Saturday, 24 January 2015

'Black Country' by Liz Berry

I’ve just completed reading ‘Black Country’ a short poetry collection by Liz Berry. It’s received a lot of notices and awards, including the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2014. I’m not surprised, as I’ve found it to be such a great read. Considering Liz is only 33, the poems have a depth and maturity, and equally a passion, that really draws you in and holds you close. As you may have guessed from the title, many of the poems explore Liz’s relationship and experiences of growing up in the former industrial Midlands region, in places such as Sedgeley, Tipton and Dudley. Much of it is also written in the much misunderstood Black Country dialect, but where many writers often have an air of mocking about the flat, vowel twisting language of the region, Liz brings an air of seriousness and gravity to it that I really appreciated. Indeed, it made me think a lot about my own upbringing in the Black Country in these places where the poems are set (my Dad is from Tipton, my grandparents lived in Sedgeley and Coseley) and renewed an appreciation and respect in the uniqueness of the dialect that I grew up with and spoke myself. It’s an accent that is very thick and broad, and is hard to understand to the untuned ear. My wife still has trouble understanding my Dad. It’s never going to be heard as ‘cool’ or romantic either other regional voices or like the Scottish accent, which is also very hard to understand at first from my experience of living in Edinburgh for a few years. Yet, Berry’s poems do bring something of an air of almost exotic romanticism that is a real surprise, as well as that important quality: authenticity. 
Poet Liz Berry
My own former accent is a bit mangled up from my experience of living in different parts of the country, including the North East, West Yorkshire and Scotland. The Black Country still informs much of how I sound, although it is hard to ‘hear’ your own voice; it’s what I’m told, but it has softened. It has had to  in an attempt to make myself understood to others. I remember in my first few days at University being asked by a fellow student where I was from, and when I told them, a sarcastic reply of ‘No kidding’ was returned. Feeling a sense of embarrassment and shame, which is often how I think people from the Black Country are made to feel about their accents, I quickly tried to change my own so it was less noticeable ( and more understood).  But it’s a warm and friendly accent, rich in character and history, so it has been really enjoyable to read ‘Black Country’, and how Liz Berry treats and explores the language of the region with the respect it deserves in her poetry.

I have really enjoyed reading these poems. They are a good companion to my recent paintings, which are an attempt to get close to the Black Country again.
Donald Provan, 'Pillars' oil on board, 2004
As a footnote to this post, I remember fondly times in the shared studio I had in Edinburgh with my artist friend, Donald Provan, who spoke in an often barely intelligible Fife accent. We used to share cups of tea in the afternoons and chat away, but I was always aware that I don’t think he understood my accent, and I didn’t understand his own, so we were never quite sure what we were talking about to each other. We just used to nod at each other and say ‘Aye I ken’ a lot until gradually, over time we slowly tuned into each other. Donald is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, and the great painting of Leith above is by him.

A good link to one of Liz’s poems is here:

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