Microsoft Winders Assistant. “Aer kid am bostin at ‘elpin, when yo’m flummoxed by computers,” says the pop up. Bill Gates might not be too amused, but luckily he wo mek head nor tail of it.
Heading towards the popular market, there are two themes which continue to dominate the local bookshelves. One is the old photographs collections; the other is the gratuitous indulgence in the grim and grisly. Out of the latter stable gallops Nicola Sly, A Grim Almanac of the Black Country, History Press, Stroud, £12.99.
In recent years Nicola has combed the country for grimness, and was not let down by the four boroughs.
Using the local press as her base, and principally from the mid-1800s to the 1930s, the author has uncovered an un-cheery tale for every day of the year. And if you’re hoping that Christmas Day might lift the mood, you’ll find instead the story of three friends drowned in the Dudley Canal in 1914.
To be fair, the incidents described have much to tell us of matters of law and order, poverty and industrial mishap in the region. I would have liked a sober reflection on the implications of this, instead of just a cumulative sense of gloom and misery.
While we’re dredging the canals, it’s pleasing to see that Ray Shill has updated his very useful Birmingham Canals, History Press, Stroud, £14.99. What Ray doesn’t know about the West Midlands canals could be written on the back of a postage stamp. The new edition covers all the canals that crowd into the city – BCN, Worcester & Birmingham, Stratford, Grand Union and so on - updated with new photographs to reflect their perennially changing surroundings.
Ever since the bi-centenary of the death of Matthew Boulton was celebrated in 2009 – with a major exhibition, renovation of the Bloye statue, conference and new books - the grand old man of Birmingham industry has attracted more attention than he has had for a century. What there has not been, thus far, is a new life of the man, not since Henry Dickinson’s biography, back in 1937.
That gap is now filled by Jennifer Tann and Anthony Burton, Matthew Boulton: Industry’s Great Innovator, History Press, Stroud, £14.99. Professor Tann has long had expertise in this field, having published the first (and pioneering) study of the Soho Manufactory back in 1970.
There is nothing strikingly new in this new book, though Tann and Burton are able to take advantage of the recent boom in publications on Boulton, as well as Richard Hills’ work on James Watt, to reintroduce one of industry’s great entrepreneurs to a new audience, for whom entrepreneurship is probably a more manageable concept than invention.
Occupying the same chronological area, Paul Leslie and Adrian Baggett offer us Maps and Sketches from Georgian to Early Victorian Birmingham, Mapseeker Archive, Truro, £19.99.
Back in 2009, Paul Leslie provided a very handy collection of old maps of Birmingham, saving me countless trips to the library.
Four years later comes this, another useful compilation for the local researcher. At the heart of the book is the little known series of illustrations Thomas Underwood made for The Buildings of Birmingham Past and Present, first issued in 1866, as much a collection of street scenes as architectural studies.
Leslie and Baggett supplement these drawings with maps, trade directories and further images to give a snap-shot of Birmingham shortly before the great Victorian rebuilding, a remarkably homely portrait of a town on the verge of an extraordinary transformation.
Finally, if old photographs float your developing tray, you might try Alan Clawley, Batsford’s Birmingham Then and Now, Batsford, London, £14.99. Set to one side the curious claim that these are “previously unpublished” (and the equally preposterous one that Birmingham is somehow owned by Batsford), and enjoy the familiar format of past and present images from the city centre.
However, Alan Clawley is the author of a recent biography of John Madin, and what lifts the volume above the ordinary is the author’s architectural insights, as well as his reflections on urban planning and change. So there’s nostalgia a-plenty, of course, but also a justifiable anger over what we have so often done to our city in the name of progress.