Do Spires Dream of Electric Sheep?

When I conjure a vision of a Victorian city in my mind I start with the sky: a blanket of smoke woven from a loom of towering brick built chimneys.

An industrial chimney is built first and foremost for a function: to carry off an exhaust gas, and to allow the intake of fresh air. Later, once you have a chimney that will do this right, you might turn your attention to adornment, to designing a chimney as an aesthetic task, and to making a statement. But then, much later, if the chimney loses its function it becomes two things: a vestige and a symbol of an industrial past. In the modern day the stacks of the industrial revolution are reduced purely to their secondary, aesthetic, function acting as iconography for industrial heritage. These are the dormant, sleeping, dreaming spires to the empty cathedrals of industry and they have no value beyond sentimentality.

And yet…

Running down the canal the other day I looked properly at one of the old chimneys just South of Spaghetti and I noticed something: the stack was crowned with phone masts. It seems obvious really: the stack affords rare height in a flat area, so of course the phone companies would want to use the redundant chimneys to house their antennae. The dreaming spires are stirring. Stopping briefly to photograph it I imagined signals pouring through those masts: photos, emails, calls all pumped high into the sky, drawing fresh bits and bytes behind them together knitting together a blanket not of smoke but of data, a digital smog from that loom of towering brick built chimneys.

Dreaming Spires

101 Things Birmingham Gave The World. No. 33: The Internet

Sir Tim is Watching You

We are under attack. Our very way of life is threatened. All because of the fucking Internet. Make no mistake, we are at war with the machines now, today. It’s already started. And there’s one sure fire way to stop a war: KILL HITLER. Continue reading “101 Things Birmingham Gave The World. No. 33: The Internet”

Sutton Coldfield Sneezing Girl

Sutton Coldfield Sneezing Girl
Picture courtesy ITV and Media Archive for Central England

Talk of a world-record hiccuping girl on BBC News this weekend led David Nash to ask after the Sutton Coldfield sneezing girl of 1979, and the wonderful people at MACE were able to deliver this video footage of Tricia Reay as she set off to France for a miracle cure.

Paradise Circus was pleased to hear that Tricia did eventually stop sneezing, but the sad end to this story is that her Guinness World Record title was lost a few years later to another teenage girl from Pershore – though not before her achievements were celebrated in a bluegrass style song by Roy Castle on a Record Breakers LP (which may not have broken any records itself, but is much fun — more here):

Continue reading “Sutton Coldfield Sneezing Girl”

On top of Spaghetti

I woke this morning to a few tweets informing me that today is the 41st birthday of the Gravelly Hill Interchange, better known as Spaghetti Junction. Within these birthday messages lay a joke, a myth about Junction 6 that lies at the heart of many an outsider’s knowledge of Birmingham. This is the myth that traversing Spaghetti is hard. Continue reading “On top of Spaghetti”

“Meet me by Burger King at 2pm”: New Street, New Start for the social map of Brum

Every town has a rallying point. Growing up in Guernsey it was “outside Boots”. Perfectly located at the intersection of the three main pedestrian streets (and a killer flight of steps from the sea front), and with good drop off points, Boots was the rendezvous for all my teenage adventures, shopping trips and, well, rendezvous (nudge, nudge). In Birmingham, for me, it was the New Street station Burger King.

The New Street Burger King Sign
Image apologetically provided by @charlie_spotted via Twitter

Perfectly located at the intersection between two sets of entrance doors and the platforms (and a killer escalator ride from the Pallasades Shopping Centre), and with the added advantage of selling chips, Burger King was the kick off spot for most of my City Centre expeditions.

So where will I meet now that New Street has changed? One of the downsides of rejecting any sense of being a ‘hyperlocal blog’ is that we no longer get invited to the opening of envelopes across Birmingham: we’ve not been inside and so I can’t tell you where the new rally point will be. This is, of course, as it should be. Over the next few months we’ll begin to redraw our social map and we’ll all collectively learn the new New Street. Many rendezvous points will be attempted and slowly one will emerge as the repeated favourite. We’ll test this place out and wear it until it feels comfortable and then folksonomically we agree where the optimal meeting point is.

A new meme will be born – I’ll meet you there at two.

Saturday Bridge

Just where Sandpits becomes The Parade the road becomes Saturday Bridge. In a car on the B1435 you probably wouldn’t notice it at all, so brief is the time you spend above the canal, so integrated into the road the bridge has become. From the top of a bus or the pavement you might get a glimpse of the NIA at the far end of the canal and realise that for a second you were borne over water. From beneath, on the towpath, Saturday Bridge is more evident.

Saturday Bridge
Picture CC ell-r-brown

As I run down the towpath I can see the cars fly over on Saturday Bridge and as I approach it the route is briefly slightly restricted by the bridge structure itself. Down here on the waterside, the bridge also tells me its story. A plaque on the wall says it got its name from the practice of paying boat workers at this point on the canal on Saturdays. I pause to reflect on that for a moment and I become aware that a few feet above me one can often see a queue form down Saturday Bridge, waiting for the Job Centre Plus to open up. Fate has served me up a tiny, quirky piece of irony, its own geographical comment on the post-industrial economy of Britain and Birmingham.

Now jog on.

101 Things Birmingham Gave The World. No. 25: A nice cup of tea and a sit down

A cup of tea and a nice sit down
Image CC Ant McNeil

There is a very simple principle to the making of tea and it’s this – to get the proper flavour of tea, the water has to be boiling (not boiled) when it hits the tea leaves. If it’s merely hot then the tea will be insipid.

A watched pot never boils but an electrical kettle does, and so every properly nice cup of tea has poured from the over-flowing cup of wonders that is Birmingham. That’s right, the science behind the modern electric kettle – and a decent cuppa – comes from Brum: Arthur Large created an immersed heating element and the boffins at Bullpit & Sons added a cut off valve. Thus was born the nice cup of tea and a sit down, and with it the space to think and ponder, to reframe the problem that you can’t solve while you refresh your mind and body.

How many more great ideas and inventions stand on the shoulders of this giant? How many innovations would not have come to fruition but for a soothing cup of PG Tips?

Too many to count – and we’re only going up to 101.

Heard it through the…

Brian Homer and the Central Library edition of Grapevine

Grapevine was a community newspaper established in the 1970s. Launched in Handsworth, it masqueraded as a listings magazine (to encourage readership) but was conceived as a space which could address the gap in coverage of community issues in the city. Looking back at projects like this remind us that the issues that Birmingham’s burgeoning hyperlocal scene are engaging with are not new, and that their work is part of an ongoing canon of alternative media work. It’s worth folk looking back over this history to make the links.

The team who published Grapevine went on to develop a range of other community media projects including the Handsworth Self Portrait.

Pictured is Grapevine’s Brian Homer with an edition of the magazine that highlighted the controversy around library redevelopment projects some 40 years ago – another issue which resonates within contemporary Birmingham. To read their coverage of the Birmingham Central Library, see the digitised pages in the Scribd viewer below.

Grapevine 73 by Brian Homer

The Stirrer has a time-bending review of Grapevine’s final issue if you’d like to get a sense of what the magazine was about.

What on earth are you doing here?

Vous êtes ici

Here’s a question I get asked a lot:

“What on earth are you doing here?”.

I wasn’t born here, in Birmingham, but here I am now: a grown man, a wife, a house, kids and a cat. A responsible job even. Birmingham has me, has me locked in tight.

“But why Birmingham, of all places?”

I didn’t grow up here, in Brum, but here I stand, here and now. I’m part of this place, it’s part of me.

“How did you end up here?”

Continue reading “What on earth are you doing here?”

101 Things Birmingham Gave The World. No. 19: Manchester

Ah, Manchester! Competitive little Manchester! Gutsy, plucky, Manchester! What makes you tick? What makes you worry so much about Birmingham? What makes you enter into dick measuring contests with us all the time? Well, our Psychology 101 training suggests it’s something oedipal. Tell us, people of the North, tell us about your mother.

Folksy little Manchester was something of a 14th Century Etsy, producing all manner of cutesy home spun bits of Flemish weaving, that was of course until Birmingham started and then sent the Industrial Revolution up country to them, giving them the opportunity to step up their ideas a bit and start to grow.

Whilst Birmingham, a sort of Cupertino for the 1700s, was busily producing more and more great ideas to send out into the world, Manchester rolled up its sleeves and swore it would be bigger than us one day, just you wait and see.

And so, like Frankenstein’s Monster, it lurches about the place grasping at things it doesn’t understand and crying out. One day its clumsy fists might crush Birmingham, the maker. We can’t stop it and perversely we don’t want to. We watch Manchester, simultaneously disgusted and fascinated by it as it shouts something about having more sausages than us, bellowing something about Salford.

Imagine the chip they’d have on their collective shoulders if they were scousers.