101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 83: The Great British Worker

At Cofton Park nr Longbridge

Stalwart vessels of early British satire, Ronald Barker and Ronald Corbett had a fine line in jokes about the perceived work ethic of the country’s factory fodder. “An aerial photograph of the track at British Leyland,” they announced, “was spoilt when somebody moved.”

You see, it had become an establishment trope that the car workers of Britain – and those in Longbridge, Birmingham in particular – were not industrious and prone to stoppage. That was of course untrue, the workers of those car plants were hard-working: not a house in Birmingham wasn’t freshly painted in mini green at least once a year.

But there was media and establishment bias against the workers of Longbridge, and that was often focused on one man: Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson, of Northfield (you wouldn’t want to live too far from where you worked in those days, the cars were terribly unreliable).

Born in 1927, Robinson started work there during the height of the Second World War and joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union (now lost in a midst of mergers like most left wing organisations). The political situation at work was very different then, the Communist Party dominated the factory’s workforce, and many hundreds of Daily Workers were sold there every day. You can imagine the lads on their tea break, talking about last night’s game (and Birmingham City were often on top in wartime football) when one holds up a page three essay on the theories of Antonio Gramsci. “Phwoar, eh lads? Look at the critique of bourgeoise hegemony on that.”

You might think that the bosses have a lot of weight behind them these days, but in the late ’70s the real boss was the real establishment: the government. Nationalisation (in 1975) ensured that any futures disputes could be framed by politicians and the papers as not just bad for business, but bad for Britain.

The creatives back then were more Austin 7s and ermine robes than flannel shirts and fixies. Leonard Lord, the designer of the Mini, which was Longbridge’s main output, became Baron Lambury of Northfield. Although it can’t have been much fun in the House of Lords being Baron of Northfield, imagine having to explain that, yes, there is game and shooting on your estate, but not a huge amount of grouse.

When Derek Robinson, by then trade union convener, took on the management he was taking on both the Commons and the Lords. But he was used to large odds, having stood as a Communist candidate in four consecutive general elections in Northfield between 1966 and 1974 (he lost his deposit on each occasion).

Whilst it’s true that the company lost a lot of cars and money through strike action, what ended up being the real problem was the effect that the strikes — mediated through the news establishment — had on the public’s perception of the company and the cars it made. British Leyland began to symbolise all that was supposedly wrong with Britain, what we were told the rest of the world was calling the ‘English Disease’ – which would seem a bit rich, especially from the French.

The narrative became that, alongside the strikes there was a marked decline in build quality, for which the unions and the workers were blamed. Brummie craftsmanship was now being called into question, with ‘a Brummagem screwdriver’ becoming a poor comedian’s unwitty euphemism for a hammer.

The story goes that he was getting in the way of the company’s preparations to bring the new Austin Metro into production, probably the only thing on which he would ever see eye-to-eye with Jeremy Clarkson. Longbridge was being redeveloped and heavily automated, there would be job losses and Derek wouldn’t stand for that.

MD Sir Michael Edwardes admitted, “The answer is ‘Yes’, from a strategic point of view we knew that we couldn’t have the Metro and him.” Robinson was eventually sacked by British Leyland in 1979.

Taking on the management took guts, but Robbo had to contend with Spooks too. At the time of his dismissal one of his union officials was rumoured to be in the pay of M15. You may think this sounds plausible, we couldn’t possibly comment.

Derek Robinson has been credited with causing 523 walk-outs at Longbridge between 1978 and 1979, costing an estimated £200m in lost production. So next time the media talk about productivity losses caused by an early football kick off or some inclement weather, pay tribute to Red Robbo: a great British worker, strong enough to take on the establishment, and a Brummie to boot.

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101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 82: The Cardboard Box

When Charles Henry Foyle invented the cardboard box, in Birmingham, in the late 19th century, he by turn invented supermarkets: for would they be able to pile ’em high and sell ‘em cheap if they didn’t pile neatly in cartons and boxes?

They, including Jack Cohen who came up with that motto and founded Tesco, would not have been able to. That the real idea turned out to be to pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap, force other smaller retailers of ‘em out of business, before using your virtual monopoly of ‘em to control both supply of ‘em and the eventual higher price of ‘em isn’t Charles Henry Foyle’s fault. He just originated the process that made manufacture of brightly coloured containers to put ‘em in cost effective. They call it the ‘folding carton’.

Charles was lucky to be in Birmingham. Birmingham as we’ve discovered is a place where lots of people invent lots of things. And those things that aren’t cultural concepts, or gases, or types of buildings, or sports, often need boxes to put them in. In Birmingham he had bicycle bells and kettles, and shit shoes to make boxes for. if he’d lived in Manchester or London what would there have been to box up? Cotton? Rain? Alan Sugar’s wolf-like hands pointing across a glass table?

The invention of the box, and the founding of the excellently named Boxfoldia Ltd made a fortune as well as the future. If you’ve been to the MAC or the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery then you’ve shared in those profits too: Charles Foyle used some of his wealth to start a trust for the good of the city, one that’s still going nearly 70 years after his death.

A renaissance man as well as a philanthropist, Charles privately published Alice Through The Paper-Mill, an Alice In Wonderland inspired satire on war-time paper control regulations — a delicious subject for humour. No doubt he had to lean heavily on brothers William and Gilbert who had founded Foyle’s bookshop in London to stock it.

The book contains a chapter where Alice exclaims to one of the odd inhabitants of the world, “I thought you’d gone to Reading?”, the very idea of which is so surreal it rather makes the whole book seem unlikely. Even when Boxfoldia Limited was resurrected a couple of years ago — it had lasted until 2005 when it was liquidated — it only went as far as Redditch.

All hail the cardboard box, a plaything of children who are ignoring the latest toys, a place to put your shit, and a home to many in these Tory days.

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AI Street

We forced an AI bot to read all of Andy Street’s speeches – we couldn’t as we are blocked – and asked it to generate one. This is the first page:
MAN IN SUIT IN FRONT OF LOGO I’m a man who is successful in some way. Please welcome the Mayor of the West Midlands Street. *Audience applauds* ANDY STREET IN SUIT IN FRONT OF LOGO Good morning. It’s good to be in here. Many young people who like me are not politicians but business. It’s vital that we watch Channel 4 and it watches us. I am friends with government and our friends here. The West Midlands of Birmingham is a problem of homelessness, we are building many exciting sporting venues. ANDY STREET POINTS HAND, THUMB IN CIRCLE WITH INDEX FINGER We must have the youngest Commonwealth Games on channel 4 as we are young. I am a task force as we have no money to invest only enthusiasm. We will have the most youngest diverse Moseley train station opened, I promise. I promise that 2022 will come in partnership with business. And this is why we have launched the youngest Channel 4 APP in Europe to report rough sleeping on our streets. Call my chauffeur for a diverse street race on the streets of Birmingham.

Birmingham is an episode of The Simpsons

Like a Treehouse of Horror one, from a later series, switch over now…

People hear two different things from the same audio clip and the internet is going bananas

If you haven’t already, listen to this audio recording right now.



What do you hear?

Some people hear the name of the car race that was held on the streets of Birmingham city centre in the 80s, where as some hear the Mayor of the West Midlands – who has been spending time trying to bring the car race back rather than doing, y’know, anything useful like tackling homelessness in the city – being insulted.

If you heard the second answer, you’re technically correct. Apparently it’s all due to your hearing, and gullibility. It’s like that other thing on the internet where some people hear the word ‘laurel’, which you might win for winning a car race, and ‘pranny’, which you might be if you where an elected official and spent your time working on vanity projects rather than sorting out the people who are homeless, or hungry in your area. #WMGeneration

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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101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 81: Books about Birmingham

Like Neville Chamberlain before you, you have the opportunity to hold in your hand a piece of paper. And, per page at least, it could have fewer lies on it. Why not buy 101 Things Birmingham gave the World right now? A fantastic Christmas gift.

But there wouldn’t be books about Birmingham without the work of the 18th century’s Thomas Warren, who was the first publisher to come from Brum: and let’s face it no-one from anywhere else was going to publish them.

From his house over the Swan Tavern on the High Street, he founded a modest book making empire, and eventually a book shop. No records of the shop remain, or of any other independent bookshop in Birmingham at all.

Warren edited and published Dr. Samuel ‘Dictionary’ Johnson’s first book – a translation of Jerónimo Lobo’s Voyage to Abyssinia – which was a huge success and sold hundreds of copies, absolutely none of which ended up for sale second-hand at Reader’s World.

Without Thomas we’d never have had: David Lodge’s campus novels which pretend not to be set in Birmingham, Alton Douglas’s Dogs In Birmingham, Jonathan Coe’s Rotters’ Club, Henry Green’s Modernist classic Living, Washington Irving’s Bracebridge Hall (set in Aston Hall), Benjamin Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil which uses Birmingham as a background political barometer, or the wonderful work of Catherine O’Flynn. Nor this one, which has been called “wiser than it seems” by non other than Solihull’s Stewart Lee.

He also founded and published the Birmingham Journal – in 1732 – our first newspaper, and a hard slog that must of been too as there were no existing papers or websites in the city to copy content from.

Three cheers for Thomas Warren, a man who managed to change the world, despite living over a pub.


This is the book that proves that Birmingham is not just the crucible of the Industrial Revolution, but the cradle of civilisation.

It’s the definitive guide to the 101 things that made the world what it is today – and all of them were made in Birmingham.

Read how Birmingham gave the world the wonders of tennis, nuclear war, the Beatles, ‘that smell of eggs’ and many more… 97 more. It also includes a foreword by Stewart Lee called ‘A Birmingham of the memory,’ all about his relationship with the city.

101 Things Birmingham Gave The World, is not a Birmingham of the memory. It is a living breathing thing, wrestling with the city’s contradictions, press-ganging the typically arch and understated humour of the Brummie, and an army of little-known facts, both trivial and monumental, into reshaping its confusing reputation.
Stewart Lee

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Eye-opener – leaked email reveals the code behind New St advertising screens

Big brother, is watching you apparently. We’re all scared of the Bladerunner-ish techno future where the big screens outside New Street station target you personally with adverts that you ignore on the way to get a train. But how do they actually work? This leaked email from one of Birmingham’s many top PR/social media/smart city conglomerates could reveal all… 

To Andy Street
From: Andre.De.Jong@zaphiks.in

Re: Code

Hey Andy,

How’s the shop doing? Nearly time for one of those adverts with the anthropomorphism, eh?  It gets earlier every year. Or are you in charge of the buses and sorting out the ever increasing homelessness problem on the streets now? I forget. And you do too, also. 

Anyway, I know it’s a bit late but, I’ve finally finished the code that makes the eye screens around the shopping centre on top of New Street Station check the crowds and respond with appropriate advertisements. Glad we kept the PR about them vague, but assuming that the tech to actually detect faces hundreds of yards away and check their sex and age and that exists and is plugged in, this should work. 

It’s a Beta or maybe earlier than that, Feta or something.  Read more ›
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50 or so things we love about Birmingham

To set some balance, another Twitter thing, where people are challenged to post a thing one ‘loves’ for each like a post can get. We could have gone on, but no-one liked it.

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Unpopular opinions about Birmingham

It’s a Twitter thing, where people are challenged to post an ‘unpopular’ opinion for each like a post can get. We had a go… it cost us a few followers.
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