Even the whores in Wolverhampton hardly bother to look the part

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Even allowing for the soppy time of the year, it's a bit much when you find yourself wiping away a tear because a town you were entirely miserable in for seven years has been awarded the status of Millennial City. Not unlike learning that the school bully has been given a knighthood. Worse - because Wolverhampton didn't make everyone's life hell, only mine; the rest of the population, even those only passing through, being of the conviction that there was no pleasanter place on the planet. So why do I feel a frisson of retrospective municipal pride? Because I have become a foolish, fond old man.

Even allowing for the soppy time of the year, it's a bit much when you find yourself wiping away a tear because a town you were entirely miserable in for seven years has been awarded the status of Millennial City. Not unlike learning that the school bully has been given a knighthood. Worse - because Wolverhampton didn't make everyone's life hell, only mine; the rest of the population, even those only passing through, being of the conviction that there was no pleasanter place on the planet. So why do I feel a frisson of retrospective municipal pride? Because I have become a foolish, fond old man.

The truth is, I should never have gone to live in Wolverhampton in the first place, whatever the inducements. It was at a table-tennis trials in Wolverhampton in the middle Fifties that I failed to make it into the English team. Knocked out of the top six by a pinched-faced Burnley boy who waggled his backside when he served. I knew I would never be able to face Burnley again, but I fancied the Wolverhampton scar would heal. It didn't. I sobbed bitter tears the night I didn't become an England player, sobbed over breakfast, and sobbed all the way from the hotel to the railway station. When I returned to Wolverhampton 20 years later, the streets were still sodden with my disappointment.

And the inducement? Wolverhampton University, né Polytechnic, what else? It was still a polytechnic in my time. In local parlance, Woolvrambtun Pully. Like something stuck up your nose. But in fairness, I was the one who was stuck-up. Whatever else I believed I had been put on earth to do, it was not to teach at a pully in the West Midlands. Tough. I was out of work. Broke. Divorced. Wretched. No good even at table tennis any more. And the pully happened to have a most excellent English department headed by a most excellent and enlightened man of letters, not the least of whose virtues was his preparedness to do what no one else in English studies would, and employ me.

Look up Wolverhampton University website today and you find it boasts of servicing the "learning community". So much for the question, "What's in a name?" Everything's in a name. There was no "learning community" when we were just a pullytechnique. God knows, I tried for a bit of community myself, found a flat in the middle of town, let it be known I was up for sherry any time of the day or night, spent my first month's salary on clothes suggestive of advanced opinions, hung around bars and otherwise made myself intellectually available. The trouble was, the learning community resident in Wolverhampton numbered only me. The rest of the pully drove home every evening to the quietude of rural Shropshire. What I hadn't realised was that the chief attraction of Wolverhampton to academics, especially academics in the humanities, was how quickly you could get out of it. The Wrekin, that was the come-on. Much Wenlock, Little Wenlock, Wenlock Edge. "On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble/ His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves" - all that.

Behold your columnist, then, somewhat more verdant than he is today, tramping the ring roads of Wolverhampton in search of somebody to talk to. Whores conversed with me; no one else. I don't know whether the whores of Wolverhampton were instrumental in the town's becoming a city - contrary to popular belief, considerations other than cathedrals and royal connections do weigh - but they always struck me as noteworthy by virtue of how little effort they made to look like whores, their unabashed presence in public places and their apparent ignorance of the conventions of a working day. Sometimes they'd be there, on the very steps of the pully, before lectures, nodding their heads like mechanical dollies and offering business. Could anyone want a whore at 8.45 on a Wolverhampton morning, with the mist rolling in off the canals, and the air acrid with tin plate, japanning and the smelting of locks and keys? Maybe you have to be Wolverhampton-born and have lived in the place all your life to know the answer to that.

I ate so many curries while I was there that doctors were astonished I was still alive. But what choice did I have? To reside in Wolverhampton in the Seventies meant either dying of curry or dying of starvation, and at least when you ate in curry restaurants before midnight, there was nobody there to comment on your single state. The town did boast one Italian bistro I liked, but the padrona was officious, never failed to ask me in a loud voice whether I was dining alone, insisted on putting me at tables with other people and, in the end, led me to understand that it detracted from the reputation of her establishment as a place of conviviality to have a misanthrope in a velvet suit sitting moping over her pannacotta. So it was back to the Star of India and another series of appointments in Harley Street.

But it was the pully itself that poisoned me in the end. One day they presented us with the word "relevance". I've always had a simple attitude to relevance. What's good is relevant; what isn't, isn't. Now bugger off and let me teach. To punish me, they moved me to a room in Wolverhampton Wanderers' football ground, with a view of the goalposts. Teach me to be an élitist!

I got my own back in a novel. But now Wolverhampton's a city and I'm still plain mister. Which just goes to show something.

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