101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 88: Brexit

Yes, this hot take has taken two years. There’s been a lot to work out, and we’ve had our top team on it. In no way has this document been cobbled together from publicly available sources and Wikipedia the day before it was due.

You see, from the moment the vote was sealed it was obvious that Birmingham was responsible for Brexit — only one of the ‘core cities’ (big ones) to vote to leave, only place idiotic enough to vote for a Tory mayor, amnesiac as to where its previous round of redevelopment came from as it sucks up to the far east for its latest batch — but there had to be something deeper. For Brexit wasn’t just the vote, it was years of confusion and ignorance, it was the death of the fourth estate as a bulwark against the stupidity of our governments, it was rooted in how we’d essentially never really been a democracy, in all of the ways we’d assumed tradition was enough and didn’t write actual rules, all of those ways we’d let decency be our check and honesty our balance only to find that neither was real: that all had to be Birmingham’s fault.

We have assumed, based on not much, that we have the mandate to produce the goods. That has proven harder than we expected, but it’s definitely true. We’re going to focus on the real problem: democracy and how Birmingham and its founding fathers broke it. Let’s see who’s fault it really is.

Once upon a time, democracy in Britain was just about who had the most money – 214,000 people were allowed to vote in England and Wales out of a total population of 8 million –  and people who lived in cities weren’t the who. Then the industrial revolution (our fault, obviously) happened and money shifted a little bit. Geographically at least: the new metropolitan elite were rich, but powerless.

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101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 87: One-way Streets

Jonathan Meades :: Birmingham, Heart Bypass from MeadesShrine on Vimeo.

Jonathan Meades likes Birmingham. Even for a public intellectual he’s a contrary bugger. He spends the first chapter of his recent autobiography bemoaning the fact he wasn’t a good looking enough child to attract the attentions of any paedophiles.

In his 1998 BBC programme Heart By-Pass: Jonathan Meades Motors Through Birmingham he fixates on Birmingham as the home of the car, the place where the first integrated garages were built. And, he says, “the first city to authorise one-way streets”.

And that’s our evidence, which seems rather flimsy. Except that delving into the history of the one-way street reveals just how bad everyone else seems to have been at it. An attempt was made in 1617 to introduce one-way streets near the Thames in London, where people were no doubt told which direction to Lambeth Walk in, with their thumbs in their jacket collars. It didn’t work – and they didn’t try again until 1800. A visitor to Barcelona can see remnants of ‘donkey one way systems’ in the alleys around La Ramblas, with which the town planner made an ass of himself when no one took a blind bit of notice.

Jonathan Meades’s key word here is ‘authorise’ – this is a council job and back in the mists of time Birmingham had a rather efficient and forward-looking administration. It was responsible for sorting out housing, water and gas – all sorts of things that Birmingham enjoyed right up until the 1980s when Thatcher sold them off and kept the money. These days the council is well meaning but not so efficient. I asked the press office to tell me more about our innovation with these one-way streets: the answer that came back pointed only one way too, “We don’t know. Have you tried Carl Chinn?”

101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 86: Prog Rock

The history of popular music is the story of youth, sex, drugs and revolution.

It’s also the story of the ruthless exploitation of naïve young dreamers by savage and unscrupulous media professionals, a long process of vertical integration by global entertainment conglomerates, and the development, packaging, and marketing of products to carefully constructed and controlled sets of audiences.

As Hunter S Thompson said, “the music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

Or, as Les, former bassist with the luckless band Creme Brûlée from The League of Gentleman, put it with more slightly more brevity, “it’s a shit business”.

However, what people mean when they talk about ‘the Music Industry’ in these negative terms is often the large and successful parts of the recorded music business, and not all the other, sometimes benign and noble, stuff that happens elsewhere in what we should more accurately refer to as the Music Industries.

The recorded music business, as the name would suggest, is organised around the central idea of ‘the record’, and for that we must go back to Thomas Edison, who successfully managed to record the sound of his own voice saying the words ‘Mary had a little lamb’, in August 1878, and set in motion a chain of events that would eventually give the world The Spice Girls.

But there is also a positive side: the record, or ‘the pop song’, is the most democratic and versatile piece of art there has ever been.

It is the soundtrack to millions of lives, charts our loves and losses, and something that follows us and keeps us company from our wide-eyed, exuberant, youth to our befuddled and doddery old age. The experience you have when you hear a song is no more or less valuable than the experience it gives to millions of others. It’s a Living Thing, as a famous Brummie once said, available to all, mostly cheap and, even when the songs themselves are sad, ultimately very, very, cheerful.

Edison kickstarted a process whereby musicians and singers could commit sound to permanent record that could be played back across time and space. Originally in the shape of wax cylinders, then in the form of actual records (made of various materials, but eventually vinyl), and then assorted other formats across the 20th century and into the new millennium. The process of committing glorious noise to ‘record’ has similarly evolved over time, from speaking into a horn, as Edison did, to multi-track tape recorders in fancy, expensive studios, to pinging music to collaborators across the world via the internet.

Much has changed since August 1878, then, but one thing has remained largely constant in the face of all these technological developments, economic progress and changing social conditions: pop songs are still (usually) under four minutes long. They have been for as long as anyone can remember, and probably always will be.

According to The Billboard Experiment, which analysed and then visualised sales charts and song information dating back to the birth of the pop charts, the average length of a hit record in the 1950s was 2 minutes and 36 seconds. Even though technology has developed at a huge rate since those days, the average length of pop songs today is still under 4 minutes and 30 seconds. Why is that?

It certainly has some roots in the restrictions of the technology of earlier times, both in terms of recording and playback mediums (you can only fit so many grooves on a record, after all), but the idea of pop being short, sharp and simple has, nevertheless, stuck.

Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Middle 8, Chorus, Chorus – done. It’s a straightjacket we no longer have to wear, but still do willingly. And, because of these restrictions, the restrictions of music itself, and of the copyright industry that underpins the business of recorded music, pop has had to be endlessly and fabulously inventive. That’s why pop is great, bab.

There is, however, one particular point in the history of pop music when this brevity was temporarily bunged out the window, along with the idea of pop being a democratic, public art form belonging to us all… and that moment was called progressive rock, or prog.

Prog grew out of the notion of pop singers as artists that emerged in the 1960s around the likes of The Beatles and Bob Dylan. That, along with advances in studio technology and the realisation by the recorded music business that they could make more coin this way, led to the concept of ‘the album’ being the purest and highest form of the pop art.

From Sgt. Pepper it wasn’t too great or long a leap to the idea of rock musicians as virtuosos, aloof and apart from the punters who worshipped them, of rock as high art that could only be understood in terms of it’s ambition and scale. And also to Rick Wakeman’s King Arthur on Ice.

Prog was endless noodling, complicated suites of music, and lyrics based on the worst kind of hobgoblin bothering nonsense imaginable, made by musicians from often highly privileged backgrounds. There were those that battled against this indulgence, including the caretaker of Birmingham Town Hall who locked up the organ and took the key home the night that Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer) tried to play it – but it went on.

Prog eventually bored everyone so silly that we were forced to invent punk rock, which was also shit, but a least it was short shit, and that meant that everything was right with the world again.

Where on Middle Earth would a bunch of University-educated show-offs get the idea that people would be interested in overly-long fantasy bollocks? Step up to the mike, and strap on that double-necked guitar, J.R.R. Tolkien: the Brummie who hated Birmingham — who do you think the orcs are? — and almost helped to ruin pop music.

101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 85: Airside Shopping

Plane chocolate at BHX

The amount of time that we spend airside seems to go up year by year, increasing at a faster rate than the processor power increases on new computer chips. It really needs a ‘law’ — and, considering it seems like you are stuck in a place that pretends to be holiday when it is not, maybe we can call it ‘Keith Barron’s Law’.

Whilst we have the response to existential threats of terrorism to blame for this it really couldn’t have all happened without Birmingham.

You see, the reason why we have to get ourselves to the airport so far in advance of our flight is so that we can be screened – for bombs, nail clippers, bottles of water and moisturiser. The fact that we are processed and dumped airside swiftly is just a happy quirk of the system that works very well for the small town of traders we find in what once was ‘departures’. And we wouldn’t get airside so quickly were it not for the x-ray, invented here in Birmingham in 1896 by Major John Hall Edwards.

There are many applications of the x-ray, but none are quite so profitable as their use in airport security to screen our bags, and increasingly our bodies too. It’s the x-ray that gets us into the airside mall with hours to spare; precious hours in which we can enjoy the unique shopping experience. And what an experience it is, friends. For here, airside, we find high street names trading with ‘gotcha’ mark-ups on all the essentials that you couldn’t bring through the security checks: deodorant, water, toothpaste. They’ve also seen you coming and know you’ve forgotten socks or pants so those are heavily marked up too. And once you have done all the emergency shopping you can manage there’s still time for a burger and a pint deal, again charged above the going rate.

Next, take in the ‘duty free shopping’ area. Here you’ll find a bewildering arrangement of ‘airport exclusives’ – products that you can’t buy on the high street at all, so you can’t tell if they’re actually a bargain or not. Finally, if you still have time to kill, you can enter the raffle to win a high performance sports car – something which can only be done airside. This truly is the land of opportunities, and I for one am glad of Birmingham, glad of the x-ray, glad that I got here with time to spare.

Now then, I need to grab some spare socks…

101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No.84: Wankers

This is a wanker parked in Lichfield. Absolute text book. Image CC Kevin Boyd

You’ve seen him on the motorway: coming in off the junction, he could drop in safely behind you and still keep the needle at 70 but instead he drops a gear and punches it past you to win a racing line on the last yard of the slip road. Firmly in front of you now, he jerks the saloon straight and into your lane, robbing you of the stopping distance you’ve calmly maintained for the last fifty miles. With nobody behind you, your foot is coming over to the brakes to get some space but before you hit the pedal he jerks right again. Now he’s into the half car length between a white van and a people carrier in the middle lane—and your heart is in your mouth. He won’t make it. But he does. He bursts through to the fast lane where once again he snaps the power steering hard to his left, bringing the car in line with the rest of the traffic. And there, having gained all of two cars length on you, he sits in the steady flow of motorway traffic which is all moving at basically the same speed as you. And there he sits for the next 20 miles before finally his moment comes to reverse the maneuver. He slaloms back through two lanes just in time to make his junction, cutting you off in the process as you try to make the Castle Brom exit. You seethe all the way to Spaghetti Junction. What an absolute—

You’ve seen him at the supermarket: coming towards you it’s 50/50 who has priority as he guns the two litre injection into the empty bays between you. 19 inch alloys either side of the white line, he takes up the last two spaces. Is this a calculated move to allow more space, to ensure nobody scratches the metallic paintwork he so carefully chose from the options list? Maybe, or perhaps it’s because the disabled bays he usually uses were already full. Either way, there’s no space for you, and so you begin to slowly circle the car park, as he leaps out and walks briskly off, Ted Baker suit jacket swishing and his thousand yard stare ensuring he doesn’t even connect with your eyeline as you gesture to him, rhythmically.

And you’ve seen him on the school run: one hand on the wheel, one hand on the phone, he guides two tonnes of German steel up onto the pavement and deftly steers on Continental all weathers towards kids, parents, buggies, and the school gate. Well he has to, right, it’s just not safe for the kids to walk these days. What a w—

What you haven’t seen is his LED indicators work, or him thank you for letting him out at a junction, and you couldn’t see anything at all after his xenon headlights blinded you with the ferocity of an arc welder. You may well have heard him, with the panache of a cut price Clarkson, boring on about how much power there is under the bonnet and you have definitely heard him tell you how much he pays on his tax bill for the privilege of being an absolute wan—

He’s a wanker, and he wouldn’t be this way if it wasn’t for Birmingham, for it was Birmingham which gave us the BMW, and with it wankers, driver assisted middle managers, climate controlled centrist dads, and statement cars you’ll never own.

When the first BMW, the BMW 3/15, also known as the Dixi, rolled off the production line in 1927 it was simply a licensed Austin 7 — the original family car whose design, of course, was developed in Birmingham. The Austin 7 offered pseudo-individualisation to the aspiring middle classes, and indeed the BMW badged version was available as a coupé, roadster and sedan, all of which screamed “look at me, I’m bang average” but made the driver feel like a discerning motoring consumer.

While the engineering was unashamedly British, we do have to give some credit to BMW for branding: the 3/15 model number designated the tax rate and horsepower of the car, the sort of stuff wankers love to compare notes on today.

Instead of a set of monogrammed golf balls, get them the 101 Things Book for Xmas

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

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