Power and the city

Birmingham, like any city of a reasonable size, is a bit odd. This is to be expected because when you have a million people interacting with each other, sharing their ideas and opinions through words and actions, things get messy. In all my years of thinking-about-Birmingham I’ve often wondered how anyone can honestly say this city has a single fixed identity. At the very least it’s two cities, north and south, but it’s way more complex than that.

Perhaps it’s the echoes of villages the Birmingham suburban sprawled consumed that keep things distinct, giving the likes of Edgbaston and Erdington a sense of identity even though you can’t really tell where they begin and end on the 11 bus. For a city so worshipful of motorised mobility people really do have a focussed sense of place, be it their 19th century terrace or post-war estate.

And then there’s the city centre. A Big City Plan for the smallest core a major city has known. Birmingham’s identity isn’t to be found within the Queensway – that’s just the melting pot where the villages come to mix and shop. Birmingham is an area, a sprawl, a coalition of folk.

To see this in even sharper relief, pop along to the Black Country. Here this collection of villages engorged by industry into an urban sprawl doesn’t even bother with a unifying name. Legend has it accents change from street to street in Dudley, such is the loyalty to place. If this area has A People then it’s in the loosest sense.

Maybe this explains the self-deprecating Brummie character, one that is proud of where it’s from but doesn’t like to make a fuss about it, much to the frustration of the regional cheerleading squad. True Brummies know their city is impossible to define and they’re okay with that because it works for them.

To be honest, I don’t really know, and while it’s easy to speculate it’s not that useful. Let’s just say Birmingham as a concept is weirdly lose and leave it at that.

But even if it doesn’t really matter, I still find myself wondering: how does a sprawling city with a weak core and a multiplex identity hold itself together?

*****

Before I started blogging about the city, this would be around 2006 or so, a flatmate invited me to an event at the council house. He was working in the local history department at the library and thought I might be interested in a reading from a popular historian of his new book about the philanthropic Victorians of Birmingham. While the talk was interesting I was most struck by the introduction by the then leader of the city council, Mike Whitby. Like most people who live in Birmingham I had no idea who he was or what he represented, but his talk was very striking. Unfortunately I have no idea what he was on about, except for one bit rubbishing an editorial in the local tabloid which I doubt anyone in the room had read. It was the strangest, incoherent, rambling and inappropriate introduction to an author talk I’ve ever experienced.

I don’t want to lay into Councillor Whitby here. The country is not short of weird and eccentric councillors and, frankly, the city gets the politicians it deserves. If ours are useless then that is our fault and not theirs. But as the leader of the second largest city Mike Whitby was, at the time, the Conservative politician with the most power in the country, only deposed when Boris Johnson got the mayorship of London. And I was watching him orate in the same panelled room that the great speakers of the Industrial Revolution orated. And it was embarrassing.

I don’t know how Mr Whitby ran his office. Maybe what he lacked as a public speaker he made up for in administration. He must have had something going for him to get to that position of power. But I don’t know, so I can’t usefully speculate. All I can state with certainty is that this man had power and influence and, watching like the boy watching the emperor in his birthday suit, it puzzled the crap out of me.

A couple of years later I found myself in a room in a well appointed building on Colmore Row as part of the panel deciding who would be in the Birmingham Post Power 50 for 2008. The blog I’d been running, Created in Birmingham, had caught they eye of the local journalists and, well, I can’t really say why I was there. New blood? A wildcard? A representative of this new digital Web 2.0 blogging thing? A desperate need to make up the numbers? The others were what I’d later learn to be representatives of Birmingham’s great and the good, the people who knew who ran the city and how they ran it. I knew a few bloggers.

The whole day was under the Chatham House Rule, but that doesn’t matter as I can barely remember who was there let alone what they said. Essentially there’s a shortlist of a couple of hundred names (the bulk of whom I hadn’t heard of) which the group have to whittle down to 50 and rank in order. The whittling is fairly straight forward, if a little brutal, and then there’s the ranking which borders on the absurd.

One of the nominations that year was Mr Jon Bounds, late of the website Birmingham: It’s Not Shit which you might be familiar with. Deciding I might as well play along with this weird game I’d made him one of a handful of people I’d determined to get into the 50; Jon being some sort of representative of the power of “the bloggers”, however you wanted to define that. Towards the end of the day, with the names rated and ranked, it was announced that we didn’t have a headline, a curveball, a conversation piece. If the Power 50 was to not be just another Power 50 there needed to be something to raise the eyebrow, a statement of intent. Someone would have to be radically promoted.

“Why not the blogger?” said a guy who couldn’t remember Jon’s name. As his advocate I wasn’t sure what to say. And when it turned out he was going from the low 40s to number 14 I was very confused. Feeling a little out of my depth, and not really enjoying the whole thing anyway, I shrugged. And so Jon became the 14th most powerful person in Birmingham for a year.

Which is, of course, absurd.

*****

I’ve been reading a few things recently that have talked about magic and ritual, which is always slightly disconcerting in case you start turning into one of those sorts of people, but it turns out there’s actually some useful stuff in there. It seems that what the wankers call “chaos magick” or whatnot is really just the understanding that ideas, be they manifested as words or art, have power which, while it might not be able to mess with the laws of physics, can affect the outcome of things. It’s a tricky one to get a rational head around but watching any great orator shows it in practice. By changing the way people think you change their behaviour. Similarly by focussing on the way you think, and the manner in which you articulate your thoughts, can guide you in some way. Casting a spell, spelling, speaking.

Obviously the immature can get carried away with this, dressing like some twatty cybergoth and proclaiming themselves to be a neo-wizard or some shit (the Wikipedia Chaos Magic article has a fantastic picture of some knobs in black robes doing a “ritual involving teleconferencing“) but boil it down and there’s something useful to be found. Something so obvious I find myself wondering why it’s not more widely taught, which leads to conspiracy theories about creative elites preventing mere mortals from accessing this universal power by imposing intangible but seemingly exacting notions of what it takes to be a “serious” author or artist.

When people like me started blogging in the early 2000s most of us weren’t “writers” in the traditional sense. Many were computer nerds or had a niche interest that wasn’t served by mainstream society and a desire to connect with likeminded souls. I’ve often talked about this “need to create” being the only sign you need to know if you’re an artist or not. Involuntary scribbling, constant photographing, endless writing – symptoms of someone who has that urge, that need that has to be satisfied by making something out of ideas.

One way of understanding this is to think about the casting of spells. I have an idea, or an interest, or a desire to communicate something important to me, and in order to establish myself in society as a respected figure I have to actualise it. Words are a great way to actualise ideas so I write them down and distribute copies of those ideas. They reach other people who read them and their perception of the world is changed ever so slightly.

So a book, or a television program, or a newspaper column, or a blog post, is actually a spell. It’s saying “look at the world in this particular way and you will see things you didn’t know were there.” And while copying and distributing books or television programs or newspapers was hard and expensive that power remained in stable and hopefully safe hands.

I cast spells with my fanzine articles in the 90s and my blogging in the 2000s, but no-one really paid any attention because I was talking about uber-niche things. Until I applied these skills I’d honed to the most mainstream thing of all – a massive metropolitan city.

*****

Stef Lewandowski created the spell. It was an article for one of those “rebrand the city” things that crop up every few years. He wrote about taking the “Made In Birmingham” stamp which travelled around the globe during the Industrial Revolution and repurposing it for the 21st Century. Through some no doubt tortuous process, creative work of value would be awarded the Created In Birmingham stamp of quality. The details were irrelevant and you could see Stef’s brain trying to catch up with the potency of the headline. Created In Birmingham.

Later we started a blog about the creative industries. It needed a name. I asked Stef if we could nab Created In Birmingham from that article. Or maybe I just took it because it seemed too obvious not to. After a couple of false starts (I’m never transcribing an hour long interview again as long as I live) the blog found its feet and the spell was complete. We actualised a vehicle for unifying a people around an idea.

Of course we had no idea what we had or how it worked. Typically I got bored after a year and gave it to Chris Unitt who refined the spell, making it more efficient at the expense, if I dare, of some of its irreverence. But the idea refused to be tamed. It turned into a shop which we ostensibly ran but which in reality ran us, nearly into the ground. I may have given life to Created in Birmingham but I never controlled it. When the spin-off shop We Are Birmingham died a painful death a year later maybe that was the idea punishing us for our hubris. (It’s perhaps notable that those involved with the the CiB idea instinctively kept their distance from WaB, seeing on some level that it wasn’t quite right. My big regret is hubris didn’t let me see it soon enough, or have the courage to act on it. But that’s for another day.)

Messing about with cities is a fun and exciting thing to do. There’s huge potency and potential in a city. So many people doing so many things generating so many ideas. The ingredients are everywhere – you just need to keep scratching at the surface. If you can’t create interesting art in a city then you’re not trying. Just sit and watch – it’ll soon envelope you.

But playing with the big ideas that hold a city together is dangerous and scary. It’ll puff you up with illusory power and crush you with the weight of failure. The city will use you and when it’s done you’ll have nothing left. I’ve seen people who controlled the destinies of hundreds of thousands through their positions at AWM reduced to vague consultants when it was disbanded. Watching them trying to cast new spells with words that used to hold such potency was a salutary lesson.

*****

In the Liverpool Biennial’s City States strand one of the exhibitions was curated by Digbeth’s collective of arty types. Birmingham: The Magic City saw these modern-day alchemists casting spells to redefine people’s perceptions of the city. By focussing on items of value to their cause they wove new connections and presented them as Capital-A Art. In the context of my musings it’s a fascinating action, combining the raw potency of a city with the high ritual of the gallery and calling it Magic.

But this is what every utterance about the city is doing, from blatant civic boosterism to subtle phrasing and filtering. This week I came across some decade old city centre walking maps produced by Marketing Birmingham, relatively recent but dated by a couple of regime changes. Unlike the council’s park walks these have a political motivation behind them, drawing attention to the New while sidestepping the Old. Most blatant is a walk from the recently finished Selfridges (“look out for the spun aluminium disks!”) to the recently finished Millennium Point (“there’s a cafe” is the ultimate damning with faint praise for this white elephant) along the Queensway, completely sidestepping the interesting bits of Digbeth inbetween. Indeed, one is encouraged to “pick up the pace” at one point. Digbeth didn’t fit the story Marketing Birmingham wanted to tell, at least not then. Perhaps, they thought, if we can get enough people to walk our ritual route, to see the city as we do, then Digbeth will magically disappear.

There are whole industries based on getting people to notice or not notice stuff. Advertising, PR, advocacy, politics – millions is spent on pointing at things and saying what they mean. In older cities, like the venerable London, the meaning of things is so engrained that changing it is next to impossible – the likes of Peter Ackroyd merely juggle meanings rather than invent them and the most coherent London marketing messages seem to just concentrate on “tourist London” which anyone whose lived there knows has no connection with the rest of the city. London just is.

But for somewhere like Birmingham any meaning is younger that a mewling kitten, relatively. And those which stick tend to be vague. “Forward” is a favourite because it implies the past is irrelevant. Don’t look back, just march on. “City of a Thousand Trades” is nice but doesn’t help with the definition of what Birmingham specifically does. Our greatest civic moment was the social revolutions of the Victorian and Quaker patrons but while the buildings remain I don’t sense many of the ideas echoing into the present. (Bournville, that great Quaker stronghold, feels more CofE NIMBY these days).

As such, imposing your own definition on Birmingham is relatively easy. Build something large enough or say something loud enough and your idea will have as much power as, well, all the other ideas out there. The notion of Birmingham is built on shallow foundations, fed through the stumps of ancient Warks, Worcs and Staffs settlements, which can mean our traditional institutions, from the council to the media, are weak and incoherent. But this inability to sustainably support a decisive power structure, while dangerous in some ways (let’s never forget the appalling poverty and inequality in this city) does offer the citizens an unusual amount of freedom to imagine the city in their own personal ways.

*****

I’ve been to all manner of talks and events about Birmingham but one of thing that’s stuck with me is something Noel Dunne said.

If you move to Manchester it takes three generations before they’ll accept your grandchildren as Mancunian. If you move to Birmingham you’re a Brummie in 3 weeks.

I like living in Birmingham because the city doesn’t oppress me with it’s cultural identity. There’s a freedom to be here that I don’t think I’ve felt in other places. On the one hand you’ve got the institutional infrastructure of a large city which gives the freedoms of movement and community, but you also have the freedom to define your space and your place in that space.

So what is often perceived as a weakness is actually a strength, as long as your ambitions are realistic. If you want to take over the world you need to move to a place where taking over the world is normalised, such as London. But if you want to experiment, to try things that have never been done before, to make connections between millions of ideas and notions and see what sparks, then Birmingham’s a not bad place to try.

It’s hard to say this stuff without sounding like you’re criticising something inherent to the Birmingham identity. And while my father was brought up here, like Tolkien he quickly moved away and never came back so my Brummie roots are sketchy at best. I’m an immigrant and as such my opinions on my adopted home do not have the weight of someone like, say, Carl Chinn.

But I’m not sure it’s possible to criticise the city, not in a way that matters. The notion of Birmingham is so diffuse and distributed that any substantial attack is easily absorbed and ignored.

The only real way you could damage Birmingham would be to eradicate the granular things that make it special – to turn it into yet another monolithic city with one big idea. But here again I think the city can defend itself, this time through its vastness. There’s too much here.

The city of a thousand trades is now the city of a million ideas, most of them idiotic, for sure, but some of them wildly awesome. I always look forward to playing with them.

By Pete Ashton

Lives in Stirchley and doesn't get out as much as he used to. Runs photography classes and city walks through Photo School and will explain the Internet to you for money.

Lives in Stirchley and doesn't get out as much as he used to. Runs photography classes and city walks through Photo School and will explain the Internet to you for money.

Posted in art, culture
  • Chamberlain

    “smallest core a major city has known.”… Apart from Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, Bristol, etc. And London doesn’t even have a core.

    • Pete

      I have a feeling I’ve misused the term “city core” given I’d consider London’s to be Zone 1. Ah well.

    • Pete Ashton

      I also should have specified the category of city I’m thinking of, Birmingham probably being the smallest example. I’m interested in cities where it’s hard to get your head around their vastness.

  • http://twitter.com/mikelcu Mike Cummins

    If there is any unity in the term “Birmingham” I feel it is in the services that are shared (like the Number 11) rather than a distinct personality as cities such Manchester and Liverpool enjoy.

    There is a parochiality in Birmingham that exceeds anywhere else I have visited. Moseley, for example, is long known as having one of the smallest moving distances of anywhere in the country: people move within the area, not out of it. If they do move out, it is due to cost constraints and they will be in either Balsall or Kings Heath, Lower and Upper Moseley…

    Similar things are said of Handsworth, Erdington et al.

    This is, in part, due to memories being given more credence than reality. Moseley has not been the Bohemian sanctuary it is perceived to be for decades, despite having the highest concentration of musicians and artists (allegedly) in the city.

    Council projects to promote the city as a unified whole always fail on that premise there is a unity. Diversity is applauded, but the wrong diversity – that of race and creed rather than the disparate identities of the areas.

  • eschaton

    I wonder if you’re looking for something that’s just not there. Even if it were true that Birmingham has a particularly weak core (which from experience nationally and internationally I doubt), isn’t the glue that holds a place together simply the fact that it is there?

    Show me a city that has disintegrated.

    • Pete Ashton

      Yeah, that’s kinda the point. There’s the Birmingham that is “there” in a physical sense, and that informs the idea of Birmingham in significant ways, but there’s also a massive part of “Birmingham” that exists in the mind, particularly as it’s impossible to hold the entirety of the city in your mind at any one time.

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