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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101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 89: School

Ada Road School, Small heath, 1955

They were the best days of your life, ‘they’ will tell you. ‘They’, being everyone except Bryan Adams who is definite on the point of June, July and August of 1969 being better. What ‘they’ will neglect to tell you is that those days wouldn’t be how they are without the city of Birmingham. Bryan however, never stops going on about Brum’s own postal reformer, and world cup winner, Sir Rowland Hill.

You see at the age of twelve, before inventing the post and the stamp to go with it, Hill became a student-teacher in his father’s school. In 1819 he took over the school, called Hill Top, and moved it from town to establish the Hazelwood School in Edgbaston. He called it an “educational refraction of [our man] Priestley’s ideas”, and it became a model for public education for the emerging middle classes. It wanted to give sufficient knowledge, skills and understanding to allow a student to continue self-education through a life “most useful to society and most happy to himself”. The school building, which Hill designed, included innovations including a science laboratory, a swimming pool, and forced air heating.

In the book Plans for the Government and Liberal Instruction of Boys in Large Numbers Drawn from Experience (1822) he argued for kindness instead of caning, and moral influence rather than fear, for maintaining in school discipline. And some would say that’s where it all went wrong, but it’s certainly where the schools we know today come from.

And as Bryan Adams will no-doubt tell you, everything Sir Rowland Hill would do, he’d do it for you. And Birmingham, of course.

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

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