Birmingham: It’s Not Shit — Reason No. 4: Camp Hill Flyover

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.

JG Ballard was famously inspired by The Westway in London, a road he considered central to some dystopian future that we were actually living in. But If you go to London and travel the Westway, you can see that it is nothing more than an extended Perry Barr flyover — and has absolutely nothing on the wonder that is our very own Spaghetti Junction. Ballard’s Concrete Island doesn’t have a beach.

But if you like your driving urban, elevated, thrillingly unsafe then Birmingham had something that could help create a thousand unsettling novels. If Digbeth is our Faraway Tree, then the Camp Hill Flyover was our — rattling and juddering — slippery slip, a helter skelter to the Stratford Road, via sheer terror.

Nicklin, Phyllis (1968) High Street to Camp Hill flyover, Bordesley, Birmingham.

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Birmingham: It’s Not Shit — Reason No. 3: Everywhere in Great Barr looking the same

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.

Birmingham is the highest point west of the Urals. Great Barr is as hilly as all hell, the pubs are all big and on the verge of kicking off, or big, closed, and on the verge of burning down. I don’t think there’s a trendy coffee shop for miles, and good luck with seeing any art other than a tribute act since The Kings isn’t there for basket meals and The Barron Knights.

During the Second World War they removed road signs to confuse any Nazi paratroopers that might land, in suburban Birmingham they just built road after road of identical semi-detached houses that wind round on each other in a way that makes you sure the estates were planned not by the Public Works Committee of the Council but by M.C. Escher.

Never sure where you are until you turn a corner onto a wider road and see a landmark, lost on a walk of shame, navigating by incline alone: the sheer delight in being able to get lost yards from your front door is a feeling akin to driving fast over the hump-backed bridge by Highcroft as you race into Erdington. 

Did the city planners just see one semi-, with a box room at the front even that stretched the definition of ‘bedroom’ even in those days when people were smaller, and say:’ Yeah, thousands and thousands of these randomly all around the place, around the outskirts of town please.’? Sort of. And it’s to our credit that they did. 

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Birmingham: It’s Not Shit — Reason No. 2: Cliff Richard

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.

Cliff Richard is not from Birmingham; reason for celebration enough some might think, but they are cynics and have no place in this discussion.  A fleeting mention of Cliff Richards makes me think of Birmingham and smile, for Cliff is somehow part of Birmingham — almost is Birmingham on another plane of existence.

The parallels are huge. We, as a city, are Christmas – we shine and glitter in a gaudy way. Cliff is too – he’s had four Xmas number ones to our one. We both love Eurovision – Cliff’s two appearances to our one outranks us – we both love women’s tennis and we both don’t get much sex.

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Birmingham: It’s Not Shit — Reason No. 1: The Brummie’s Love of the Number 11 Bus

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.

By Pete Ashton

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?

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101 Things Birmingham Gave the World. No. 101: User Generated Content, Social Media, and the Death of Civilisation

Jasper Carrott used to, and maybe still does, do a bit about a guy inadvertently swearing on local radio. The offender is new recruit sent out to report on a football match, and he almost manages to grab what will be a great bit of radio. In the days before outside broadcasting was easy he’d got one of the managers to agree to come to the phone to do an interview. This was all set up, and the studio was ready to come back to him after the news for his big moment.

Except the manager — probably Ron Saunders, who used to manage all local teams at once probably — got bored and left. “Tone, Tone, he’s fucked off, Tone,” broadcasts our hero.

The ‘Tone’ in question was Birmingham’s own Tony Butler who bestrode local sports radio in the ’70s and ’80s and with one simple innovation changed the whole media landscape forever.

You would think that Tony would now be Director General of the BBC, or at least famous enough to be on gardening leave after some historic accusations. He’s not, he stayed doing pretty much the same job until his retirement in 2013. At one point in the ’90s Tony was promoted to the breakfast show on golden oldies station XtraFM, on this he unveiled his competition ‘Butler’s Bucket’ in which listeners would have to guess what item was in his bucket. If this radio gold was cut short by someone guessing, then people would be asked to guess where in the West Midlands the bucket was.

And in that simplicity and interaction was Tony’s genius: he let people phone up and say what they thought. He just put the public on the air: he invented the football phone-in.

They even let him do it on Birmingham L!VE TV — the local opt-out of the channel that usually filled time with The Weather in Norwegian, the sight of a bra-strap, or a young journalist in a rabbit costume — where in the years before any video calling, and at station with few technical tricks he sat in an office in the Post and Mail building for Butler’s Sports Special and, well, answered the phone.

From the humble beginnings of asking people to call BRMB and say that Graham Turner was crap, the format exploded to fill every radio station, all of the time. Now there isn’t a media outlet that doesn’t ask YOU what YOU think so that you will happily fill THEIR air, inches or pixels with YOUR views about everything and rake in the clicks for limited online advertising revenue. This is all they have left now as journalism was hollowed out by money-men and really big money men in San Francisco. Such ill-informed comment pouring out of every screen in the world has already led to the elections of hard-right ‘strong men’ the world over, the emptying out of our democracies and — probably — the end of civilisation as we as a species are no longer even trying to battle climate chaos or global pandemics.

Tony Butler, in inventing the football phone-in, invented the future we live in. And he invented it for the people of Birmingham. And then, after doing it for decades, he fucked off, Tone.

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101 Things Birmingham Gave the World. No. 95: Analysing the Class Struggle

Nancy Mitford was a terrible snob. In a letter to Evelyn Waugh, she mentions with glee a mutual friend who uses the expression “rather ‘milk in first’” to express condemnation of those lower down the social scale.

In an essay for Encounter magazine, called The English Aristocracy, she listed a glossary of terms used by the upper classes along with the equivalents used by those who, to paraphrase Noel Coward, thought that television was for watching rather than appearing on. In doing so, she unleashed a wave of nose-looking-down directed at anyone caught saying ‘settee’ instead of ‘sofa’, or ‘perfume’ rather than ‘scent’.

Yes, Nancy Mitford not only needed to check her privilege, but even created a ready reckoner with which to do it.

Nancy Mitford was a terrible snob, but at least she wasn’t a Nazi. Nor did she come up with the idea of using a list of shibboleths to separate the English upper classes from those that would desire to emulate them. The groundwork, the idea of using synonyms rather than accents as class indicators, was done by Alan S. C. Ross, linguistics professor at the University of Birmingham and inventor of the terms U and non-U.

In 1954, Ross published a paper in a Finnish journal on ‘the terminology of popular discourse of social dialects in Britain’. But it certainly didn’t cause the stir that Nancy Mitford’s use of his ideas did, just a few months later. Proof that it is indeed who (whom?) you know rather than what you know.

Birmingham, home of really understanding the class struggle: sweet. I mean, ‘pudding’.

Paradise Circus Live – full live show

Like an old Monty Python cash-in LP: for lockdown listening the full live show the Paradise Circus troupe did at the mac a little while back. 90 mins of hyperlocal satire now available to listen to in your home.

If you enjoy it, please bung a little something to Brum Baby Bank. Oh, and you can buy our book, which has more of (in some cases exactly) the same.

Paradise Circus Live is old fashioned revue with a local twist – a host of satirical sketches, stand-up, songs, games and monologues. Jon Bounds and Jon Hickman bring a version of their popular Birmingham miscellany, Paradise Circus, to the stage with biting satire of the media and Birmingham itself — all refracted through a thick lens of Marxist critical theory. It’s funnier than it sounds. Hickman is not from round these parts and Bounds will take him through what it really means to understand Birmingham.

Learn just how to be a local Breakfast Show DJ, what happens at a Birmingham City Council meeting about promoting the latest Big Plan, and how to write a broadsheet article about Birmingham in an editorial meeting down in that London. Help us to find King Kong, discover who won the 1972 Snooker World Championship (which was played 60ft underneath the BT Tower) and work out how much the Council has paid to Capita during a stirring rendition of Mr Blue Sky.

Mark Steadman is at the piano with comedy songs like his famous 11 Bus song which mentions all of the 280 stops in order (11A of course). We may even end on some ELOke.

Paradise Circus Live may finally prove that Birmingham is not shit, or die on stage trying.

Listen now:

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The Francis Galton Lunar Society Sketch

From the wonderful Paradise Circus Live, a sketch about the how breeding gets you everywhere:

By the early part of the 1900s the Lunar Society had lost its glimmer. The French Revolution and the riots in Birmingham have driven Joseph Priestley to America. The second generation of Lunartics aren’t quite up to scratch and as for the third…

Lunar Chairman: So, Mr Galton, you’d like to join the Lunar Society?

Francis Galton: Call me Francis, please. Like my father and Grandfather I’m nothing if not humble.

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“Fuck, fuck fuck, fucking hell”. I banged the steering wheel, it was the moment I lost it.

Lost my home town. 

I’d gone the wrong way on Spaghetti Junction. 

Coming from an unfamiliar direction, following signs to the M6, tired and attempting to avoid the traffic building up between the Scott Arms junction and Spaghetti, I’d ended up going north. 

And then, turning round at junction 7  – the motorway island I’d driven round more than any other – about to give up and face that traffic, I did it again. 

Back onto the M6 going towards Ikea, I decided I could swing round and hit the M5 and in the end, got where I was going without adding much more than half an hour to the journey. But I knew it was significant: going the wrong way meant that the pathways in my brain that mean I don’t have to think about some things, they just happen, were re-wired.

Some years back I was working in Worcester, driving every day from Moseley, and would often ‘wake’ as I parked at the office with little knowledge of how I’d got there. If interrogated that seemed dangerous, that you could drive at 70 for miles and have no real clue about it, but I was aware, I was safe. What I was doing was being on autopilot because I’d trained myself. And now, the pathways that held the old ways, what were the usual ways were gone.

I’d already stopped knowing which pubs were the decent ones in town. I’d long since had to use maps to find out where the 16 stopped to get back to Hamstead. The new New Street is not just a maze to me because it’s a maze to everyone: it’s because it’s not my home town any more.

There were times when just coming down the escalator and seeing the departure boards would feel like taking off a restrictive jacket. Deciding whether to get a can for the train, meeting people there in the mass of people watching the letters flick over, or standing – bag between ankles – before going down to 1A, would be a Proustian rush far better than the texture of a bag of Porky Puffs or the smell of a long-marinaded beer mat. 

There used to be a button you could press in the old local history bit of the museum: sort of on the side of the room, turn around and you’d see some old corporation fire service uniforms. The button played ‘I can’t find Brummagem’ – it wasn’t a great song, but songs of Birmingham are rare. It wasn’t a great museum, either. But it did: and the button was a highlight. I’ve often thought I should update the song, but then other people have over the years. And done it well enough for me not to bother.

The place has always changed, too fast for some, but I’m not just being nostalgic. I think I’m reflecting that it’s not the place that changes so much as us. And if it’s an effort to move around you have to acknowledge that: because you’re acknowledging that your reflections are a distortion in the fairground mirror of your memories.

Birmingham is the place that made me. I can find it, if I look hard. But I can’t call it my home: not if I can’t find my way out of it.

Boris Johnson’s Christmas Carol

Thatcher was dead: to begin with. There could be no doubt about that. Johnson had been to the funeral himself, sat near Osborne who was failing to hold back the tears. She was as dead as a doornail. Or less metaphorically, the 96 football fans who her government smeared and denied justice after Hillsborough.

It was a cold afternoon in early December, and after cancelling another interview, Johnson was heading home for an evening with a good Russian vodka given to him by a close friend. The knocker on the door of Johnson’s temporary accommodation seemed to form a face, the digits 1 and 0 became a winking eye and a nose that seemed to follow the average wage down a graph. And was what was once a letterbox a handbag?

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