Very late the next night, Niven realized he would always, always live in this terrible Coventry where old gods went to die; gods who would never speak to him; and with no hope of return.
For as he had believed in no god…
No god believed in him.
Harlan Ellison, O Ye of Little Faith.
I work in a warehouse, out on the tattered edges of the city. Step through the Goods In doors, up past the skips and the EE substation, cut through that gap in the bushes, take a small step over the dwindling stream, clamber up the weed ridden embankment and you will have found the M6, the M69 and the A46, all coiled like a serpent. Each of them eventually untangle themselves and snake off through the countryside in every direction. It’s rumble provides a constant cacophony of noise in the near distance, of angry horns and sharp brakes and the howls of speeding motorcycles. It’s funny; you soon forget its even there.
Birmingham, Nuneaton, Rugby and Leamington Spa are all only a twenty-odd minute drive away by car from Junction 4, Leicester perhaps nearer thirty; the villages of Ansty, Shilton and Bulkington are accessible by foot if you wanted to risk crossing at the motorway, something I wouldn’t recommend after a drink or three.
So, I leave work at 4pm, trudging over the deserted car park and watch as the company flag feebly flaps away in the wind. Muttering curses, I climb up the small bank leading onto the road and find the weathered bones of an unfortunate rabbit, it’s remains scattered amongst the muck. I take it as The Universe’s warning: however bad you may think that things can get, dear Andrew, there will always, always be plenty more horror just waiting around the corner.
I’ve had a bad day.
Gielgud Way is lined with lorries from all across continental Europe, from as far and wide as Turkey, Belgium, Poland and Italy, their drivers mingling together as they laugh and conspire, smoking their roll up cigarettes and dishing out dinner from a dizzying variety of pots and pans, a myriad of different smells and tastes left wafting through the cold winter wind.
I cut across the car park of the last bowling alley in town (what a sad state of affairs), passing by a popular pizza chain and its choir of screaming children inside, and after the short walk past another vast, ugly Tesco Superstore blighting our landscape, I cross at the island, taking the few short steps to my precious shortcut, a small dirt track sandwiched between the UPS distribution centre and Toys “R” Us. This is the spot where I can finally breathe easy, where capitalism isn’t running amok amongst these polluted streets! Where the word of Chomsky and Vaneigem and Graeber and Rimbaud can begin to parade through my head! A change is coming, I can feel it in my bones! Viva La Revolución!
It’s quiet here but it’s crowded, crowded with thorn bushes, honeysuckle, aquilegia and brambles, crowded with small, cowering trees of whose branches only just hang over my head in some crooked archway. It’s a place where the rats, the blackbirds and the rabbits live together in total harmony amongst the undergrowth, a perfect vision of the utopian dream. Amen.
This sanctuary does not last. I cross the hotel car park (where my uncle had lived and worked many years ago before he passed) before making my way past Aldi and Pets At Home, people milling about; loading their cars in a wild frenzy, their spouse firmly gripping at the shopping trolley like this is all they have left to live for, and others fighting to control their barking dogs and mewing cats before a full-blown riot breaks out.
I turn a corner and catch a glimpse of the Golden Arches as they reflect off the grimy windows of a passing bus as it slowly circles around the congested roundabout, turning off Wigston Road down toward Hinckley Road, passing by the unfortunate Mount Pleasant pub, forever being ploughed into by maniac drivers. The bus is a sickly mustard yellow, emblazoned with the logo of a local baby hospice and a call for donations, and I suddenly feel an almost unbearable sadness, there will always be plenty more horror just waiting around the corner.
Further on down Hinckley Road I see the winter trees, stood naked beside the chaotic rush hour traffic, so defiant there beneath the angry dirt-grey sky, unconcerned with the rotten pizza boxes and cheap vodka bottles that lie half-hidden in the long grass around them.
Dog shit and vomit decorate the pavement in strange patterns, some arcane message from a forgotten god. WELCOME TO COVENTRY, it says. PLEASE ENJOY YOUR STAY…
…and it is then when the strange patterns begin to light up, in luminous yellows and deep reds and otherworldly purples, and the Earth itself seems to rumble at its core beneath my feet; where once there was everything there is now nothing and I slip through the cracks of the world.
I am with her now, down below the world, in a vast and impossible gulf of blackness, one that seems to stretch on for infinity. Coventry personified. I know that its her but I couldn’t tell you how. It just feels like some innate knowledge that I have always carried but have had no use for until now.
I stand there, dumb, as she shifts awkwardly in the darkness, clutching at her arm, swinging gently, avoiding all eye contact. She moves more like a strange imitation of a person than a living, breathing human being and she is beautiful.
She wears a dirt-splashed wedding dress, torn at the knees, her grease black hair tied up in an impossible knot at the back of her head, a single nose piercing glistening in the unfathomable black and thick eyeliner running down her cheeks.
I feel many things but mainly I feel awkward. I don’t know what to say. My mind goes numb, my tongue is a blank slate, so I just say the first thing that’s comes to mind, in a tongue that is not my own, a tongue older than old.
“Whats in a name, my sweetest Coventry?”
She affords no answer.
Fuck this. I decide to get out my phone. I’m amazed I have signal, below the world.
“Let’s ask Wikipedia, that most trusted of sources, for an answer!”
The name “Coventry” would have had its origins at this [The Saxons] time and has had several forms of spelling, as well as many theories regarding its meaning, but “Cofa’s tree” (also spelt “Coffa’s tree”) is thought to be a most likely source of the name. Nothing is known of Cofa, but a tree planted by, or named after him may have marked the centre or the boundary of the settlement. An alternative favoured by some is “Coventre” – derived from the words “Coven” (old variation of “Convent”) and “tre” (Celtic: “settlement” or “town”), giving rise to “Convent Town”.
Well, this is all very disappointing. I had always figured whilst growing up that with a word like Coven in our title, that Coventry would have been named after some ancient folk tale involving satanic forces, a legend long forgotten; of a crippled, blackened tree perhaps, one under which an evil witch had been buried, some ferocious Baba Yaga-type.
No such luck.
I was born in Coventry (or is it Cofa’s Tree? Or Coventre?) thirty one years ago. I was by no means the first.
There have been settlements here, or hereabouts, for over a thousand years. The Romans took the time to occupy those settlements, at Corley and Baginton, during their conquest of the Britons somewhere between 55 BC and the 40s AD. They even built a fort, Lunt; another fine outpost to rule over another tiny corner of the mighty empire.
This Coventry shows me, leading me by the hand through time all twisted.
The Saxons also took over these settlements on their way through, as it was some good land over Corley and Baginton way, free from the thick forest and undergrowth near the north-eastern reaches of the Forest of Arden from which the city of Coventry would rise; it’s likely that the first settlement in Coventry grew around a Saxon nunnery, which had been founded at around 700AD by Saint Osburga.
With the forest being mostly unsuitable for the cultivation of crops, the Saxon settlers cleared the land, concentrating on the raising of sheep and cattle, which would eventually lead to Coventry’s successful wool industry and to great wealth. Coventry had hit the big time, it seemed, or at least the Saxon equivalent.
This though, as is everything, was subject to change.
Every so often a turn of phrase will spring up from the ether which will forever tarnish a name, or a place, with a darker or perhaps more vulgar meaning. James Blunt will know this all too well.
Coventry was tarred with that brush. To be “sent to Coventry” would eventually be a much used term for being ostracised, but why? I ask her but I receive no response. She simply rolls her eyes again and slips a defeated shrug. Coventry, it seems, also has her shtick.
Did it date back from the English Civil War, when the Parliamentarians would send their Royalist prisoners to Coventry? These troops were not warmly received by the local population but they, of course, were ‘the enemy’.
Did it come about due to the sad tale of The Coventry Martyrs, the Protestant ‘heretics’ who were ‘sent to Coventry’ to be burnt at the stake during the English Reformation?
Or did it perhaps come from Tom, who ended up shunned by his fellow citizens for taking a peep at Lady Godiva?
Coventry betrays nothing. Answers are often hard to come by. As is life.
In our long and tumultuous history, Coventry has been seat to Parliament and held royal prisoners. Coventry has lost her ancient city walls to a Kings revenge and stood at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, she was “Britain’s Detroit” she gestures, with a sad smile.
“We also seem to go through cathedrals like a fat kid does cake,” I say.
It was forty-three years before I was born when a good old chunk of medieval Coventry was burned by a moonlight sonata. Freda, my family’s neighbour when I was a small child living in Geoffrey Close, spoke of the air-raid sirens on November 14th, the night sky abuzz with bombs, she spoke of The Burges ripped open and the river beneath it running red with blood. The cathedral now an empty husk, home only to the wreckage of what was once holy and blessed, a wound open to the sky. Hundreds had died. Churchill had known. He had let it happen.
I watch it all with Coventry at my side, her face hidden amongst shadows, flame and torment.
Another Coventry, lost to the ages.
Coventry, then, is a city with history. A city of dead-end jobs, vomit and dog shit splattered on her streets. She is a city, you might think, like any other.
Coventry has lead me here. She seems nervous, so far from home.
I’m with Dan and Skinner. A young scally hits me up for a cigarette outside the Arndale Shopping Centre. This must be seven, eight years ago. I’d seen Arcade Fire at the M.E.N. the night before and I’d never felt so alive but now my head is a dull, constant thud and my stomach regularly threatens to spill its contents if I do not heed its dire warnings that this was never EVER to happen again. I nod along gently.
The scally approaches on his bicycle, without a hint of caution, having seemingly spotted us and our weakness from a mile away. He slows to a stop. He doesn’t seem old enough to leave the house alone, let alone smoke, but who was I to judge and besides, I am far too weak from the night before to offer much resistance.
He lights up and asks us where we were from.
“Coventry,” I say.
“Coventry? Fuck me, Coventry?” His eyes widen. “Rough down there, right? Cocaine capital of the UK is Coventry. Fuck me sideways.”
He takes another drag. “In a bit, mate,” and he turns, darting off on his bike into the heaving Manchester crowds.
“What the fuck was that about?” A question aimed at no one in particular.
I laugh watching back now. You’ll often get a similar reaction anywhere you go when you mention her name. Well, that or a blank stare. People tend to shift uneasily at Coventry’s mention, or they will take the chance to remind you that it’s the biggest, fucking shithole on God’s green Earth and you should be ashamed to have been fucking born there.
I’m at Caesars Bar in Puerto del Carmen, Lanzarote; all stale beer and thudding bass. I’m with Dan and I’m seemingly trapped in some never-ending slanging match with a lad from Cork, who has stated that Coventry is, and I quote, “literally the worst place I’ve ever set foot in.”
I’m still in Lanzarote. We’re outside a bar named Atomic Revolution. We’re smoking cigars. The table is literally full with shot glasses. We need to hold our drinks.
Was this after the argument in Caesars or before? I can’t be sure.
Mark suits a cigar, looks like a young Tony Soprano. The rest of us look like desperate children playing at being adults.
A girl approaches, from Newcastle. “Where y’all from?”
“Coventry,” says Carl.
“Coventry?” She’s suddenly irate. “I got ID’d for fuckin’ chips in Coventry!”
And so on.
You hear stories of what big, bad Coventry was like back in the Eighties, back when I was just a wee thing, toddling about into walls and grappling with Tabby, the poor family cat. Coventry had armed police stood on every street corner on a Saturday night until the clubs started getting closed down. You would hear of the punks and the bikers and The Live And Let Live, of The Specials and the meat cleavers and the riot vans. Ambulances wouldn’t venture into certain areas without police protection.
I see all this now and Coventry looks embarrassed. “My Mum once told me about a child who was castrated in some city centre toilets when she was growing up,” I say, “about how he’d bled to death. I was around twelve, thirteen years old when she told me, I think. I asked, why? She told me that no one knew why. These things just happen sometimes. It’s crazy. I would hear all these stories of this city, howling like a mad dog, and I would think it sounded like Mad Max, just with better music. Thank fuck for The Specials, am I right? But horrible things happen everywhere. You don’t need to be embarrassed.”
She simply looks away.
You would have hoped that things got better but you still hear the stories back in the real world, that someone had waved a gun at The here, that a bouncer had got stabbed at The there or a poor girl had been raped at The that.
But, like I had said, horror is everywhere. You can just ask the rabbit about that.
We’re back in the now.
A girl, perhaps nineteen, is pissing on the Council House steps in broad daylight. She vanishes for a few minutes before bringing back her boyfriend to see her handiwork. He seems delighted. They kiss as way of celebration.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is Coventry.
I come around Parry Road as it starts to snow, these huge flurries gripping at my hair, my beard and my clothes. Coventry is gone. I am back in Coventry.
I get to the front door eventually, cold, beaten and miserable. I open the door and almost immediately Tigger walks beneath my feet and I stumble. I cast aspersions of his parenthood then, and he simply walks away, as nonchalant asfuckingever. I soon apologise, give him some of that Whiskas he actually likes and I let him out into the garden, where he dances and twirls in the snow. I switch on the kettle, light up a cigarette; discard my frost-bitten coat onto the chair. I stare out my back window, at the broken trees and the deserted gun range and the tower blocks in the distance, all a beautiful white. Tigger stops what he’s doing, glances over at me then looks out over the distance.
I love this city but I struggle to pinpoint just why it is that I do. No one who lives here has a kind word to say about this place, never mind the boy from Cork or the Newcastle girl. Why do I love this city? I let it swill about in my brain pan a while.
Coventry, I ask, tell me your story.
She affords no answer.
I love her, my Coventry, and I think she loves me back. It can be real hard to tell though sometimes.
LISTENING: Unseen World, by Broken Deer.
READING: Marshland, by Gareth E. Rees.