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.
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.
On the monitor I see a dad letting his daughter, about three years-old, toddle down the bus unaided, waddling behind like a wicket keeper oblivious to the queue of people behind him, and even the driver isn’t sociopathic enough to pull off while this tiny child is having her ‘learning experience’. She left turns to the stairs, and you guessed it, instead of scooping her up and carrying her the dad lets her scramble up the dirty stairs like it was a wacky warehouse. She gets on to the seat in front of me.
“Shay”, yes really, her name it seems is ‘Shay’ .
“Shay,” says the dad “you’re going to have to do me a big girl favour”, which is a sentence I never want to hear ever again.
“You stay here and don’t move and I need to go downstairs to speak to the driver,”
“Brrrlip” says Shay, and the dad just fucks off.
After about a minute Shay is looking around. I make eye contact with the guy sitting next to me as if to say ‘I guess we’re parents now’. He’s not amused. I then realise that I have no memory of what Shay’s dad looks like and I’m just going to have to presume the next guy to pick her up and take her away is her dad.
Northfield, innit? I was born here, the A38 killed my dog, l got my first scars here, and I watch the sunset from my parents roof whenever I can. I’m allowed to be mean. You’re not.
There used to be a few cafes in Northfield, The Clock Cafe by the swimming baths which is still just about there, and Three Bakers in the Grosvenor, a tiny shopping complex that we used to sneak into and skate in the car park above. The Three Bakers was the sort of cafe you see in 70s telly, formica tables screwed into the floor and a weird damp air because no one takes their coat off. It’s gone now. We have an actual coffee shop now, with comfy chairs and blackboards advertising muffins with ‘cute’ slogans stolen from instagram posts. Some people even take their coat off. Buoyed by that success, maybe, there’s a new bar coming to the high street. It’s being fitted at the moment. They haven’t fixed the windows yet so you can see inside to velvet flock wallpaper and polished wood. It looks to be the sort of lounge bar you see in Kings’ Heath and Harborne. I won’t hold my breath.
There used to be four or five pubs in Northfield, all of them lost their licence. Slowly at first, but quicker and quicker as the refugees from the last pubs would congregate in the next one. The Travellers Rest closed last, a pub famous for being the only darts team with its own hooligan gang following it to away fixtures, coke dealers so untrustworthy that even people on coke avoided them, and the sort of determined day drinker that never seems to be enjoying drinking. The Black Horse is now a Spoons and had to close for nearly a year to make sure the previous regulars forgot how to get there.
Now I know, lots of Gosh Brum websites will tell you that Birmingham is a neon cocktail paradise with gourmet street food, hosting art festival after art festival—but you’re thinking of the town centre and the one or two suburbs ‘lucky’ enough to be ‘discovered’.
Most of Birmingham is like Northfield. Have you ever been to Northfield? There is no reason you should have, unless you were dealt that hand and were born there. Northfield isn’t a destination.
There isn’t anything here that isn’t on any other high street in the city. Longbridge has the shopping centre that has grown in the ruins of the Rover plant, Rubery has the exit to the motorway, Rednal has the Lickey Hills. Northfield is just another ex-council estate high street with a train station nowhere near either its centre or where anybody lives. Northfield is Birmingham but like most of Birmingham only loosely connected to the cultural identity of the city that isn’t at all afraid to blow its own trumpet. Most people in Northfield had no idea about its City of Culture bid, its Channel Four bid, or know anything about any event until Nick Owen tells them it’s just happened.
To most ‘Town’ is a scary place that’s always too full and too much hassle to get to. Granted the only reason most of them think this is because the one time they do make it into the city centre is to go to the ‘German Market’ once a year.
The suburbs are island states to themselves, you may hop to nearby one when you have to but you mainly stay where you are. People that would be quicker to identify themselves as Villa fans or Bluenoses than a Brummie. Not that they’re ashamed, just not connected.
The disconnect between the story that we let PR tell us Birmingham is and what Birmingham actually is is maddening. Birmingham is families, diverse communities finding a way to live and thrive. Working class people getting by and looking after each other. And that where its true strengths lie.
If we could find a way of connecting suburbs like Northfield to the narrative Birmingham would be as good a city as we’re told it is.