New Futures for Birmingham`s Historic Buildings

Chris Upton: A West Midlands’ Treasure

Posted October 5th, 2015 by Sarah Hayes with 8 Comments

Our first Literary Bus meeting was at Blakesley Hall in 2010. This picture became synonymous with the project, with Gollum peering behind Chris in Blakesley's beautiful gardens. © Anne-Marie Hayes

Our first Literary Bus meeting was at Blakesley Hall in 2010. This picture became synonymous with the project, with Gollum peering behind Chris in Blakesley’s beautiful gardens. © Anne-Marie Hayes

I first met Chris 10 years ago while working at Museum of the Jewellery Quarter. He was one of our resident historians and was known for leading his very popular and oversubscribed Ghost Walks around Key Hill and Warstone Lane Cemeteries. I remember how captivating those tours were – he not only had a way with words, he was a great raconteur.

 

The Literary Bus strikes again. Chris with 'Barbara Cartland' and dog! © Anne-Marie Hayes

The Literary Bus strikes again. Chris with ‘Barbara Cartland’ and dog! ©Anne-Marie Hayes

One story he told on the tour stayed with me. I won’t labour over the exact details, but I always meant to ask him more about it because it gave me goose pimples. I never got round to it. There was no excuse really as that tour was back in 2007 and I worked with Chris on numerous occasions after that. My point is, it’s easy to assume you always have time, and I think it’s the realisation that we’ve not only lost a wealth of knowledge but also a passionate advocate for West Midlands’ history, that really hits hard. On a very basic level, Chris was also a charming friend and colleague to so many, with a fine sense of humour, who always seemed to have a smile on his face. That is how I will remember him.

Chris at the launch of the Coffin Works last October. He had been involved in the project for many years and helped me with much of my research. ©Anne-Marie Hayes

Chris, at the launch of the Coffin Works last October. He had been involved in the project for many years and helped me with much of my research. ©Anne-Marie Hayes

 

Chris’ Magical Literary Bus

I have many fond memories of Chris, the fondest of which involved working with him on the ‘Literary Bus’ on three separate occasions. The  bus travelled around Birmingham visiting the various sites connected to the city’s literary history and its characters, some of whom included the likes of Gollum at Sarehole Mill and Sherlock Holmes at Aston Cross.

 

This wasn't work for Chris, it was a hobby and pure entertainment. © Anne-Marie Hayes

This wasn’t work for Chris, it was a hobby and pure entertainment. ©Anne-Marie Hayes

If you’re scratching your head, the link to Sarehole Mill is because it is of course Tolkien’s childhood playground, and Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, once lived in Aston. Naturally there was a bit of poetic licence, and Chris narrated the tour with personality and punch. I also think he enjoyed, as well as embraced, all that regularly went wrong. So too, did the public.

One of our planning meetings at Blakesley Hall in 2011, which were always great fun. ©Samina Kosar.

One of our planning meetings at Blakesley Hall in 2011, which were always great fun! ©Samina Kosar.

This was Chris’ brain child and one of the things I admired most about him was his ‘can do’ attitude. The idea for the bus came out of a conversation my sister and I had with him at the reopening of Aston Hall in 2009. Six months later it became a reality and that was down to Chris. He had a way of making things happen, but he also inspired confidence in such a way that meant that you always wanted to be associated with him and what he did, because you just knew it would be quality. The Literary Bus was no different – a sell-out on all three occasions.

One of my favourite memories is Chris singing ‘I Can’t Find Brummagem’ just before Ozzy Osborne boarded the bus ‘bouncing’ along to Black Sabath’s ‘Paranoid’. This really was weird and wonderful at the same time, and I loved Chris’ method of promoting it: “If you’re intrigued by the idea, or interested in seeing how it can go disastrously wrong, you might care to book a ticket.”

 

Chris at Aston Hall in 2011 with 'Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne' and 'Dr Johnson.' ©Anne-Marie Hayes

Chris at Aston Hall in 2011 with ‘Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne’ and ‘Dr Johnson.’ ©Anne-Marie Hayes

 

A legend who will live on

I don’t think I’ve ever known someone so generous with sharing their knowledge. I remember when I had to do my first television interview in 2010 about the Jewellery Quarter canal network. I could have consulted a book, and I did, but I also went to Chris. He responded straight away, sharing all he could. He always made time, was always approachable, and for me, fulfilled the one true quality of any brilliant teacher: he was always genuinely proud of his students’ successes. I was never officially taught by Chris, but he did teach me a lot, and in particular, that a wealth of knowledge doesn’t give you licence to be arrogant and judgemental, it gives you the duty to inspire and disseminate. He never said that, but he didn’t have to – I loved his unstuffy approach and he proved that you could still play with ‘the big boys’ and be firmly grounded.  That is how the Chris I knew, operated, and that is why the word ‘legend’ has repeatedly been used to describe him and his achievements.

Chris with fellow Literary Bus characters at Blakesley Hall in 2011.

Chris with fellow Literary Bus characters at Blakesley Hall in 2011.

Looking back at one of the last emails he sent to me in January this year, his fighting spirit and passion for what he did was summed up. He said not to put him in cotton wool as he’d soon say if he couldn’t cope. I’d proposed the idea of doing another Literary Bus and he was up for it. The three buses we did were like three good series of a hit show – a local one at least – and without its main star, it just wouldn’t be the same. But, what will live on is Chris’ legacy and the best way we can honour his memory is by keeping local history alive. He has inspired a generation, or two, of students, and historians alike and his name will forever be synonymous with West Midlands history.

Our thoughts are with Fiona and family.

Sarah Hayes

8 Responses to “Chris Upton: A West Midlands’ Treasure”

  1. Di Allen December 26, 2015

    I knew Chris, not as an academic although I knew of his achievements in the world of academia, but initially as a friend of a friend who was looking for somewhere to live in Moseley in 1981. I had just purchased a 3 floored detached house which was already split into 3 flats and the top flat was vacant. I met both Chris and Fiona and was delighted to rent the flat to them. On the day they moved in I could not believe the number of books they were hoiking up the fire escape to the flat and had visions of them coming down to join me in the flat below as the weight of the books crashed through the floorboards!

    From the very early days of them living ‘upstairs’ they became a part of my life and we spent many an hour chatting and sharing stories. They lived above me for 6 years, only moving when I sold the house in 1987. They told me that by selling the house I had prompted them to step into the housing market and buy their one and only house in Moseley where they lived happily for the following 28 years.

    I eventually moved away from my home town up to Manchester but never lost touch with them, exchanging birthday and Christmas cards from then onwards. Sadly I perhaps only saw them 3 or 4 times after 1987 but was kept up to date with their news both through the cards and through our mutual friends.

    Fiona told me that Chris was fighting the ‘big C’ in the May before he died and it was with great shock that I learned of his death when I returned from an extended holiday just 5 months later, too late to pay my respects at his Memorials.

    Chris touched my life maybe only fleetingly in the grand plan of life but he has left a lasting memory of someone so down to earth and grounded, with a great knowledge not only of his specialised subject but of the world in general. He was a guy so dedicated to sharing his knowledge not just with students of his courses but with any one who expressed an interest. I know he will be sadly missed by all those whose lives he touched however briefly, not only his family, colleagues and students but his friends especially those who were the closest to him. My condolences to all of these folk but in particular to Fiona, Steve and Joan. R.I.P. Chris, the world has lost a truly special guy.
    .

    Reply

  2. Sarah Parkes October 9, 2015

    Do you have any photos of Chris Upton? – From a field-trip, a choir festival, a pub crawl, lecturing or in any other setting?

    If so and if you would like to share them with us, we are collecting pictures of Chris to be used during the ‘Celebration of his Life’ on Weds 21 Oct at Newman University.

    Please email any photos to chris-upton-photos@newman.ac.uk and we will arrange a selection of them to be used.
    Many thanks in advance

    Reply

  3. Louise Jones October 6, 2015

    I met Chris two years ago when I was a part of the Jamaican Hidden Histories project in my First Year of study at Newman. His enthusiasm and passion for everything historical was infectious and inspirational. I had interesting conversations with him about social history. He reignited my curiosity in social history and has inspired me to continue my own research on both a personal and academic level. My aim is to apply to study the MA in Victorian Studies here at Newman from 2016 and I will honour Chris’s memory in my daily study of the subject he and I both share a love for. Chris was a gift and will continue to live through his students, colleagues and friends at Newman. You are already missed, RIP.

    Reply

    • Sarah Hayes October 7, 2015

      Hi Louise,

      You’re indeed right that Chris will live on through his students! Thanks to him, we have many Newman University students volunteering with us at Newman Brothers. Yet another legacy of his.

      Sarah

      Reply

  4. Karen Argent October 6, 2015

    Chris was a wonderful colleague and a fabulous lecturer – brought history alive to everyone. I am sad that I never experienced the ‘Literary Bus’ ….I am sharing this article on our new not for profit book project website that promotes the love of books. I am pretty sure he would want to join us in doing this … RIP:

    http://www.letterpressproject.co.uk

    Reply

  5. Ian Cawood October 5, 2015

    What did Chris teach me? ‘It’s important to do something serious. It’s equally important not to do it too seriously’.
    Fantastic photos and words Sarah – thank you

    Reply

    • Sarah Hayes October 5, 2015

      Thanks so much, Ian. And wise words – I might start using that advice myself a little bit more. The photos are special and I have many more I can share. Please feel free to use them as you wish! See you soon. Sarah

      Reply

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