We all know that Birmingham isn’t shit. We’ve spent nearly 20 years telling people, showing the world, and often undermining our case. In our book we lay out the ineffable reasons why we say ‘Birmingham: it’s not shit’ and attempt to eff it.
You’re not meant to answer your phone at work, you have to do it surreptitiously. Which is why, despite Benjamin Zephaniah phoning me up to tell me just why he’d turned down an OBE in the Queen’s Christmas honours, I’m not quite sure why he did it. Phone me up, that is.
It was undoubtedly the right thing to do — good people do it, J.B. Priestley, Alan Bennett, Harold Pinter, David Bowie, Glenda Jackson as well as some absolute rotters like Evelyn Waugh the vile body who declined a CBE in the late ‘50s because he wanted a knighthood instead — but it would have been fantastic to hear the reasons this great Brummie did from him directly. My attention was not only compromised by taking the call in an open-plan office but by the fact I was hiding something from Ben, or being politic about it at least.
Ben was under the impression that his turning down of the gong had led him to being voted Brummie of the Year — an award that he said “means more to me than any medal” — and I didn’t want to disappoint him, because he’d come second. Second to a man whose achievements weren’t as literary, a man who danced on the corner of the road in Small Heath with a Walkman we were told had no batteries in.
I’m not proud that the inaugural Brummie of the Year was given to someone who was not being laughed with but at, and I shouldn’t have allowed that nomination to reach the public vote, so perhaps we can say that Benjamin Zephaniah was ‘the real’ 2003 Brummie of the Year and I can say ‘sorry Malik’. (In later years we abandoned the public vote altogether — after a year where we gave up the whole thing over what was described on Radio 4 by Mark Steel as being ‘due to foul and abusive language’ but was really about how something small could be overtaken — and now award the title on a whim, it’s easier that way.)
But back to Ben, he was lovely, and had tracked my number down somehow and I knew who it was from the moment he spoke: the familiar warmth to his voice. Proud Brummies don’t get a lot of coverage in the media, in the early ‘90s they got almost none. Ben stood out and you knew some things: he was a Brummie, he was engaged and righteously angry about injustice, and he couldn’t help mentioning the Villa. Most Brummies end up using part of their allocated message time to either ask us to ‘shit on the VIlla’ or support them, it’s something of a tic.
“Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought.“ Ben had written in The Guardian in a column he ended by telling Tony Blair to “stick it” — and you just know that if it had been ten years later he would have told David Cameron to stick to supporting West Ham too. But the most important thing he said, the one that makes me proud of the city that helped build him was this:
“I get angry when I hear the word ’empire’; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds me of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised.”
Stick it, elsewhere. Birmingham is not shit.