14th Most Influential Person in the West Midlands 2008, subsequently not placed.
His new book about visiting every seaside pier in England and Wales — Pier Review — has been described as “On the Road meets On the Buses”, it's out now.
Jon wrote and directed the first ever piece of drama to be performed on Twitter and founded the famous blog Birmingham: It's Not Shit.
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.
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?
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.
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.
They were the best days of your life, ‘they’ will tell you. ‘They’, being everyone except Bryan Adams who is definite on the point of June, July and August of 1969 being better. What ‘they’ will neglect to tell you is that those days wouldn’t be how they are without the city of Birmingham. Bryan however, never stops going on about Brum’s own postal reformer, and world cup winner, Sir Rowland Hill.
You see at the age of twelve, before inventing the post and the stamp to go with it, Hill became a student-teacher in his father’s school. In 1819 he took over the school, called Hill Top, and moved it from town to establish the Hazelwood School in Edgbaston. He called it an “educational refraction of [our man] Priestley’s ideas”, and it became a model for public education for the emerging middle classes. It wanted to give sufficient knowledge, skills and understanding to allow a student to continue self-education through a life “most useful to society and most happy to himself”. The school building, which Hill designed, included innovations including a science laboratory, a swimming pool, and forced air heating.
In the book Plans for the Government and Liberal Instruction of Boys in Large Numbers Drawn from Experience (1822) he argued for kindness instead of caning, and moral influence rather than fear, for maintaining in school discipline. And some would say that’s where it all went wrong, but it’s certainly where the schools we know today come from.
And as Bryan Adams will no-doubt tell you, everything Sir Rowland Hill would do, he’d do it for you. And Birmingham, of course.
Yes, this hot take has taken two years. There’s been a lot to work out, and we’ve had our top team on it. In no way has this document been cobbled together from publicly available sources and Wikipedia the day before it was due.
You see, from the moment the vote was sealed it was obvious that Birmingham was responsible for Brexit — only one of the ‘core cities’ (big ones) to vote to leave, only place idiotic enough to vote for a Tory mayor, amnesiac as to where its previous round of redevelopment came from as it sucks up to the far east for its latest batch — but there had to be something deeper. For Brexit wasn’t just the vote, it was years of confusion and ignorance, it was the death of the fourth estate as a bulwark against the stupidity of our governments, it was rooted in how we’d essentially never really been a democracy, in all of the ways we’d assumed tradition was enough and didn’t write actual rules, all of those ways we’d let decency be our check and honesty our balance only to find that neither was real: that all had to be Birmingham’s fault.
We have assumed, based on not much, that we have the mandate to produce the goods. That has proven harder than we expected, but it’s definitely true. We’re going to focus on the real problem: democracy and how Birmingham and its founding fathers broke it. Let’s see who’s fault it really is.
Once upon a time, democracy in Britain was just about who had the most money – 214,000 people were allowed to vote in England and Wales out of a total population of 8 million – and people who lived in cities weren’t the who. Then the industrial revolution (our fault, obviously) happened and money shifted a little bit. Geographically at least: the new metropolitan elite were rich, but powerless.
Jonathan Meades likes Birmingham. Even for a public intellectual he’s a contrary bugger. He spends the first chapter of his recent autobiography bemoaning the fact he wasn’t a good looking enough child to attract the attentions of any paedophiles.
In his 1998 BBC programme Heart By-Pass: Jonathan Meades Motors Through Birmingham he fixates on Birmingham as the home of the car, the place where the first integrated garages were built. And, he says, “the first city to authorise one-way streets”.
And that’s our evidence, which seems rather flimsy. Except that delving into the history of the one-way street reveals just how bad everyone else seems to have been at it. An attempt was made in 1617 to introduce one-way streets near the Thames in London, where people were no doubt told which direction to Lambeth Walk in, with their thumbs in their jacket collars. It didn’t work – and they didn’t try again until 1800. A visitor to Barcelona can see remnants of ‘donkey one way systems’ in the alleys around La Ramblas, with which the town planner made an ass of himself when no one took a blind bit of notice.
Jonathan Meades’s key word here is ‘authorise’ – this is a council job and back in the mists of time Birmingham had a rather efficient and forward-looking administration. It was responsible for sorting out housing, water and gas – all sorts of things that Birmingham enjoyed right up until the 1980s when Thatcher sold them off and kept the money. These days the council is well meaning but not so efficient. I asked the press office to tell me more about our innovation with these one-way streets: the answer that came back pointed only one way too, “We don’t know. Have you tried Carl Chinn?”
Stalwart vessels of early British satire, Ronald Barker and Ronald Corbett had a fine line in jokes about the perceived work ethic of the country’s factory fodder. “An aerial photograph of the track at British Leyland,” they announced, “was spoilt when somebody moved.”
You see, it had become an establishment trope that the car workers of Britain – and those in Longbridge, Birmingham in particular – were not industrious and prone to stoppage. That was of course untrue, the workers of those car plants were hard-working: not a house in Birmingham wasn’t freshly painted in mini green at least once a year.
But there was media and establishment bias against the workers of Longbridge, and that was often focused on one man: Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson, of Northfield (you wouldn’t want to live too far from where you worked in those days, the cars were terribly unreliable).
Born in 1927, Robinson started work there during the height of the Second World War and joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union (now lost in a midst of mergers like most left wing organisations). The political situation at work was very different then, the Communist Party dominated the factory’s workforce, and many hundreds of Daily Workers were sold there every day. You can imagine the lads on their tea break, talking about last night’s game (and Birmingham City were often on top in wartime football) when one holds up a page three essay on the theories of Antonio Gramsci. “Phwoar, eh lads? Look at the critique of bourgeoise hegemony on that.”
You might think that the bosses have a lot of weight behind them these days, but in the late ’70s the real boss was the real establishment: the government. Nationalisation (in 1975) ensured that any futures disputes could be framed by politicians and the papers as not just bad for business, but bad for Britain.
The creatives back then were more Austin 7s and ermine robes than flannel shirts and fixies. Leonard Lord, the designer of the Mini, which was Longbridge’s main output, became Baron Lambury of Northfield. Although it can’t have been much fun in the House of Lords being Baron of Northfield, imagine having to explain that, yes, there is game and shooting on your estate, but not a huge amount of grouse.
When Derek Robinson, by then trade union convener, took on the management he was taking on both the Commons and the Lords. But he was used to large odds, having stood as a Communist candidate in four consecutive general elections in Northfield between 1966 and 1974 (he lost his deposit on each occasion).
Whilst it’s true that the company lost a lot of cars and money through strike action, what ended up being the real problem was the effect that the strikes — mediated through the news establishment — had on the public’s perception of the company and the cars it made. British Leyland began to symbolise all that was supposedly wrong with Britain, what we were told the rest of the world was calling the ‘English Disease’ – which would seem a bit rich, especially from the French.
The narrative became that, alongside the strikes there was a marked decline in build quality, for which the unions and the workers were blamed. Brummie craftsmanship was now being called into question, with ‘a Brummagem screwdriver’ becoming a poor comedian’s unwitty euphemism for a hammer.
The story goes that he was getting in the way of the company’s preparations to bring the new Austin Metro into production, probably the only thing on which he would ever see eye-to-eye with Jeremy Clarkson. Longbridge was being redeveloped and heavily automated, there would be job losses and Derek wouldn’t stand for that.
MD Sir Michael Edwardes admitted, “The answer is ‘Yes’, from a strategic point of view we knew that we couldn’t have the Metro and him.” Robinson was eventually sacked by British Leyland in 1979.
Taking on the management took guts, but Robbo had to contend with Spooks too. At the time of his dismissal one of his union officials was rumoured to be in the pay of M15. You may think this sounds plausible, we couldn’t possibly comment.
Derek Robinson has been credited with causing 523 walk-outs at Longbridge between 1978 and 1979, costing an estimated £200m in lost production. So next time the media talk about productivity losses caused by an early football kick off or some inclement weather, pay tribute to Red Robbo: a great British worker, strong enough to take on the establishment, and a Brummie to boot.
When Charles Henry Foyle invented the cardboard box, in Birmingham, in the late 19th century, he by turn invented supermarkets: for would they be able to pile ’em high and sell ‘em cheap if they didn’t pile neatly in cartons and boxes?
They, including Jack Cohen who came up with that motto and founded Tesco, would not have been able to. That the real idea turned out to be to pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap, force other smaller retailers of ‘em out of business, before using your virtual monopoly of ‘em to control both supply of ‘em and the eventual higher price of ‘em isn’t Charles Henry Foyle’s fault. He just originated the process that made manufacture of brightly coloured containers to put ‘em in cost effective. They call it the ‘folding carton’.
Charles was lucky to be in Birmingham. Birmingham as we’ve discovered is a place where lots of people invent lots of things. And those things that aren’t cultural concepts, or gases, or types of buildings, or sports, often need boxes to put them in. In Birmingham he had bicycle bells and kettles, and shit shoes to make boxes for. if he’d lived in Manchester or London what would there have been to box up? Cotton? Rain? Alan Sugar’s wolf-like hands pointing across a glass table?
The invention of the box, and the founding of the excellently named Boxfoldia Ltd made a fortune as well as the future. If you’ve been to the MAC or the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery then you’ve shared in those profits too: Charles Foyle used some of his wealth to start a trust for the good of the city, one that’s still going nearly 70 years after his death.
A renaissance man as well as a philanthropist, Charles privately published Alice Through The Paper-Mill, an Alice In Wonderland inspired satire on war-time paper control regulations — a delicious subject for humour. No doubt he had to lean heavily on brothers William and Gilbert who had founded Foyle’s bookshop in London to stock it.
The book contains a chapter where Alice exclaims to one of the odd inhabitants of the world, “I thought you’d gone to Reading?”, the very idea of which is so surreal it rather makes the whole book seem unlikely. Even when Boxfoldia Limited was resurrected a couple of years ago — it had lasted until 2005 when it was liquidated — it only went as far as Redditch.
All hail the cardboard box, a plaything of children who are ignoring the latest toys, a place to put your shit, and a home to many in these Tory days.