We all know that Birmingham isn’t shit. We’ve spent nearly 20 years telling people, showing the world, and often undermining our case. Tired of falling back on the same old cliches, or past achievements, we look at the ineffable reasons why we say ‘Birmingham: it’s not shit’ and attempt to eff it.
It’s been going round and round for way longer than you thought possible, has the affection that the people of Brum have for one of its 200 or so bus routes.
I have a commemorative reprint of a brochure advertising the delights of the Number 11 bus route — the reprint from 2004, the original from ‘the early 1930s’ — that invites people to “see Birmingham’s charming suburbs by ‘bus”, and presumably some of its least charming ones too as the joy of the thing is that it cuts right through us and opens us up to the honest scrutiny.
Joining two routes — the 10 and the 11 — and becoming one in 1926, going all the way round pretty much straight away became something Brummies did: ‘25 miles for fifteen pence’ as the guide says, and special Bank Holiday services. But why do we love it so much?
Is it the symbolic power of encircling a town? In the bible, when Joshua brings down the walls of Jericho it’s not the brass arrangement, it’s the ongoing circumnavigation. Luckily we can go round and round as the city is not good at blowing its own trumpet.
The day trips and Bank Holidays were the sort of thing that local history stalwarts like Carl Chinn could base a tale on, homely and just at the edge of your lived experience (as well as your city). Carl could even combine his other talent of telling us that the Peaky Blinders did different things in real life, as no-doubt one of the ‘real’ ones did a circuit.
Almost all (over 80%) of public transport journeys in Brum are by bus. We as a city have no cultural romance of the train or solidarity of the Underground experience, this means that a bus route we all share can become part of our identity. If you’re a young working class person in Birmingham — and statistically we have a greater density of these than other places in the UK — then it’s likely it’s formed some of your vespertinal journeys from a job or out for a night.
My mate Gary, a man who loved Brum so much he had a crush on Claire Short, was an agency worker — all his jobs were crap and minimum wage, so he had only two questions when he was phoned up about a new one: “what are the hours?” and “does the 11 go there?”. With a daysaver he could get anywhere, almost without waking up properly in the morning.
It’s said that Duran Duran wrote Hungry like the Wolf on the 11 bus; the band claim they wrote it in EMI’s studios in London but given the amount of hunting you can do at peak time for a bus it’s possible that it influenced the words. If it was written on the top deck it can’t have been a full circuit as there’s no way that writing the lyrics took two and a half hours.
There are undisputed cultural references, the bus features — although disappointing isn’t the main character in — Jonathan Coe’s Number 11 another of his satirical state of the nation novels, it inspired a Jethro Tull track and an internet novella.
I love the 11 bus, so much that I filmed an entire circuit to then speed it up to be five minutes long. I love it enough to have spent 11 hours going round and round. Of course I do, I’m a Brummie.
In 2008 I instigated a project called 11-11-11, the rules were: Get on the 11 at 11am (or as near as dammit) on 11/11. Get off the 11 at 10pm — 11 hours later — (or as near as dammit) on 11/11. And, because I wasn’t doing it for charity, it confused people. I was not just being honest about how much I loved the bus route, but trying to explore why the people of the city all loved it too.
I wanted lots and lots of people that weren’t thinking too hard about the why to enjoy it too. It helped me get a new perspective on the city, I wanted to spread that and was happy to talk to the media about it.
I hadn’t remembered that 11/11 was also Remembrance day, so the hardest bit about talking to the BBC WM presenter was when, expecting to just do a bit of light nostalgic bus chat, I was quizzed about whether what we were doing was disrespecting ‘our brave boys’.
The second hardest bit was not making a pornographic joke when asked ‘what’s your favourite, A or C?’
For a little while 11-11-11 produced some interesting things, and it happily affected the bus itself not at all. Eventually some others did do it for charity and the spectacle was reset.
At various times the number 11 has been the longest bus route in Europe and we love that — a claim that can be allowed to ‘big up Birmingham’ as it’s so mundane. It’s a flipside to the ‘more canals’ one as that is a ridiculous and tongue in cheek thing we tell ourselves like a nervous tick.
Are Brummie genuinely proud of the Number 11? Do we love it because we can do so without our usual deprecating irony?
It might just be because it really is better to travel hopefully than arrive. If so Birmingham is the ideal place. Let’s go round again.