“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.