Danny Smith: Non-essential

Something something largest unsafe reopening of a Primark in Europe. We sent Danny Smith to die for capitalism. 

Her voice is mournful, an acapella lament closer to a wail than a dirge. I don’t speak the language but it vibrates with loss and a pleading sorrow. The lady has lines on her face chiseled in by the pain in her voice. She’s wearing a hijab and blue nitrile gloves. Another glove is stretched over the McDonald’s cup she is collecting money in. The cup sits in front of the empty crate she is sitting on, head back to allow the long notes of fragile misery to escape her body.

Opposite the queue for Poundland trails down the street in impossible perspective like an Escher print.

During the last three months I think we’ve all had the fantasy of when lockdown ends, a shared utopian vision of happiness in the streets, greeting our neighbours and strangers with warm hugs and handshakes. Sunlit pub gardens full of smiles, and cider with ice in.
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Danny Smith: Primark and prejudice

When we heard there was a big new shop opening in town, we called Danny and asked ‘Are you free?’ He was. We can’t remember whether we sent him to a big clothes shop that used to be the Palisades, or a big clothes shop that used to be the Pavilions. Either way, we were sure he’d hate it.

Stepped on a snake and slid back down to Birmingham. Tired, grumpy, and trapped in a city I escaped two years ago. The continuing adventures of a man lost in his own city. Hoping that the next leap, is the leap home.

Two hours of sleep is the worst amount of sleep, worse than no sleep at all. It’s halfway through a sleep cycle and will leave the average people emotionally fragile, feeling like they’ve fallen up and then down a steel staircase. So I’ve had two hours of sleep and am a decidedly average person. The gig is to go to Primark, but not just any Primark but the world’s Biggest Primark opening today In Birmingham. Before that the biggest was in Manchester, but it really is ‘the world’ with stores all over Europe and — for some reason — America.

There was one in Dubai but that turned out to be fake.

I originally pitched it as a ‘spend all day doing something horrible and write about how, surprise, surprise, horrible it is’ sort of thing, but honestly that went out of the window after the third hour awake wondering about the logistics of knocking myself unconscious. At this point I’d be lucky to last half an hour before trying to start a mannequin fight club and crying over the baby’s shoes for sale, worn or not.

It’s early in the morning on a bright Thursday. Bright but the sun’s not had a chance to make a difference to temperature. Since I was a kid I’ve practiced a form of divination, a system I invented on cold spring mornings like this waiting for the bus. I would predict what kind of day it was going to be from which of the buses I caught into town. The 61 means a great day (this is the good bus because on the way home it turns on to Frankley Beeches Rd which is a slightly shorter walk to my house). The 62 is neutral (although when it became the bus I caught to work its meaning went from neutral to mildly bad). The 63 is bad mojo because that was the bus I used to catch to school and, you know, fuck school.

Twenty years later and the 62 doesn’t exist any more, but my brain still runs in those grooves. Today I have no choice but to catch the 63 which tells me one thing: and when I turn the corner and see the bus pull out from the stop and drive away I don’t know what to think.

The city centre is empty at nine not all the shops are open yet and the commuters by now have commuted. I know I’m here when I see the yellow jackets, at least three different camera crews five or six paparazzi and various other journos milling around the crowd milling around the crowd loosely penned in outside the store. Opposite the crowd is a contingent from B-side Breaking festival fronted by a hype man having medium success engaging a crowd of about 250, almost entirely made up of women wearing Mickey Mouse ears.

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Danny Smith: The seven wonders of Birmingham Christmas

Christmas comes but once a year, apart from for Roy Wood, who must have a terrible time getting his bins collected. Like everyone else in Brum, are we right, we’re here all week. Try the rotting fish in the black bag on the street corner. Anyway, Christmas, web clicks, we asked Danny to riff…

Stepped on a snake and slid back down to Birmingham. Tired, grumpy, and trapped in a city I escaped two years ago. The continuing adventures of a man lost in his own city. Hoping that the next leap, is the leap home.

Birmingham changes over Christmas. The wolf of capitalism takes a long German shit right in the middle of its chest, and it’s filled with day drinkers, night shoppers, and a huge homeless population seemingly invisible to the other people. For a sensory seeking freakman like me it’s a wonderland of lights, smells, noises and human drama, but for others it’s a scary wall of people, muggers, confusion, and overload.

Since getting back I’m still not entirely sure of the bus routes and times, luckily West Midlands travelXbus has an app now. Let me just check it.

That’s cleared that up.

If you do make it into town here are the seven must sees. (Yes, I’ve written a listicle. Shut up. Your face is out of ideas.)
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Danny Smith: The A38 killed my dog

Like a bad penny, licked and then pushed quickly into a chip shop slot machine, Danny Smith returns to Birmingham. Delighted to have him back, we wanted him to stay in Northfield, its streets his alma mater and tell us all about it. The first thing he did was get the bus out.

Stepped on a snake and slid back down to Birmingham. Tired, grumpy, and trapped in a city I escaped two years ago. The continuing adventures of a man lost in his own city.

Vigor is a classic range of wool rich moquette fabrics providing comfort, appearance and durability developed to meet the specific requirements of the bus & coach interiors market

I’m on a bus in Northfield, it’s Saturday: so it’s full, and only getting fuller. Only the people getting on seem to confused by the whole bus business and are approaching it with the time consuming trepidation of first-time flyers on a steampunk zeppelin. The bus is waiting for an usually long time.

Luckily buses now have TV monitors and cameras so, if you do get mugged, you get to take home the footage. CCTV just blurry enough for it to be of no use, apart from to bring back the lovely traumatic memories, like photos of a ride at Drayton Manor.
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The last word on the Street: The Paradise Circus view on the WM mayor election

You may not think a mayor of the West Midlands is a good thing.

We’re getting one on Thursday anyway.

Andy Street, right.

The mayor might not yet have all the powers we need to take back that control from Westminster, the devolution deal might not be a real deal for the people of the region. But the mayor will have powers, they’ll have influence, they’ll represent you to the country and the world – and they’ll do that soon after the close of polls on 4th May.

There will be choice on your ballot paper, and the choice will be between someone on the side of central government and someone who isn’t.

Is central government policy working for Birmingham and the West Midlands? A glance around at the people sleeping on the streets, the closed libraries, the lengthening hospital waiting lists say it isn’t.

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All change? What chance for the passenger on local trains?

All aboard the Midlands Engine.

You may have read in the Evening Mail an article about how our trains are going to be painted a different colour come the autumn – and if you’re a regular commuter on the Cross City line you may have read the article and thought ‘great, that means the end of London Midland and their appalling service’.

If you did read that and think that, I’ve got bad news for you.

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On Trump(ets)

By popular demand, here is our hot take on the Trump election. Sorry we kept you waiting, it’s a complicated business.

A Trump rally. It's in Birmingham, Al.

Broadly speaking, this isn’t a Birmingham issue. We are not aware of anyone with a Birmingham connection called D. Trump who we can interview about their tangential relationship to the President-Elect. We do not know of anyone from a B post code who is a distant relation to Hilary either. We do not know how Birmingham can make America great again.

We do know that Trump’s election is one of several markers of a shift to a less tolerant and less progressive world. The other markers include the rise of the right at home and abroad, the Brexit vote, the movement of Tory policy in the direction of their right and the hardening against the left by those who claim to be on that side of the centre.

We know that amidst that backdrop we are electing a Metro-mayor next year. Listen not just to what candidates are saying, but look at what they represent: the ideologies and records of their parties and partners; they may talk anti-politics or ‘best midlands’, but be sure that this is politics and those businesses or media organisations that help candidates are buying influence for them, not you.

You can’t do anything directly about Trump, but you can make small steps against that system by focussing on the things you can affect.

Birmingham can make America great by starting with making Birmingham great. Actually great: fair, equal, friendly, welcoming, rather than boosteringly tooting on your tremendously, I mean really tremendous, Trumpet bigly. Go do something: buy a homeless person a tea, help someone with their bags at New Street, call out the Mail’s Facebook commenting racists—just be nice.

It’s not the End of the World, for that you have to get the 16 to Handsworth.

Don’t go topping yourself—chain pizza is in Moseley to stay

Our pals over on Eye on Moseley have run a piece on the opening of Pizza Express and Prezzo in B13 and it’s a tasty slice of deep pan fun. There’s an obvious nimby trap laid out for the unsuspecting writer here—it’s tempting to moan about ‘chains’ and ‘independents’ and witter about bringing down the village—The Eye deftly avoids doing that and adding too much cheese (though many of their readers fall into the hole in some of the online chat that surrounds the article).

There’s a point we want to pick up on though which is that the opening of these restaurants makes no business sense. The Eye says:

“opening two almost identical restaurants within months of each other is just ridiculous. Opening two massive restaurants demonstrates little comprehension of how business works […] So one of these is going out of business, once they have bled their parent companies dry.”

The thing is, weirdly, it does make sense, it’s not ridiculous and it is exactly how business works. Pizza Express doesn’t act on emotions—it acts on numbers, maps and intelligence. It also doesn’t open a restaurant in Moseley to serve the village, it opens a restaurant in Moseley to serve the city, and it wouldn’t open it unless it also served the shareholders a wedge of dough. Marketing for multiple outlets relies on coverage, brand, and relationships with customers. Casual dining pizza restaurants have this down to an art.

The pizza chains’ websites and apps broker relationships between customers and the brand not between locals and restaurants. They direct us to our nearest touch point from where we are now, not from where we live, and they use voucher based incentivised pricing to keep us in the sweet spot of a reasonably priced dinner at all times. To be effective we always need to be near enough to a restaurant to be able to get there. That’s where these new restaurants come in: there’s a hole in the map where coverage can be improved and that hole is Moseley, in the Birmingham, Northfield area.

These restaurants will draw from miles around in a way that a locally owned place can’t: they don’t need to build a reputation through word of mouth. They’ll attract families that need a quick meal at a known price point (we haven’t time to explain, but the Pizza Express children’s menu is an exquisitely designed customer journey, which maximises income for the restaurant whilst feeling very reasonable). Teenage couples from a few miles down the road will come because it’ll be just far enough for them to feel like they’ve been out but close enough that they won’t have trouble getting there (the fact that the menu is so good for veggies helps put bums on seats in a multicultural city, and only a Nando’s would do better with the dietary requirements of most Birmingham kids).

Just imagine a local, bearded, entrepreneur decided to take up one of the premises and install a ‘food concept’. Even if it’s brilliant, a conceptual masterstroke like balti-pork scratching cobs with orange chips and a scallop served on a scale replica of King Kong, it will take time to build up word of mouth. Pizza Express is in like Flynn. Terry Flynn who opened Al Capone pizza in 1987.

We are in favour of variety and admire passionate people doing their own thing—despite our willingness to get a rise out of all things “street food” and “artisanal”—but we recognise that doing anything that starts small and builds is hard and that actually companies like Prezzo and Pizza Express are more likely to succeed over time because they have a method that works. That is why UK high streets all look the same. That is why these restaurants won’t close as quickly as The Eye thinks. Just look at the Pizza Express and Ask restaurants in Sutton Coldfield which have thrived for years separated only by a Wetherspoons (and just across from a Nando’s) whilst next door plucky indie after plucky indie has withered and died on a seemingly cursed plot, most recently ending in a frankly bizarre alleged murder plot which fails to take into account the fact that diesel fuel can’t melt steel beams.

And that’s why we are going to make a bet with The Eye: we bet them a slap up reasonably priced pizza dinner that Moseley will have a thriving Pizza Express in 2020.

And if there isn’t, we’ll get them an artisanal falafel.

Jon B & Jon H

Birmingham: you get the culture you deserve

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Once, Birmingham had a scene. For a hot minute, somewhere between 2008 and 2009, it found something. And then we fucked it up.

By way of example, remember when the Birmingham Bloggers were a thing? I know there’s technically still a Facebook group or whatever, but it’s not like it was in 2008-09. With that group of awkward nerds came the sharing of knowledge and the birth of creativity; the kind of ideas that start from pub chats, or from blog posts or even single tweets. The ‘wouldn’t it be cool if’ ideas, like building cocks in the snow, or running a 5k at midnight, or sitting on the #11 for a day. Or even coming to a pub to hear some interesting people speak.

In that time we had barcamps and ‘cafés‘ – which are just meetups with a poncey name – and then towards the tail end of 2009 we lost it. Some of us tried to keep it going. Some of us tried to help put a radio station together, or build an events listing website, or start a magazine, or build an events listing website

I think there are two problems at play in this city. For one, the social media scene got fucked up because all those with the best ideas went off to seek their fortunes, and the ones who were taking notes started charging people.

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We’re half empty, but still the second biggest in Europe

"we leave the Midlands Engine running and then..."

Half of Birmingham voted to leave.
Half of Birmingham wanted to stay.

We wanted to stay.

To the victors, no spoils.
You’ve set off an earthquake.

Just today, just right now, you’ve voted yourself poorer. And the man who got you here is already pulling things out from under you.

We said Brexit would be bad for Birmingham.
We hope we were wrong, we fear we were not.

We don’t know what’s next, but we’re ready.
Get ready too.

Let’s be ready to build our Birmingham for ourselves. Let’s be ready to call bullshit on the things that will come our way. Let’s stop hate wherever we find it and stand up to the commercial interests that let it grow. Let’s be ready, there are some battles ahead.

Together. Forward.
And join a union, you’ll need one.