06 | Oct | 11

Richard Johnson

The New Birmingham

The news that Birmingham is Britain’s new foodie capital took me by surprise. Birmingham was always somewhere you drove through. Or – thanks to Spaghetti Junction – round. Birmingham was like Calais. Never somewhere you chose to stay. But now the council want to change that. They want Birmingham to become a destination – a boulevarding city with fine pastries. So they have pulled down the Bull Ring, filled in the subways down Corporation Street, and begun to regenerate their city centre. Just as everyone else was regenerating their out-of-town. The Rough Guide even listed Birmingham as one of the world’s most desirable places to live – 60th in fact, ahead of Rome, Milan, Barcelona and Hong Kong. And no-one is quite sure why. Cool Britannia was difficult enough to swallow. But Cool Birmingham?

When the city hosted the G8 summit in 1998, the council painted the grass green – well, it had been an unusually dry spell. And they flew the flags of the world’s leading industrial powers. But over the course of the summit, five of the flags were stolen. It just would not have happened in Barcelona, Chicago or Milan – the other great Second Cities of the world. But somehow we have come to expect it of Birmingham. When the world’s media carried footage of Bill Clinton enjoying a pint of Greenalls and a plate of chips overlooking the city’s renovated canals, we thoroughly expected to see a shopping trolley go bobbing past at any moment. Birmingham, without doubt, has an image problem that can’t be fixed by focus groups alone.

Yet Birmingham accounts for 25% of Britain’s exports. This proud city – which once built the Empire – was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. It built the Spitfire. It built the Mini, and the Austin Seven – the cars that democratised vehicle ownership. Birmingham is still the centre of the UK’s motor industry, but it is now busy selling itself as a Knowledge Economy. It has the largest professional and financial services sector in the UK outside London. After all, Lloyds and the Midland were both founded in Birmingham. The city generates more wealth than Glasgow, Leeds, Newcastle and Manchester – so why do we dismiss it as some hillbilly backwater?

People still believe the doggerel. “Birmingham born, Birmingham bred, Strong in the arm, But thick in the head!” Even though the city was once home to artists such as Edward Byrne Jones and David Cox. Samuel Johnson contributed regular essays to The Birmingham Journal, and translated a novel in the city – his first literary work. It was the bogs of Moseley that inspired J R R Tolkien to write The Lord of the Rings – the best-selling book of the last century. And Edgbaston that inspired Washington Irving to write Rip Van Winkle. George Gissing, Walter Allen and W H Auden all lived and worked here. It’s where celluloid was invented. And the first X-ray was taken. The largest team of researchers into nano-technology in Europe is currently working in Birmingham. They recently created a needle capable of manipulating individual atoms. This is more than a city of metal-bashers.

Birmingham is booming. The loft-dwellers have already colonised the city centre. Out of choice. Dawn Roberts and Chris Thomlinson were Birmingham’s first. He is a webmaster, she is a PR executive, and they now live a life of beech, aluminium and steel overlooking the Oozell Street Loop – a busy stretch of Birmingham canal. The same canal that once brought coal and metal from the Black Country is now the centrepiece of the rejuvenated city. The brass foundries, tube-rolling mills and glass works are being turned into ‘creative living space’. Being the first loft-dwellers meant that Roberts and Thomlinson had to get a man up from London to lay the glass bricks. They had never seen such things in Birmingham. But now others have followed where Roberts and Thomlinson led. It’s nice to borrow a cup of unrefined sugar from the neighbours.

The city is unrecognisable. Brindley Place was once a muddy car park, heavily contaminated with zinc and copper. Now Richard Rogers, in his treatise Towards An Urban Renaissance, describes the development as a national role model for urban regeneration. The marketing sorts (including the man behind the ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ campaign) are selling this regenerated city as “Europe’s meeting place” – and Brindley Place is exactly that. It’s a text book of European architecture, from mock Tuscan to Russian modernist. All set off by a red-brick plaza honouring Birmingham’s industrial past. It isn’t an architectural zoo. Not quite. But Sir Norman Foster’s Sea Life building does try just a little too hard to outdo its neighbours. Which never goes down too well in Birmingham.

Solving Birmingham’s image problem is going to take time. It’s historic. The word Brummagem (now a local slang for the city itself) is defined in the dictionary as “counterfeit or cheap goods”. And that dates back to the 17th century. In Jane Austen’s Emma, Mrs Elton said “One has no great hopes from Birmingham. I always say there is something direful in the sound.” Birmingham was the world’s first industrial city, and grande dames like Mrs Elton were almost obliged to hate the very foundations of the place. Why, it was built in red brick – inferior to quarried stone. Not a great deal changed with the advent of concrete. And Birmingham is still a working-class city. Nearly 30% of the city’s residents are employed in industry – in Leeds, it’s 15%. Is that really enough of an excuse to be sniffy?

Brian Sewell never needs an excuse. After the Longbridge disputes, he saw fit to target the culture of Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. “Deprived of heart and their raison d’etre, provincial in the very worst sense, these are corpses of the past – not cities that have organically adapted to the new needs.” In Birmingham’s case, he was wrong. The city has had the foresight to develop a new service sector out of conferences and exhibitions. The key position in the motorway and railway networks contributed to its selection as the site of the National Exhibition Centre, opened between Birmingham and Coventry in 1976, and then came the international convention centre (ICC). Birmingham reinvented itself as a city with name tags.

It didn’t stop Jeremy Clarkson writing an attack entitled “Nice try, Birmingham, but I still don’t like you”. Nor, he insisted, did anyone else. Which is why the Aston Expressway, which links the city centre with the M6, “provides four lanes for those wishing to leave the city, and only two for those wishing to come in.” It was an old joke. And Birmingham was not amused. “Too often it’s not in friendly jest” says Dr Carl Chinn, a professor of Community History at Birmingham University. “Clarkson is feeding the media with notions that Birmingham is somehow vile. And people with money may cease to invest in Birmingham because of it. The London media decided that Phoenix under John Towers had no chance. So Phoenix had to go to America to raise the £200 million it needed for BMW. You see, it is a serious matter.”

Some might say Birmingham just has a chip on its shoulder. Like the joke goes – “What’s the difference between a Boeing 747 and a planeload of Brummies? The 747 stops whining when the engines are switched off.” But Birmingham has good reason to whine. Take the national football stadium. Even though a poll of football supporters conducted by the FA found overwhelmingly in favour of Birmingham, the stadium was still built in London. Then John Prescott decided to limit the height of Arena Central, Birmingham’s newest building. Even with a very, very long telecommunications mast, Prescott designated that Arena Central should remain shorter than London’s Canary Wharf. Even before September 11, which made tall buildings less marketable, Birmingham’s ambitions were capped.

Of course the Dome went to Greenwich. The Birmingham Post put it down to ‘a London lobbying operation’. And Sir Adrian Cadbury, a member of the Birmingham chocolate dynasty, tended to agree. “The organisers decided to give the Dome to Greenwich, and pinch our ideas. At the NEC we have a central position, good transport links, and experience of dealing with ticketing and booking. To a commercial person like myself that kind of competence is invaluable. But the great old British amateur tradition is that anyone who read Classics at Oxford can do anything. I don’t believe it. An awful lot of money went down the drain – and is continuing to go down the drain – because of the Birmingham image issue.”

There is no good reason for Birmingham to exist. It’s not a bridging point on a river. It’s not a port. And it’s not a break in a hill. It’s not got gold, silver or iron ore. And it’s not got clay, limestone or coal. It took a market in the Bull Ring in 1166 to transform Birmingham’s fate. The city was forged and fashioned by its own people, and their ability to craft the goods that the world wanted to buy. It was those people who earnt Birmingham a reputation as ‘the city of a thousand trades’. A reputation that was justified by the Industrial Revolution. When Joseph Chamberlain became Mayor, he brought gas and water into council ownership and borrowed heavily to improve education and welfare. Birmingham led the world in municipal enterprise. It was a place to be proud of.

The Second World War changed everything. After the bombings by the Luftwaffe, radical town planning ideas by architects such as Le Corbusier, Ludwig Hilbersheimer and Walter Gropius suddenly seemed to make sense. The past became nothing but an obstruction on the road to the future. Herbert Manzoni – the man is blamed for the look of post-war Birmingham – was not alone in his brutalism. Architects in Glasgow and Sheffield were every bit as zealous. The Bull Ring (the biggest shopping mall outside north America) and the Rotunda (the city’s first million pound office block) were simply symbols of that new era. And an undiluted confidence in an ability to build a totally new kind of urban future.

Spaghetti Junction was just another expression of that confidence. Birmingham was, after all, the world’s first motor city. The first to build the four-wheeled petrol driven car. The first to build ‘integrated motor houses’ – or ‘garages’ as they came to be known. And the first to authorise one-way traffic. So it’s somehow fitting that the city should come up with something like Spaghetti Junction – a motor solution to a motor problem. But it was dismissed as an abomination by polite society. And the snide little digs – that a man once spent eight months trying to find his exit – haven’t let up. Spaghetti Junction still remains the defining symbol of all that is wrong with Birmingham.

But under the busiest section of Spaghetti Junction, the lupins still manage to flower. They are a washed-out yellow, but they flourish in the acid soil. Retired gentlemen busily fish the council reservoir that runs under the crawler lane of the M42. This is where Birmingham novelist Jim Crace comes to walk his dog – under the concrete columns built by Birmingham engineers. “Given the problems that Birmingham has had with traffic, Spaghetti Junction should be a source of pride. Not a source of shame. These columns aren’t like the intricate columns that are now propping up our redesigned city centre. These columns make me proud. These are columns in the Birmingham vernacular.”

“I love this city” says Crace. “I love its ability to make things, and bash metal in a dirty environment. I love the fact that when you used to see a train in Sudan, it was probably made in Birmingham. But in the 1970s, when everyone was working, and we had cash on the hip, we were dismissed as being grim. The things we were really good at were the things we were sneered at for. Then the redevelopment of Birmingham started, we got Symphony Hall, and the view of the city from the outside started to change. As if somehow the city of Birmingham was suddenly okay because it had a decent classical music policy. That illustrates what the prejudice about Birmingham is. It’s actually a lesser place than it was because it doesn’t have the self-regard that a great industrial city should have.”

Sir Simon Rattle, formerly of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, is certainly treated as the messianic figure behind the Birmingham miracle. It was his stimulus to civic morale that gave the council the idea that bribing key players in the arts to decamp to Birmingham would change its image. And, to some extent, it did. Sadlers Wells came. So did D’Oyley Carte, even though no-one ever really wanted them. And then Symphony Hall – the best concert hall in Europe – opened its doors. But it has saddled Birmingham with a lot of seats to fill. Novelist David Lodge worries about the future of his beloved Birmingham Rep. “The main auditorium is too big” he says. “There are too many empty seats at most performances, and the stage is too big for most modern plays.” The city’s professional class remains too small to fill so many venues.

Crace lives in Moseley. A pretty, green suburb of Birmingham, with an ex-offenders hostel and a drug problem. There’s a joke they tell in these parts. What’s green and gets you high? A giro. But it’s a happy exercise in multiculturalism. At King David’s School, the children of Pakistani Moslems take Jewish holidays. And learn Hebrew. Down the road, past the Halal Chinese restaurant, is Balsall Heath – home of the balti. No-one quite knows where the word ‘balti’ came from. Some say it’s the urdu word for bucket. Others say it’s how the first-wave of immigrants pronounced ‘Balsall Heath’. But Adil’s, which was established in 1977, is now a British institution. There’s even a balti restaurant in Paris. And it’s a balti that the local dignitaries serve when Muhammed Ali comes to town. It’s one of many examples of the immigrant community giving back to Birmingham.

When Crace launched his first book, a journalist came up from London to profile him. “I said ‘Have you been to Birmingham before?’ He said no. And gave me one of those looks as if to say ‘Why would I?’ As if Birmingham is a non-literary city. From David Lodge to Tolkein and Shakespeare, this is a literary area.” Lodge wouldn’t want to work anywhere else. “For a writer it’s rather a good place to be. You’re not too distracted by literary parties. [Lodge used to convene a regular writers’ lunch in a local Chinese] Also because it’s more representative of England than London is. You can sense what’s going on in the nation. The West Midlands always swings with the prevailing political climate. They always vote for the incoming government. London is dominated by the media looking at each other.”

In Changing Places (1975) , Lodge invented ‘Rummidge’ [adapted from Brummagem] as a popular caricature of Birmingham. A truly awful place, it’s based on everybody’s prejudiced idea of what the city is like. “A large, graceless industrial city sprawled over the English Midlands at the intersection of three motorways, twenty-six railway lines and half-a-dozen stagnant canals.” (Changing Places, p.8) But the Rummidge of Nice Work (1988) is altogether more rounded. “Environmentally” says Lodge, “it has nice parts and nasty parts, and the ugliness of the nasty parts is a product of the wealth-creating work that goes on there. The amenities of the university campus are indirectly funded by the dirty noisy factories on the other side of the city. I think the difference between Rummidge in Changing Places and Rummidge in Nice Work reflects my own increasing feeling of “belonging” to Birmingham the longer I have gone on living here.”

Birmingham should learn to love itself more. When BBC market researchers asked Birmingham residents where the channel’s first soap opera should be set, they said if it was set in their home town they just wouldn’t bother to watch. Londoners didn’t have the same problem. Which is why we ended up with EastEnders. Lodge puts it down to geography. “I wonder if Brummies’ low self-esteem doesn’t have something to do with simply being in the middle of England and thus excluded from its basic North/South cultural polarization” he says. “Southerners think of Birmingham as being in the North, and Northerners associate it with the South. This deprives its citizens of any strong sense of social and cultural identity.”

They once had a Grand Prix. Only Formula 3, you understand, because Birmingham can never quite get it right. It can’t produce a feature film to capture its youth culture. Like Glasgow did with Trainspotting, or Cardiff did with Twin Town. It can’t produce a football team to bring home the silver. Like Manchester did with Manchester United. And it can’t produce a grass-roots musical movement. Like Liverpool did with the Mersey Beat. There was no real ‘Brum Beat’ – to its credit, the city’s culture was actually too eclectic for that. But it does boast a song-writing tradition that runs from The Spencer Davis Group and The Move, to Led Zeppelin, Traffic, ELO and Joan Armatrading.

“It’s a Yin and Yang thing” says John Lodge from the Moody Blues. “You have got the heavy industry, and all the hard, thumping steel work. To balance that, you have got to have something melodic.” That theory does not, however, explain the cacophony of Judas Priest or Black Sabbath. Ozzy Osbourne once posed for an album cover as a vampire. The blood was actually strawberry jam. Very Birmingham – a city proud to host the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest. The local press deconstructed Terry Wogan frame-by-frame. “The BBC to their credit” wrote the Birmingham Post “took care to emphasise [Birmingham’s] transition from the old capital of industrial revolution to the new centre of post industrial reawakening.” That must have been just before the Jimmy Young jokes.

Elements of the old Birmingham will never change. Like the statue of the reclining female form in Victoria Square known locally as ‘the floozie in the jacuzzi’. And the Central Library. Even though Prince Charles once said it looked more suited to the burning of books than the storing of them. The concrete signal box at New Street and the Alpha Tower on Broad Street have even been given listed status. Alpha Tower will serve as a reminder of the old Birmingham. With its windows that won’t open, Alpha Tower suggests that outdoors is something you look at, but can’t touch. Even on the fairest summer day, office workers can’t open them to let in some fresh air. The workers have no knowledge of the seasons. All they know is some months there is air conditioning, and some months there is central heating. But in the new Birmingham, windows will open.

In the new Birmingham there will be fresh air. The city’s inner ring road is already starting to come down – the ‘concrete collar’ is being loosened. At some points, there will still be eight lanes of traffic. But planners hope to make them into a feature. And, let me tell you, eight lanes of traffic will make one hell of a feature. The square outside the Mailbox development (once Birmingham’s central sorting office) actually runs under the ring road. The lead levels might make me think twice about ordering a coffee in that square. But whatever they put up, it’s bound to be a vast improvement on the dank passageways, litter-strewn walkways and rain-stained concrete. The brutalism is being toned down. People are welcome again. Birmingham is no longer a Birmingham that mocks the dreams of the postwar planners.