“Fuck, fuck fuck, fucking hell”. I banged the steering wheel, it was the moment I lost it.

Lost my home town. 

I’d gone the wrong way on Spaghetti Junction. 

Coming from an unfamiliar direction, following signs to the M6, tired and attempting to avoid the traffic building up between the Scott Arms junction and Spaghetti, I’d ended up going north. 

And then, turning round at junction 7  – the motorway island I’d driven round more than any other – about to give up and face that traffic, I did it again. 

Back onto the M6 going towards Ikea, I decided I could swing round and hit the M5 and in the end, got where I was going without adding much more than half an hour to the journey. But I knew it was significant: going the wrong way meant that the pathways in my brain that mean I don’t have to think about some things, they just happen, were re-wired.

Some years back I was working in Worcester, driving every day from Moseley, and would often ‘wake’ as I parked at the office with little knowledge of how I’d got there. If interrogated that seemed dangerous, that you could drive at 70 for miles and have no real clue about it, but I was aware, I was safe. What I was doing was being on autopilot because I’d trained myself. And now, the pathways that held the old ways, what were the usual ways were gone.

I’d already stopped knowing which pubs were the decent ones in town. I’d long since had to use maps to find out where the 16 stopped to get back to Hamstead. The new New Street is not just a maze to me because it’s a maze to everyone: it’s because it’s not my home town any more.

There were times when just coming down the escalator and seeing the departure boards would feel like taking off a restrictive jacket. Deciding whether to get a can for the train, meeting people there in the mass of people watching the letters flick over, or standing – bag between ankles – before going down to 1A, would be a Proustian rush far better than the texture of a bag of Porky Puffs or the smell of a long-marinaded beer mat. 

There used to be a button you could press in the old local history bit of the museum: sort of on the side of the room, turn around and you’d see some old corporation fire service uniforms. The button played ‘I can’t find Brummagem’ – it wasn’t a great song, but songs of Birmingham are rare. It wasn’t a great museum, either. But it did: and the button was a highlight. I’ve often thought I should update the song, but then other people have over the years. And done it well enough for me not to bother.

The place has always changed, too fast for some, but I’m not just being nostalgic. I think I’m reflecting that it’s not the place that changes so much as us. And if it’s an effort to move around you have to acknowledge that: because you’re acknowledging that your reflections are a distortion in the fairground mirror of your memories.

Birmingham is the place that made me. I can find it, if I look hard. But I can’t call it my home: not if I can’t find my way out of it.

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Thatcher was dead: to begin with. There could be no doubt about that. Johnson had been to the funeral himself, sat near Osborne who was failing to hold back the tears. She was as dead as a doornail. Or less metaphorically, the 96 football fans who her government smeared and denied justice after Hillsborough.

It was a cold afternoon in early December, and after cancelling another interview, Johnson was heading home for an evening with a good Russian vodka given to him by a close friend. The knocker on the door of Johnson’s temporary accommodation seemed to form a face, the digits 1 and 0 became a winking eye and a nose that seemed to follow the average wage down a graph. And was what was once a letterbox a handbag?

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We last visited Digbeth’s Impact Hub as it launched a few years ago when hardly anyone knew what it was, and those that had a little bit of a handle thought the claims being made for it were outlandish and dismissive of the existing spaces and activists in Birmingham. Despite that – and may be very much because of that ambition – it has grown into a space that is one of the building blocks of what might be termed a revival of Brum’s thinking social-conscious. And now it’s gone. 

Danny Smith went back to talk to driving-force Immy Kaur to find out what’s next and talked to her for a long time…

I arrive a little early and Immy is having lunch with a bunch of people at a big table near the kitchen area. Even while eating she is talking about the breakdown of the site, I get the impression that she never really stops. The people around the table all are unconsciously deferring to her, and I mention it although I know she’ll hate me for noticing.

Last time we talked I mentioned the bells she wears on a bangle around her wrist, I notice she’s wearing them today too. She must be both busy and stressed. The Impact Hub has been running for five years and has now been hit with a huge bill to vacate the premises they spent a fortune turning into the friendly industrial space it is today.

Did you wear the bells especially?

No, someone tweeted at me the other day – in response to your blog post – that they hadn’t heard them on me for a few weeks. Because I’ve been running into work everyday. When I run they bang on my arm and hurt me so I’ve been taking them off, and I got my running bag and took them out and put them back on.

 

So, Impact Hub: why is it closing?

Two main reasons: one is that it’s getting too expensive in Digbeth… 

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This is the tenth Brummie of the Year award, first awarded in 2003 by the then Birmingham: It’s Not Shit. Past winners and nominees have included UB40 saxophonist Brian Travers, itinerant blues guitarist Charlie Mitton, and escaping red panda Babu.

This year we thought long and hard, and Tom Watson nearly snuck it at the end. His dignified exit as West Bromwich East MP nearly matched the one as Baron Tweetup in my Twitter pantomime, where we think he left a glass slipper on the dance floor at a karaoke bar or something.

Stephen Duffy

However only one Brummie so far this year has written and released a record that will make you smile and cry at the same time, will have you running up Constitution Hill and worry about losing your accent. It’s another triumph for the man who once told us: “people from Birmingham do have a slightly more sentimental nature to them”. Yeah, we do.

In his neglected masterpiece he revealed how he “sang [his] songs of Birmingham” and asked us if we digged “the proletarian way he got it wrong”. We did, we do, we probably will for ever.

For the achievement that was making a drum machine sound sexy in the 80s, through making us like a record that features Nigel Kennedy, to making this beautiful, nostalgic, sad and funny record – and all without losing his accent.

He recently said “Most artists think they’re dreadful, but I think I’m brilliant.” For a boy from Alum Rock that’s unusual. So for the distinctly un-Brummie trait of blowing his own trumpet (though, not ever on record) and actually being right we award Stephen Duffy ‘Brummie of the Year 2019’.

 

(Go get the LP)

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Orwell House, Sutton Courtney, Oxfordshire

Eric Arthur Blair’s 1984 provides such a compelling vision of life in a totalitarian state that it has become the founding text on which fears of undemocratic control are built. Its ideas are strong and can be easily adapted to suit almost any political purpose.

The left will shuffle in their donkey jackets and point to the opprobrium hurled at immigrants or the poor, look hard, over a plate of custard creams, and cry ‘two minutes hate’ at the right wing press. Libertarians call almost any attempt to do anything ‘Big Brother’. But it’s the likes of the Daily Mail that have taken the contents of the book most to heart.

‘Orwellian’ is a phrase that the Daily Mail use a lot, there are over 30 pages of search results on their website. Its use is often combined with the word ‘nightmare’ and almost always followed by a story about how a local council or the BBC has ‘banned’ the the use of a word. Or talking about black people. Or in one ‘news story’ I came across: broccoli.

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At school, that term, or at least that week, the obsession was small rubber balls, an inch across and patterned with a muted tie-dye, with a thin piece of elastic through them which was tied to a plastic ring. The elastic stretched around – I’m now guessing – six to ten feet, the balls were very bouncy.

No-one ever took toys to school, I don’t know if they weren’t allowed, but it didn’t happen. Once a kid brought a Beano in and there was a whole line of nine year-olds sitting on the brick line at the edge between the playground and the grass looking over their shoulder. We mainly played games that involved running, in different combinations. It wasn’t until I moved from the Churchill Road ‘annex’ to the big school up the road that we played football. And even then it was football if we had a ball, football with a can, or a stone, or sometimes even just our minds. Sometimes if there was nothing round ‘stick rugby’ was the game. Stick rugby was just throwing a stick around and running into people: none of us knew the rules of rugby.

The balls, were a break with the tradition of aimless games of tig and tag, or kiss chase. They were sold in the shop at the top of the road our school was on, on the corner with Hamstead Road, a old mock-Tudor house with only the front parlour space open as a shop. Ice cream freezers outside in the summer and metallic plates advertising the Evening Mail covered in a wide mesh to hold the days headlines.

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Christopher Bealand’s new novel is out this week, it’s ‘a black comedy about love, loss, the death of dreams, failure, bad TV, bad jokes, brutalist buildings. And Birmingham.’ And we have an extract so you can see that for yourself…

“Belinda the main, but absent, character in The Wall in the Head says she has written a book about ”love and architecture” and this too is a book about love and a book about architecture – or at least our relationships to them both. More than that it’s a book about our connections to place and people, and how they shape our feelings and actions.

“It’s a love letter to brutalist buildings and the sheer hope for humanity with which they were built, it’s a love letter to the places that are left behind by trends and culture and Birmingham as a prime example of that. It’s also a love letter to the idea of love and laughter but far more classy than those words painted onto the living room wall of your new city centre flat.

“Christopher Beanland has written an incredibly funny and moving book set in a decaying version of our past hopes, and you’d be a fool to miss it.”

Jon Bounds

Buy The Wall in the Head here.

The Wall in the Head by Chistopher Beanland – Chapter Two

I yanked the fridge door and it opened with a surprised gasp. Inside, a fragile light flickered in the dark. The fridge was empty, wiped, it stank of surgery – I’d cleared it out this morning in anticipation of my death. I didn’t want to seem like a monster – no one needs the spike of rotting food in their nostrils when they’re clearing out a dead bloke’s house.

I went upstairs to my desk, looked out of the window at the caramel street lights of Moseley, at the trees swaying back and forth in the high winds. I flicked on the computer and started writing about what I’d done tonight, but the words didn’t come easily. Words hadn’t come easily since Belinda had to ruin everything. When I could manage no more I lay down on the bed, staring at the ceiling. Sleep hadn’t come easily either, but tonight it ate me up. The duvet enveloped me; my eyelids slid shut like they were greased. I succumbed to the darkness and the solitude it promised.

*

This is a dream:

I can see. I’m part of the world I’m seeing – I’m participating, not just observing. I look down and I see hands. I twist them around, tensing and flexing. I’m alive, alright. It’s Birmingham. I’m watching a blonde-haired woman sleep. She’s lying on a bed in the middle of a roundabout overlooked by two tower blocks. It’s daytime but there’s no one else around. Just her. She’s dozing peacefully, curled into a ball, with golden locks falling across a face painted with a honey glow of serenity. I don’t think it’s Belinda. I think it’s someone else. I’m not sure. I wouldn’t put a bet on who it was – I can’t see well enough. It’s a dream; things are a bit fuzzy, misleading. It’s like watching through cataracts. I turn around and I see a new scene. A skyscraper stretching upwards into the sky like a sentinel. It’s made from concrete; its hue is deep grey, with jagged lines running up and down it, and different-sized blocks around the bottom. The Mids TV HQ. The studios and the bar at the bottom, the office tower stretching upwards. The office tower I just jumped off. Tension, fizzing, refracted sunlight, pickled emotions, streetscapes grey and green, no people, bridges red and brown, a heartbeat jumping, my heartbeat jumping. The same blonde woman is sleeping on the same bed below; she wakes and points up to the Mids TV Tower. Next scene. A thinner tower without windows – the BT Tower. The blonde woman is standing by it, wearing a knowing expression, looking a little like a witty English teacher? I turn a final time. One more scene. The same woman on a bed in the middle of an open-topped atrium space. There’s nothing surrounding us at ground level apart from twelve slender pillars. Above about the third storey there are concrete sides of a box with windows facing inwards to create a courtyard – but the roof is open and sunlight falls in like it’s being shovelled down onto us by a giant gardener. The woman wakes up, stretches her arms and sits up on the bed. She lights a fag. She turns and swings her legs down over the edge of the bed. Her face. A sudden crash-zoom in on her face. She looks at me, helplessly. She stares right into my eyes. Her mouth doesn’t move – but this sound comes out of it: ‘Donald.’ There’s a drummer in my chest, hitting so hard I can hardly concentrate.

*

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Nicklin, Phyllis (1967) Tame Valley, Perry Barr Midland Counties Dairy Ltd.

The car didn’t slow down as it mounted the pavement outside the dairy, wobbling as if stepping onto the kerb without knees. It didn’t slow down as it started to envelope the lamppost, bending it slowly over as it did so. Then it did, it stopped. It was lucky for the driver that he hadn’t been going that quickly in the first place. His seatbelt held him, but at the price of a cracked collarbone and an arc of a bruise around his right eye.

It was a crisp night, around midnight, and the sparkle of the tarmac on the Aldridge Road had begun. The bus driver (a 113, returning to depot) that saw the impact assumed that the car had hit a patch of ice. He told the car driver as much when he sat him down on the empty bus, watching him shake and offering him a cigarette for his nerves. The car driver didn’t smoke, but he took one anyway. He shuddered, fag in mouth then hand, and decided that the ice was a good story, it became his story.

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It’s possible, but unlikely, that when the kids of today play ‘war’ they mime sitting in command centres programming drones, or pretend to work on high-level AI routines for infiltrating ISIS on Instagram. It’s more likely that they continue to use the main two traditional imaginary weapons: guns and the hand grenade.

We could talk about Birmingham’s influence on the gun until the cows come home, but as the cows all live out in Warwickshire barn conversions we’d have to rig up some sort of notification system. So, let’s talk grenades, and in particular the famous one known as the Mills Bomb.

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School uniforms are odd, especially for teenagers. You take the group that are producing the largest smells and the greatest number of secretions and you develop a system where they wear the same clothes every day. Shirts for two days, unless you spill something, trousers all week, blazers for a least a year. Dry clean only.

But non-uniform days are worse.

As a teenager, my eyes swelled with frustration as I didn’t know what ‘Gallini’ was, nor why everyone would be wearing it tomorrow. Without the internet, and Tower Hill library was no help on this, how would I have known?

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