I haven’t walked across the city for a very, very long time. Certainly not since my parents shuffled off this mortal coil. You won’t find many urban ramblers in a city built for cars. But this afternoon I’m going to walk to Kings Heath. If I’m here I may as well see what’s happened since I left. First I strike out at the courtyard of the upside down library, that inverted pyramid of Alpine chocolate that was supposed to say something about the city. Now they’ve opened up three fast food outlets and a truly shocking pub in its atrium, this concrete beast of a building says everything it needs to. I buy a coffee from one of the gaudy takeaways. It tastes cheap and nasty, but I hold on to it, sipping from it as I cross the bridge built over the Inner Ring Road when they started the long job of making the place more pedestrian-friendly in 1989.
Through Centenary Square, avoiding the skateboarders, past the site where the ill-fated Forward statue once stood proudly, like a fat polystyrene gurgle, or a motorway services sign in 3D. Like Birmingham, it was ugly but almost adorable. Almost.
I continue along Broad Street, past the International Convention Centre. No braying businessmen smoking outside today – it’s Sunday. Over the top of the canal basin and I’m into Brum’s drinking district. Even though it’s daytime, the lights on the front of the bars flash. Tantalise, Refreshers, Bar Baa Baa, The Best Bar None. The Bangladeshi curry houses are here too, with their strange mix of piety and pissed patrons. When I took on the Koronkko account I read widely about differing attitudes to alcohol in various cultures. Islam, I learned, took a dim view of heavy drinking. It was, coincidentally, a viewpoint both my parents shared.
This slice of Broad Street has a ‘rep’ now – alcohol tourists come here from far and wide. Stag parties, hen parties, fun seekers from the surrounding counties, NEC conference-goers who want to let their hair down, Brummies who want to get laid.
Then I spy the giant club at the end of the street. Midnight’s Children. From the window of the club, a bright neon sign flashes ‘@Koronkko NITES’ in cool blue. That this piss weak lager, this fucking fizzy stupidity juice had managed to get such astonishing brand penetration was entirely Schriber Howard’s work. My work. It may be brewed up the road (for the time being, at least), but Brummies had taken a long time to love it. We had come up with the campaigns to promote it. These worked – eventually. I promote music too. Inside the club, tonight and every night, the DJ will play records that I’ve promoted. Records I have serviced key club DJs with. Records I’ve sent to journalists on The Evening Brummie and presenters on Heartlands Radio! (The exclamation mark was theirs, not mine). Records I’ve sent to taste-makers around the country.
Tonight – like every night – the plebs will guzzle this appalling cirrhosis-causer, bottle after bottle of it, like it is going out of fashion. And they will dance to the music I have deemed they dance to. Later they’ll be seized by their primary desire – procreation. Despite what you’ve been told, we aren’t a nation of alcoholics per se. The British are actually addicted to sex. Or if we’re disagreeing with sex addiction as a formal mental abnormality you’d see in the psychiatric diagnostic books, then let’s say instead that we are compelled to obtain sex. But we’re too shy. The only way women will abide a one night stand with one of these losers, and the only way men will feel confident enough to beg strangers for one, is by consuming a skin full. The thought of all these tawdry liaisons makes me feel sick, again. I skirt round the southern side of Five Ways roundabout and enter leafy Edgbaston – the air tastes better, I feel less queasy. I pass Birmingham University’s halls of residence. I penetrate further into Edgbaston, through tree-lined roads now. I pass the dainty church seemingly raised up on a plinth as if displayed on your gran’s sideboard. This is the part of the city that tricks you into thinking you’re in the countryside. I cross Bristol Road and Pershore Road, go past the cricket ground, up the hill to Moseley – where the Wroxham family lived in peace and comfort until everything was ruined by one tired trucker on his way back to Győr. I turn right at the crossroads in Moseley Village, past the bar where I used to drink while I lived here – happy couples are eating Sunday roasts on the bar’s terrace. I continue up to the crest of the hill, then a smooth descent along the Alcester Road follows, over the railway line, down into Kings Heath, along the scrappy High Street, right into a residential road. Grange Road.
Birmingham looks like some memory preserved in aspic today. It’s like looking into the snowshaker of the city I keep in my head but seldom refer to. Maybe I shouldn’t have come back. Part of me thinks that when I die – alone, of course – they won’t know what to do with me. I’ll end up getting cremated back here. My ashes would probably drift off east on the prevailing winds towards Sheldon, perhaps getting sucked into the engines of a plane taking off at the airport, hitching a lift somewhere far away. It would be more fitting if I was simply rolled out of the back doors of the undertakers halfway between Moseley and Kings Heath, down the embankment, and on to the railway tracks, thence to get smashed to smithereens by a train bound for Hereford.
The odd thing is, it feels good to be here. I never expected that. Memories start flooding back. I don’t like memories, even the good ones. There’s nothing I can do about them though, they just keep appearing. The time Emaline and I ate chips on the way back from some risible indie club in town. The time we got stoned and slid down the slide in the children’s playground in Kings Heath Park in the middle of the night, and then laid down on the grass holding hands and looking up at the stars, ecstatic we’d found each other in such a big universe.
This is an excerpt from Spinning Out of Control, the new novel set in and around Birmingham’s media scene.