Chris Arnot

A few samples of my work

Heavy Metal

Chris Arnot meets the Smith brothers, playing merry hell at Merry Hill

Queen Victoria was not amused by the Black Country. As the royal train chugged between Birmingham and Wolverhampton, the industrial powerhouse of her empire formed so particularly bleak and ugly a view that she asked for the blind to be pulled down.

A century later, most of the smoky factories and foundries that so offended the queen’s eye have gone. Large-scale manufacturing industry was devastated in the Eighties, while the retail sector flourished. Nowhere is this fundamental shift better illustrated than at Brierley Hill in the heart of the Black Country, once home to the Round Oak Steelworks.

The steelworks closed in 1980. Today it’s the site of Merry Hill, which is set to become the biggest purpose-built shopping centre in Europe – if the Department of the Environment approves plans to extend its two- and-a-half miles of marbled malls by a third.

Climb the steep bank of landscaped colliery waste, and you can see Merry Hill spread out before you, all glossy and shiny in a landscape that was once grotty and grimy. Flags of all nations flutter from tall white poles above manicured lawns and well-tended flower beds.

To the right, a monorail train threads its way from the centre towards the Waterfront Marina, with its restaurants and caf-bars and smart modern office blocks, one of which houses the Child Support Agency.

No true Thatcherite would want to pull down the blind on such a dream scene of neat and tidy service- industry enterprise. There is, though, a blot on the horizon. Over the road from the shopping centre and next door to the Drive Thru McDonald’s is an unreconstructed survivor from the old Black Country.

A solitary crane hovers vulture- like over two acres of jumbled, crumpled metal in Smith’s Scrapyard. There it lies in all its rusting glory: old ballcocks, kettles, twin-tub washing machines, tin baths and much, much more.

The Smiths have occupied this site for more than 35 years, and they have no intention of budging. Not until they receive an acceptable offer, anyway. Two men in suits once crossed the road from Merry Hill, edged through the battered gates of corrugated iron and picked their way gingerly up the muddy track to the Smiths’ grimy lair of an office. Did they want to sell?

Back came the answer: “If the price is right.”

It wasn’t, and they didn’t.

Bill Smith would have expected his four surviving sons to drive a hard bargain. He fathered 15 Smiths altogether, nine of them daughters. Two sons have died, leaving Billy, Johnny, Barry (pictured, left to right)) and Alan to carry on the business. Bill himself died 12 years ago, aged 69 and weighing in at 18 stone. Merry Hill was in its infancy. What would he have thought of it now, I wondered?

“Not much,” said Billy. “They’m not producing anything. All they’ve done is close down shops in places like Dudley and brought the staff down here. When the steelworks closed, four-and-a-half thousand blokes lost their jobs.”

As he spoke, Johnny was mopping down the soot-streaked walls of an office which can have changed little since his father’s day. In fact, it’s almost a caricature of what a scrapyard should be, down to the large ashtray full of nub-ends next to a half-empty bottle of sterilised milk – almost every customer arriving with a van full of scrap demonstrated an ability to engage in raucous banter while keeping a cigarette dangling from the corner of the mouth.

“Bill Smith was a good ‘un,” boomed one customer, whose voice seemed loud enough to carry across the road and intrude rudely on the piped music wafting through the malls of Merry Hill. He wore natty red braces over a grey jumper and beneath a suedette car coat. “If you were in a pub with him, you weren’t allowed to pay,” he added, as confirmation of Bill’s goodness.

The clientele is dominated by what used to be known as tinkers and are now considered “travellers”. The scrap business, like many others, is not what it was. “A lot of them have diversified into tree surgery and laying tarmac,” Barry confided. “The stuff ain’t around any longer. There ain’t enough factories throwing gear out, and everybody takes their old bikes and lawnmowers to car boot sales.”

He broke off to ring the bank to order £2,000 in twenties, £1,000 in tens, £500 in fives, £300 in pound coins and £300 in 20-pence pieces. Johnny, meanwhile, had put down his mop and was carefully rehanging a framed photograph of his father in earnest conversation with Prince Charles at the opening of the National Exhibition Centre in 1973. What were they talking about?

“Dad always said he was asking if Charles could fix him up with his granny,” grinned Barry. The Prince’s great-great-great granny would not have been amused.

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