What Was Lost, by Catherine O’Flynn, Tindal Street Press, 242 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-0955138416
Of all British cities Birmingham has perhaps best reason to feel aggrieved by the work of the mid-twentieth century planners. Although the Luftwaffe mauled the area during the war, residents initially had good cause to expect a speedy recovery following VE Day. After all, the city had enjoyed consistent economic good fortune since the 1770s and had weathered the depression of the 1930s reasonably well – just as it had coped with earlier slumps in the 1870s and 1880s. What it could not however withstand was the sheer vandalism organised in the wake of the war by the local public works committee, whose energetic activities between 1950 and 1980 almost managed to make the work of the bombers look sensitive and considerate.
The post-war remodelling of Birmingham came under the control of the amateurish but ebullient Sir Herbert Manzoni, who knew that the success of the region depended upon the internal combustion engine. He and his committee became fixated by the idea of making Birmingham a truly futuristic city, and believed they could accomplish this by building an inner ring road that would loop and spiral along a route that broadly followed the limits of the town during the second half of the 1700s, the last time at which the construction of such a throughway could conceivably have avoided wholesale demolition. Manzoni’s proposal appealed to local industrialists, who believed profitability would be enhanced if the nearby factories could transfer goods with greater speed and efficiency. Planners were given the freedom to scythe a path through any older part of the city, about which these businessmen knew little and cared less.
At first there was little opposition. After all, many people’s livelihoods depended on the motor industry and there was a desire to assist it in any way possible. So the city placed its trust in Manzoni, who set about ensuring the long-term success of the area by turning much of Birmingham into a glorified racetrack. Just as Toad of Toad Hall felt he could poop-poop his way to happiness – and as today the Indian entrepreneur Ratan Tata believes selling a car for one hundred thousand rupees can solve the transport needs of the poor – so postwar Birmingham fell for the seductive chrome and glass delusion of the automobile.
Only when the wrecking ball and concrete mixer set to work did the scales begin to fall from the eyes of Birmingham’s residents, who realised that Manzoni’s plan really was poop-poop. Patrons of one of the city’s earliest cinemas, the Scala, saw it replaced by Smallbrook Ringway; one-time ticket holders at the Shakespeare Memorial Library watched the building crumble when engineers demanded more road space in the central area; drinkers evacuated a swathe of late Victorian pubs as bulldozers obliterated the area’s social networks and distinctive architecture to allow motorists to hurtle along four- or six-lane highways. Meanwhile city planners replaced the beautiful Snow Hill station with a car park and hauled down the Catholic bishop’s house designed by Augustus Pugin, one of the architectural treasures of the nineteenth century. Where Pugin’s building once stood there is now a particularly wide expanse of tarmac, and a traffic island.
From 1960, the crowning glory of Manzoni’s plan, the Birmingham inner ring road, began to appear in sections around the city, and in April 1971 Queen Elizabeth officially opened the route. The council named the highway in her honour, with “Queensway” now dominating the area, carving what was in effect an urban motorway through the heart of the city. When in 1972 the centre of Birmingham was linked to the M6 at the Gravelly Hill interchange, or “Spaghetti Junction” as it has become known, motorists found it still easier to whizz through, under and over the conurbation. Little wonder that Manzoni’s portrait, dating from his time as president of the Institute of Civil Engineers, shows him clutching a diagram of Birmingham’s roads.
And then, as if to illustrate just how wrongheaded such planning had been, the local car industry began shedding its workforce. Although Birmingham’s skilled artisans had proved adept at meeting the changing consumer demands of the previous two centuries, the postwar English midlands had grown overdependent on automobile manufacture and had little defence against recession and high oil prices. Between 1970 and the mid-1980s relative earnings in the city fell from among the highest in the UK to almost the lowest, the local population plummeted and unemployment rose to almost double the national average.
It is this depressed area that provides the setting for Catherine O’Flynn’s impressive debut, What Was Lost, which recently won the Costa first novel award and whose action begins in the Birmingham of 1984. So dramatic was the decline in fortunes suffered by the city during this period that it is scarcely surprising that other writers before O’Flynn have attempted to describe its landscape of loss. In David Lodge’s 1988 novel Nice Work an academic chugs around the ring road of “Rummidge” and finds
a motley string of suburban shopping streets and main roads, where the snow has already been churned into filthy curds and whey … More shops, offices, garages, takeaways. Robyn passes a cinema converted into a bingo hall, a church converted into a community centre, a Co-op converted into a Freezer Centre … There are few trees and no parks to be seen. There are occasional strips of terraced houses, whose occupants seem to have given up the unequal struggle against the noise and pollution of the ring road, and retreated to their back rooms, for the frontages are peeling and dilapidated and the curtains sag in the windows with a permanently drawn look.
William Trevor echoes this bleak description in his 1994 novel Felicia’s Journey, where the title character travels to a nondescript part of the Birmingham area and encounters a similarly desolate wasteland. Felicia tramps
wearily back to the town, on the grass verge beside a wide dual carriageway. An endless chain of lorries and cars passes close, the noise of their engines a roar that every few moments rises as a crescendo, their headlights on because it has become foggy. The scrubby grass she walks on is grey, in places black, decorated by the litter that is scattered all around her – crushed cigarette packets, plastic bags, cans and bottles, crumpled sheets from newspapers, cartons.
Where Lodge and Trevor portray the city and its environs from an adult’s perspective, O’Flynn’s novel presents a child’s-eye view of its architectural flotsam and jetsam. The first part of What Was Lost revolves around the ten-year-old Kate Meaney, who wanders through the area decoding the various mysteries of its landscape:
The fourth house had added a porch. The porch door had no letter box and after a few moments’ puzzling Kate realized that she had to open the outer door to gain access to the original inner door where the letter box was. She couldn’t see the point of this. She couldn’t understand how the owners, once embarked on this extra door policy, knew when to stop. She imagined front door after front door extending all the way up the garden path, with delivery people having to pass through each one before finally reaching the letter box.
After Kate’s father buys her a “How to Be a Detective” book, she is ever more determined to solve the puzzles she finds in her environment, and – echoing those other recent winners of Costa and Whitbread awards, Michael Frayn’s Spies and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – O’Flynn describes an investigative quest from the protagonist’s vantage point, encouraging the reader to enjoy Kate’s misinterpretations and to worry about the dangerous situations into which an inquisitive child might inadvertently wander.
Kate is particularly drawn to the fictional Green Oaks shopping centre, a place where she can locate and decode a number of secrets while largely remaining unnoticed and anonymous. She follows customers, who scarcely give her a second glance, and records her ideas and observations in a notebook:
Middle-aged man in tatty coat lost something in one of the bins. Saw him put his arm in and pull stuff out. Thought security guards were coming to help him, but instead they just led him off the premises. Noticed he had got confused and put an old hamburger that someone had thrown away in his pocket.
During the 1980s, few people wanted to go shopping in Birmingham’s old city centre, which was dominated by cars and fumes, and where urban planners had created a maze of underpasses and flyovers that provided an ideal environment for muggers. Consequently, the city’s consumers felt compelled to drive out to shopping complexes on the outskirts of the area, such as Merry Hill – inevitably known in the English Midlands as “Merry Hell” – which is the barely disguised model for O’Flynn’s Green Oaks. In such centres visitors would sometimes be met by the men who had previously worked in Birmingham’s industrial labour force and who felt an aching sense of humiliation at having replaced the hefty work of manufacturing with the enforced niceties of the retail mall.
Of course many of those who lost their manufacturing jobs failed to gain work in shopping centres or anywhere else, and the city’s high rate of unemployment led to racial tensions, culminating in the Handsworth riots of 1985, which drew widespread attention to the problems faced by the city’s large West Indian community. O’Flynn generally avoids specific comments on these social divisions, and none of the region’s cultural tensions intrude explicitly into Kate Meaney’s meanderings, but the novel does hint at how Birmingham’s identity fractured in this period. Most obviously, Kate attends St Joseph’s School, where she is taught by Mrs Finnegan and surrounded by fellow pupils Noel Brennan, Paddy Hurley and Mark McGrath. In real life, after the pub bombings of 1974, those who belonged to this diasporic Irish community often felt ostracised and persecuted, with a number of Irish pubs, schools and homes suffering revenge attacks. Few expressed any sympathy for the targets of this retaliation at the time; the Guardian, for instance, advocated increased surveillance of Sinn Féin’s “fringe sympathisers”, declaring that “infringement of their privacy is a small price to pay”. Innocuous Irish families in Birmingham felt blackened by association, with the Guardian suggesting that the pub bombers were most likely “first or second generation Irish, men and women who have lived in England for years, and who are sufficiently established in the community to have safe refuges and in some cases to be entirely indistinguishable from English people”.
In recent years writers have fictionalised the brutality of both the pub bombings and the backlash, with the plot of Jonathan Coe’s novels The Rotters’ Club (2001) and The Closed Circle (2004) revolving around anti-Irish attacks at Longbridge motor works and Kaite O’Reilly’s play Belonging (2000) describing those in the area who wanted to “String up the Mick”. Catherine O’Flynn focuses instead on the sullen sense of isolation and alienation that came in the years after this sudden paroxysm of violence, the period in which O’Flynn herself grew up within an Irish family in the city. The Irish in Birmingham had gone to ground in the 1980s: disguising their accents, avoiding pub discussions, and cancelling the once-popular street parades. What Was Lost grows from this distrustful period of local history, and almost all of the personal relationships we encounter are flawed or broken in some way. Towards the start of the novel, Kate’s family is dysfunctional and fragmented, her teacher proves unable to help the children learn and one of the girls in Kate’s class is peppered with bruises and harbours murderous intentions against an abusive stepfather. Kate herself admits that “I don’t really like being with people my own age so much”, and is reduced to watching other children at play from behind the windows of her house. When she eventually goes missing there is no panicked dash to find her – the description of her disappearance is about as far removed from Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time as you could get – and instead her absence remains a sad conundrum, simply another of the area’s losses that must wait many years before being resolved.
The action of the novel skips forward and resumes in 2003, when a security guard at Green Oaks repeatedly sees the grainy figure of a ten-year-old Kate Meaney on his CCTV monitor – even though the girl vanished nineteen years before. Newspapers and television bulletins have made us familiar with the idea of tracing dead children through replaying surveillance tapes, and O’Flynn’s descriptions inevitably recall those haunting final images of Damilola Taylor and, still more, Jamie Bulger, whose blurred outline was forever fixed by the video recording system of a shopping centre in Bootle. But in What Was Lost there is a reversal of the usual police investigative procedure. Nobody is trying to locate the dead child, no one is trawling CCTV footage for clues and Kate Meaney has been entirely forgotten by all but a handful of people. Instead, the missing girl herself, it appears, is trying to be found. This inversion puts us into a more Yeatsian world, in which the death of a child might be explained by his or her continued ghostly existence. As Yeats puts it:
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Kate’s appearance on the CCTV camera thus causes the novel to shift tone, with the work becoming a kind of socially aware ghost story, now reading less like Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident and more like Conor McPherson’s The Weir.
Finally, O’Flynn’s genre-shifting novel turns into a clever whodunit, and as the mystery is solved, What Was Lost reveals that even under the gleaming and anodyne surface of a modern shopping centre there might lurk hidden areas: corridors that lead to no destination, stock rooms inhabited by pallid employees and holes filled with detritus from long forgotten industrial activities. Here O’Flynn describes abandoned service routes, fire escapes that will never be used and the kind of nondescript urban spaces where a child might vanish or reappear. Sir Herbert Manzoni and the innovators of the new Birmingham might have sought to bulldoze the past, but O’Flynn shows that beneath the concrete carapace the hungry ruins of a forgotten city might still remain.
Of course the Birmingham of 2003 had developed into a very different place from that of 1984. Since the late 1990s the city has been widely praised as excitingly cosmopolitan and as a model of sensible urban renewal. The canal basin has been reclaimed, the old Royal Mail sorting office turned into a collection of fashionable apartments and restaurants while Town Hall and Symphony Hall have become two of the best concert venues in the country; even Bill Clinton has been to visit. After the release of the wrongly convicted Birmingham Six in 1991, the local Irish also felt the burden of 1974 beginning to lift, and since 1996 people with names like Meaney have paraded in enormous numbers through the city every St Patrick’s Day. Indeed, the Lonely Planet guide to Britain now declares that what was once a “drab, grimy urban basket case” has “spectacularly reinvented itself as a vibrant, cultural hot spot”.
But O’Flynn sounds a note of caution about this backslapping. She begins the second section of her book in the year that the centrepiece of the Birmingham regeneration project was unveiled – the new £530 million Bullring retail centre, futuristically clad in thousands of shiny aluminium discs and containing hundreds of shops. The building radically altered the city’s skyline, attracted attention from national newspapers and soon became a source of considerable local pride, appearing on calendars, postcards, and even – the ultimate Birmingham accolade – the opening credits of Midlands Today. Yet O’Flynn reminds us that erecting such a monument to hyper-consumption creates a new set of losers and that life is considerably less pleasant for the low-paid worker pushing a mop than for the leisured moocher clutching a Starbucks latte. As she puts it, “an unparalleled experience for shoppers – with verdant rest areas, ergonomic seating, light and airy atriums, water features, convenient parking, vast and lavish public toilets”, also means correspondingly cramped staff facilities “of an extremely low level: few toilets, dark interior areas, outdated and ineffective ventilation and heating, bare breeze-block walls, constant sewage odours and significant rat infestation”. Here we find all too familiar descriptions of dingy staffrooms, overbearing managers and store heating systems that emit nauseating wafts of burning dust. Such neatly observed details fill Catherine O’Flynn’s novel and allow her to issue something of a warning. For the time being the high octane consumerism of the modern city might be in the ascendancy, but it may ultimately prove just as divisive, isolating and unsustainable as Sir Herbert Manzoni’s vision of a car-crammed conurbation. In What Was Lost, the gaps, the remnants, and the problems of the past still exist only just beneath the surface of urban life and are ready to return and reclaim us.
James Moran lectures in English at the University of Nottingham, and is the author of Staging the Easter Rising: 1916 as Theatre, published by Cork University Press.