The launch this week of a heritage trail in the Birmingham suburbs of Handsworth and Lozells, areas often associated with gang crime and rioting, sounds irrational. Surely it is flak jacketed police officers, stop-and-search powers and curfews that these places need, not a tour guide to the Industrial Revolution? Certainly the local MP thinks so.
But this is to mistake the importance of history in changing the nature of a place. Crime worsens when people feel no allegiance or loyalty to their surroundings, when they have no reason to care for the buildings and people around them. But for a place to command loyalty it has to be valued and this is the challenge facing community organisers in areas like Handsworth and Lozells.
One way of uncovering the value of a place is through its history. From the densely crowded streets of Britain's towns to its hills and forests, the way we live now is testament to the concatenation of hundreds of different stories stretching back through time. The job of the historian is to unpick these different histories, to explain how they work and why they matter.
Best of all for unloved suburbs, extraordinary things survive in unusual places. This hit home recently when I was cycling through the Birkenhead docks on the Wirral peninsula. It was dusk and the place was deserted, almost eerily quiet, with great mouldering blocks of defunct machinery standing by stagnant pools of water. I was cycling past one of these old docks when a great rusty ship loomed up through the semi-darkness. It was half-submerged, its mast lying at a sharp angle to the water.
A quick internet search told me it was a research vessel from the 1950s called Sarsia, which enjoyed a long life in service of the Marine Biological Association, sailing from Spain to the Baltic. This great rusty piece of junk turned out to be a slice of Britain's scientific history.
I was reminded again of our changing industrial landscape watching Claude Friese-Greene's 1927 colour film of London, recently released to a mini-Twitter storm. The most striking differences from the modern city are the barges which line the banks of the Thames and the cranes which bristle above. The shots of men in suits and flat caps in Petticoat Lane Market are infinitely more interesting than those of Whitehall or Trafalgar Square, which are barely changed.
In Birmingham, visitors to the new trail will go to St Mary's Convent designed by the great A. W. N. Pugin in the 1840s and paid for by a businessman whose firm still exists in the city's Jewellery Quarter. In St Mary's church they will see the final resting places of James Watt and Matthew Boulton, heroes of the Industrial Revolution and proud sons of the area (although Watt was a supporter of terrible alterations to the church's medieval fabric).
These things are not only tourist attractions in their own right, but reveal something important about Britain's history. It is not the just the stories of kings and queens, prime ministers and politicians that matter to the way we live now. Britain's history also takes place in the suburbs and countryside which still provide the backbone of our industry and agriculture. Tours like the one in Birmingham do something to help rebalance the heritage industry to match.Suggest a correction