Jonathan Meades likes Birmingham. Even for a public intellectual he’s a contrary bugger. He spends the first chapter of his recent autobiography bemoaning the fact he wasn’t a good looking enough child to attract the attentions of any paedophiles.
In his 1998 BBC programme Heart By-Pass: Jonathan Meades Motors Through Birmingham he fixates on Birmingham as the home of the car, the place where the first integrated garages were built. And, he says, “the first city to authorise one-way streets”.
And that’s our evidence, which seems rather flimsy. Except that delving into the history of the one-way street reveals just how bad everyone else seems to have been at it. An attempt was made in 1617 to introduce one-way streets near the Thames in London, where people were no doubt told which direction to Lambeth Walk in, with their thumbs in their jacket collars. It didn’t work – and they didn’t try again until 1800. A visitor to Barcelona can see remnants of ‘donkey one way systems’ in the alleys around La Ramblas, with which the town planner made an ass of himself when no one took a blind bit of notice.
Jonathan Meades’s key word here is ‘authorise’ – this is a council job and back in the mists of time Birmingham had a rather efficient and forward-looking administration. It was responsible for sorting out housing, water and gas – all sorts of things that Birmingham enjoyed right up until the 1980s when Thatcher sold them off and kept the money. These days the council is well meaning but not so efficient. I asked the press office to tell me more about our innovation with these one-way streets: the answer that came back pointed only one way too, “We don’t know. Have you tried Carl Chinn?”