I found out not too long ago from a quick perusal of the trusty Lonely Planet Guidebook that the Black Country was another name for the West Midlands area of England, the blue collar championing area where the ‘real’ people toiled and laboured at work before celebrating hard in a pub with tons of beer, and spoke (according to some websites that had forums) with the ugliest accents.
A last-minute journey required me to go all the way to Walsall via Birmingham and I practically pounced on the opportunity to do something else other than travel the eastern Coast as I’ve been wont to do so much these days.
The train tickets were so costly, but still less than Flybe that went into Birmingham International – for this nearly 5-hour journey. Only when the train passed Oxenholme, Preston, and the stations in between did I realise I was so close, so close, to the Lake District but couldn’t stop there.
I was collected at Walsall’s train station by my host, an Orthodox priest who had kindly arranged accommodation for me, and insisted on paying for everything else – not normal in the country, or in the Western world, as he deemed. Walsall was anything but familiar. A high percentage of immigrants who led simple lives, working in their corner of their world.
“To die naturally is all I can ask for,” said the manager of the Indian Restaurant when we went for dinner. “After seeing my father die, my grandfather die – all of illness, best to go naturally. Best way to end life.”
It was not a perspective I am familiar with once again – dying ‘naturally’ as he said, somehow had always occurred to me as going gently into the good night. Conditioned from goodness knows where to rage against the dying of the light, this rather placid view seemed to call for all-round defiance.
The place I was to stay in for the night was an old Victorian house just behind the church, tucked away neatly deep into Walsall.
It had a staggering number of rooms (many of them for tenants), and a slowly but surely decaying interior that made for fantastic shots. I learnt that the rooms were specifically meant for people doing church work, or had some connections with the Parish – to them, I was probably the curious outsider who did not know how to respect people’s personal stuff.
Much of the time for the best part of the 2 days, was spent just listening to the wealth of information this priest had to tell me of the Orthodox tradition and its practices. He spoke a lot, and I wondered insanely at times, if discipleship in the ancient days of the philosophers meant doing the same exact thing, just in togas and sandals.
I left for home the next day via Birmingham New Street station. The length of transit time wasn’t long, but permitted me a quick walk through the jaw-dropping shopping streets – now that was unfortunately something I could relate to better after the Walsall experience – shallowness and superficiality. But it was also overwhelmingly cosmopolitan, modern and sleek, and packed with people and the comfort of anonymity.
An exhausting trudge through the streets lugging a laptop and my overnight stuff (enduring unpleasant verbal abuse from a mad man out of nowhere as well) later, I felt more than ready to return to Edinburgh.
Now a tiny diptych of the Theotokos and the Christ Pantokrator now sit on my work table, courtesy of my host – in faded colours, a reminder not just of these icons meant to contain the presence of their prototypes, but of the surreal experience of the Latin West meeting the ‘mysterious’ East.