Disappearing Brum

Marti De Bergi first saw the legendarily punctual Spinal Tap in a little club called the Electric Banana but advised us “don’t look for it—it’s not there anymore”. And the director of Kramer Vs Kramer Vs Godzilla is right, nostalgia is a fool’s game.

The gateway drug is TKTVP, street name ‘Talking about old Kids’ Television Programmes’. No matter how it makes those lonely first-year undergraduate conversations in the Union bar seem easier it’s just building up an empty existence propped up only by Shine compilations in your work cubicle. By my age, you’re drawn and haggard and fit only to frequent the back rooms of the seedier pubs in Moseley talking about bloody Tolkien.

But like a pusher, I’m going to attempt to give you false nostalgia for a past you needn’t have bothered to remember. Let’s see if you can develop a simulacra of a misty eye over these gone, or soon to be gone, Birmingham fixtures:

Pebble Mill

In the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s the BBC’s Pebble Mill studios in Edgbaston was the home of light entertainment. As well as local news, farming-radio-Hollyoaks The Archers and big Sunday night telly like cow-bothering All Creatures Great And Small, it took over our screens every weekday at 1pm for Pebble Mill at One. This used to feature proper stars, like Cliff Richards, being utterly confused in front of a studio audience—it was great.

What’s there now: Nothing, they knocked it down and ran out of money to build the proposed ‘science park’.

Nearest modern equivalent: The Tesco at the back of the Mailbox is the best place to see minor celebs in uncomfortable situations, popping in for a Pot Noodle after being on Radio WM.

Sputnik

This was possibly Brum’s tiniest bar, with tiny, tiny, toilets always ankle deep in something wet. Underground, down some steep steps, you could barely see anything and the music policy was harsh to say the least. But it was friendly, and the beer was stupidly cheap.

What’s there now: A bar that I’m reliably informed “looks like the interior of a drug-dealer’s speedboat”.

Nearest modern equivalent: Underground drinking is falling out of favour in Brum, but Scruffy Murphy’s in Dale End manages to block out all daylight by dint of being set into a multi-storey car park.

Underpasses

In Birmingham, voiceover man says, ‘the car is king’ and until recently this meant that pedestrians shuffled from point to point in a system of subterranean tunnels like some Brummie Morlocks banished from the surface. But as in The Time Machine, the overground triumphed and now these have mostly been filled in—the only loss being those mini-newsagents you only see underground.

What’s there now: In most cases roads. Where you can get knocked over on an equal footing with the drivers.

Nearest modern equivalent: There are still some underpasses around, try the supremely named Paradise Place beneath Paradise Circus.

The Incongruous Fishing Tackle and Gun Shop

Just round the back of Marks and Spencer’s there lived a shop as full of curios as Bagpuss’s. W.Powell & Son Riffle Makers didn’t just sell guns, but proper green-welly and tweed outdoors wear. Miles from the nearest place where such upper class pursuits could be performed—unless there was a little-known Perry Barr Hunt we didn’t, er, know about—it was nothing but surprising that it stayed open as long as it did. 

What’s there now: The building, and interesting it is too, houses a shop selling tat from catalogues. 

Nearest modern equivalent: You can probably buy all this sort of thing from Poundland these days can’t you?

Central Library

Birmingham’s one true architectural masterpiece isn’t long for this World. In order to replace it with a much-needed mixed use yuppie development, the brutalist masterpiece Central Library is to be closed and then demolished. Although it’s now sullied by carbuncles of a McDonald’s and a Weatherspoon we thought it had turned the corner—at least the branch of owls-as-a-metaphor-for-tits bar Hooters has been removed. But no, soon the books are to be shipped out and the ’80s can be built in its place.

What’s there now: Central Library, just.

Nearest modern equivalent: The ‘tetris building’ is still just about with us along the road on Colmore Row, but hurry concrete fans they’ll all soon be gone. 

Men’s Public Toilets

All over Birmingham there used to be places for the less fair sex to use the smallest room. Some weren’t the smallest room at all, but huge cavernous and beautifully tiled rooms accessible from street level. Others were iron pissoirs barely covering your modesty, and never your feet, on street corners. But budget cuts, and fears of them being used for less healthy purposes lead to them being pretty much all shuttered. Drug dealers, muggings, as the saying goes ‘when someone just went in for a crap it was like a breath of fresh air’.

What’s there now: Normally the toilets are still there, you just can’t go in them. In any sense. 

Nearest modern equivalent: The women’s next door, in the case of the indoor ones I suppose, just don’t say I told you so.

This post appeared in a similar form  in Area Magazine in 2011 —these things remain gone.

By Jon Bounds

14th Most Influential Person in the West Midlands 2008, subsequently not placed.

His new book about visiting every seaside pier in England and Wales — Pier Review — has been described as “On the Road meets On the Buses”, it’s out now.

Jon wrote and directed the first ever piece of drama to be performed on Twitter and founded the famous blog Birmingham: It’s Not Shit.

14th Most Influential Person in the West Midlands 2008, subsequently not placed.

His new book about visiting every seaside pier in England and Wales — Pier Review — has been described as “On the Road meets On the Buses”, it’s out now.

Jon wrote and directed the first ever piece of drama to be performed on Twitter and founded the famous blog Birmingham: It’s Not Shit.

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  • Prodigal Babu

    Couple of minor points. Construction on the Pebble Mill site is well underway, Red bar closed at least a year ago and the William Powell shooting ground was about 20 minutes from their shop & workshop on Carrs Lane.

    • Blimey, things have changed in the last 3 years, well a bit.

  • limey

    Sputnik.

    I was just reminiscing about visits to Brum in the early Noughties.

    What a great little bar. I never had a boring night there, happy memories of barking mad people addled by drugs, including Banks’s and vodka.