The desi dialectic

Recent blog posts have been a little sparse, and that’s mostly a function of learning to be a freelancer – sometimes, apparently, work comes in thick and fast and leaves little time for much else. However, it has it’s upsides: whether through teaching, writing, researching or anything else I’ve been getting a tremendous overview of history that applies very much to the Black Country, and that brings all sorts of unforeseen connections to my mind.

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McGhee’s Bar on Wheeler’s Fold, Wolverhampton

One of the subjects that comes up time and again in my research on the Irish of Victorian Wolverhampton is pubs. The small area I’m studying contained around 35 of them, and probably a number more unlicensed premises and illegal breweries or distilleries. They were numerous on the main streets and acted as corner shops for the back streets, sources of contact, conversation, sociality. They were also interesting from the point of view of migration – pubs like the Hibernia, the Rose & Harp, the Shamrock, the Limerick, these were all targeted towards the Irish community. Right? As it turns out, it’s not so straightforward – the owners, licensees and tenants often differed significantly, so that it’s very difficult to tell who ran the pub for whom. Were these Irish-run pubs for Irish migrants? English-run pubs hoping to cash in on the lucrative market? Irish-run pubs offering Celtic cordiality to the Black Country locals? It can be hard to know.

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O’Neill’s in Worcester [James Vincent]. Note the careful semiotics: vintage Guinness ads, Celtic typefaces, a recipe for Irish stew painted on the wall…

The Irish pub in England has a long history and is still a modern phenomenon. O’Neills run their chain across the country, and more or less authentic Irish-themed pubs can be found across the world. There was a spate, I seem to remember, alongside the change in British public opinion of the Irish; from the resentment of the Troubled 70s and 80s to the advent of Father Ted, Graham Norton etc. which made being Irish an attractive thing, rather than the opposite. And pubs are a sight of many such integrations (and capitalisations) – there are Russian vodka bars, penthouse cocktail bars, rock bars, indie bars, you name it.

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The Vine in West Bromwich [Geograph]

My current obsession is a peculiarly Black Country phenomenon, the desi pub. These are found across the region but most commonly in Smethwick, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton. It’s probably highly debatable which was the first, although The Vine on Roebuck Lane has a fair claim. It was a scruffy street corner boozer sat under the M5 (in fact, it still is from the outside) in the 1970s, at a time when many pubs were finding it hard going staying open. It was taken over by a Punjabi landlord and over the years has changed entirely: it is still a pub first and foremost, with snugs and a bar and everything; but proceed past the bar and you find yourself in a huge restaurant with an indoor barbeque, a covered garden restaurant and, by all accounts – some of the best grilled meat you could hope for.

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The Red Lion, West Bromwich, by Aidan Thomson

This is a pattern found time and again across the area, whether in the Red Lion in West Brom, or the Red Cow in Smethwick, the New Soho Tavern in Hockley or the Talbot or the Sportsman or the Prince of Wales… The Black Country is a metalworking region. It has been for centuries. When labour was short after World War 2 it seemed eminently reasonable to search out those willing to work, particularly the hard, unskilled jobs in steel and iron foundries, the night shifts and the dangerous jobs. The shortage was met from all over the Commonwealth but particularly from the Sikh Punjab in Northern India.

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One of the truly epic mixed grills from the Red Lion (via Smoke and Umami)

The hostility and resentment faced by these workers is well-known – if nothing else, the Smethwick election of 1964 has become a by-word for racist politics in a supposedly liberal country. But the workers survived. They worked hard and endured much; not a few found comfort and sustenance in the local pubs. Eventually, the desi pub emerged – run by Punjabi landlords but catering for a mixed clientele. The Vine is still packed of a lunchtime with factory workers, just as the Red Lion is busy every evening with diners and drinkers of every colour. It’s a testament to a genuine mixing of cultures to bring something new out. They are homegrown and relaxed, with no trace of imported multiculturalism or anything like that. I find them a very hopeful sign that actually, wonderful new things do grow out of immigration and the mixing up of different social groups. Plenty of ink could be spilt on the (very real) hardships faced by Indian workers in the 1960s, or the racist elements of the working class, or schemes to get people to integrate. But this is a joyful story for me, which perhaps suggests a solution to many of society’s problems: food and beer.

It’s also been interesting for me to compare my Irish pubs of 150 years earlier. Were they by the Irish or for the Irish or what? Or does the Indian migration to the Black Country bear more similarities to the Irish migration, with creative new culture being formed out of a seeming polar dialectic. There were those decrying the habits, the speech, the look of the Irish; and there were the Irish, struggling to get along in a place only barely of their choosing. In fact, did the town’s resulting culture grow from a new synthesis of these elements?

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Creative Black Country recently celebrated the desi pub with a series of commissioned artworks, photography and film – it’s worth a look here.

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