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CJ Stone's Britain: Ghost town (Coventry)

Updated on September 18, 2017

It’s where I ran away to when I ran away from home. I took my first drugs here: a cough medicine called Dimerol

The Guardian Weekend March 8 1997

I’m in Coventry, sitting in a café on a wet winter’s morning. In this city of the eternal shopping arcade, the shopper’s are milling about, wandering from BHS to Marks & Spencer and back, and I’m wondering how I can describe something as familiar as this. “Ordinary” is the only word; extraordinarily ordinary, like a carrier bag, the kind you pick up at every supermarket and then discard once you’ve put the shopping away. Functional but undistinguished. Plain.

Well, I have got a terrible hangover: beers yesterday afternoon, gin-and-tonics (super-sonics) in the evening, and a night in a weird B&B. This one had two dogs that barked if you so much as breathed, the walls were pink and the only decoration in my room was a tiny, plaster dog. The proprietors seemed to be under the impression I thought it was a knocking-shop. I was with my friend Emma. The proprietor showed us into a double room. “No, it’s just for me,” I told him. “I only want a single.”

“Your friend will be leaving then?”

“Well in a minute, when we’ve said our goodbyes.”

“Okay, but only for a minute, not 15,” he said.

Later Emma came over to take me to the pub. She was made to stand on the steps.

“Tell me about Coventry,” I said, once we’d sat down with our drinks.

“Well there’s Two-Tone music, the car-industry, the cathedral, the blitz and … er … Two-Tone music, “ said Emma, counting out the points emphatically on the fingers of one hand. “Oh, and George Eliot went to school here.”

I saw George Eliot’s school. It’s now a tandoori restaurant. As for the other things she mentioned, three of them are connected: it was the industrial base which brought the bombers to flatten the city during the second world war. In the process they destroyed the cathedral too. The Whitley Bomber was made here, along with machine tools and components for the car industry turned over for war uses.

The old cathedral is a burnt-out shell which has been incorporated into the design of the new cathedral as a monument to the people’s resilience and patience under fire. In one devastating night – November 14 to November 15 1940 – the fire-bombs raged, the high-explosives rumbled and burst, and the entire city centre was razed to the ground.

In the central shopping area, I saw a banner. “Coventry: Birthplace Of The Car,” it said. I later found out that last year had been the centenary of the world’s first car factory, built in 1896 by the Great Horseless Carriage Company, later to become Daimler. From horseless carriages to virtual gridlock in 100 hundred years, it’s a centenary worth thinking about.

The only part of Coventry’s history that I can talk about with any confidence is Two-Tone music. That was my era. It was nothing original; they just took Jamaican ska music and reconstituted it. What was new was the spirit in which it was performed: as a tribute to multiculturalism, as an attempt to heal the rift between the races. And Ghost Town, by the Specials, still sums up this town (and so many other towns like it): “Bands won’t play no more/too much fighting on the dance floor.”

Anarchy Bridge 1982
Anarchy Bridge 1982

Finally there’s Anarchy Bridge, a narrow, riveted steel structure crossing the railways lines, scrawled from end to end with slogans. “Women are angry, it states, boldly. “If you want to feed the world you’ve got to starve the rich,” it adds, controversially. “Welcome to Anarchy,” it welcomes, welcomingly. “Why arrest skaters?” it asks, puzzlingly. “Sex, drugs and more sex,” it pouts, provocatively. “I got a Cavalier GSI 2000 down this bridge at 25mph,” it claims, startlingly. At this you have to look up and down the bridge, just to check that it is at all possible. And indeed it is, just about: wide enough by about six inches either side.

There ought to be a place like Anarchy Bridge in every town, where people can write their thoughts, state their case, no matter how odd. The Specials were photographed here. It’s a landmark feature in an otherwise featureless town, a monument to humdrum absurdity and to a pointless kind of optimism. “Troops out of Ireland,” it suggests, as if the British government often goes skateboarding over Anarchy Bridge, just to find out what the people of Coventry have to say.

(Maybe they actually did. The bridge was demolished on January 13 1997. RIP Anarchy Bridge.)

I have a special affection for this friendly, unpretentious little city, where people care enough to say hello to you in the pub. It’s where I ran away to when I ran away from home. I took my first drugs here: a cough medicine called Dimerol.

I remember standing in an alleyway, watching the eternal battle between good and evil in someone’s back garden. Who would believe it? In this prosaic, profoundly unmythical city, the psychic history of the universe, detailed like a Miltonian epic in the intricate, interweaving finery of someone’s privet hedge.

And there was a little girl holding a doll, standing in the shadows at the end of the alley. Somehow she seemed more frightening than even the gods and demons. She lurched down the alley towards me, her face twisted into a mask of evil, and I leapt back a few hundred feet and went tearing down the road.

Where do thoughts come from? I was 16 years old, alone in a strange city. I slept on a grubby kitchen floor, freezing. In the morning I was woken up by a stranger wearing trousers that rode up past his ankles, with wrinkles at the back of the knee.

And here I am again, alone in this strange city, but older, and with money in my pocket this time.

“So many things to write, but not enough paint,” as it says on Anarchy Bridge. And then it adds, parenthetically, “Enjoy yourself.”


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