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The county of Ikea

When asked why she refused to move, Sister Dora replied, “I am a woman, not a piece of furniture!”

These days the immovable one can be located in statue-form in Walsall’s town centre.

Erected in 1886, Sister Dora, or to use her christened name, Dorothy Pattison, was the first non-royal woman to be monumentalised. An event which took place quite some time before those of her more eminent fellow practitioner nurses, Florence Nightingale (1915) and Mary Seacole (2016), whose legacies, albeit after a battle or two, have been similarly sculpted.

Less than a fifth of the UK’s statues depict women, and even fewer, just eighty of the 828 effigies are identifiable as women of renown. The remainder have us represented as nymphs and nudes. Nonetheless, this very fact does leave one to ponder how Sister Dora might feel about being immortalised as a piece of street furniture.

Sister Dora never went to war, instead she was flung into the realms of the Black Country then a novice nun, to cover for a fellow nun who had contracted scarlet fever. One time, Nurse Dora found herself overseeing an infirmary on Deadman’s Lane overwhelmed by sufferers of smallpox.

Across the intensely populated region, this highly-contagious lumpy infection found many hosts, along with those other sources of Victorian demise: tuberculosis and influenza. Lest we forget, this era also brought with it the highly toxic cholera, spreading through water contaminated by sewage, it thrived in the teeming conurbations to induce quite spectacular diarrhoea.

Another time, another outbreak, saw her treat nearly 16,000 patients almost single-handedly. Shortly after, she complained, somewhat unsurprisingly, she felt “quite exhausted” and within the year she died from breast cancer, nowadays the UK’s most commonly found malignancy in women. Her funeral was delayed by the throngs mourning her passing and her devoted contribution to their community. This was no mean feat for a woman whose arrival provoked ill-feeling, if not outright hostility. For Walsall was a place where Catholics and Irish were largely given wide berth, and even though she was neither, suspicion was rife. Her life of steadfastness was thus commemorated in marble just six years later. It was replaced with a bronze replica in 1956.

Up until this monumental moment of my arrival in The West Midlands, I had believed it was nothing but a collective of many landlocked counties. To my mind, it was a veritable splodge of Britain, notable for having the highest concentrations of canals, known as cuts, in England. Its centrepiece, Birmingham, had once been lauded as the beating heart of the manufacturing drum, driving an industrial revolution from south to north and back again. Such intense urbanisation had birthed “The Black Country”, the boundaries of which no two Black Country men or women can ever agree, and stretched across to include the epicentre of ostracism: Coventry.

Coventry, formerly and briefly, was the capital of England. It is very much older than the more famous Birmingham, and used to be home to Ikea’s UK flagship store. Alas, not enough people visited, which is odd because Coventry is the place to be banished to. “Being sent to Coventry” is a phrase, of course, eternised in the English language, deriving from the English Civil War (1642 - 1651) when Parliamentarians would relocate Royalist prisoners of war to Coventry. Thereafter, internees would be shunned, or at best, studiously ignored by the inhabitants of Coventry.

Thus, I was quite taken aback to learn that the West Midlands is a county in its own right. Excising entire districts from Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, the newly established West Midlands County Council set about governing the region on April Fool’s Day, 1975. The previously contented cities and towns of Coventry, Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Dudley, Bromwich, Solihull and Walsall were thus chucked together to form the artificial county of the West Midlands.

Needless to say, the residence of this cobbled-together countydom did not have the historical roots that bind regional cultures together, instead this unification pitted townsfolk against each other. All feared the council would favour Birmingham, and their locales would be relegated to the status of satellites and suburbs. Envy set in around administrative budgets and expenditure swelled four times over. Accusations flew around that ratepayers’ money was being thrown around for political gain, rather than social development. Shortly after, Birmingham was put up as England’s bid to host the Olympics.

Coventry’s Member of Parliament decried that The West Midland’s Council “is as useful to local government as the appendix is to the digestive system, its presence is unnecessary and it becomes noticeable only when it malfunctions.”

It disintegrated twelve years later. Today, the county of the West Midlands is run by the West Midlands Combined Authority. Quite how this changes things is beyond my intelligence, but the NUTS classification, which is a hierarchical system for dividing up the economic territory of the UK and EU, deems this region to be NUTS 1. The highest level of NUTS a region can be.

Incidentally, fortuitously, but very curiously, just as I was to commence my journey around the West Midlands, I received a summonsing to Coventry.

A letter arrived, via email, informing me that I had had a recent brain scan, which is absolutely fine, except I couldn’t remember having had a recent brain scan. Two days later, a text pinged to demand I show up four days’ hence at University Hospital Coventry & Warwickshire for another brain scan.

I’m not unwell, not even a bit…

However, I became even more befuddled when two days later a consultant rang me to discuss the results of the brain scan I was due to have the following Friday.

Then finally a nurse rang me to say the reason I was confused was because she’d written “MRI” instead of “Cat Scan”. I assured her that this was not why I was confused, even if Nelson was being dragged, whiskers and all, into this perplexing investigation of head space.

The timing, however, was impeccable. I arrived in the West Midlands, a county I never knew existed, the very same week its hospital demanded my presence in the radiology department.

And I am now the proud owner of an NHS document whose opening line states: “Ms ‘Person Irresponsible’ is a bit confused. I shall keep this most accurate diagnosis for immortality.

Incidentally, if asking a person from Coventry why they were sent there is England’s lamest joke, I ought to mention that radiologists believe, “Oh, I’m surprised that I have a brain,” should be nominated for second place.

I'm still waiting for the results of my brain scan and I still have no idea why I had one.

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