We all know that Birmingham isn’t shit. We’ve spent nearly 20 years telling people, showing the world, and often undermining our case. In our new book we lay out the ineffable reasons why we say ‘Birmingham: it’s not shit’ and attempt to eff it. On Spaghetti Junction’s 50th anniversary (May 2022 is the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Gravelly Hill Interchange) we give you an exclusive essay from the book on some things that might be under there.
Billions of people have been on top of Spaghetti Junction, from the early days of the first motorists on 24 May 1972 at about 4.30pm to today. They estimate that around 200,000 cars a day travel on it now, with literally some of these finding the right exit.
But how many have been to experience the wonders beneath?
You could recline on the beach and gaze at the wonderfully complex shapes you get at the meeting point of two motorways, two rivers, three canals, a train line and any number of A- and A(M)-roads. The beach, at Salford Junction, the meeting point of three canals: the Grand Union Canal, Tame Valley Canal and the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal. There’s no sand as such, but what is sand but dirt with ideas above its station? And there’s plenty of dirt.
Don’t think you want to go to Spaghetti on holiday? When it opened, coach operators offered sightseeing tours for 65p each. Their route is a mystery, as is the reason anyone wanted to go on it… except Spaghetti Junction is rather impressive and had been the talk of the local press ever since the design was presented and construction started in 1968.
In the Evening Mail on 1 June 1965 the journalist Roy Smith described plans for the junction as “like a cross between a plate of spaghetti and an unsuccessful attempt at a Staffordshire knot”, the headline written by sub-editor Alan Eaglesfield called it ‘Spaghetti Junction’. The Mail may have got it wrong as we have a counter-claim on good authority that it was a man from the local authority, Councillor Charles Simpson, who gave it the nickname in a planning meeting as he had heard of an earlier junction in Los Angeles called that (the LA Spaghetti is also apparently known as ‘malfunction junction’). We may never know the truth.
It’s never clear if Bill Drummond’s artworks are the physical objects, the acts of him making them, or something else he decides later. The KLF man, one of the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, and my favourite artist, is never quite sure what anything means, or can’t explain until it’s done. This very morning he sent an email in which he informed his fans that he had changed the name of his ‘never ending play’ from Never Lock Your Doors to Under the Junction. That junction. “Spaghetti Junction is the entrance to the underworld. Well, according to me it is.” he says.
“I kept finding myself returning to the same spot under Spaghetti Junction. I got dropped off at Spaghetti Junction when hitching from Liverpool to my parents’ home in Corby. This was in 1973 when I was 19 years old. It was night time and raining. I got lost somewhere deep underneath it all and spent the night there. All very scary.”
“In those days hitching was commonplace. My favourite part of the journey was on the elevated stretch of the M6 that cuts through the north and east of Birmingham. […] From this position the city I could see looked like a city of the future, or at least from the TV programme Tomorrow’s World. It even had a skyline like American cities had.”
I spoke to Bill after seeing the film about his tour Best Before Death which opens with him bathing, shrinking his new Levi’s, in the canal underneath. I told him that the only other film I knew that featured the underneath of Spaghetti was Take Me High, where Cliff zoomed through in a hovercraft. We then spent a good couple of minutes, old men with holes in the mind where Cliff should be, failing to remember the name of the film Summer Holiday.
Forgetting can be a good thing; in an episode of Yes Minister, civil service chief Sir Humphrey withholds some files as they were “lost in the floods of 1967”. “Was 1967 a particularly bad winter?” asks Minister Jim Hacker. “No, a marvellous winter. We lost no end of embarrassing files.” The ‘floods of 1967’ for local gangster lore are large civil engineering projects, particularly the foundations of large road building works, and the largest of road building works in the country was the Gravelly Hill Interchange, so it’s no surprise that the 559 concrete columns are rumoured to contain the remains of many enemies of our famous villains. Being around 80% concrete 20% gangster would certainly explain why they continue to need so much repair.
The big rumour is that the concrete is the last resting place of enemies of Eddie Fewtrell, in particular those that fell in The Battle of Snow Hill between the Aston lads and the Kray Twins’ army of Cockney villains.
According to sometime Fewtrell doorman Andy, the “explosion of violence took place on October 14, the date of the Battle of Hastings. Ronnie delighted in pointing that out when recalling the carnage. And like Harold’s Saxon hordes, the notorious Cockney villains were crushed, their bid to spread the criminal cancer of drugs, extortion and crime to Birmingham streets forever thwarted.”
The truth about the battle is very hard to come by, although if someone wants to pay me to make a very long tapestry about it, I’m not an 11th century Norman weaver, but I’ll have a look. The best source I can find is a very detailed account in David Keogh’s book The Accidental Gangster. David is married to Eddie Fewtrell’s daughter and claimed to have spoken to many of the Fewtrell clan and others who said they were there, but he then fictionalised it. His book tells of a battle of hundreds, with knives, guns and clubs wrapped in barbed wire, it tells of the Kray gang having their own train to bring the troops from London. If HS2 had been built they may have got here 15 minutes earlier and won, but eventually, when all seemed lost for the Fewtrells, five masked IRA men with machine guns turned up and chased the Krays away. Eddie Fewtrell has since denied any knowledge.
The dead are rumoured to be holding up the M6 (or the A38, or the A5127, rumours are not good traffic reports) but doorman Andy again, “I don’t think the construction dates and the battle dates correspond”. Who really knows? The construction went on for a long time, there was lots of hardcore needed, and, anyway, these are the foundations of modern Birmingham’s myths.
Under Spaghetti Junction is a microcosm of all the things I enjoy about Birmingham: a gritty piece of concrete urbanism that I love but that people assume I appreciate ironically, art that touches on our lives in an ultra-meta way, and a local folk-memory, that may or may not have happened, where the truth doesn’t matter as long as the story is so good.
Don’t forget you can get 49 more of these in Birmingham: It’s Not Shit the book, or double that in our classic 101 Things Birmingham Gave the World.