Is Coventry really that bad?
“So, where are you from?” they ask.
Without hesitation, I reply: “Bristol.”
I could leave it at that, but my mouth has a will of its own. “Well, not originally.”
When their expectant smile does not waver, I am forced to reveal the full truth. Shame is already weighing me down, like a shopping bag full of wet cement tied around my neck. Head bowed, I continue: “I’m from Coventry.”
Their smile sours into confusion, or if they have been fortunate enough to visit the city, a look of mild disgust. “Oh.”
“Yeah…it’s a shithole,” I stammer, apologetic.
If you were born in Coventry, you were born apologising. It’s one of those characteristics I’ll probably never shake, no matter how far away I run. The same goes for describing the place in which I was born and spent my childhood as a ‘shithole’, although I think that’s just an inherently British thing (I’ve heard people from Spain, Italy and the US talk about their hometowns with pride and enthusiasm).
“I’ve only driven through it. On that massive ring road..?”
Flashbacks of the ring road pass through my consciousness, grey and omnipresent. When I was learning to drive I did everything I could to avoid the ring road, even if that meant taking a shortcut through Nuneaton.
“Yeah, terrible,” I laugh, about to change the subject. But they interject.
“Is it really that bad?”
It’s a question I have returned to many times over the years. Is Cov really that bad, or has it been distorted by the context of my memory? Doesn’t everyone have a conflicted relationship with the place they are from? Is the DNA of our hometown imprinted on us permanently, like a scar that will never heal?
On the evening of 14th November, 1940, more than 4,300 homes and 568 lives were lost when Coventry was bombed by the German Air Force. Much of the city centre, including the cathedral, was destroyed. So were many of Coventry’s factories and industrial infrastructure. We talk often about ‘Blitz spirit’, but it’s impossible to fathom the depths of pain felt by the citizens that were left standing in the rubble on the morning of November 15th.
I’m convinced this pain is still there, the trauma and shock of that night absorbed into the land and breathed into each new building that rises from the skyline. Our great ancestors carried this pain in their hearts, and in each new generation of Coventrians, a piece of it still exists.
Not to get too heavy, but…does that explain it? Is Coventry’s abject greyness a manifestation of this pain? When asked to describe Coventry in one word, why do the majority of us say ‘grey’ without even thinking about the question?
In every one of my memories, the sky of the city is grey and overcast, like it was never summer there. In fact, all of my memories of Coventry are tinged with grey; walking around the Lower Precinct; binge drinking; hanging out near billboards (our options for entertainment were limited).
I wonder if I will always carry the greyness of Coventry in my heart.
“Oh, I’m sure it’s not that bad – at least you turned out OK!” they say, with a glint of kindness in their smile. Being from Coventry, I’m automatically suspicious of kindness, am already scanning the conversation for malicious subtext.
“People there have a lot of…grit,” I reply, scrambling for something to match their positivity, to end this part of the conversation on a less grey-seeming note. “They have to. They’re from Coventry.”
Photos: Monica Patel