Danny Smith: Inn Dependance day

A pint without the boys in a pub full of not much noise because loudness increases the chances of shouting and more droplets of virus in the air. Is that living alright? We send Danny Smith, the canary in our covid coal mine, into town as pubs open their doors for the first time in god knows how long. Will he get irate about the R-rate?

I’m in a Wetherspoons and things are not going well. In the Before Times being in a Wetherspoons was usually a pretty good indicator of how well things were going in general. The binary state of being in or out of a Wetherspoons nearly always correlates to ‘not so great’ and ‘going well’. But now, on this historic day? It’s both a historic and personal failure – and there’s a sheet of paper here with evidence.

To be honest it didn’t start well. I was dropped off on the Smallbrook Queensway and the first thing I see is Snobs with its windows boarded up*. It’s a sobering sight – literally – but also like the ravens of the Tower of London, if Snobs ever closes for good Birmingham falls. There is no reopening sign on the boards, just a note directing deliveries to next door.

Heading south I see the Old Fox has had a refurbishment and somehow earnt the qualifier “sly” into its name. It’s closed too, which is probably how it earned its new name. Opposite, the Hippodrome lies dormant. Stripped of the livery of show posters and lights it looks corporate and dead. As I write this the entertainment industry has still yet to receive any support from the government despite it hugely important to both the financial and emotional well being of the country. Some cunts need their names up in lights so people know who’s to blame.

The Dragon Inn is a Wetherspoons and this early in the day I was reluctant to go in. I’m here in town to cover the opening of Birmingham pubs after over 100 days closed, the longest enforced closing of public houses in this country since, well, ever. Given, the founder of The Wetherspoons chain, Tim Martin’s close ties to the government and headlines at the start of the lockdown, it’d be impossible to talk about pubs reopening without going to one, but not my first one, and not here. Before it was a ‘spoons, the Dragon Inn was an O’Neill’s, an O’Neill’s I worked at four two years before it closed. I worked the last shift: good memories dust my mind like fresh snow and are too dear to me to sully them with that ruddy faced scarecrow’s dirt wellingtons.

The bars in the Arcadian are all closed and my thoughts flash to all the lower division footballers and dental technicians sitting at home on Saturday night bereft of places to sell them mid-range wine and forgettable cocktails.

OK, I thought, I’ll start at the Bull Ring Tavern, a place notorious for being where nights end, not start. Often maligned for the perceived quality of its patrons, I’ve always found it nothing if not friendly. And the clientele is self editing: the sort of person that drinks there is the sort of person that doesn’t care about what type of person people think drink there (if you see what I mean). So it’s devoid of lower tier footballers and dental technicians.

As I get close a woman with a high ponytail, smoking over the top of a disposable face-mask, dramatically sidesteps in front of the door: “We’re full love” she says, and I become the only person in history to be knocked back from The Bull Ring Tavern**.

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Paradise Circus Live – full live show

Like an old Monty Python cash-in LP: for lockdown listening the full live show the Paradise Circus troupe did at the mac a little while back. 90 mins of hyperlocal satire now available to listen to in your home.

If you enjoy it, please bung a little something to Brum Baby Bank. Oh, and you can buy our book, which has more of (in some cases exactly) the same.

Paradise Circus Live is old fashioned revue with a local twist – a host of satirical sketches, stand-up, songs, games and monologues. Jon Bounds and Jon Hickman bring a version of their popular Birmingham miscellany, Paradise Circus, to the stage with biting satire of the media and Birmingham itself — all refracted through a thick lens of Marxist critical theory. It’s funnier than it sounds. Hickman is not from round these parts and Bounds will take him through what it really means to understand Birmingham.

Learn just how to be a local Breakfast Show DJ, what happens at a Birmingham City Council meeting about promoting the latest Big Plan, and how to write a broadsheet article about Birmingham in an editorial meeting down in that London. Help us to find King Kong, discover who won the 1972 Snooker World Championship (which was played 60ft underneath the BT Tower) and work out how much the Council has paid to Capita during a stirring rendition of Mr Blue Sky.

Mark Steadman is at the piano with comedy songs like his famous 11 Bus song which mentions all of the 280 stops in order (11A of course). We may even end on some ELOke.

Paradise Circus Live may finally prove that Birmingham is not shit, or die on stage trying.

Listen now:

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Rebound

At school, that term, or at least that week, the obsession was small rubber balls, an inch across and patterned with a muted tie-dye, with a thin piece of elastic through them which was tied to a plastic ring. The elastic stretched around – I’m now guessing – six to ten feet, the balls were very bouncy.

No-one ever took toys to school, I don’t know if they weren’t allowed, but it didn’t happen. Once a kid brought a Beano in and there was a whole line of nine year-olds sitting on the brick line at the edge between the playground and the grass looking over their shoulder. We mainly played games that involved running, in different combinations. It wasn’t until I moved from the Churchill Road ‘annex’ to the big school up the road that we played football. And even then it was football if we had a ball, football with a can, or a stone, or sometimes even just our minds. Sometimes if there was nothing round ‘stick rugby’ was the game. Stick rugby was just throwing a stick around and running into people: none of us knew the rules of rugby.

The balls, were a break with the tradition of aimless games of tig and tag, or kiss chase. They were sold in the shop at the top of the road our school was on, on the corner with Hamstead Road, a old mock-Tudor house with only the front parlour space open as a shop. Ice cream freezers outside in the summer and metallic plates advertising the Evening Mail covered in a wide mesh to hold the days headlines.

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The Wall in the Head

Christopher Bealand’s new novel is out this week, it’s ‘a black comedy about love, loss, the death of dreams, failure, bad TV, bad jokes, brutalist buildings. And Birmingham.’ And we have an extract so you can see that for yourself…

“Belinda the main, but absent, character in The Wall in the Head says she has written a book about ”love and architecture” and this too is a book about love and a book about architecture – or at least our relationships to them both. More than that it’s a book about our connections to place and people, and how they shape our feelings and actions.

“It’s a love letter to brutalist buildings and the sheer hope for humanity with which they were built, it’s a love letter to the places that are left behind by trends and culture and Birmingham as a prime example of that. It’s also a love letter to the idea of love and laughter but far more classy than those words painted onto the living room wall of your new city centre flat.

“Christopher Beanland has written an incredibly funny and moving book set in a decaying version of our past hopes, and you’d be a fool to miss it.”

Jon Bounds

Buy The Wall in the Head here.

The Wall in the Head by Chistopher Beanland – Chapter Two

I yanked the fridge door and it opened with a surprised gasp. Inside, a fragile light flickered in the dark. The fridge was empty, wiped, it stank of surgery – I’d cleared it out this morning in anticipation of my death. I didn’t want to seem like a monster – no one needs the spike of rotting food in their nostrils when they’re clearing out a dead bloke’s house.

I went upstairs to my desk, looked out of the window at the caramel street lights of Moseley, at the trees swaying back and forth in the high winds. I flicked on the computer and started writing about what I’d done tonight, but the words didn’t come easily. Words hadn’t come easily since Belinda had to ruin everything. When I could manage no more I lay down on the bed, staring at the ceiling. Sleep hadn’t come easily either, but tonight it ate me up. The duvet enveloped me; my eyelids slid shut like they were greased. I succumbed to the darkness and the solitude it promised.

*

This is a dream:

I can see. I’m part of the world I’m seeing – I’m participating, not just observing. I look down and I see hands. I twist them around, tensing and flexing. I’m alive, alright. It’s Birmingham. I’m watching a blonde-haired woman sleep. She’s lying on a bed in the middle of a roundabout overlooked by two tower blocks. It’s daytime but there’s no one else around. Just her. She’s dozing peacefully, curled into a ball, with golden locks falling across a face painted with a honey glow of serenity. I don’t think it’s Belinda. I think it’s someone else. I’m not sure. I wouldn’t put a bet on who it was – I can’t see well enough. It’s a dream; things are a bit fuzzy, misleading. It’s like watching through cataracts. I turn around and I see a new scene. A skyscraper stretching upwards into the sky like a sentinel. It’s made from concrete; its hue is deep grey, with jagged lines running up and down it, and different-sized blocks around the bottom. The Mids TV HQ. The studios and the bar at the bottom, the office tower stretching upwards. The office tower I just jumped off. Tension, fizzing, refracted sunlight, pickled emotions, streetscapes grey and green, no people, bridges red and brown, a heartbeat jumping, my heartbeat jumping. The same blonde woman is sleeping on the same bed below; she wakes and points up to the Mids TV Tower. Next scene. A thinner tower without windows – the BT Tower. The blonde woman is standing by it, wearing a knowing expression, looking a little like a witty English teacher? I turn a final time. One more scene. The same woman on a bed in the middle of an open-topped atrium space. There’s nothing surrounding us at ground level apart from twelve slender pillars. Above about the third storey there are concrete sides of a box with windows facing inwards to create a courtyard – but the roof is open and sunlight falls in like it’s being shovelled down onto us by a giant gardener. The woman wakes up, stretches her arms and sits up on the bed. She lights a fag. She turns and swings her legs down over the edge of the bed. Her face. A sudden crash-zoom in on her face. She looks at me, helplessly. She stares right into my eyes. Her mouth doesn’t move – but this sound comes out of it: ‘Donald.’ There’s a drummer in my chest, hitting so hard I can hardly concentrate.

*

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Non-uniform day

School uniforms are odd, especially for teenagers. You take the group that are producing the largest smells and the greatest number of secretions and you develop a system where they wear the same clothes every day. Shirts for two days, unless you spill something, trousers all week, blazers for a least a year. Dry clean only.

But non-uniform days are worse.

As a teenager, my eyes swelled with frustration as I didn’t know what ‘Gallini’ was, nor why everyone would be wearing it tomorrow. Without the internet, and Tower Hill library was no help on this, how would I have known?

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From a man to his son, on missing his home town

You’ll never see the back streets in the same way I do. They change, things change fast round here, but even if they don’t your connection will not be the same. I won’t be able to show you the old pubs, the thick green leather stapled to the heavy wood, the splinters and the tears. But when it’s time, I’ll share a pint with you anywhere.

The streets have a new brick, clad with a special kind of fresh decay. There’s a new corner around every corner. The roads have moved themselves, move traffic differently. I won’t be able to show you the back ways. I haven’t kept up and that’s soon to be your problem — if you chose to care.

Will you care? I think so. Sometimes I feel such a deep connection to the roots of my caste I can’t believe you won’t. It’s often music that does it. Not in the simple proustian way, not always. I can feel the connection not only through chance hearings, yes, I catch Working In a Coalmine and am transported to the back room at Snobs as you’d expect, but there is something about musical culture that connects much more deeply. Music made by people I was, or am, or could have been – could have been because they were where we were. The rubble filled spaces that donkey jacket Dexy’s stood in were still the places I played football with a tennis ball, played cricket with a tennis ball, never played tennis with a tennis ball as we didn’t have bats or nets or flat ground. They took the train to Euston from the platforms I did, unsure of how to take the bigger city we reached. The platforms are the same now, but god only knows how to get to them. You’ll find them better than me.

The world is changing more quickly now than it seems it ever did. Even in the ‘80s I remember bomb sites, long-gone factories behind rough fences, compacted dust on which to park cars or cut through. The desire paths of our urban life, the secret passages and hollow ways through unwanted and overgrown spaces. Take the gulley, leave by the side gate to avoid the ticket collector, there’s a hole in the fence along here. The short cuts are the hardest to learn. We probably won’t share them, but there will be some.

We can go back, of course, we will. But my disconnect has become a fence without a hole, a song with a half-remembered melody. Maybe when I stumble across it it will connect us rather than divide us. Maybe we can discover new routes together, maybe there’s another version of Kiss Me that has the vibe of the country rather than just the rhythm of the factory. We can walk both, sing both. Maybe.

I’ll teach you what I can. Much of it will be wrong, or at least useless, configured for a town that isn’t mine really. Never was, I just lived in it and made my own maps. The winter darkness smeared with festive lights just highlights that as it obscures the way. But winter is a good time to sing together.

We can sing Mr Blue Sky at the end of the night, or the start of the game, or just in the street for no reason. I’ll sing with you anywhere.

It’s your heritage, your town now, if you want it.

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.

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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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Subterranean, homesick, Blues (although we don’t think he goes down much)

We sent Danny Smith down the re-opened Costermongers, Brum’s finest underground alternative drinking hole near a market, because he was going anyway. 

The weather today isn’t really weather just an unremarkable middle ground between everything. Spring is the ultimate liminal season. Probably best to put your head down and plough through till summer.

I’m in Birmingham and my feet have already began taking me to Costers, like there are ruts in the road. No conscious decision, like the newly reopened pub is the bottom of a steep hill.

The door is ajar and a sign proclaims “WE ARE OPEN!” as if the sign itself can’t believe it either. But the dark dark staircase still leads to the dark dark door and behind the dark dark door is two people behind the same old bar. A six foot viking type a couple of stone away from being intimidating and a vaguely familiar girl with a slightly grown out undercut and a comfortable hoodie. The guy had definitely spent more time on his look today. They continue their conversation somewhat performatively and I oblige them with a tip of the tongue blank the viking was having. (‘Westlife’ btw). They hand me Export I have no recollection of ordering, and in fact distinctly remember vowing never to drink it ever again. Time will make a liar of us all.

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#Savetheflapper save our souls

“I curse any nights sleep in these flats to be ruined by the ghosts of a thousand lost nights of noise and lights and friends.”

The beautiful darkness inside the Flapper captured on a bright day.

Either you die a mouthy prick who gets barred for throwing the garden furniture into the canal, or you live long enough to see your city turn into a nameless suburb of Blandtopia. I’m drinking in the Flapper steeling myself for another bitter goodbye.

Me and the flapper have history, serious history. I remember being ten on a school trip to the canals in Birmingham. As a class we walked past and I remember the yellow building with arcade games in the window (it was a Firkin pub back then). I asked my teacher, Mr Goode, if we could go in and he just laughed. Possibly because even back then he could see the type of person I’d become. I remember because it was the only thing that day that I saw that I gave even half a shit about. Honestly, when it comes to the canals in town, it still is.

As a late teenager it was always a straight choice between Exposure and the Foundry then after, Eddies or XL’s. But on sunny days. No question, The Flapper. One of your mate’s shitty bands playing? The Flapper. Getting ID’d everywhere? The Flapper will definitely serve you.

But it’s going. It’ll go down swinging. But it’s going. BCC owns the freehold so could still block it but Birmingham city, partly through lack of funding, but mostly due its own incompetence, is skint. Birmingham City Council is a beaten dog with no master, cowering at anyone wielding a big enough moneystick. So poor it had to reach into its chest and pull out its very heart and sell it to developers for pennies. I’ll never forgive them for the loss of Central Library. And if they can’t see the value of a world famous historically significant and loved landmark, what chance does a pub the arse end of town stand? It’s worth fighting though. Sign the petition, show your support. Even if it is to show the developer wrong who said “All those people who come to defend that pub are like someone who’s got an old banger parked outside their house, and starts screaming when it gets keyed”.

The developers, Whitehorse Estates Ltd, claim the resulting block of flats will be addressing the badly needed housing shortage by offering two bedroom apartments for “young families and first time buyers” but similar properties in the area go for around 200k. I’m wondering who these first time buyers are. Maybe they’re the ‘london professionals’ we hear about in that article that the broadsheets write now and again. My favourite quote in the above linked article is from the developers describing a three metre wall as a “forgotten space” and a “den of iniquity of drugs and prostitution”. A three metre wall.

He also downplays its musical significance, but how many small venues are there left in Birmingham city centre? Two? Three? You don’t get big bands without small bands, and you don’t get small bands if there’s nowhere to play. Here’s the thing – when you chase all the artists, weirdos, musicians, punks, freaks, goths, and kids away they don’t come back. And all the vibrancy and excitement that drew people here in the first place disappears with them. Then the city becomes a Wetherspoons version of a city, sure it has all the features of the thing it’s replacing and certainly isn’t short of people there pretending it is, but the atmosphere will only ever swing between boredom to desperation and nobody will ever be proud of being there.

The Flapper is worth saving. I’ll say that again. THE FLAPPER IS WORTH SAVING. Every time I come back to Birmingham it’s a little more sterile. Another ‘flagship’ store has opened and another place with character, history, or heart has gone. Culture grows in the cracks and soon they’ll be nowhere left. Birmingham will be just another theme park to Mammon, a heartless temple of glass and brushed aluminium indistinguishable from the next city.

So fuck you Capitalism, double fuck you the cowards at Birmingham City Council, and triple fuck you Whitehorse Estates Ltd.

I fucking curse this ground. I curse any ‘cheeky’ glass of wine on your balconies to taste of cheap beer left in the sun. I curse any nights sleep to be ruined by the ghosts of a thousand lost nights of noise and lights and friends. And I curse your view never to be as beautiful as a summer afternoon with friends in the sun but only of a bland sprawling metropolis of cookie cutter developments occupied by wankers.

And people of Birmingham now more than ever we’re standing in front of a tidal wave of conformity and indifference. Keep being weird, keep being kind, and keep being you.

#savetheflapper

13 things you’ll only know if you grew up at my parents’ house in Coleraine Road, Great Barr, B42

We all remember being alive in the past. Sometimes we remember shops that were in the same place as a different shop is now, or that bus tickets were slightly different. And we all grew up in our own local area – how mad is that? The internet papers are full of it as the past makes us feel good. But how much of a person that grew up at my parents’ house in Coleraine Road, Great Barr, B42, are you? Find out by looking at this prime number of things you’ll only know if you grew up at my parents’ house in Coleraine Road, Great Barr, B42.

 

  • The hot water won’t be on if the heating isn’t, (and the heating won’t be on until October) you’ll have to run a bath with the shower.
An old bathroom, yesterday.
An old bathroom, yesterday.
  • The circuit board that provides hooky cable should be unhitched if you’re not watching the sports or the movies, as they can tell, you know.
  • Bin day is Wednesday.
  • There’s no point trying to break in by climbing over the back fence into the garden if you come home a bit drunk one Christmas eve in the early ’90s. You’d still have to put the window of the back door to the lean to through and that is simply not worth the hassle.
  • The bloke next door has pinched a bit of garden up the back by the shed, but it’s not worth challenging him on it, just give him the cold shoulder.
  • The alarm code is a portion of the old phone number before we switched from British Telecom to the Birmingham Cable Company and had to get a 681 number.

    How this bus stop looks now.
    How this bus stop looks now.
  • It takes exactly four minutes to walk to the number 16 stop by the Beaufort pub. If you leave at 7:25 you’ll get to school on time.
  • You can’t get Channel 4 as the aerial has to point to the Wrekin rather than Sutton Coldfield because Hamstead hill is in the way. The TV will sometimes go green when it’s been on for a bit, if it bothers you you’ll have to switch it off and let it cool down, banging it does no good.

    The TV's gone green!
    The TV’s gone green!

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