Lost

“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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Brummie of the Year 2019 — Stephen Duffy

This is the tenth Brummie of the Year award, first awarded in 2003 by the then Birmingham: It’s Not Shit. Past winners and nominees have included UB40 saxophonist Brian Travers, itinerant blues guitarist Charlie Mitton, and escaping red panda Babu.

This year we thought long and hard, and Tom Watson nearly snuck it at the end. His dignified exit as West Bromwich East MP nearly matched the one as Baron Tweetup in my Twitter pantomime, where we think he left a glass slipper on the dance floor at a karaoke bar or something.

Stephen Duffy

However only one Brummie so far this year has written and released a record that will make you smile and cry at the same time, will have you running up Constitution Hill and worry about losing your accent. It’s another triumph for the man who once told us: “people from Birmingham do have a slightly more sentimental nature to them”. Yeah, we do.

In his neglected masterpiece he revealed how he “sang [his] songs of Birmingham” and asked us if we digged “the proletarian way he got it wrong”. We did, we do, we probably will for ever.

For the achievement that was making a drum machine sound sexy in the 80s, through making us like a record that features Nigel Kennedy, to making this beautiful, nostalgic, sad and funny record – and all without losing his accent.

He recently said “Most artists think they’re dreadful, but I think I’m brilliant.” For a boy from Alum Rock that’s unusual. So for the distinctly un-Brummie trait of blowing his own trumpet (though, not ever on record) and actually being right we award Stephen Duffy ‘Brummie of the Year 2019’.

 

(Go get the LP)

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101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 94: The Orwellian Nightmares of the Daily Mail

Orwell House, Sutton Courtney, Oxfordshire

Eric Arthur Blair’s 1984 provides such a compelling vision of life in a totalitarian state that it has become the founding text on which fears of undemocratic control are built. Its ideas are strong and can be easily adapted to suit almost any political purpose.

The left will shuffle in their donkey jackets and point to the opprobrium hurled at immigrants or the poor, look hard, over a plate of custard creams, and cry ‘two minutes hate’ at the right wing press. Libertarians call almost any attempt to do anything ‘Big Brother’. But it’s the likes of the Daily Mail that have taken the contents of the book most to heart.

‘Orwellian’ is a phrase that the Daily Mail use a lot, there are over 30 pages of search results on their website. Its use is often combined with the word ‘nightmare’ and almost always followed by a story about how a local council or the BBC has ‘banned’ the the use of a word. Or talking about black people. Or in one ‘news story’ I came across: broccoli.

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Rebound

At school, that term, or at least that week, the obsession was small rubber balls, an inch across and patterned with a muted tie-dye, with a thin piece of elastic through them which was tied to a plastic ring. The elastic stretched around – I’m now guessing – six to ten feet, the balls were very bouncy.

No-one ever took toys to school, I don’t know if they weren’t allowed, but it didn’t happen. Once a kid brought a Beano in and there was a whole line of nine year-olds sitting on the brick line at the edge between the playground and the grass looking over their shoulder. We mainly played games that involved running, in different combinations. It wasn’t until I moved from the Churchill Road ‘annex’ to the big school up the road that we played football. And even then it was football if we had a ball, football with a can, or a stone, or sometimes even just our minds. Sometimes if there was nothing round ‘stick rugby’ was the game. Stick rugby was just throwing a stick around and running into people: none of us knew the rules of rugby.

The balls, were a break with the tradition of aimless games of tig and tag, or kiss chase. They were sold in the shop at the top of the road our school was on, on the corner with Hamstead Road, a old mock-Tudor house with only the front parlour space open as a shop. Ice cream freezers outside in the summer and metallic plates advertising the Evening Mail covered in a wide mesh to hold the days headlines.

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A story of ice

Nicklin, Phyllis (1967) Tame Valley, Perry Barr Midland Counties Dairy Ltd.

The car didn’t slow down as it mounted the pavement outside the dairy, wobbling as if stepping onto the kerb without knees. It didn’t slow down as it started to envelope the lamppost, bending it slowly over as it did so. Then it did, it stopped. It was lucky for the driver that he hadn’t been going that quickly in the first place. His seatbelt held him, but at the price of a cracked collarbone and an arc of a bruise around his right eye.

It was a crisp night, around midnight, and the sparkle of the tarmac on the Aldridge Road had begun. The bus driver (a 113, returning to depot) that saw the impact assumed that the car had hit a patch of ice. He told the car driver as much when he sat him down on the empty bus, watching him shake and offering him a cigarette for his nerves. The car driver didn’t smoke, but he took one anyway. He shuddered, fag in mouth then hand, and decided that the ice was a good story, it became his story.

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101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 93: The Safe Hand Grenade

It’s possible, but unlikely, that when the kids of today play ‘war’ they mime sitting in command centres programming drones, or pretend to work on high-level AI routines for infiltrating ISIS on Instagram. It’s more likely that they continue to use the main two traditional imaginary weapons: guns and the hand grenade.

We could talk about Birmingham’s influence on the gun until the cows come home, but as the cows all live out in Warwickshire barn conversions we’d have to rig up some sort of notification system. So, let’s talk grenades, and in particular the famous one known as the Mills Bomb.

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Non-uniform day

School uniforms are odd, especially for teenagers. You take the group that are producing the largest smells and the greatest number of secretions and you develop a system where they wear the same clothes every day. Shirts for two days, unless you spill something, trousers all week, blazers for a least a year. Dry clean only.

But non-uniform days are worse.

As a teenager, my eyes swelled with frustration as I didn’t know what ‘Gallini’ was, nor why everyone would be wearing it tomorrow. Without the internet, and Tower Hill library was no help on this, how would I have known?

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A child’s Christmas in Birmingham

It may not have been snowing that Christmas, or any particular Christmas – snow and Christmas are interlinked so that we see it even if the day itself is clear. Even if we see ourselves carrying dining chairs up Hamstead Hill in the sun, across roads and clear dry pavements, there will be snow in our memories. There will be dripping gutters, splashing onto noses, wet but still comforting. There will be rutted slush in the gutter, darker grey on the frozen ends nearer the traffic fumes.

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From a man to his son, on missing his home town

You’ll never see the back streets in the same way I do. They change, things change fast round here, but even if they don’t your connection will not be the same. I won’t be able to show you the old pubs, the thick green leather stapled to the heavy wood, the splinters and the tears. But when it’s time, I’ll share a pint with you anywhere.

The streets have a new brick, clad with a special kind of fresh decay. There’s a new corner around every corner. The roads have moved themselves, move traffic differently. I won’t be able to show you the back ways. I haven’t kept up and that’s soon to be your problem — if you chose to care.

Will you care? I think so. Sometimes I feel such a deep connection to the roots of my caste I can’t believe you won’t. It’s often music that does it. Not in the simple proustian way, not always. I can feel the connection not only through chance hearings, yes, I catch Working In a Coalmine and am transported to the back room at Snobs as you’d expect, but there is something about musical culture that connects much more deeply. Music made by people I was, or am, or could have been – could have been because they were where we were. The rubble filled spaces that donkey jacket Dexy’s stood in were still the places I played football with a tennis ball, played cricket with a tennis ball, never played tennis with a tennis ball as we didn’t have bats or nets or flat ground. They took the train to Euston from the platforms I did, unsure of how to take the bigger city we reached. The platforms are the same now, but god only knows how to get to them. You’ll find them better than me.

The world is changing more quickly now than it seems it ever did. Even in the ‘80s I remember bomb sites, long-gone factories behind rough fences, compacted dust on which to park cars or cut through. The desire paths of our urban life, the secret passages and hollow ways through unwanted and overgrown spaces. Take the gulley, leave by the side gate to avoid the ticket collector, there’s a hole in the fence along here. The short cuts are the hardest to learn. We probably won’t share them, but there will be some.

We can go back, of course, we will. But my disconnect has become a fence without a hole, a song with a half-remembered melody. Maybe when I stumble across it it will connect us rather than divide us. Maybe we can discover new routes together, maybe there’s another version of Kiss Me that has the vibe of the country rather than just the rhythm of the factory. We can walk both, sing both. Maybe.

I’ll teach you what I can. Much of it will be wrong, or at least useless, configured for a town that isn’t mine really. Never was, I just lived in it and made my own maps. The winter darkness smeared with festive lights just highlights that as it obscures the way. But winter is a good time to sing together.

We can sing Mr Blue Sky at the end of the night, or the start of the game, or just in the street for no reason. I’ll sing with you anywhere.

It’s your heritage, your town now, if you want it.