Black Country Rock

Paul Mendez's novel 'Rainbow Milk' celebrates the accents and voices of the Black Country, following its characters from Jamaica to Dudley to London.

The Black Country in the 1870s. Credit: Creative Commons.

Discovering yourself in text, whether through characters, situations, or the locations that are depicted in text, can feel revelatory. As Natalie Olah has recently written of her hometown of Birmingham, it can give you a ‘complete validation through literature’ which grounds you in the moment and lets the text flow through you as familiar references, places, street names bring the text to life – even more so when the area described is one seldom found in literature.

Paul Mendez’s explosive debut Rainbow Milk follows Jesse McCarthy, a young Black man from the Black Country seeking a fresh start in London after being exiled by his strict Jehovah’s Witness family. While only a third of the novel is set in Dudley—as first experienced by Norman Alfonso, who moved from Jamaica in search of a better life in the 1950s, then by Jesse in the early 2000s—references and the distinctive accent and dialect is woven throughout Rainbow Milk.

There is a territorial pride that you inherit when you come from the Black Country. Whether your family has been there for generations, or maybe only one, there is an underlying defiance that laces any response to the question ‘Are you a Brummie?’. To those outside the West Midlands, the difference between Birmingham and the Black Country seems trivial, but for those who live there, it is akin to asking a Scouser what part of Manchester they’re from.

In her book Languages and Identity in Englishes, Professor Urszula Clark writes that people from the Black Country—with its lack of ‘physical or political boundaries’—define themselves by what they are not: that is, in opposition to Birmingham. It’s a place with a rich and complicated history—the heavy industry that gave it its name, a place of inspiration for Tolkien and Mordor, the legacy of the slave trade, immigration—but locally, it often defines itself in opposition to the metropolis next door.

One of these key defining characteristics is the accent and dialect. To outsider ears, the two are often conflated into one homogeneous—and usually called ‘Brummie’—accent. While the flatter, more monotone Birmingham accent is more recognisable on TV and film—through the relatively valiant attempts of the Peaky Blinders cast, for one—the Black Country accent is its own, unique beast.

Throughout Rainbow Milk, Mendez pays attention to the way each of his characters speak—accents and dialects are often written phonetically—from Norman’s patios in the first section, to voices of those in the Dudley of Jesse’s youth. The novel becomes a performance, often forcing you to read out loud to capture the sense of rhythm in the voices, the meanings of the words, the sense of place in each utterance. It brings to mind Marlon James’ Booker Prize winning debut A Brief History of Seven Killings, where the novel’s myriad characters all have distinctive voices in text, from the dense patois of Josey Wales and Copenhagen City gangs to the ‘standardised’ English of the white American CIA agents.

There is a sing-song quality to the Black Country accent, but the most distinctive element is the use of dialect words that aren’t found anywhere else – with grammar and phrases that have been preserved from Middle English. It isn’t unusual to hear a young woman referred to as ‘wench’, or people greeting each other by saying ‘how bist’ or ‘you’m alright’ (how are you). Mendez manages to capture the accent of the Black Country in such a way it is impossible not to slip into rounded vowels and comforting sounds of the voices as you read. The longest, sustained passage of Black Country speech is when Jesse visits his stepdad at work on the ‘soit’ (site), and the boss tells him about the little perks of working there: ‘Well, I’m sure ya’ll a’fun, mate. People throw away things all the toim that ya moit dig out and think ya could use.’

It’s not standard English—vowels are stretched into two syllables, words shortened, letters dropped from the text entirely—but Mendez manages to keep it both distinctive and recognisably comprehensible. It never becomes a caricature, dismissing an entire region as thick or unattractive; it is simply another layer of characterisation, a throwaway moment that feels oddly personal.

Interestingly, when Mendez does decide to reduce a character’s voice to almost unreadable, it is one of the accents often ranked the sexiest amongst the British public: French. A waitress at a high-end restaurant where Jesse briefly works in London does not get nearly the same respect that the Black Country accent or Jamacain patois is given earlier in the novel. Here, this accent, that is held up with a sense of prestige, is nearly mangled in its written form: ‘Aftiar you pour all of ve ouatair, or at ve same time if you feel confidon, you discrètely try to get ve tâbl attention to tell vem ve spécial of ve day, and anyfin on ve menu vat is atty-six.’

Acute accents, grave accents, circumflexes are all used to firmly place this speech in realms of stereotype, with this only serving to reinform the waitress’ characterisation as a snob, while also highlighting the confusion that Jesse experiences in this world miles away from his previous work experience in a McDonalds. Here, it is not the Black Country accent, with all its (unearnt) negative connotations that is hostile, confusing, alienating. Instead it is warmth, community, identity.

Being from the Black Country and reading Rainbow Milk feels like a little treat
when you spot a nugget of something that feels like truth. References to ‘the local delicacy, battered chips’, changing accents to fit in, a breakdown of the correct pronunciation of Wolverhampton – these not only make the book a richer text, but for those of us who live or have lived there, it rings true in a way only true validation through literature can.