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There's a Town Near Birmingham Where Everyone Pretends to Be from the Past

I went to the Black Country Living Museum and hated the past – until I realised I hated the present more.

by Joe Bish
06 August 2015, 4:05pm

All photos by Jake Lewis

The past, they say, is a foreign country. This is especially true of the UK. For example, in the four or so generations since the subjects of the Black Country Living Museum were in their prime, a lot has changed. Homosexuality is no longer illegal, the concept of the weekend is a thing and the country is no longer divided into sections that are either filled with crying, evacuated children or on fire. It's a wonderful time to be alive.

But there was another time to be alive, namely from 1890 to 1935, the era replicated by the Black Country Living Museum. Sat in Tipton outside Birmingham, the museum itself is a sort of small town in which aspects of the past are lived out. There are old-timey buses, old-timey sweet shops, old-timey men dressed in old-timey clothes saying old-timey things, all woven into educational exhibits about the time between world wars.

The museum is laid out in a little village, with its own little roads for old men to drive their done-up old bangers around on. The only place that admits to being modern is a functioning garage, where a gaggle of silver-haired petrolheads laugh like maniacs as they fix up the old cars and drive them around town for the entertainment of the punters. It's the sort of thing that would make a certain kind of dad's heart sink if he were to see it, as he realised it's what he was meant to do in life rather than procreate, wiping the tears away before buying his kid its third Cornetto.

Weirdly, the place wasn't the exploding fireworks factory of excitement you'd presumed it would be. Beforehand I thought it would be like one of those living cowboy towns in America, where men in Stetsons wander around saying stuff like: "Boy howdy, what do we have here! Look at that, a coloured glass telephone! What's that, sir? An 'eye-phone' you call it? Well ain't that the darndest thing I ever done saw!" It was more just some older men and women from the local area in period dress, describing their surroundings in slightly rehearsed speech.

This woman, for example, told us about how the washroom in one of these houses also acted as a kitchen. It was kind of interesting, but at the same time, it totally wasn't. I felt for her, as probably only one in 20 visitors to her little den will be engaged enough to make her talking about it worth anyone's time.

It appeared that the main industry in the little town of yesteryear was metal works, namely chain making. There were chains of all shapes and sizes here, from those terrifying giant chains you see keeping ships moored, to the cutesy little chains that would've been used to keep a vagrant hanging from a wall in the Clink.

Nevertheless, as I decompressed with a pasty in the canteen, I was starting to suspect the past wasn't as exciting as I thought it'd be.

I wanted to come away from the Black Country Living Museum rejecting the present, running home to swap my MacBook Pro for a penny whistle or some shit. But my surroundings just looked like a lazy war memorial set in a one-horse town, and that horse was dead, the gas escaping from its rotting body making the sound of an uninteresting monologue about ironworks at the turn of the century.

But I turned a corner away from the Worker's Institute and, all of a sudden, it began to make sense. On this small stretch of road was a tobacconist, a motorcycle shop, a radio repair store – this was the past I wanted. This is where I wanted to be.

Around the back was a quaint little 1930s-style house. There was a radio lightly playing the popular music of the day, a hat, coat and umbrella rested gently on the sofa, black and white photos of family members sat near chintzy crockery on glass cabinets.

My heart yearned for the simplicity. It yearned for not having the anticipation of looking at my phone and seeing 20 people talking about how the new Marvel film is problematic, or distant relatives lying to themselves about the evils of immigration. I feel that in this time, in this day and age, I know too much about too many things. It's not valuable information and knowledge I'm accruing daily from interactions online, but irritating minutiae about people and things I do not care about. I wanted to be back there, in 1930, listening to the radio and looking out of the window, with nothing to worry about but rickets and the wunderwaffe.

Inside some kind of shop, an old man stood behind a giant metal till. He had a little plastic bag with old coins in, which he poured on the table. He tried to get me to understand how to add half pennies and crowns and stuff to each other, somehow resulting in a price with three decimal points. I felt my brain turning into a lump of dog shit inside my skull, not helped by a gentleman behind me loudly proclaiming how easy it was.

Outside there was a Charlie Chaplin impersonator who was pretty good. In any other setting he'd get knocked out but everyone around me was loving it. It was at this moment I realised the sheer number of people with walking sticks I'd seen throughout the day. I thought about how Black Country Living Museum seems to act as a kind of nostalgia hotspot for the older generation, and it's incredibly sweet to see. Elderly men and women walking around, smiling, remembering what shops used to sell, how people used to be, what things used to look like. It's a safe space for war babies, a place in which the scary exponential speed of the modern world can be halted, fled from, even if just for one day.

Though perhaps not the interactive live theatre experience I had originally envisaged, I was sold on Black Country Living Museum's more sentimental aspects. The soft glee it brings to those of an advanced age, in a time where they're being increasingly sidelined and forgotten about, is lovely. It's a shame, I think, that my equivalent in the future will not be pokey, friendly sweet shops, but more likely an echo chamber in which columnists are told to kill themselves by otherkin teenagers for time immemorial. Nightmare.

@joe_bish / @Jake_Photo