Here at AHP we are mourning the loss of one of Birmingham’s greatest characters, Dr. Chris Upton, who sadly passed away on 1st October. Chris’s passion for Birmingham and its history was second to none and his students at Newman University had the privilege of seeing his enthusiasm first hand.
Many moons ago, Chris worked in the Local Studies department of Central Library and has remained ‘one of ours’ ever since. Chris was a frequent visitor to AHP and his wife, Fiona, retired from the department earlier this year, so even those of us who didn’t have the opportunity to work with him directly were grateful for the opportunity to get to know him (and learn from him on more than one occasion!).
We all have our own fond memories of Chris that always make us smile and here are just some of them:
He was a major player in the cuddly toy raiding parties between ALL and LSH in the old library. In spite of many ransom demands the bunny still survives!
Chris was known for his verses as well! Only he could have penned a wedding day greeting for us comparing Sue’s home town of Walsall to our honeymoon destination of Venice:
”And how like Walsall Venice is –
The green canals, the funny smells,
The pizza parlours, wines that fizz,
The distant sound of wedding bells.”
Chris’ enthusiasm and passion for local history encompassed so many areas. He was fascinated by all kinds of records – enjoying his visit to the local Register Office (see above).
Sue & John
I’ve got lots of happy memories of him from both in and out of work, but a number of memories of him stand out. Hearing him speak was an honour as he combined a fearsome intellect with the ability to communicate that intellectual rigour into something that everyone could understand and relate to. Everyone who heard him speak or read his words will know this, but even now I can give you an analysis of why Bilston suffered a cholera epidemic and Birmingham did not, and this was after hearing him talk briefly once on the subject. I worked with him on numerous occasions, most recently on a series of events celebrating 50 years of the Ikon Gallery and he gave a highly entertaining and detailed overview of Birmingham in each of the decades from the 1960’s onwards. No presentation was complete without an overview of his favourite album covers of that decade; as well as history his passion for music was legendary and he had a fine singing voice, demonstrated both in his choir singing and also memorably at a works Christmas karaoke where I duetted “I Got You Babe” with him – surely a finer version than that offered by Birmingham’s finest UB40…
Let us not forget his fine sense of humour, demonstrated with the immortal blog post The Diary of Samuel Pepys aged 13 and three quarters!
He loved the past but lived very much in the present, and through his teaching and his writing left a huge legacy for the future.
The incident which always amused me happened back in the early 90’s when we worked in the old Local Studies. We used to provide an electoral register telephone checking service, this had a dedicated phone line which was manned by a member of staff at all times except during the lunch period when an answering machine was used. Unfortunately sometimes this system didn’t work and the answer machine wouldn’t click on so the phone just rang and rang which was annoying as it was on the public counter. One day the phone kept on ringing and eventually when Chris had had enough he picked up the phone and pretending to be the answer machine he recited the recorded message, at the end of which the person on the other end of the line said “that’s not an answer machine” to which Chris said “yes it is” and put the phone down.
Chris was a man for all seasons and I hope I don’t infringe Robert Bolt’s copyright by summoning up this epithet but he really was a multidimensional and unique individual who like the best cut diamond always revealed a new aspect of his personality whenever you encountered him – from the sacred to the profane, the erudite to the popular, reverential to the iconoclastic.
The first time I met Chris he was playing football in the staff workroom with another colleague which you may find slightly odd and inappropriate but I forgot to mention the game did not employ your standard and necessary sphere of interchange but a cuddly toy purloined from another colleague’s menagerie of such stuffed beasts. I quickly came to learn this was but one side to Chris’ personality and that he was actually that rare creature of a highly intelligent individual who didn’t feel it necessary to impose his knowledge on others just for the sake of it. He would always be willing to impart some nugget of knowledge if it became part of the organic development of a conversation and you could see the little grey cells whirring around at the back of his motherboard of knowledge trying to bring forth a witty repost or an insightful account of a situation.
His book on the history of Birmingham first published in the 1990s was recently reprinted and remains the seminal introduction to the history of this great and often misunderstood city. Chris will be sadly missed by all who knew him and especially his dear wife, Fiona who recently retired from the Library of Birmingham but worked with Chris for a while in the Central Library.
Farewell, Chris. ‘Though wise men at their end know dark is right because their words had forked no lightning they do not go gentle into that good night’.
I have two prevailing memories of Chris in the library. First, of his regular visits accompanied by a group of students making slowish progress around the various information sources on floor 6 in the Central Library. Second, of his personal, studious use of archive material. Together they epitomise his strengths as a successful academic – the combination of teaching and research. On a more personal note, it was always a pleasure to bump into Chris – a great bloke.
I will always remember Chris for the great walks he arranged for FoBAH that mixed so much knowledge with an innate ability to make it so interesting. The walk he arranged on ‘Gangs of Digbeth’ in the summer of 2013 before the Digbeth Speaks project attracted so many people despite the rain we couldn’t all fit on the pavement, and had to stand in the road. He switched from the Great Western Railway arches to the Allison Street Gang, Milk Street Gang and Barn Street Gang for a preview of the Peaky Blinders material, then turned to the contrasting Birmingham Medical Mission and Floodgate Street School, finishing with the old Typhoo factory, canal companies and boxing clubs. Lots of detail, amusing and interesting too, typical of all his work.
Chris brought the past alive and it is only fitting that he will live on in our collections and in the hearts of those whose lives he touched. We will all miss you Chris.