“I was born in Walsall.” Many of us from Walsall say that with pride. For those of us that were born there, it’s a part of our identities, perhaps even more so than people in the surrounding areas. We know the city yet we remain proud, and not just because we feel lucky to have survived being born in the local hospital, which has the highest mortality rate in all of the UK. An American journalist once described Walsall as “Ceaucescu's Romania with fast food outlets.. in the middle of one of the largest and most depressing contiguous areas of urban devastation in the world.” Welcome to Walsall.
The journalist that said this was Theodore Dalrymple writing for New Jersey-based publication, New Criterion. He described Walsall as “possibly the ugliest town in the world.” He was promptly responded to with a message from Walsall, via the press. That message was this: “Don’t ever come to Walsall,” which is sound advice for absolutely anybody that’s not from Walsall themselves. The locals are able to detect when people are from other areas. They see something in their eyes; perhaps the faint presence of hope and innocence still remaining. Whatever it is, they will sense it and prey on it.
People that were born in Walsall are much safer within its borders. We’re a collection of feral children, huddled together for comfort. A magic cloak protects its inhabitants for the most part, but not always. In 1996, my mom’s boyfriend had acid thrown in his face, just outside of our home. His skin fused with his clothes, and weeks later, he had to have one of his eyes removed. When I was asked, who I thought had done it, I said only that, “It could have been anyone.” He got drunk every day, and never had a job in the time that I knew him. He upset somebody. Even so, I’d have never wished that upon him.
There are poorer places in the world; countries where there is war, bloodshed, famine and economic collapse. They may still have a better view, or at least nicer weather. In the Midlands, the temperature ranges from below freezing to never quite warm. The sun is constantly shielded behind a white blanket of impenetrable cloud; perfect conditions for the damp and mold which destroys the buildings and souls that live in them. It’s not the worst place the UK. It ranks only third place for crime and unemployment. Highest ranking is Moss Side in Manchester. On the other hand, they have better hospital.
In keeping with Walsall’s spectacular run of dubious record breaking, it is officially the location of one of the most polluted sites in all of Europe. I have no idea what it takes to qualify a site for that kind of title. Perhaps an old factory used lead or mercury for manufacturing. Maybe Walsall imported toxic waste, I don’t know. Walsall people do seem to have skin that is twice as thick as a normal person, and it’s home to one of the highest performing high schools in the UK. If what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, is it possible the toxic pollution is producing a race of super humans? Probably.
I spent a lot of my youth sitting at bus stops, day dreaming. I never thought about how to escape Walsall particularly, I never thought that there was a better place out there somewhere. For those that listen to Morrissey or The Smiths, you haven’t heard it in its original context, unless you’ve heard it on a personal cassette player while sitting at a bus stop in the rain, in Walsall, or a place like it. Morrissey himself is from Manchester, (also birthplace of the Joy Division), which has almost the identical landscape. Music with such melancholy and despair is, in part, born of its environment. It provides comfort.
Walsall has its own stars too; Boy George, Goldie and Rob Halford of Judas Priest. Zeppelin’s Robert Plant comes from neighboring West Bromwich, Steel Pulse is from Handsworth, half a mile away from my mom’s house, The Specials are from neighboring Coventry, Lemmy of Motörhead is from nearby but relatively picturesque Stoke-on-Trent. I’ve lived in Sheffield, renting a room from Jamie Reeves, world’s strongest man in 1992, who carried me between bars if I drank too much. In Birmingham, I cut my design teeth with Duran Duran’s Roger Taylor, and I’ve lived in Ozzy’s old house (Black Sabbath).
At 19 years old, I went to Los Angeles, inspired by a casual suggestion from my Dad. “You’d probably like it out there,” he said. “You could work as a photographer.” That was all I needed to hear. It took me just a few seconds to fall forever in love with Los Angeles. It was a different world. Colors were brighter, the air smelled sweeter, the people were happier and kinder, the food tasted better. I wanted to hug the city, I loved it so much. I had never been so happy, as I was during those first few weeks in Los Angeles. One month after arriving, I found a job, working as a graphic designer.
For people that don’t live in America, Los Angeles needs describing. Americans take for granted their comprehensive knowledge of their largest cities. For most foreigners, LA is just a city in America. If they are particularly knowledgable, they might know that LA is in California, which, is on the left side of the country. English people can be just as oblivious to geography outside its own borders, as America is, or even any other country. It’s only natural to focus on what’s in front of us. I never gave Los angeles much thought before I went there. To me, it was not Walsall, and that was its main selling point.
After having lived in Los Angeles, the simple act of watching movies, music videos, television shows and advertisements, is an entirely different experience. I can’t help myself from saying, “I’ve been to that restaurant,” or “I’ve lived on that street,” and “I’ve driven down that road.” Hollywood is in Los Angeles, and all the largest film production companies in America are based there. The Hollywood entertainment industry broadcasts its message worldwide, and naturally they use their own backyard to make movies. Wherever in the world you are, switch on the TV and you’ll see Los Angeles.
It’s not the movie-making that makes me love LA. California is the final frontier, the wild west. Pioneers still come from all around to stake their claim. It’s the birthplace of the personal computer, surfing, bmx bikes and skateboarding. It’s the home of facebook and TED. It’s the media capital of the western world, but it has less obvious merits too. For me, Los Angeles has another more important quality that makes it welcoming. For every one person you meet in LA that was born a Los Angelino, you’ll meet another that just wanted to escape their home town, to find a better place. That makes it feel like home.
Ashtray on coffee table in Melrose apartment, Hollywood, SX-70 Polaroid, 1999.
Department of Happiness and Fulfillment, Walsall, UK, SX-70 Polaroid, 1999.
Sunshine through a bus stop, Walsall, UK, SX-70 Polaroid, 1999.
Church chairs in Melrose apartment, Hollywood, SX-70 Polaroid, 1999.
Animal toy and Elvis in Melrose apartment, Hollywood, SX-70 Polaroid, 1999.
Lamp on ceiling of Melrose apartment, Hollywood, SX-70 Polaroid, 1999.
Pretty rainbow houses in Bristol, (nowhere near Walsall), UK, SX-70 Polaroid, 1999.
Sailboat and boy, Walsall Canal Wharf, UK, SX-70 Polaroid, 1999.
Rotunda at night, Birmingham, (south of Walsall), SX-70 Polaroid, 1999.
Star Wars figures in Melrose apartment, Hollywood, SX-70 Polaroid, 1999.