If ever, on a weekend, I get the train out of London and up through the countryside, I watch the buildings turn from stained cream to red brick. I see the reedy banks of water carrying herons and rainbow barge boats up towards locks and squat black lacquer bridges. The familiar shattered factories of Sandwell show up, followed by lorry depots, gas-canister clusters and (weirdly) a single perennial skip fire that herald the arrival to Wolverhampton station – home. Then I make a beeline straight for a certain pub.
It’s in a Black Country town called Bilston. A small flat-roofed pub, on a small high street, opposite a big Lidl. It has live music eight times a week (twice on a Sunday). Jazz. The pub is always packed to the rafters. As you order a pint of Holden’s Bitter or Golden Glow, and possibly a pack of pork scratchings (at least two, in my case), your earholes will fill with two things. One, a muffled trombone that’s seen too many winters. Two, laughter. Tables full of Black Country folk spending two minutes out of every five telling a story or a joke then laughing for the remaining three. The rhythm is as steady as the drummer in the corner. It never breaks. If you’re not joking or laughing, you’re basically not breathing.
It has always been this way. It has been this way since my dad was dossing around Darlaston on his chopper; since my grandad was learning to lay bricks in Willenhall; since my great-grandad was cutting his teeth in a foundling home. It’s an integral, unshakable, unbreakable part of our history. Which is a bit weird, because our history only really began relatively recently.
The Black Country is where the Industrial Revolution kicked off in earnest. At the start of the 18th century, a small rural parcel of central England, largely dedicated to woolpacking and the occasional bit of ironmongery, exploded into life as the forge of the British empire. Ironworks, steelworks, brickworks, coal shafts, coke kilns and glass cones were jam-packed into an area of a 14-mile radius, with a network of canals – or “cuts” – carrying their produce, along with chains, nails, locks, traps, anchors and plenty else to the four corners of the world. Before that, there was a smattering of shenanigans in the civil war, some murmurings about Catholic recusants after the reformation, and a single, prominent battle in the 10th century.
I don’t know if our sense of humour arrived with the Anglo-Saxons who settled the area, but the dialect did. Essentially, it’s Mercian, heavily Germanic, with vowel sounds and verb structures that resisted the influence of Norse, Norman and Middle English. Knock about Halesowen or Wednesbury for a bit, and you’ll hear a bloke in a beanie hat and a zip-up coat order chips in much the same way as a flaxen-haired bearded spear-thane. If they’d had potatoes back then. Or ordered what they wanted, rather than pillaging it.
And so we have these jokes! Thousands of them, all in dialect, often featuring two flat-capped goons called Aynuk and Ayli, who get into scrapes and mishaps. There’s usually dialect wordplay involved (“Arv bin fishin in the cut! Caught a whale day I!”; “What kinda whale?”; “A bicycle whale!”), and the punchline is usually sardonic (Aynuk saw Ayli walking down the road pulling a piece of string. Aynuk: “Wot am yow doin pullin that pace o’string?” Ayli: “Well yow troi pushin it”). They’re learned by heart, by ear and by word of mouth. People recognise and remember them in the same way they do hymns and prayers. They’re the main form that our dialect survives in.
We’re big on family, and our families are usually big. In a family, there’s always a chief piss-tekker. Someone with a devastatingly quick wit who can prick pomposity and tension with razor-sharp precision. In my family this would be my Uncle Bill. Then there’s the target. Usually the most earnest or self-important relative. Mercilessly but good-naturedly ribbed. They nearly always deserve it. I’d reluctantly admit that’s me. Everyone else is on a sliding scale between those two poles.
No time is inappropriate for a joke. No burn is too sick. Here’s a good example. A bloke round our way, called Tommy, a painter and decorator, was known for being tight (one of the worst crimes possible in the Black Country). He was so tight that rather than take the day off on Christmas Day, he used the opportunity to clean his brushes with turps in the kitchen. Unfortunately his wife was cooking the turkey at the time. Long story short, his house burned down. Lost absolutely everything. On Boxing Day he walks into the pub, everyone falls silent, and without skipping a beat Uncle Bill pipes up with: “What yow ad fer Christmas Tommy, a blazer?” I think even Tommy laughed.
You’ll rarely meet a miserable Black Country person (at least not one who’s not witty and sarcastic), which is odd considering our history hasn’t given us much to be joyful about. Our traditions are born of the working class, with working conditions in factories, foundries and pits notoriously dire. Lung diseases such as pneumoconiosis were rife, along with deafness and spinal deformities. And yet you won’t find a more genial, hard-working people. Maybe finding something to “av a loff abaat” was a way of expressing love for a world that didn’t always seem to love us back. Even now the Black Country is often the punchline for a sneery joke about a place that’s shit. Or – more darkly – a place that’s multicultural and therefore, in the eyes of the joker, synonymously shit. You’d be surprised how often I’ve heard “Is it called the Black Country because of all the black people there?” from people who should really know better.
It’s 10 years since I left home. Times have changed. Aynuk and Ayli seldom crop up in conversation. Academics fight to preserve the dialect while its speakers begin to dwindle. Families shrink as young ’uns leave our small towns for cities. And yet! Our cultural output is thriving like never before! Peaky Blinders has shown the Black Country of old to the world. New mythical joke heroes are cropping up online, like Gary Powndland, Doreen Tipton, and the Fizzogs. To say nothing of the contributions of Lenny Henry, Frank Skinner, Josie Lawrence, Julie Walters, Caitlin Moran and Meera Syal (whose reception-teacher mother holds the dubious honour of having taught me to read and write).
Not a day goes by that I don’t think of or talk about home, and smile. Of course, Black Country folk aren’t by nature self-reflective people and many of them would probably tell you this article’s a pile of auld wank. “Wot’s he gooin on abaat?! If it’s funny it’s funny ay it!” Fair enough. Some purists will even tell you that as a Willenhall lad, thanks to the conurbation with Wolvo, I don’t qualify as Black Country, not having been born within the necessary 46cm radius of their great-grandfather’s old wellington boot in West Bromwich. Don’t listen to them.
I told my dad I was writing this and asked him (at the pub) what makes our sense of humour so distinctive. He thought for a minute, sipped his beer, and said: “Everyone round here thinks they’m a comedian.”