A dark force is at work in industrial Birmingham. The evidence is there before us in our streets, in our museums, in the halls of power, our entertainment venues, our dark mills. Yes the devil himself pervades the fabric of Birmingham culture.
Nowhere is this presence felt more than in the imposing effigy in the main atrium to the Museum & Art Gallery in Chamberlain Square – the Civic focus of art and tradition in Birmingham. It is the first ambassador to welcome the casual visitor or tourist to the culture of Birmingham.
The world of Roxy Music is distant and fantastic: dream homes, smoky nightclubs, crunching gravel drives. Only occasionally is it specific (Acapulco, Havana, Quaglino’s of Mayfair) but it’s always exclusive territory. By being unspecific, Roxy could be anywhere and everywhere… the point was that they were somewhere you weren’t. A decade later, Duran Duran used the same trick: pop fans were transported far from the grey lagoons of Birmingham, Leeds or Newcastle.
Aged 15, I entered these Transtopias after opening the gateway of Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure LP and goggling at the gothic, befeathered form of Eno grooving with a guitar, first L-R in a five-strong line up of guitar wielding band-mates. His flamboyant costume also made an impression on the young Morrissey: catching sight of Eno’s jacket hanging from a tour bus parked behind the Manchester Apollo in 1973 brought the unattainable to the banal. Morrissey states the encounter began his route to pop stardom.
After two albums touring timeless, placeless locations, Eno was ejected from the Roxy into his own universe of Faraway Beaches, icecaps, kitchenettes and driveways. The closest you get to a geo-fix is ‘just up from Wales’.
How to anchor any of these icy, opulent, extraordinary locations in Birmingham?
The answer lies with Carol McNicoll: Birmingham born ceramicist, former Old Rep wardrobe department and later girlfriend of Brian Eno. Her stint in the Rep’s costume department qualified her as designer for Eno and Andy MacKay’s stage wear in the earliest Roxy line up. She is credited with design supervision on Eno’s solo LP Here Come the Warm Jets. The sleeve zooms in through a psychedelic array of household bric-a-brac, overflowing ashtrays, Carol’s own vases and general flea market tat, visually alluding to the songs and lyrics contained within.
Carol is now long established as a ceramicist and she exhibits her work internationally. BM&G features her work in its C20 pottery collection and the V&A have her Eno costume filed next to classic Ziggy Stardust outfits. She regularly returns to Birmingham to visit family (as does Brian) and will be in conversation with me about her pots, costumes and Birmingham years at BCU Parkside on Fri 13 Feb.
The Subterraneans guided tour was developed for the 2013 Flatpack Film Festival. Exploring the Metropolis was a sub-theme of the festival that month and David Bowie had just released his album The Next Day after a decade of silence. From him I borrowed a song title to set the scene for my journey beneath the city.
It was to be my personal ‘Bowie’ moment, with tickets for the event selling out the same day. The festival office reported that every other phone call was a request to go onto the returns list for the event. The landlord of one of the tunnels we visited decreed that only 17 people, plus cameraman, volunteer and myself would be able to have access, once photo ID had been provided. ‘Inaccessible’ had translated into ‘exclusive’. Why such demand to visit dark, dripping, uninviting places? This is one attraction the city provides in freely and in abundance. The answer partly lies in the event being presented as a guided tour: someone else tests the ground, tracks down the key holder, completes the risk assessments and shoulders the responsibility. Exploring alone is lonely, dangerous and marks you as an outsider. Group solidarity defers the anxiety of becoming a marginalised troglodyte.
A new library opening prompts twenty-first century questions: what is the role of the library in the digital age? Wherefore books? Who now reads what, where? Despite what you may have heard, the paperless library is still a long way off.
Birmingham’s numerous city libraries over the last 150 years reflect the city’s lack of sentimentality about its past: you can now practically renew libraries over the phone. The current regeneration is nearly complete: you can take a look for yourself from next Tuesday. I had a guided tour last week from Mecanoo’s Patrick Arends and the space is amazing. I’ve been reserving judgement on the building for the last few years, feeling it’s only fair to see the interior of a building before forming an opinion on the building as a whole. I’d also like to see it working as a library before completely deciding. There have been many times since 2007 when it has been hard not to become annoyed by the new building: its encroachment into the civic square (itself very recent) seemed invasive and seeing the townscape of the Centenary Square broken up by the towering new building is a jarring moment. The gradual erosion of civic space is painful too: the land occupied by Central Library is being sold to a private company, as happened with Baskerville House. Awful rumours about there being less shelf space than the previous library were later confirmed. Meanwhile community libraries were losing staff and reducing their service – even brand new libraries like Shard End.
Of course, none of this is mentioned in the introductory presentation and indeed it isn’t the place to discuss it. The LoB team demonstrate their clear excitement about the project, and are now itching to share it. Mecanoo’s creative director Francine Houben describes it as an Ode to the Circle that should be seen as a (yeep) People’s Palace. After we’ve been given some shaky local info (Baskerville House is a “1920s building” and Birmingham is “Europe’s youngest city”) we’re ready to go. Things are still being installed and unpacked but there’s no getting around the fact that this is a wildly ambitious, astonishing space. Ascending through its various caverns, corridors and plateaux really is the journey Houben suggests it is. At no point is it obvious where the building you are, and in a library this is a good thing. As was said of John Madin’s windowless edifice: “a library is a window”. There are many moments I can’t work out what I’m seeing. And it’s a thrill that all this is a library: to put learning, reading and research to Birmingham’s fore in this way, after a long period of being marginalised at the expense of commercial spaces, is a reassuring, hopeful moment.
On my regular rambles through Moseley it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer number of towers, turrets and fortifications on the large houses here. These were once the homes of wealthy professionals and their design and decoration is intended to suggest the nobility of medieval times. A man’s home is his castle – it’s an ancient sentiment that in its earliest form predates even castles (from the Roman philosopher Cicero). Adding a tower and decorative crenellations to your home provides prestige and sense of security. I wish I lived in one, and that’s the point.
I became interested in the language of the towers: the distinction between towers and turrets, and the world of associated features. These include belvederes, gazebos, kiosks, pagodas, orioles, domes and follies. Birmingham has two very famous towers: the Tolkien-inspiring Waterworks tower and the mysterious Perrot’s Folly in Edgbaston. But it has many others and here I want to round up some of the best examples in the form of a walking tour. Many, I feel, are unjustly overlooked. You can illustrate the walk with your memories of these places, follow (most of) it on street view or actually walk the walk.
The tour begins in St Philips Cathedral, outside the east porch. Here, an Aberdeen granite obelisk commemorates Henry Buck, faithful secretary to the Birmingham branch Manchester Order of the Oddfellows – a local friendly society. There are several impressive obelisks in the grounds, the tallest of which commemorates Frederick Gustavus Burnaby. Burnaby was a Victorian soldier and adventurer will a brilliant career – but one with no known connection to Birmingham. Obelisks are ancient; much earlier than any spire, tower or tall building – they are the original skyscraper. The tapered shape represents descending sun rays, thus the implied movement is downwards rather than upwards. Some obelisks were purely utilitarian, forming the shadow hand of a large sundial.