Wondering stars

In an old episode of BBC science programme The Infinite Monkey Cage the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson described how as a young boy growing up in New York City he never saw the stars in the night sky; in a city, when you look up you just see more city. When he eventually saw the wonder of the stars it was in the New York planetarium. That was where he found his love of science, and that was how his life’s work in cosmology began.

Tyson is quite the poetic scientist, and I found his story captivating. The city exists, he seems to suggest, only between its highest penthouses and the ground below them — all the sky above is lost.

Of course New York is a very different cityscape to Birmingham, but there’s something in what he tells us about wonder, about knowledge and enquiry, that is relevant to us.

Our skyline thrusts ever upwards, fuelled by the speculative construction of inner city apartments. Meanwhile the social housing of the past is being brought back to the ground. The clear message here is that the vista of the city is a reward for success, in the starkest capitalist terms. This tells us that only winners are now allowed to look down upon the mighty work of Birmingham. Perhaps they are able to see the sky from up there too. Perhaps they can wonder at the wandering stars; for them they are reserved.

What Birmingham lacks in height it makes up for in light. The modern city, even a modestly risen one like ours, still beats back at the night sky with a haze of halogen. Part of the deal with cities is that, though they may rob you of nature’s riches, they give back to you what you need for an enriched life. They do this through civic works, as New York did for Tyson when it gave him the wonder of stars through the planetarium.

In BMAG today they exhibit a model of one of many master plans for what is now Centenary Square. The classical architecture of Baskerville House and the Hall of Memory are mirrored by sympathetically designed buildings. The Hall of Memory’s twin is a planetarium. In that square today you will find the new Library of Birmingham.

A library, like a planetarium, is a place of wonders, a place to enrich our lives and light the sparks of promise in us all. A library can unlock the mysteries of the sky above us, too.

The deal is the city takes the natural world from us but gives it back to us in some way so we too can wander through it and wonder; the building itself isn’t the wondrous thing.

The library at night is lit up like a galaxy of the stars it obliterates from view. Tonight perhaps it’s lit in a regal purple? Look upon it and despair and wonder what’s inside.

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101 Things Brum Gave The World. No. 72: British Satire


As Philip Larkin said about sex, British satire began in the 1960s and it has never looked back. That Was The Week That Was, Beyond The Fringe, Harold Macmillan impressions and that time when the varying heights of John Cleese and the Two Ronnies taught us all about class. Life was changing: young upstarts with just a public school and Oxbridge education behind them were bravely taking on the ruling elites that they were born to join and things would never be the same again.

But where would British satire be without the Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club, the comedy hothouse that produced Douglas Adams, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Stephen Fry and, erm, Tim Brooke-Taylor? Displaying all the quiet entitlement of a cat lounging on clean washing, Footlights alumni have inhabited every matey TV panel show and chortlesome Radio 4 smug-in for four decades. And where would Footlights be without that distinctive name? Possibly just a footnote in history: another boring revue club, like they have at that ‘other’ university. And without Birmingham we would not have footlights.

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101 Things Brum Gave The World. No. 71: Top Gear

Amid the hoo-ha around the fracas, it’s easy to overlook that the current brooha-ha is the result of Birmingham’s influence. Yes, Birmingham invented the mechanisms of modern TV, yes, Birmingham was responsible for the growth of the motor car, and yes Birmingham has made Jeremy Clarkson more upset about concrete than a patsy who’s about to take a swimming lesson from the mafia. But we have an even more direct role in the ding-dong than that, because way back in 1977, just after we invented The Star Wars, Birmingham invented Top Gear.

Those clamouring for a more serious, Reithian, look at the automobile industry need only to look back at the first series: hosted by a woman — Angela ‘Short Fat Hairy Legs’ Rippon no less — it featured endless investigations into safety, re-run after re-run of colour-bleached footage of crash test dummies. The dummies drove cars, they drove them fast, and they said very little: it was a time of equality, it was a time of wit. It was a time that Big Centre TV and their flagship Land Rovers Live are harking back to today. But, if possible, with more stilted presenters.

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There are too many negative satirical and cynical voices in Birmingham – join us to celebrate the wow, the positive, the top choices we’ve all made to be in the global city with the big heart of England!

With all the new developments we’re being involved with, with all the independence our council, the hyperlocal media in partnership with the Post and Mail, and various quasi non-governmental organisations are supporting, with all the impact we can have when we come together — we live in Paradise. And we get great cake! LOL.

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101 Things Brum Gave The World. No. 70: Feminist journals

Spare Rib 6

Hmmm – what to read…? Celebrity cellulite hell; top-ten handbags-to-die-for; how to bake the perfect chocolate cheesecake; how to lose 15 stone in three days; how to perform the perfect blow-job; how to maintain the will to live….

Amidst today’s flim-flam of celebrity, lifestyle, fashion and beauty publications consumed by much of British womanhood, there does exist progressive, political, publishing on women and their rights: and it is Birmingham, through one of its own daughters, that can proudly take the credit.

Long before there was Spare Rib (the late-lamented tribune of 1970s British second-wave feminism) there was The English Woman’s Journal (1858-1864). This pioneering periodical was co-founded by Birmingham lass (albeit quite a posh one), Bessie Rayner Parkes, who was born in the city in 1829. 
Her affluent, middle-class parents were Joseph Parkes, a solicitor of a radical political bent, and Elizabeth Rayner Priestley, granddaughter of scientist, philosopher and Unitarian minister, a chap you may have heard of: Joseph Priestley.
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The Craft City Line

We’ve been out drinking for about six hours, we’ve lost a lot of people and one of us is bleeding. In a few minutes one of us is going to try to pick a row with a train driver. I am cool hunting in the suburbs of Birmingham, and it’s going poorly.


Here are two things that are hot right now: craft beer, and Birmingham.

So hot are these two things that when The Guardian ran yet another piece a piece on how Birmingham is cool now, craft beer formed a central part of its thesis:

“Two years ago, you struggled to get a pint of real ale, let alone craft beer, in most of Birmingham. Now, from Colmore Row, down John Bright Street, to Digbeth, the city centre is awash in the stuff. It’s as if a phalanx of hipsters, fleeing London’s housing market, have swept up the West Coast mainline to alight at New Street.”

Now that’s not true (we’ve had real and craft beer for at least two and a half years*) but it doesn’t mean it’s not interesting. If craft beer is a measure of how cool a place is, then just how cool is Birmingham? And what would be a fair test?

I’ve got an idea.
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101 Things Brum Gave The World No. 69: Conference centres


Anyone who regularly travels by train between Birmingham and Coventry will know that the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) is a little like Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree. As the train pulls into Birmingham International station, every train regular is wondering, which land is at the NEC this week? If the carriage is suddenly full of perfume, giggling women and designer handbags, it’s probably the Clothes Show. If it’s wall-to-wall North Face, it’ll be a hiking event (or a Christian rock concert) and if there’s a faint pong of wet dog, you know that it’s the Liberal Democrat conference.

The NEC is the UK’s largest conference centre and it is fitting that it is in Birmingham, home to the world’s first ever purpose-built permanent exhibition hall.

Bingley Hall opened on Broad Street in 1850. Designed by local architect J. A. Chatwin, who also worked on the Houses of Parliament, Bingley Hall must have wowed the Victorian public. Its interior space stretched over an acre and a quarter and held 25,000 people in five rooms. It had ten entrance doors and had used nearly 12,000 feet of 21-inch glass in its construction. Of course, just a year later Birmingham-wannabe London launched the Great Exhibition and the rather showy Crystal Palace left Bingley Hall looking small in comparison. But, the Birmingham venue outlived its metropolitan rival by five decades, before also finally succumbing to a fire in 1984.
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How Birmingham invented romance

Birmingham is the most romantic place in the world. You only have to look at the ‘love locks’ on the bridge from the back of the Mailbox to Gas Street basin to see that. They are all about permanence of affection, put there by young lovers to represent the unending commitment and ties to Capita of our city council.

Canal from Livery Street to Lancaster Street CC: Tim Ellis

Canal from Livery Street to Lancaster Street CC: Tim Ellis

Greetings cards were popularised by a man called Cole (underling to our 101 Things Birmingham Gave the World star Sir Rowland Hill, inventor of the stamp and the post) – he pioneered it with Christmas cards, but it was Valentine’s Day cards that were really to benefit from the anonymity of the postal system. So, without Birmingham you would be forced to do your wooing face-to-face with all the intendent problems that creates (for us Brummies mostly the inability to sound sincere or sexy – known as the Mark Williams effect).

So, from poetry, through lovelorn graffiti, to the thrilling heartache of the futile gesture, Birmingham is the home of romance. Here are ten romantic moments — covering every romantic trope — that wouldn’t have got out of the starting blocks without the ‘big heart of England’.

To celebrate our love for you lonely people we’ve halved the price of the eBook version of 101 Things Birmingham Gave the World until Valentine’s Day — the lucky in love can buy the paperback as a delightful gift.

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Birmingham’s Unanswered Questions, No.3: Are wheelie bins a good idea?



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AFC Cadbury’s: how we’ll save chocolate

It’s a perfect storm, and it spells doom for the old Cadbury’s but not for chocolate.

It was inevitable that “they’d” say that Brummie chocolate makers were slow and lazy and needed some shaking up, and so now they have, with Cadbury-Kraft-Monorail or whatever they’re called announcing that they’re getting rid of 200 chocolate makers from Bournville over the next two years. And they’re shoving 100,000 sheets in their pocket on the way out the door.

The day before this we found out that the bastards changed the Creme Egg recipe too, and that’s caused an almighty stink. Turns out we sold the farm and it’s all gone wrong.

Well here’s a thought. There are 200 people leaving Cadbury’s with £100k each. That’s a small battalion of Oompa Loompahs with £2million between them, turfed out onto the street right next to Stirchley, the pop-up food centre of the universe, where the rents are cheap and the confidence is high. If just one of them set up an artisan chocolatier we could be on the way to recovering our heritage. £100k must go a long way in Stirchley. This could really work. Imagine if they teamed up. Real Creme Eggs, real chocolate, owned by Brummies and nearer the pubs. I give you: The Chocolate Quarter.

Down the road in Bournville, they’ll whither on their vine, cutting corners and costs and hiding behind their brand but in Stirchley our rough diamonds will bring the romance back to Milk Tray.

AFC Cadbury: real Roy of the Rovers stuff. But with chocolate.

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Paradise Circus Live

A night of satire, about Birmingham.

MAC, Cannon Hill Park
Thurs 21 May 2015

Tickets £5 - On sale now

101 Things Birmingham Gave the World

Birmingham was the crucible of the Industrial Revolution, but it gave the World so much more…

all of this.

Order 101 Things Birmingham Gave the World: the Book now

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"irreverent, informative and laugh-out-loud hilarious"

"one of the funniest books I have read in quite a while"

"the industrial language was uncalled for"

"Good if you finish Viz before the next edition is out"

The PC Satirical Cartoon

Described for you in text as we can't draw.

  • A man in a suit has a tea tray with one cup of tea in a cup and saucer. He’s bringing it to another man in a suit who sits at a desk, the desk has a ‘Leader of Birmingham City Council’ plaque on it.

    The man at the desk is reading a paper. The headline reads, ‘HSBC to move headquarters to Birmingham’.

    Standing man says, “OK so they won’t pay us any business rates, but maybe they’ll tell us how to hide our money from Eric Pickles.”

    Matt nails it again.


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Service Birmingham & Capita’s Auto Redacter

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Code by Nick Moreton

Paradise Circus grew out of the famous, now mothballed, Birmingham: It's Not Shit that chronicled and championed the real Birmingham since 2002.