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Birmingham's literary hotspots

Written by
Sophie Milligan

Birmingham and the Midlands can boast a rich literary history, and the area has been the home of several of the country's most famous writers. This includes John Rogers – the first man to compile an authorised edition of the Bible in English – poets W.H. Auden and Benjamin Zephaniah, and of course the legendary playwright from Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare.

The city continues to inspire writers today. Here are just a few examples of how Birmingham fits into the world of literary fiction: 

Sarehole Mill – 'The Lord of the Rings' (1954) and 'The Hobbit' (1937)


The millpond

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It’s well know that J.R.R. Tolkien was born in Kings Heath and identified strongly with the West Midlands, preferring to be considered a Mercian than an Englishman.

Sarehole Mill is just one of the Brummie spots that the famous fantasy writer used for inspiration for the Shire in his novel 'The Hobbit'.

Another feature of the city he used was the Joseph Chamberlain Clocktower (known affectionately as 'Old Joe') at the University of Birmingham. The tower is said to have inspired the Tower of Isengard in the 'Lord of the Rings' Trilogies.

You can take a look here at some of the other places in Birmingham that Tolkien drew inspiration from.

University of Birmingham – 'Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses' (1975)


All three of Lodge’s novels are set in Rummidge and its university – a fictional city said to be modelled on Birmingham and the University of Birmingham.

Set in 1969, 'Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses' is a trilogy that takes a satirical look at academic life. The story follows Phillip Swallow from the Redbrick University of Rummidge on an exchange with Professor Morris Zapp from the American Euphoria State University, which itself was modelled on Berkeley, California. 

Bournville – 'Chocolate Girls' (2012) 


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Ann Murray was first inspired to write her novel 'Chocolate Girls' after experiencing the delicious smell in the street near the famous Cadbury's building.

Her novel tells the tale of Edie, Ruby and Janet; three women brought together during the war, the care of a child abandoned during the Blitz and their work together at the chocolate factory in Bournville.

Murray is author to several books set in the area, including 'Birmingham Rose', 'Water Gypsies', 'The Bells of Bournville Green' and 'The Orphan of Angel Street'.  

Industrial Area/Digbeth – 'Living' (1929) 


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This novel by Henry Green also looks at the lives of factory workers in the city.

Based in the industrial area of Birmingham during the interwar years, ‘Living’ follows the stories of two main protagonists: Lily Gates, who courts iron foundry employee Bert and attempts to escape her working-class life, and ‘Dick’ Dupret, who finds himself running the foundry after his father dies.

The book is particularly notable for its use of language, which attempts to recreate a Brummie accent through a lack of conjunctives. 

HM Prison Birmingham – 'It’s Never Too Late to Mend' (1856)  


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This Victorian novel by Charles Reade deals with life behind bars shortly after HM Prison in Birmingham was built.

Reade was troubled by the reports of cruelties prisoners suffered at the hand of the Governor. He transformed his investigations into 'It's Never Too Late to Mend', and the book subsequently played a part in the reforms that took place in England later in the century. 

King Edward's School – 'The Rotters’ Club' (2001) 


KING EDWARD'S SCHOOL ♡ #memories #england #love

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Jonathan Coe based his novel 'The Rotters’ Club' on his own experiences of King Edward's School in the 1970s, an institute renowned locally for its musical scholarships and the young prodigies it creates.

'The Rotters’ Club' is also believed to hold the record for the longest sentence in English literature, spanning 13,955 words. 

Merry Hill Shopping Centre, Dudley – 'What Was Lost' (2007)


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‘What Was Lost’ is Catherine O’Flynn’s debut novel and the book was inspired by her experiences working in the Merry Hill Shopping Centre. Shortlisted for several awards, ‘What Was Lost’ tells the mystery of a missing girl from 1984.

It starts in the Green Oaks Shopping Centre (Merry Hill, to all intents and purposes) and spans 20 years, looking at how a community changes and the materialistic nature of modern life. 

Harbourne and Edgbaston - 'Books' (2013)  


This novel is set in Harbourne and at the University of Birmingham. The main characters are Richard Anger, owner of Back Street Books in Birmingham, and Lauren Furrow, a neurologist at the University of Birmingham.

In this satirical novel, the two must solve the mysterious deaths caused by Spontaneous Neural Atrophy Syndrome and prevent a worldwide catastrophe.  

The Black Country – 'Black Country' (2014) 


Liz Berry is a poet who grew up in the Black Country and now lives in Birmingham. Her first collection, ‘Black Country’, won several awards. There are many references to life in the Midlands, and the collection and takes the reader through different parts of Berry's life, including her home and childhood.

Similar to ‘Living’, the poetry is rich with Midlands dialect, making her debut collection a true tribute to this part of the country. 

Can you think of any other good novels that should be on this list?

In the meantime, take a look at some of the best independent book shops in the West Midlands

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