Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Birmingham

Big cities suck in everything around them. So though I spent the first 18 years of my life 20 miles from Birmingham and cursing the hour long bus journey to get there for shopping or gigs, desperately missing the encores at various gigs at the Birmingham Odeon, when people ask where I'm from I occasionally have to say "Birmingham." I hardly came here for 20 years, but last couple of years I've been here a few times. The city centre is impressive indeed, they've done an even better job of regeneration than Manchester - the vision seems more joined-up somehow. Last night I had the pleasure of a civic reception in the Art Gallery - meeting in a beautiful round room, with Epstein's "Lucifer" as a remarkable, if somewhat inappropriate centrepiece. The Lord Mayor's speech welcomed the delegates (many of them from cities across Europe), to the city and talked about the great Victorian buildings, the city of "a thousand trades", the Staffordshire Hoard, (dug up a couple of miles from where I grew up), and the Lunar Society, which used to meet in the city. The art gallery and museum aren't full of indigenous objects, but are an emblem of Birmingham's 19th century wealth. Culture is now part of what Birmingham does - we had a fiddle band playing whilst we ate, a steel band playing whilst we waited - yet it's not in the soul of the city like commerce is. Birmingham has always known the price of everything, and has struggled hard to learn the value.

I could feel my accent growing stronger throughout the day, and the friendliness of the people was confirmed when, after asking directions back to our hotel, two policemen took pity on our bedraggled state (we'd brought the rain from Manchester) and gave us a lift back there. Only in Birmingham, I thought. There's something both laidback and earnest about the city - and as an Aston Villa fan, it was nice to be at a meeting where the jokes were about Birmingham City rather than the two Manchester teams.

Yet, I remain a little ambivalent. In another life I guess I could have ended up here - but there were little or no "knowledge economy" jobs here when I graduated, and I've noticed in the years since, that salaries in the city seem lower than elsewhere in the country. Manufacturing remains in the city's blood, and anything that isn't related to this seems to be looked on a little suspiciously. You'll be hard pressed to think of a list of Birmingham writers, the excellent Roy Fisher apart, and it is "greater Birmingham" that goes north to Lichfield, south to Stratford, that gives the Midland's its creative legacy. There's a case to be made that the Midlands is the heart of English writing - Shakespeare, George Eliot, Samuel Johnson - but it might be a bit of a stretch. I've never written more than a few words about the city, it wasn't, growing up, my local landscape, and if I came back here to work at any time, its likely I'd live, like then, far out of the city.

It remains a great Victorian city, and the disasters of the sixties - Birmingham's concrete ring roads, and ungainly Bull Ring - seem a long time ago. One of the speakers at the conference talked about Birmingham's economy being a one-legged stool, the car industry still strong, but unbalancing the city's prosperity. It seems, in many ways, a modern city - functional and centrally located - but I can't quite get away from my teenage memories of its concete brutalism, its lack of city centre pubs, and its suspicions of creativity. And I'm not even beginning to forgive the city for UB40.

11 comments:

litrefs said...

I revisited Birmingham recent after a gap of a decade or 2. I drove there early one morning on a whim. No Park and Ride - I parked right by the knobbly building. I was shocked by the lack of 2nd-hand shops in the centre so I headed for the outskirts, following the canal. I found myself at the Ikon. I had a look around then went home again.

Anonymous said...

Two Manchester teams?

Manchester City and who else Adrian?

I know you are from out of town but surely you've been here long enough to know some basic geography.

Bournemouth Runner said...

FC United.

Jason Crabtree said...

"Suspicions of creativity" - not in my recollection: were you never acquainted with the Birmingham Arts Lab? And for pubs, I have vague memories of the Windsor being a place to be. Alas, passed thru on the train recently and west side of city is an urban desert, taken over by Himalayan balsam. Might make a good camp site / refugee camp for the thousands who are reputed to be fleeing the housing benefit cuts down south.

Jason Crabtree said...

Sorry, I meant north side of city (got my geography wrong).

Bournemouth Runner said...

I've ambivalence about the city. It was where I got my books from (Hudsons) and records (Tempest, Virgin) as well as my first gigs (Odeon, Powerhouse etc.) and my clothes of choice (Oasis, the rag market) on the other hand the Midlands never seemed that comfortable with creativity. I'm sure there have been good things there over the years - I never lived in the city - but still feel that the West Midlands remains uncomfortable about creativity and art in a way that other parts of the country don't. The Himalayan Balsam will take us all, eventually.

Jason Crabtree said...

I had the relative privelege of growing up in Birmingham when there was a thriving "underground" scene in most major cities, which had its creative offshoots. When that disappeared (absorbed into the overground?) I think Birmingham became a cultural desert somewhat. It never developed the sort of music culture that evolved in Manchester, for instance. And now we're haunted by that excruciatingly painful song by Wizard every Xmas, just to remind us of the fact.

Bournemouth Runner said...

By all accounts Manchester was a cultural desert before the mid-70s, particularly re: music and it was the Musicians cooperative as much as the Sex Pistols at the Free Trade Hall which was a catalyst for what follows. Those grass roots scenes are essential I think.

Ebba said...

"You'll be hard pressed to think of a list of Birmingham writers, the excellent Roy Fisher apart" ... What about JRR Tolkein, WH Auden, Louis MacNeice, Jonathan Coe, Clare Morrall (Booker Shortlist 2003 for Astonishing Splashes of Colour), Jim Crace, and Catherine O'Flynn?
(PS I'm also from Birmingham and now live in Manchester, and have fond memories of grubby 80s Brum, particularly the heavy metal scene)

Ebba said...

And David Lodge of course.

Bournemouth Runner said...

I meant contemporary writers, so the first three on your list probably don't count, but, yes, Jonathan Coe and Jim Crace can feel hard done by! Both Morrall, who I haven't read, and O'Flynn (whose debut I enjoyed) are a little early in their careers I guess. But thanks for the corrections. I grew up near Cannock so NWOBHM was virtually on the school curriculum - I hated it all at the time but have come to appreciate Diamond Head's debut and the odd Black Sabbath tune.