Tag Archives: cities

The Hidden Languages of Towns and Cities

There are, hidden in plain sight, a hundred different languages supporting our towns and cities. I’m not talking about English or Urdu or Mandarin, I’m talking about the secret codes of tradesmen and subcultures, the scrawls and the scuffs and the mystery strings of letters and numbers you see on walls and pavements. They’re everywhere.

And yet I only realised quite how important they are until I listened to the latest edition of 99% Invisible, a podcast you really should be listening to. This episode, about the interactions between city planners and skateboarders, revealed that, like a movie big game hunter, you could find a city’s ‘boarders by looking out for streaks of wax on steps.

And that means you do just learn when kids go to skateboard, you learn about a town’s history and cultures, because there’s a reason skateboarders use these spaces, and that plays in to planning and architecture and questions over who ‘owns’ a space. Study these languages and you can learn how a city works, how initiates keep things running; spray-paint on a pavement tells those in the know where the power lines are; to those who don’t know, that paint may as well be an Enigma code, and yet it’s a language essential to the running of a city. Heck, according to this article, so are the skateboarders.

There’s an example of this near to where I work. On the wall of a bridge overlooking a railway track is this sign:


What does that even mean? I have no idea, but someone does, and while Dudley Station no longer exists, a victim of Dr. Beeching’s railpocalypse of the sixties, those letters and numbers represent something of my local history. I tried googling them, of course, but there was no definitive answer; these languages remain obscure and arcane, even to the Internet. Some cultures have languages used only by women; we have languages used by no-one other than rail workers and train enthusiasts.

I’m not completely ignorant of these hidden worlds; I know hidden Tupperware containing a logbook is probably a geocache; I know a QR code stuck to the back of a road sign is waiting for the local Munzee players. But I recently walked past felt-tipped letters on a tree and I’m not sure if that’s forestry or graffiti. And if it is the latter then it’s just part of a whole vocabulary of tags I don’t know how to interpret, yet another hidden lexicon that makes the world bigger and more expansive than I imagined.

It makes me want to learn a language.

Becoming a City: The future of Dudley?

I may not be the most experienced traveller in the world, but I’ve seen my share of cities – the organised chaos of New York overseen by the Statue of Liberty; the disorganised chaos of Cairo, shadowed by the Pyramids. I was told about The Da Vinci Code by a hippy in San Francisco; I spent hours in the World’s Biggest Bookshop when on holiday in Toronto.

There’s a reason I mention this. It’s because I don’t live in a city. I never have. I live in a large town, or at least next to one. It’s not a city.


As part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee later this year, one town in Britain will be upgraded to a city; Dudley is one of 26 in the running for this. I’ll admit this surprised me – Dudley is less a large town with outlying suburbs, but a borough made up of a number of townships, each fairly distinct from the others. It’ll be interesting to see the outcome of this bid for city status – the resulting investment would be invaluable; the town needs it, and that’s not me being disparaging.

Dudley is a place that has always been on the fringes of history. Abraham Darby, one of the fathers of the Industrial Revolution was born here; so was Robert Plant, and you can see Dudley’s tower block on the gatefold cover of Led Zeppelin IV, the album that gave Stairway to Heaven to the world. One of Manchester United’s ‘Busby’s Babes’, Duncan Edwards, was born in the town, becoming a victim of the Munich Air Disaster at the tragically young age of 21. We’ve had a castle since 1071 that was visited by Elizabeth I and involved in the intrigues of that era, especially those revolving around Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days’ Queen.

Does this make Dudley a city? I don’t know. Traditionally, a city is meant to have a university and/or a cathedral, and Dudley doesn’t have either (although it’s developing a significant Learning Quarter, which is cool), but it turns out that’s not true – the monarch confers city status, nothing else. And so maybe it’s appropriate for Dudley to become a city – it’s the second biggest town in the country, according to Wikipedia, the largest town in the UK not to have its own university or league football club.

The problem is, when you think of a city, you think of somewhere like London or New York, a 24-7 environment full of stuff. That’s an unrealistic standard for any new city to have to live up to, and anyway, City Status isn’t about that – it’s about identity, and Dudley has that; you’ll learn that if you call the locals Brummies. Despite what you may think of the rest of the town, there’s something powerful about driving over the hill and seeing that castle rising on the horizon. The town has history.

So all the best Dudley, it’ll be interesting to see what the Jubilee brings. Hope it’s good news…