The region has long been a national punchline. Funny, then, that it’s where you’ll find some of the country’s sharpest wits If ever, on a weekend, I get the train out of London and up through the countryside, I watch the buildings turn from stained cream to red brick. I see the reedy banks of water carrying herons and rainbow barge boats up towards locks and squat black lacquer bridges. The familiar shattered factories of Sandwell show up, followed by lorry depots, gas-canister clusters and (weirdly) a single perennial skip fire that herald the arrival to Wolverhampton station – home. Then I make a beeline straight for a certain pub. It’s in a Black Country town called Bilston. A small flat-roofed pub, on a small high street, opposite a big Lidl. It has live music eight times a week (twice on a Sunday). Jazz. The pub is always packed to the rafters. As you order a pint of Holden’s Bitter or Golden Glow, and possibly a pack of pork scratchings (at least two, in my case), your earholes will fill with two things. One, a muffled trombone that’s seen too many winters. Two, laughter. Tables full of Black Country folk spending two minutes out of every five telling a story or a joke then laughing for the remaining three. The rhythm is as steady as the drummer in the corner. It never breaks. If you’re not joking or laughing, you’re basically not breathing.
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