12 reasons why Birmingham should banish Tolkien

welcome to birmingham

JRR Tolkien was, by all accounts, a lovely bloke. His books might be badly-written overlong prose in need of an editor which gave birth to an era of badly written, overlong “high-fantasy” sagas, but as a human being he was, from what I can tell, beyond much reproach.

Tolkien, as anyone who’s read a ‘Birmingham’s dead interesting and that’ article can tell you, came from Birmingham and, because he’s dead famous, people in Birmingham will, on occasion, embrace this figure from our history and celebrate his roots.

I’m here to explain why people who love Birmingham should not celebrate JRR Tolkien’s residency in our land. In fact we should do the opposite: ignore the hell out of him and his deluded fans.
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Birmingham Airport to Coach Station in pixel-width strips

I’ve been playing around with slit-scan photography lately and at the tail end of a long and boring coach journey I thought I’d try recording the journey into Birmingham as a slit-scan. The app I was using was limited to 2044 pixels so I couldn’t do the whole thing at once but these five pretty much cover the view from Birmingham Airport to Digbeth Coach Station.

(click for full size)

Coach from BHX to Digbeth

A bit of explanation is probably in order.

The camera (in this case an iPad) is held firmly against the coach window. Any movements are those of the coach itself. It was set to take eight 1x480px photos every second and stack them in a row. So what you’re seeing is sort of like a movie, and sort of not at all like a movie.

When the coach is moving quickly you see a lot of noise as the strips of pixels have little in common and when the coach is at a standstill you see the same image repeated over and over as a block. The inbetween bits, where the speed of movement marries up with the view, is where the interesting stuff happens.

For example, the houses on the outskirts along the Coventry Road:

Coach from BHX to Digbeth.jpg

Or these large office blocks in Sheldon:

Coach from BHX to Digbeth.jpg-2

As we get into central Birmingham things start getting noisier but we also get an unexpected visualisation of traffic flow. As the coach comes to a traffic light or congestion the blocks of colour emerge. I also liked this slow crawl around a roundabout (after overtaking a big red lorry), scanning the billboard like a desktop scanner might:

Coach from BHX to Digbeth.jpg-4

There are many slit-scan apps available but I’ve been using this one.

A Bull Ring Notelet

Bull Ring notelet

My good lady Fiona was digging through the detritus of her youth and came across a heartfelt letter penned by a teenage chum. The letter was written in a notelet, a sheet of A4 paper folded to A6, with an illustration on the front. The illustration is of the old Bull Ring shopping centre, a marvel of its age, rendered in a delicate pencil. The letter would have been sent in the 80s, a couple of decades after the centre was completed, so I presume it was nabbed from the bottom of an old drawer without a second thought. It certainly didn’t relate to the prose written inside.

File next to “postcards of the Queensway“.

Letter from Stirchley: A New River

As a home worker I need excuses to get out of the house so, despite not being that interested in food other than as fuel, I’ve been volunteering at Stirchley Stores, doing shifts and running errands a few times a week. As well as the essential contact with other people it also gives me a commute, of a kind. It’s just a walk through Hazelwell Park and over the River Rea, five minutes at most, and it’s given me a real appreciation of these small, local parks which cover the Birmingham sprawl.

Functional and unpretentious, Hazelwell Park is a typical community resource. A large rectangle with space for ball sports (as I believe they’re known), enclosed on four sides by a terrace, a patch of woodland, some allotmments and the mighty Rea. Like other parks along the river its path forms part of the National Cycle Route 5, a pastoral bypass to the noisy Pershore Road used by pedestrians and cyclists alike. It also houses a vast murder of crows which, remarkable as they are, are not the subject of this letter.

I want to tell you about a new river which I believe has emerged in Hazelwell Park, one of many minor tributaries of the Rea but one which I’m pretty sure was not so obvious last year.
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Power and the city

Birmingham, like any city of a reasonable size, is a bit odd. This is to be expected because when you have a million people interacting with each other, sharing their ideas and opinions through words and actions, things get messy. In all my years of thinking-about-Birmingham I’ve often wondered how anyone can honestly say this city has a single fixed identity. At the very least it’s two cities, north and south, but it’s way more complex than that.

Perhaps it’s the echoes of villages the Birmingham suburban sprawled consumed that keep things distinct, giving the likes of Edgbaston and Erdington a sense of identity even though you can’t really tell where they begin and end on the 11 bus. For a city so worshipful of motorised mobility people really do have a focussed sense of place, be it their 19th century terrace or post-war estate.

And then there’s the city centre. A Big City Plan for the smallest core a major city has known. Birmingham’s identity isn’t to be found within the Queensway – that’s just the melting pot where the villages come to mix and shop. Birmingham is an area, a sprawl, a coalition of folk.

To see this in even sharper relief, pop along to the Black Country. Here this collection of villages engorged by industry into an urban sprawl doesn’t even bother with a unifying name. Legend has it accents change from street to street in Dudley, such is the loyalty to place. If this area has A People then it’s in the loosest sense.

Maybe this explains the self-deprecating Brummie character, one that is proud of where it’s from but doesn’t like to make a fuss about it, much to the frustration of the regional cheerleading squad. True Brummies know their city is impossible to define and they’re okay with that because it works for them.

To be honest, I don’t really know, and while it’s easy to speculate it’s not that useful. Let’s just say Birmingham as a concept is weirdly lose and leave it at that.

But even if it doesn’t really matter, I still find myself wondering: how does a sprawling city with a weak core and a multiplex identity hold itself together?

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