We all know that Birmingham isn’t shit. We’ve spent nearly 20 years telling people, showing the world, and often undermining our case. Tired of falling back on the same old cliches, or past achievements, we look at the ineffable reasons why we say ‘Birmingham: it’s not shit’ and attempt to eff it.
JG Ballard was famously inspired by The Westway in London, a road he considered central to some dystopian future that we were actually living in. But If you go to London and travel the Westway, you can see that it is nothing more than an extended Perry Barr flyover — and has absolutely nothing on the wonder that is our very own Spaghetti Junction. Ballard’s Concrete Island doesn’t have a beach.
But if you like your driving urban, elevated, thrillingly unsafe then Birmingham had something that could help create a thousand unsettling novels. If Digbeth is our Faraway Tree, then the Camp Hill Flyover was our — rattling and juddering — slippery slip, a helter skelter to the Stratford Road, via sheer terror.
That it’s no longer there doesn’t diminish how great it makes me feel about Birmingham, our ingenuity, our stoic acceptance of genuinely odd things, and our haphazard approach to the past: we bulldoze that which would be a permanent monument and leave up a temporary flyover for decades. Looking back from thirty years hence feels like climbing backwards — pre seatbelts — on the rear seat of a green mark one escort: the exhilaration is in remembering it. In saying:
“Holy shit, we really drove over that.”
Barely as wide as a double decker bus in fact some types of Birmingham buses were not allowed to use it as it was too dangerous, the Camp Hill flyover helped ease a traffic pinch-point where the Coventry Road hit town.
As you can tell by looking at any single photo, it was prefabricated. Built in Bristol by a firm called Gardiners they first assembled in a field to test it. It then spent a while lying behind Garrison Lane tip.
It was installed on one October weekend in 1961, not by specialised contractors but by ‘the army’. At least according to the sort of people who live in Thailand, post on local history forums on the internet and say “i will never return, being no great fan of ‘Diversity’”.
And nor can we return to those days: the painful nostalgia of pining for something that was genuinely a bit shit is enough. Not too long before it can have been removed, in 1989, is where I can place my one memory of going over the flyover, on the way to watch my dad play football in the Birmingham Works League on a Saturday lunchtime. His teammate’s car took aim at the small gap and powered up and over the hump, the tops of the terraces of shops flashing past. Memories aren’t impermeable and the mounting of the flyover now plays to me as an echo of the scene in The Italian Job where the minis speed into the back of the coach.
The Italian Job was made in 1968, had the writers been over the Camp Hill flyover, based the action on the skill needed to quickly get to anywhere in Sparkhill? Did I really see King Kong on the way past, or had he long gone? We need to be comfortable and celebrate our imperfect recollections suffused with pop culture, let ourselves love our Birmingham not some official record lest, like a terrified driver going up to Camp Hill Circus, we meet ourselves coming up the wrong way.