When Africans arrived in America as slaves during the 17th century, they brought with them a five-note musical scale that had evolved over centuries along the trade routes between Africa and the Middle East. Upon encountering the slightly different musical scale that the plantation owners had brought over from Europe, the Africans found that not all notes could be easily resolved. This led to a certain amount of improvisation and bending of strings that eventually resulted in what became known as ‘blue’ notes. These became the distinctive characteristics of wholly new African-American forms of music such as jazz and blues.
I can’t speak for other social strata or areas, but in a working class home in Birmingham if you ever start a sentence “I’m not a…” Dads in other rooms will bound over furniture and push small children out of the way to run in and say “I’m not a gynaecologist, but I’ll have a look,” and then walk away with a giant shit-eating grin.
As well they might if they knew of long time resident of Birmingham Lawson Tait. Lawson is known for a few things: his strong anti-vivisection views, his demonstrating the link between cleanliness and mortality rates before the theory was generally accepted, but, maybe most famously, he is known as one of the fathers of modern gynaecology. Lawson, born Robert Lawson, is responsible for pioneering a bunch of lifesaving lady bits operations and kick-started a field of medicine that has kept women healthy ‘down there’ ever since. Any friend of the vulva is a friend of mine.
He was also responsible for the appendectomy, so if you ever had to have a few weeks off school and got to eat ice cream to recover, you have Lawson to thank. Wait, that could be tonsils? Who knows? I’m not an otolaryngologist… but I’ll have a look
No, that doesn’t work.
At the close of the 19th century, an area known as Palestine was home to Arabs, Muslims, Christians and Jews, who lived among each other in relative harmony. True, the banter got a bit lively on the local newspaper’s forum but it wasn’t an accurate reflection of how well the various people got along.
It’s an incontrovertible yet nonetheless contested fact that Birmingham’s Electric Cinema is the oldest working cinema in the UK. Birmingham can, then, claim an important part in the history of cinema in Britain. The Electric, though, is a peculiar beast. Those who would dismiss its claim to be an historic venue might point out that very little remains of the building of 1910, and so look instead look to the South East – to Brighton’s Duke of York’s or London’s Phoenix (née the East Finchley Picturedome). Of course, it better suits the accepted narrative of arts and culture that such things would belong to the capital or its artistic dormitory town, so The Electric is easily brushed aside by historians and journalists.
In explaining to you how Birmingham invented going to the pictures I will also brush aside any mention of The Electric because going to The Electric is not, you see, going to the pictures.
The 1960s, as we’re often told, was a turbulent time. A time of sexual liberation, mind-expanding drugs and endless streams of footage of Twiggy walking down Carnaby Street, and George Best pouring sparkling wine into a pyramid of champagne glasses.
When talk turns to radio, however, the cameras always inevitably turn seawards, a bobbing sea trawler covered in radio masts, swiftly followed by fashionably dressed men staring earnestly at dials and switches, then wheeling their chairs over to pick another seven inch from the rack.
I am talking, of course, about pirate radio, and if you were a hip young thing in the early to mid 1960s, pirate radio was the only way you could listen to pop music over the airwaves. That is, until 1967 when, after pirate radio stations were outlawed by an act of parliament, the BBC split the Light Programme into two stations, BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio 2, the former having a remit to play popular music.
Radio 1 sprang into life at 7:00am on 30 September 1967, with Tony Blackburn introducing the very first record, Flowers in the Rain by The Move, marking the beginning of the establishment’s acceptance of post war rebellion, and the end of the ’60s.
The Move were, as any fule kno, formed in Moseley in 1966, and the band have a strong Brummie pedigree. Vocalist Carl Wayne went on to star in Brummie wobbly soap Crossroads and lead guitarist Roy Wood later formed Wizzard (and enjoyed having his Christmas dinner at Walsall Rugby Club, though not every day). Bassist Chris ‘Ace’ Kefford was so cool, even the mighty Sabbath were in awe of him after catching a glimpse of him climbing out of a Rolls while they waited for the number 11 bus. Bev Bevan, drummer and Jasper Carrott’s best man, was once told by Paul McCartney that he was a better drummer than Ringo Starr and rhythm guitarist Trevor Burton went on to form Birmingham supergroup Balls (no sniggering at the back there).
It’s often said that the first step you take on a journey sets the tone for the rest of that trip: The Move, for all they were pop stars, were never properly cool, and Radio 1 would never really be either.
Who knows what journey Radio 1 could’ve taken if Tony Blackburn had picked Massachusetts by The Bee Gees (which turned out to be the second track he played) instead of The Move’s opus.
Perhaps the airing of such a
middle-of-the-road track would have set the station on the road to cosy conservatism, with Tony Blackburn’s breakfast tenure lasting well into the mid-90s and a young John Major shockingly rising to power in 1979 instead of Margaret Thatcher. Or it could’ve gone the other way, a revitalised rebellion seeing John Peel doing drivetime, and dinner tables across the country being treated to The Fall in session every other Thursday, influencing a socialist revolution and Britain becoming a rock ‘n’ roll utopia.
This is of course all idle speculation, but one thing is certain, we can categorically state that the Tea Cosy’s first choice of record gave a distinctly Brummie twang to a national institution.
Nancy Mitford was a terrible snob. In a letter to Evelyn Waugh, she mentions with glee a mutual friend who uses the expression “rather ‘milk in first’” to express condemnation of those lower down the social scale.
In an essay for Encounter magazine, called The English Aristocracy, she listed a glossary of terms used by the upper classes along with the equivalents used by those who, to paraphrase Noel Coward, thought that television was for watching rather than appearing on. In doing so, she unleashed a wave of nose-looking-down directed at anyone caught saying ‘settee’ instead of ‘sofa’, or ‘perfume’ rather than ‘scent’.
Yes, Nancy Mitford not only needed to check her privilege, but even created a ready reckoner with which to do it.
Nancy Mitford was a terrible snob, but at least she wasn’t a Nazi. Nor did she come up with the idea of using a list of shibboleths to separate the English upper classes from those that would desire to emulate them. The groundwork, the idea of using synonyms rather than accents as class indicators, was done by Alan S. C. Ross, linguistics professor at the University of Birmingham and inventor of the terms U and non-U.
In 1954, Ross published a paper in a Finnish journal on ‘the terminology of popular discourse of social dialects in Britain’. But it certainly didn’t cause the stir that Nancy Mitford’s use of his ideas did, just a few months later. Proof that it is indeed who (whom?) you know rather than what you know.
Birmingham, home of really understanding the class struggle: sweet. I mean, ‘pudding’.
Eric Arthur Blair’s 1984 provides such a compelling vision of life in a totalitarian state that it has become the founding text on which fears of undemocratic control are built. Its ideas are strong and can be easily adapted to suit almost any political purpose.
The left will shuffle in their donkey jackets and point to the opprobrium hurled at immigrants or the poor, look hard, over a plate of custard creams, and cry ‘two minutes hate’ at the right wing press. Libertarians call almost any attempt to do anything ‘Big Brother’. But it’s the likes of the Daily Mail that have taken the contents of the book most to heart.
‘Orwellian’ is a phrase that the Daily Mail use a lot, there are over 30 pages of search results on their website. Its use is often combined with the word ‘nightmare’ and almost always followed by a story about how a local council or the BBC has ‘banned’ the the use of a word. Or talking about black people. Or in one ‘news story’ I came across: broccoli.
It’s possible, but unlikely, that when the kids of today play ‘war’ they mime sitting in command centres programming drones, or pretend to work on high-level AI routines for infiltrating ISIS on Instagram. It’s more likely that they continue to use the main two traditional imaginary weapons: guns and the hand grenade.
We could talk about Birmingham’s influence on the gun until the cows come home, but as the cows all live out in Warwickshire barn conversions we’d have to rig up some sort of notification system. So, let’s talk grenades, and in particular the famous one known as the Mills Bomb.
Human beings are strange animals. One of our oddest traits is the belief that certain objects are made not of earthly or man-made materials, such as iron, carbon, cotton, or paper, but of fucking magic.
Some items are thought to bring us good luck, such as horseshoes, or rabbits’ feet, or particular types of coin, whilst other things, such as wood (when touched), or salt (when thrown over the shoulder), are thought to ward off bad luck. Not only that, but combinations of apparently unrelated items are either thought to bring about very, very bad luck (new shoes on the table, walking under ladders), or signs of impending very, very good luck (bird shit on the shoulder, black cats crossing your path).
Then, of course, there are the other items, such as a fridges, that are seen simply as white boxes that keep stuff cold and are not thought to contain any magic properties at all. Although, in the case of fridges, the question of whether or not the light goes off when you close the door remains a mystery.
It’s all very odd and arbitrary. But in Birmingham, as you’d expect, things are every-so-slightly different.
Whilst we Brummies might hold with some of those strange superstitions and beliefs, what sets us apart is that we also, as the accounts in this series of 101 things more than capably demonstrate, have long been in the business of creating, with our enquiring minds and ingenious hands, what others around the world perceive to be magic.
Take, for example, the Brummie engineer, Oliver Lucas: In 1910, he invented the car horn, and that is the perfect example. Here are some things it can do:
Everyone has a guilty secret tucked away in the hardest to reach cupboard of their kitchen. Is yours a donut maker, a Breville or a pasta machine? The answer will depend very much on your age, your class, and when you reached key milestones in your life course but most certainly you have them. Did you marry in the 1970s? You have a fondue kit. Were you a student in the noughties? You have a chocolate fountain. Hit 30 in the late 1990s? That sudden paunch made you invest in a smoothie maker (but didn’t make you stop to think about quite how much sugar there is in a smoothie).
Let’s go through the Kay’s catalogue of the mind and think about some of the other ridiculous single-use gadgets that have come into our homes, been unboxed, used once and then packed away to the high shelf: bread machine, cup cake maker, slow cooker, rice cooker, coffee percolator, milk frother, ice cream maker, food processor, coffee grinder, spice mill… an endless list of useless crap. Most of these things duplicate things that our main appliances already do: the cooker, the kettle, a fucking knife. We buy, we use, we realise our mistake and we swear we’ll never again be seduced by the marketing patter of ‘convenience’, the marketing patter that started here in Birmingham.