CJ Stone's Britain: Up the Junction (Birmingham)
First published The Guardian Weekend November 30 1996
'The city is a monument in praise of the car, all busy in the rush to get from here to there, wherever that is'
The train pauses just before pulling into New Street Station. It always pauses here, as if to bring attention to the scene. So you glance out of the window, and there it is, the view over Birmingham, that ramshackle collection of factories, warehouses, container yards, transport depots, workshops, chimneys, tower blocks, offices, all thrown together as if by accident, like the chaos of a teenager's bedroom after emptying all the drawers. Everyone knows that scene. Whether you arrive by train, or along the M6, the view is the same. It gives the impression of a city busy with its own concerns, knowing that there are things to be done, that there's money to be made, and brushing aside any nagging doubts as to what the point of it all is.
The Birmingham city motto is "Forward!" Just that, no more. You see it on all the public buildings, underneath the crest. It's as if the forward movement is enough, and never mind where, exactly, it's supposed to be going forward to.
I'd been invited here by Mike Parker. He's a writer too. I met him at the Birmingham Rep, where we were discussing Counter Culture. There were a few of us there, passing on our opinions, theorising, making intellectual chit-chat for the cognoscenti. It was all very enjoyable. I said something vaguely profound and optimistic and Mike said "Yes!" I caught his eye and - you know how it is - I was drawn to him. A fellow traveller, I thought. Later we sat in a pub and I managed to miss a planned outing with my Mom and Dad. I was feeling guilty. Mike said, "next time you come you should stay with me. Reclaim your city." It was a good phrase. So that's what I'm doing now. I'm reclaiming my city.
Mike lives in King's Heath near Moseley. It's an area of Victorian grandeur, of redoubtable piles and leafy lanes. At the end of Mike's street there's a Methodist church glowering over the scene like a temple of gloom. It's built of terracotta and has a forbidding entrance of dark polished wood. Things got off to an uneasy start. I hadn't been there for more than ten minutes when Mike's next door neighbour came round. She smiled at me, but the smile was hollow. Mike went out into the back garden with her, and I could see them embracing. He was comforting her. He came back to tell me that her cat had died. "He was the first cat I ever liked," he said. Every so often after that his eyes would glaze over. "Are you all right Mike?" I would ask. "I'm thinking about the cat," he'd say, before shaking himself out of the mood. What can you say? Death is death, and there's no compensation, no comfort, no meaning to be drawn from the fact. It's there, that's all, like the Methodist Church, glowering over the scene.
It turned out to be a weekend of loss. We had great plans for the following day. We were going to go on an open-topped bus tour. Mike said, "you should see the tourists speeding over their fourth or fifth flyover, startled, wondering if they hadn't been there before." He told me that Birmingham is the fourth most-visited city in the country. There's such a lot to see. There's the NEC, of course, which is a collection of giant spaceship hangars built of what looks like corrugated plastic. And there's Spaghetti Junction. Imagine doing an open topped bus tour over Spaghetti Junction.
Unfortunately Mike had a hangover, which was entirely my fault. I tend to forget that for most people five pints is not merely the prelude to an all night session. We weren't able to move until the early afternoon. We went into town on the bus and got off at the Cathedral, which is actually a medium-sized Parish Church.
Then we went to the Rag Market behind the Bull Ring. It's a huge warehouse full of the cheapest bits and bobs in this City of bits and bobs. It's an Emporium of Tat. I wanted to buy a pair of shoes. Next to the shoe stall there was a guy doing the usual market-spiel. "I'm not selling this for £50, not even £15..." No one was buying. There was a plastic Santa Claus all lit up with fairy-lights, and a pink toy car with frilly doily bits on it.
I picked out my shoes and reached for my money. It wasn't there. I looked in my other pocket. I looked in my trouser pockets, my back pocket, my side-pockets, pulling everything out, scrabbling through it all frantically. I did the whole thing again. It still wasn't there. My bankbook with my money in it, my press card, my Labour Club card, my AA card: all missing. After that my eyes would glaze over every so often and Mike would say, "are you all right Chris?" "I'm thinking about my money," I'd reply. I spent the rest of the afternoon in a vain pursuit of my property, rushing back to Mike's place to see if I'd left it there, then onto the bank to report the lost bankbook, then in interminable phone conversations with the police. For some reason they didn't want to accept that any crime had been committed. I was passed from office to office, through three different police officers over a period of nearly an hour, who all wanted to say that because I couldn't actually remember the items being stolen, that therefore I wasn't able to report it as a theft. In the end they noted it down as "Lost Property". I had the feeling that this was all to save the crime figures.
The local name for the city is Brummagem. This is no quaint nickname. Several local towns share the same prefix: West Bromwich, Castle Bromwich, Bromsgrove. The Doomsday book in 1086 mentions it thus: "There are there are five villagers and four smallholders with two ploughs." The valuation of the manor of Birmingham was estimated at £1 a year. But it's been growing in size and wealth ever since. By the Fourteenth Century the population had reached four figures. In the twentieth it topped the million mark. And it was always known for its industry, for iron and steel working, for gold smiths and silver smiths and workshops of every description. Brummies could turn their hand to anything. Unlike Manchester, say, whose contribution to the Industrial Revolution turned entirely on the Cotton industry, Birmingham was always "the city of a thousand trades".
There's an admirable independence about the people, and a stubborn practicality. Brummies love their cars. It's almost all that the men ever talk about. Woebetide any sad little road-protester in this city who might want to suggest, even tentatively, that cars are not a good thing. They are self evidently a good thing. The city is a monument in praise of the car, a city of motorways and flyovers, of dual-carriageways and inner-city ring roads like racetracks, all busy in the rush to get from here to there, wherever that is.
I remember as a child seeing a map of the West Midlands, with Birmingham in the middle, like a great, dark stain. And just as the city had already swallowed up several hundred villages and small towns, so too - in my imagination - it would one day grow to cover the whole country. That must be everyone else's worst nightmare; to a Brummie, It's Only Natural.