Danny Smith: Primark and prejudice

When we heard there was a big new shop opening in town, we called Danny and asked ‘Are you free?’ He was. We can’t remember whether we sent him to a big clothes shop that used to be the Palisades, or a big clothes shop that used to be the Pavilions. Either way, we were sure he’d hate it.

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. Hoping that the next leap, is the leap home.

Two hours of sleep is the worst amount of sleep, worse than no sleep at all. It’s halfway through a sleep cycle and will leave the average people emotionally fragile, feeling like they’ve fallen up and then down a steel staircase. So I’ve had two hours of sleep and am a decidedly average person. The gig is to go to Primark, but not just any Primark but the world’s Biggest Primark opening today In Birmingham. Before that the biggest was in Manchester, but it really is ‘the world’ with stores all over Europe and — for some reason — America.

There was one in Dubai but that turned out to be fake.

I originally pitched it as a ‘spend all day doing something horrible and write about how, surprise, surprise, horrible it is’ sort of thing, but honestly that went out of the window after the third hour awake wondering about the logistics of knocking myself unconscious. At this point I’d be lucky to last half an hour before trying to start a mannequin fight club and crying over the baby’s shoes for sale, worn or not.

It’s early in the morning on a bright Thursday. Bright but the sun’s not had a chance to make a difference to temperature. Since I was a kid I’ve practiced a form of divination, a system I invented on cold spring mornings like this waiting for the bus. I would predict what kind of day it was going to be from which of the buses I caught into town. The 61 means a great day (this is the good bus because on the way home it turns on to Frankley Beeches Rd which is a slightly shorter walk to my house). The 62 is neutral (although when it became the bus I caught to work its meaning went from neutral to mildly bad). The 63 is bad mojo because that was the bus I used to catch to school and, you know, fuck school.

Twenty years later and the 62 doesn’t exist any more, but my brain still runs in those grooves. Today I have no choice but to catch the 63 which tells me one thing: and when I turn the corner and see the bus pull out from the stop and drive away I don’t know what to think.

The city centre is empty at nine not all the shops are open yet and the commuters by now have commuted. I know I’m here when I see the yellow jackets, at least three different camera crews five or six paparazzi and various other journos milling around the crowd milling around the crowd loosely penned in outside the store. Opposite the crowd is a contingent from B-side Breaking festival fronted by a hype man having medium success engaging a crowd of about 250, almost entirely made up of women wearing Mickey Mouse ears.

I join the queue as the hype man is introducing Kimmy Beat Box who lays into a drum and bass beats with samples.
“SKREEE-ow breep breep SKREE SKREE Booow, PRIMARK PRIMARK SKREEE-ow’ It’s impressive but the crowd are not even close to being plussed. Kimmy address the crowd with a pitch perfect,
‘thank you for your energy’.

Ahead of me a reporter is interviewing a couple, one of them is trying to push her fashion credentials but the older lady next to her is running with the cheap angle.

  • It’s surprising what you can find

  • For the price…

  • It’s good value, yes, but the style is…

  • Cheap, yes

In the half an hour I’ve been here the crowd has added an extra hundred or so. Still mostly women, the only men seem to be from the freak crowd – a denim-jacketed metaller ahead of me and another pink-haired goth a little down the line. Also joining the queue is a baby that won’t stop staring at me, which would be fine is this particular baby hadn’t got the soul of a sixty year old woman looking at me with a ‘how fucking dare you’ look. While I’m dealing with this spirit warfare I overhear the girls behind me laughing at how ‘random’ it all is.

  • This is so sad’
  • What are we doing with our lives?

Fifteen minutes early, and with a short countdown, we’re off. A crowd of three hundred or so fitting through two double doors to a phalanx of staff brandishing balloons while nameless chart dance plays at improbable levels. As I get to the doors we’re stopped to allow the shop to absorb the first hundred or so shoppers, by the time I get in most of the balloons are gone and the smiles are not as 100% as they once were.

No backing out even if I wanted too. I have no choice but to follow the crowd and I end up escalated to the top floor where the Disney cafe has already got a queue out of the door.

Reeling from the scale I try and find my bearings. Looking for the shell, the bones of the Pavilions. Finding my way with only a ghost of a map. So I find another cafe where I miss being the first visitor by dint of an older guy buying the rainbow cake and coffee, this cafe is run by an older lady and five or so others managing to look busy while not actually doing anything.

The windows by the cafe would have a terrific view of the Selfridges building and Moor St station if the windows were not coated with a blue green film. I’m not sure if they just haven’t peeled off the plastic like a new stereo, or it’s Vegas rules where any view of outside is forbidden or at least changed enough to strip it from any orienting context. As I sip my passable tea, it seems the Vegas comparison is apt – everything is slick, everything is mediated, a casino designed to empty your pockets in exchange for a shopping experience, not what you buy but how you bought it.

The dance track finishes and Holding Back The Years by Simply Red comes on.

I hold a poll on twitter as advice on how best to tackle Primark but decide to ignore the result when they suggest drifting aimlessly around instead of logically (see it’s that easy). The obvious way of doing this is starting with the escalators in the middle of each floor. I’m calling the wall I face as enter each floor ‘12’ and from there working my way around the clock.

There is a franticness to the shoppers that is a little disconcerting, there isn’t a sale on and it’s never going to be as fully stocked as it is right now. But people are hungrily searching for something. Occasionally small packs of middle management types stalk the floor proclaiming a Greg or whatever to be ‘managing consultant’ or ‘senior regional’ something. Their job seems to be walking around pointing at things and agreeing.

On one of the floors the power cuts out, the lights and escalators with it, and blessedly the DJ. the shoppers look up and at each other for the first time since they got here, and they laugh, nervous tension breaking laughter. You can tell there are no dads in because nobody shouts ‘has anyone got 50p for the meter?’. I wonder how dated that reference that is. Maybe it should have been me, for tradition. The lights come back on and everybody goes back to shopping.

The Disney department is roughly where the old Disney Store used to be in the Palisades. For me, and many of my age, Disney shops were the start of this flagship shopping experience trend, the first to employ greeters at the front of the store, with a giant soft toy mountain and screens everywhere you looked reminding you of where you were and how magical it all was. Every inch designed to give you a brand experience where purchasing anything is an afterthought, a shop where what you buy is just a souvenir of being there in the first place.

If you look hard you can see the gaps in the veneer – the ceilings are a post-industrial mess of fan vents and wiring. I’m sure it’s presented as part of the urban aesthetic and a cheap alternative to installing acres of oppressive false ceilings. Best just to paint the whole mess white and hope nobody looks up.

Shopping as an experience is a smart direction to go in with online shopping decimating the high street, especially in an age where people can list ‘shopping’ in their ‘interest/hobbies’ section of their CV with no-one batting an eye. This fight back in Primark includes the ‘custom labs’ which is basically a version of the iron on transfer shop that has appeared on piers and seaside boardwalks since the sixties. Here the process is automated on Mcdonald’s touch screen, menus where you choose a picture from the clip art quality library or branded images from Disney, Game of Thrones, and Star Wars oh my. You can then customise the text above and below it. The queue was too long and my patience too short to join but I did watch as a group of teenagers try to type in successive swear words into it only to have them blocked.

When I do get some fuck-it-why-not cash I am getting the ugliest image I can find on a T-shirt with ‘late stage capitalism’ printed on it. Christ, despite being a dedicated seeker of the truth and a total bone deep professional, even I am finding it hard not to shop. Throughout the floors, all the branded content appears on racks and podiums together, Game Of Thrones, Friends and even Peaky Blinders appear as mini shrines in the temple of Mammon.

I hit ‘The Mezz’, just as the DJ plays a one minute segment of Bohemian Rhapsody thus securing his place in a ring of hell reserved for traitors and bastards. ‘The Mezz’ is another cafe and balcony space with a wall of Birmingham facts so poorly designed and chosen it’s only the scale that makes it not look like a year 10’s homework project.

Below is the men’s department, down here it’s a little less congested. I decide that I should buy something, for the full experience. I spend too long trying on sunglasses before deciding it’s not the sunglasses I hate but my own reflection. So I take the pair I have in my hand to the checkout, the queues snake round the store at this point, with a member of staff with a lollipop sign ‘the queue starts here’. The queues at the tills are nothing compared to the line for the elevators, with a car park’s worth of prams crammed next to each other.

I’m done, the sunglasses hide my eyes that are streaming tears because they frankly don’t want to be open any longer, my masculinity is not so fragile that I’m ashamed to be seen crying, but I’ll give a miss to being seen wandering around Primark openly weeping at the majesty of it all.

Well done Primark you’ve invented a working class department store, a cross between a casino, theme park and jumble sale. Truth is I wear Primark clothes, because even though I’m poor I like to have a choice in the morning. I tweeted a lot during that day and some of the responses I got were leaning towards the sneery. But I don’t hate you Primark, not particularly, I’m willing to bet the same near slave labour sewing your clothes is sewing H&Ms in the other half of the factory. No I don’t hate you, I hate capitalism, I hate the space that it created that shopping has somehow come to fill, and I really fucking hate Simply Red.

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101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 92: Car Horns

Human beings are strange animals. One of our oddest traits is the belief that certain objects are made not of earthly or man-made materials, such as iron, carbon, cotton, or paper, but of fucking magic.

Some items are thought to bring us good luck, such as horseshoes, or rabbits’ feet, or particular types of coin, whilst other things, such as wood (when touched), or salt (when thrown over the shoulder), are thought to ward off bad luck. Not only that, but combinations of apparently unrelated items are either thought to bring about very, very bad luck (new shoes on the table, walking under ladders), or signs of impending very, very good luck (bird shit on the shoulder, black cats crossing your path).

Then, of course, there are the other items, such as a fridges, that are seen simply as white boxes that keep stuff cold and are not thought to contain any magic properties at all. Although, in the case of fridges, the question of whether or not the light goes off when you close the door remains a mystery.

It’s all very odd and arbitrary. But in Birmingham, as you’d expect, things are every-so-slightly different.

Whilst we Brummies might hold with some of those strange superstitions and beliefs, what sets us apart is that we also, as the accounts in this series of 101 things more than capably demonstrate, have long been in the business of creating, with our enquiring minds and ingenious hands, what others around the world perceive to be magic.

Take, for example, the Brummie engineer, Oliver Lucas: In 1910, he invented the car horn, and that is the perfect example. Here are some things it can do:

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101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 91: Pointless kitchen appliances

Everyone has a guilty secret tucked away in the hardest to reach cupboard of their kitchen. Is yours a donut maker, a Breville or a pasta machine? The answer will depend very much on your age, your class, and when you reached key milestones in your life course but most certainly you have them. Did you marry in the 1970s? You have a fondue kit. Were you a student in the noughties? You have a chocolate fountain. Hit 30 in the late 1990s? That sudden paunch made you invest in a smoothie maker (but didn’t make you stop to think about quite how much sugar there is in a smoothie).

Let’s go through the Kay’s catalogue of the mind and think about some of the other ridiculous single-use gadgets that have come into our homes, been unboxed, used once and then packed away to the high shelf: bread machine, cup cake maker, slow cooker, rice cooker, coffee percolator, milk frother, ice cream maker, food processor, coffee grinder, spice mill… an endless list of useless crap. Most of these things duplicate things that our main appliances already do: the cooker, the kettle, a fucking knife. We buy, we use, we realise our mistake and we swear we’ll never again be seduced by the marketing patter of ‘convenience’, the marketing patter that started here in Birmingham.

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Danny Smith: Danny does Digbeth

We normally use this intro to set up the article, to tell you why Danny is writing about what he’s writing about, but this time he raises the curtain on that himself. What we can do is say that even if you don’t find the idea of Birmingham raising its profile in the pornography-making world palatable, it’s a growth content industry and Brum becoming a hub for it is still ten times more likely than Andy Street persuading Channel 4 to do anything but tell him to go fuck himself.

Danny’s heart’s in the right place, even if that’s the last time in this article that a body part is correctly situated.

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. Hoping that the next leap, is the leap home.

The thing about editors and sub editors is that they can’t resist a good pun and practically demand a well placed innuendo. It’s also worth noting that a it’s a weakness of mine that I like to occasionally give them one. The other profession that loves a good pun is pornographers with titles like Hard Brexxxit, Shaving Ryan’s Privates and Mike Whitby: Second Largest in Europe. I’m sure you’ve got your favourites.

WARNING: this column contains RUDE things and descriptions of willies going in and out of vaginas (amongst other places) if that sort of thing puts you off your seventh helping of leftover turkey, don’t read it, or do, I don’t care honestly.

With these two facts in mind it was no surprise that when I saw the news ‘story’ from Birmingham Live that a porn film had been shot in the problematically-named ‘Ghetto Golf’ in Digbeth, that it wouldn’t be long before my editors wanted in on that action.

Sure enough, in came the What’s App messages.

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A child’s Christmas in Birmingham

It may not have been snowing that Christmas, or any particular Christmas – snow and Christmas are interlinked so that we see it even if the day itself is clear. Even if we see ourselves carrying dining chairs up Hamstead Hill in the sun, across roads and clear dry pavements, there will be snow in our memories. There will be dripping gutters, splashing onto noses, wet but still comforting. There will be rutted slush in the gutter, darker grey on the frozen ends nearer the traffic fumes.

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Danny Smith: Shiny cappy people

At Paradise Circus we try our hardest to compete for web clicks, and we’ve noticed that glowing reviews of bars in the city centre must go down well considering how many the Evening Mail publish online. What time and when did we send Danny Smith to get all ‘wow Brum’ at a boozer? Erm, we’ll tell you after these messages.

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. Hoping that the next leap, is the leap home.

There is certain received wisdom in the pub industry, ways of doing things that can’t be deviated from. Edicts not learnt from working behind the bars, on doors, or in cellars every night, but from spreadsheets, focus groups, and uninspired middle management types. These are things that a successful pub must do to survive. Chiselled into laminated handbooks and handed down from on high to chain pubs up and down the country. They are:

Thou Shalt Always Serve Food – the gross profit on food is normally a huge amount more than can be made on drinks alone (unless you’re stinging people on cocktails but that scam is for another column). Also if someone orders food their stay is going to be a lot longer, which means more drinks sold. The bar is already classed as a food preparation area the same as any kitchen so serving food needs to be so the paperwork is already done.

Thou Shalt Always Cater To Families – families are money walking through the door. Drinks, particularly the huge mark up on kids drinks, more food, and the fact that larger family groups are an incredible pain to move once settled which means they stay for hours. Families bring in the cash, so the regulars are being told not to shout “oi cuntychops” across the pub, or spend time grumbling at the sheer affront of not being able to use the play equipment naked for a dare*. Regulars buy the cheapest beer and haggle over the price of peanuts like it was a market in Marrakesh, they do not bring the cash.

Thou Shalt Always Have Wifi – how else can you attract the panini-buying, expensive coffee drinking ‘digital nomad’ type without guaranteeing friction-less internet access?

“But won’t this turn all pubs into coffee house bland, cream wallpaper, bore holes with identical menus, music, and zero atmosphere?” I hear you ask, and you’re right it can, will, and has. Gentrification of our culture is inevitable when profit is our only goal.

“Is there a point to all of this one that preferably relates to Birmingham and has either a bad pun underpinning it or finishes on a dick joke?” I hear my editors ask, and yes, in a bit, leave me alone.

You can imagine how warming it was to my anarchist cockles when walking across town I saw a five foot A-board announcing:

Just Good Quality BEER!”

Why does a board outside a pub need its address on?

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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 seven wonders of Birmingham Christmas

Christmas comes but once a year, apart from for Roy Wood, who must have a terrible time getting his bins collected. Like everyone else in Brum, are we right, we’re here all week. Try the rotting fish in the black bag on the street corner. Anyway, Christmas, web clicks, we asked Danny to riff…

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. Hoping that the next leap, is the leap home.

Birmingham changes over Christmas. The wolf of capitalism takes a long German shit right in the middle of its chest, and it’s filled with day drinkers, night shoppers, and a huge homeless population seemingly invisible to the other people. For a sensory seeking freakman like me it’s a wonderland of lights, smells, noises and human drama, but for others it’s a scary wall of people, muggers, confusion, and overload.

Since getting back I’m still not entirely sure of the bus routes and times, luckily West Midlands travelXbus has an app now. Let me just check it.

That’s cleared that up.

If you do make it into town here are the seven must sees. (Yes, I’ve written a listicle. Shut up. Your face is out of ideas.)
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101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 90: Saving the world from Climate Change

Don’t worry, we’ll be OK.

On the last day of October 2014, as trick or treaters took to the streets of the city suburbs for Halloween-themed fun, something genuinely terrifying was in the air.

It wasn’t the fact that Halloween has become, over the last few years, a poster child for the creeping Americanisation of our culture. Nor was it the fact that, just like the manner in which we’ve all apparently just rolled over and accepted that ‘High School Proms’ are now a thing, or that it’s OK for the FA Cup Final to kick off at 5.30pm, that we just don’t seem to have the energy to fight this kind of bullshit anymore.

It wasn’t even that we allow the economic machine to hijack dates on our calendar as merely points at which they can market disposable plastic shite to us.

Nor was it the fact that we not only buy this stuff, but that we then chuck it away — even though we know we’ll be buying the same plastic shite at precisely the same time again next year.

And it wasn’t even that the only thing that differentiates one plastic shite sales opportunity from the next one is how one now ‘naturally’ follows the other in a never-ending cycle, with the end of Halloween simply firing the starting pistol on Christmas, and so on.

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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.

Vigor is a classic range of wool rich moquette fabrics providing comfort, appearance and durability developed to meet the specific requirements of the bus & coach interiors market

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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