2018, Birmingham

‘Perseverance Pays a Premium’

When I was Mayor of Lichfield and pondering my choice of Johnson quotes to use, one that was particularly useful was, ‘Nothing great was ever achieved without perseverance’.  That is a particularly useful one for giving solace, congratulation and encouragement to the effort of voluntary committees.

The ALS committee deserves the ‘Perseverance Award’ in achieving such success with the 2018 AGM weekend, despite the adversity put its way.

Adversity 1: The society that had intended to host this year’s AGM was unable to do it.

Adversity 2: None of the societies planning to host in the future years was able to shuffle forward.  The solution was that the ALS committee decided to put on the weekend itself to celebrate its 45th anniversary.  The location of Birmingham was chosen as central to travel to, with plenty of hotels available. It is also the city where the ALS was founded and where the early AGMs were always held.

Adversity 3: There is no ‘beacon’ literary figure for our second city.  Whereas Lichfield has Johnson, Stratford is known for Shakespeare and Howarth is Brontë Country, which author to feature for Birmingham?  A solution was found again: to pay tribute to a variety of poets and novelists associated with the West Midlands.

Adversity 4: There was a clash of dates on the weekend selected in mid-May with the FA Cup final between Chelsea and Manchester United.  Fortunately, the kick off was at 5:15 p.m. and the game provided an interlude betwixt the conference and evening meal while the room was being reset.

Adversity 5: A low-ranking royal prince proposes to a woman from America and plans a 12 noon wedding ceremony in a castle.  All major TV channels pick up on it.  That was surely going to challenge the ALS package on offer?

Early arrivals enjoyed an informal get together on the Friday night before the day of the ALS, Royal Wedding and Cup Final all colliding.  The hotel was in the Chinatown area of the city, so not far to find good rice and noodle dishes.

Surprisingly, the Saturday meeting attendance was over 60.  Adversity was conquered.  There were enough delegates present to ensure that the existing committee were all rewarded with another year in office.  Linda Curry (of the John Clare Society) was re-elected as Chairman, Marty Smith (our very own) was re-elected Secretary and Claire Harman was speaking again as an author and the ALS President.  The delegates included the son of the ALS founders and also the son of the first ALS chairman.  GDPR and library cutbacks were the most animated discussion topics.

Molly Rosenberg, director of the Royal Society of Literature, gave a very thorough report on the Literature Today opinion survey.  For example, the four factors that might most encourage reading are more libraries, bookshops, personal recommendations and cheaper books.

Then the presentations on the literary figures of the West Midlands began.  For instance, Jerome K. Jerome was Walsall-born, with a statue there now.  We learned that Three Men in a Boat started out as a travelogue of the Thames and it was the printers’ decision to lose the travel guide detail, but keep the humorous dialogue and anecdotes.

We learned that A.E. Housman, who wrote, A Shropshire Lad, actually hailed from Bromsgrove, but ventured there to view the ‘blue remembered hills’.  His brother Lawrence edited a collection of his unpublished work, after his death.

J.R.R. Tolkien lived in Birmingham from the age of three.  His brother Hilary wrote ‘Black and White Ogre Country’ about two farmers near their Birmingham home (‘Middle Earth’) who were seen as ogres.  These pages may have inspired his brother to write his highly imaginative tales of elves, dwarves, and wizards in The Hobbit and the classic trilogy The Lord of the Rings.

Many delegates vowed, after the presentation on Francis Brett Young (1884–1954), to read his work.  Brett Young was born in Halesowen, schooled in Sutton Coldfield and attended Birmingham University.  Perhaps he is the unsung beacon of Birmingham literature. His novels, short stories, plays and musical works featured North Bromwich (Birmingham), Small ’Eath (Small Heath), Winsworth (Winson Green and Handsworth), Alvaston (Edgbaston), and Tilton (Quinton).  There were other subtleties: the eminent physician of the area, Lawson Tait featured in writings as Simpson Lyle (think sugar?).  We were advised that The House Under the Water, about the flooding of a Welsh valley for the Birmingham reservoirs, was a good place to start to read Brett Young.

On Saturday evening, delegates enjoyed a meal together, followed by readings of society authors.  Will Adams, son of the founders of the ALS, spoke movingly of his parents, who are now both dead, and how proud he is of their achievements.

Sunday morning a group walked up to the Birmingham Museum for a guided tour of the pre-Raphaelite collection.  Afterwards, we collapsed in the Edwardian Tea Rooms for a coffee and a final visit, before dispersing into the beautiful sunshine.

The 2019 hosts are the George Eliot Fellowship, celebrating the bicentenary of her birth in Nuneaton. It will take place on the weekend of 18/19 May.  The FA Cup final takes place on that Saturday, again but I am not aware of any royal events!


Colin Greatorex is a member of the Johnson Society of Lichfield.