101 Things Brum Gave The World. No. 52: The United States of America

Gawd Bless Merica!

Oh, America. Hamburgers, Hot Rods, hanging out at the mall, Rock & Roll, Fox News, an out-of-control culture of gun violence. You’ve come a long way since you were a just another undiscovered continent of perfectly happy indigenous tribes.

Your star may now be on the wane, but you won’t find many people who will disagree with the notion that the 1900s were very much the American century. It was then you grew so strong, so big, and so quickly, that your power was undeniable. Culturally, economically, militarily – there was no-one to touch you. You even reached for the stars and lassoed the moon. Well done, America.

There are some who may argue that your rampant success was built on the foundations of your early life as a colony of Britain. After all, it was the British who gave you your language, your ingenuity, and your pioneer spirit. But to claim this stellar rise to success was the result of British intervention would be tenuous, to say the least. No, in truth, it wasn’t until you struck out on your own and decided to make a fist of it that you truly realised your potential.

So, how did you do it?

How did you take those first steps? And, once on that road to freedom, what informed the creation of your culture? What enabled you to become the dominant nation of the world?

Well, America, your history books may not tell you this but it was, as it happens, the city of Birmingham.

Two of your founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, got their revolutionary ideas and zeal from their involvement with Birmingham’s Lunar Society, the ad hoc collection of political, economic, mechanical and cultural minds that formed in the city in 1765 and which managed, through a process of free-thinking, a spirit of open-mindedness, and a middle finger firmly raised in the direction of the status quo, to pretty much invent the modern world that you eventually dominated.

From their visits to Birmingham in the 1700s, Jefferson and Franklin took this free-wheeling spirit and a belief in the right to free assembly back home with them. To defend this right, they wrote into your constitution the right to bear arms. There would be no arms to bear if not for us, for it was here, in Birmingham, that the guns, and the hand grenades, and the nuclear missiles that are variously used (or not used) in the defence of freedom, initially came into being.
Your first great export to the world was cinema (impossible without Birmingham), through which you invented the teenage rebel who shocked square society. The rebels rode motorbikes (a Brummie innovation) in the 50s, and rode them still as they evolved into the counter-cultural hippies of the late ’60s (channelling that Lunar Society vibe once more). Far out, bab.

Those hippies then cut their hair and started working in the banks (another Brummie invention) that became economic powerhouses, whilst your manufacturing processes took the (Brummie) innovations of the Industrial Revolution to hitherto unseen levels of growth and efficiency, which in turn created the disposable income that your brands, such as the carbonated (yes, that’s right) Coca Cola, successfully fought over on their way to conquering the world.

By the early 1980s, it was all over – there was truly no-one to touch you. And it is surely no coincidence, either, this at around this time you took (Birmingham’s) Duran Duran to your hearts in a way that we never could, and thus the baton was passed and the process of your Brum-inspired rise to global prominence was complete.

If you’ve ever wondered why you instinctively treat Ozzy Osbourne like royalty, now you know: It’s in the genes.

So, America, on 4th July next year, raise a glass to your hometown, and don’t forget the high foive.

Want more of this sort of stuff, as a book? Then why not pledge and buy 101 Things Birmingham Gave The World: The Book now.

Stars and stripes photo CC Crystal Hess

Birmingham’s Musicians head up plans for the Birmingham Republic

Following the news that Happy Mondays’ Bez will run for parliament in the 2015 General Election, Paradise Circus has discovered plans by a group of Birmingham musicians to run for office next year under the banner of The Peoples Republic of Birmingham Party.

If all musicians are successful and gain seats, Birmingham will immediately make moves to declare itself independent of the United Kingdom: Ron Saunders will be on the £10 note, Jasper Carrott on the fiver, and border controls will be put in place at Junctions 5 and 7 of the M6.

Here is how the cabinet of the brave new dawn is shaping up… Continue reading “Birmingham’s Musicians head up plans for the Birmingham Republic”

Barry Norman is Away

As every schoolchild knows, it was Birmingham that gave the world Christmas. This year, in a move to recognise that inalienable fact, and to say Thank You to the city of Birmingham for this annual feast of gluttony, tat-buying and enforced jollity, TV schedulers in the UK have joined together and themed their Christmas movie selection around the city that started it all. Here is the Paradise Circus round-up of the best films that Christmas TV 2013 has to offer:

TV Christmas

Continue reading “Barry Norman is Away”

101 Things Brum Gave The World. No. 41: Daily Mail Britain

Xenophobia

Do you have a Facebook account? If you do, I’ll bet that at some point in the last month or so you’ll have read a mind-bendingly stupid, or downright offensive comment made by a vague acquaintance – someone you went to school with, perhaps, or a former colleague from that place where you once worked.

Try as you might, you can’t really blame Facebook for this. Stupidity is an idea that pre-dates the digital age and is something that never really goes out of fashion. These days, however, stupid ideas can breed with unprecedented speed and efficiency, thanks largely to platforms such as Facebook, and the facepalm du jour in UK stupidity is the belief that certain of our fellow countrymen and women are robbing us blind.

The UK government has been waging a really effective war on this front since ‘winning’ the 2010 general election. They’ve introduced us to the concept of ‘hard working families’, something with which many can identify. For those who struggle to identify, the government, and media outlets supportive of it, have kindly provided us with almost daily examples of the polar opposite: scroungers. No-one wants to identify with that, not when hard-working families is on the menu.

Scroungers, for those unaware, pump out kids at an alarming rate and expect YOU to pay for their education, health and welfare. The government has been so successful in peddling the thin end of this particular wedge that we’re now so mad at scroungers (and foreigners, who are swarthy scroungers) that we’re no longer going to stand for it. If all this was part of a wider, more sinister agenda, like the dismantling of the welfare state and the privatisation of the health service, you’d have to admire the planning and execution.

Anyway. It’s a sorry state of affairs, make no mistake about it. We should be forced to take a bloody good look at ourselves. Here’s a thing, though: None of this divisive bullshit would have been possible without the city of Birmingham!

It was here, on 20th April 1968, that Stetchford-born Conservative MP, Enoch Powell, gave a speech that became the benchmark and the blueprint for anyone wishing to spout dangerous claptrap at the weak-minded. In Enoch’s case his audience was the General Meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre, which sounds like a very weak-minded public indeed. Facebook, incidentally, was several decades away from being invented.

Powell famously predicted that ‘Rivers of Blood’ would flow through the streets if immigration continued un-checked. It was powerful, evocative stuff, and it became the basis and justification for the opinions of racist shitheads for the next 20-odd years. In much the same way, the present-day rhetoric about scroungers and Eastern Europeans will reliably inform the people of Britain, hard-workers and scroungers alike, all the way to a Wonga.com-sponsored welfare state.

When that happens, remember to say, ‘Littlejohn was right, bab’.

101 Things Brum Gave The World. No. 37: Easy Listening

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The commonly held view of 1960s popular music is that it was the decade during which the rulebook was torn up. Out of the dull austerity of the black-and-white 1950s the youth of the following decade exploded as one in a Technicolor riot of mind-bending drugs, free love and revolutionary fervour. If you can remember it, you weren’t there.

It was The Beatles who led the charge and provided the soundtrack, and nothing was ever the same again. As if to illustrate this point, Birmingham would give the world Heavy Metal by the end of the decade. But that’s another story.

What this version of 1960s pop history doesn’t tell us is that the rampaging youth were only part of the tale. There were also a lot of other people around in that decade, and many of them didn’t much care for The Beatles and all they brought with them. Mostly these naysayers were drawn from the older generation (and in the 1960s, this meant anyone over the age of 21), and it rarely troubles the history books that they too, just like their younger counterparts, bought and listened to a lot of records.

What did these people want from pop music? It certainly wasn’t sex, drugs and rock n roll played by long-haired oiks, that’s for sure. Indian spirituality? Womens’ Lib? Not their cup of cocoa.

No, what they wanted was simply something pleasant they could tap their feet to: in a word, they wanted something nice.

That something nice came in the form of string-laden arrangements of pop hits, songs from the musicals, and movie soundtracks. No rough edges, and no feedback. It came to be known as Easy Listening, and the undisputed King of the genre was Annunzio Mantovani, or, as he was more commonly and simply known: Mantovani.

Mantovani had shifted a lot of records before the 1960s even began. At one point in 1959 he had no less than 6 albums in the US Top 30 at the same time. This success continued throughout the 1960s, when he became the first artist to sell a million stereo LPs, and with scarcely a burned bra in sight. In 1970, ten years before his death and a full four years before Kraftwerk hit upon a similar idea, he released Music For The Motorway, a suite of lushness inspired by the mundane joy of motorway travel. Travel sweets and driving gloves. Nice.

In terms of record sales, Mantovani was a behemoth. Remarkably, none of his light-orchestral unit-shifting niceness would have been possible without the city of Birmingham.

In 1923, at the tender age of 18, Annunzio had cut his conducting teeth leading orchestras in the posh hotels of the city. The musicians he controlled were of a much older vintage and often included his father, Bismarck Mantovani (crazy name, crazy guy). Eventually, as with many Brum inventions before and since, the gifts outgrew the city of their birth and Mantovani was lured first to London, and then on to fame and fortune in the wider world.

Noice, bab.

101 Things Brum Gave The World. No. 29: Slapstick Comedy

battleofthecentury_lh

A number of years ago, during the stag party celebrations for a good friend of mine, I went along to play paintballing. Upon arrival at the centre we discovered that our opponents for the day were a group of men who had evidently been paintballing on several occasions before; they had the correct footwear, warrior-like nicknames for each other, and most worryingly of all: their own guns. They were likely to be more than a match for our disorganised and hungover group of musicians, liberals and wimps. And so it proved.

I was ‘killed’ within 30 seconds of the first game starting, taking a pellet direct to the facemask. My colleagues fared no better. With a mouth full of yellow paint I watched as my buddies died face down in the mud. War is hell.

After three or four games during which we had our arses repeatedly handed to us the safety official accompanying us around the course became exasperated. “Have any of you ever done this before?”, he asked. A single arm was raised, belonging to Richard Loach. Rich was immediately given the job of captain, which he accepted with some reluctance. He began tentatively, dividing the team into attack and defence squads and muttering something or other about tactics. Soon, however, he began warming to the task and eventually grew visibly before our eyes when he started shouting motivational phrases in a highly animated manner, evoking the spirit of Ron Saunders himself. It was stirring stuff, believe me.

As Rich’s speech neared its Henry V climax, and at the very point that we started to believe in ourselves, he shot himself in the foot. Literally.

A split second later the hooter honked for the beginning of the next game and the enemy came over the brow of a hill—finding us collapsed in a heap of weeping laughter. They fired at will.

This moment of pure slapstick will live with me forever and a day, and it just so happens that Richard was merely carrying on what is a long Brummie tradition. Without Birmingham, folks, there would be no slapstick comedy.
Continue reading “101 Things Brum Gave The World. No. 29: Slapstick Comedy”

New Street Station: Platform to the Stars

Birmingham New Street
Photo CC Ingy The Wingy

With considerable local fanfare, the new New Street Station opened to the public this week. The re-development is still only at the halfway stage but the changes visible so far have already made a surprising and positive impact on the layout of the city. I experienced this first hand on Monday morning when I got off the bus in front of the old main entrance (which is now a building site), and strolled down the new walkway for a quick nose around before heading north on another bus.

I expected the short walkway to deliver me inside the new station concourse, but as I neared the other end I noticed sunlight and buildings. When I eventually emerged on what I discovered to be Stephenson Street I stopped, genuinely amazed. Up until this point it had never occurred to me that the New Street entrance and the bottom of ‘the ramp’ were so close together, or even on the same level. The layout of the city as I’ve known it all my life had changed.

According to a friend of mine, who in a previous life was travel correspondent on The Birmingham Post, architects and council officials had been saying for many years that the New Street building was a barrier to pedestrian movement in the city. The appearance of this walkway absolutely proves their point.

I was suddenly filled with Brummie pride and in a moment I became convinced that we might finally get a train station that does the very thing that the old New Street had so miserably failed at: provide a decent first impression of the city. Having not previously paid much attention to the development (I’m not a train user, I’m a bus kid) I immediately became a convert and a supporter of the project, and that was a tremendous feeling to have at 8am on a Monday morning. Prior to this mind-bending trip through a wormhole the most exciting thing to ever happen to me at New Street Station was when I became close personal friends with Hollywood actor Luke Wilson.

Continue reading “New Street Station: Platform to the Stars”

101 Things Brum Gave The World. No. 21: The Worldwide Economic Crisis

Are you troubled by debts, mortgage repayments, or other loans? Do you struggle to make ends meet? Are you tempted by those adverts on television offering short-term loans at rates of interest that would make a Serbian gangster blush?

If you are, then you are far from alone. People everywhere are also feeling the pinch as the worldwide financial crisis lumbers on, sucking with it the hopes and dreams of tens of millions of human beings, right down the toilet. The blame for this mess has been laid firmly at the door of the banking community (and, to a lesser extent, those who draw their curtains during the daytime). For years bankers the world over had been selling imaginary money to each other and pocketing the very real profits. When the bubble eventually and spectacularly burst, it was with such ferocity that the children’s children of ordinary folk like you will still be paying for it when they are old and grey.

No, I don’t really understand how it works, either, but it’s bad. Real bad. Anyway. None of this huge mess would have been possible without the city of Birmingham, for it was here, in 1775, that Richard Ketley founded the world’s first Building Society.

Both the Lloyds and Midland (now HSBC) Banks were also formed here shortly afterwards. From its humble beginnings in the taverns and coffeehouses around the Snow Hill district of central Birmingham, Banking quickly became a very popular thing indeed, spreading globally within a matter of years, and eventually leading to the arsing financial meltdown were are all enjoying today.

We’re all in this together, bab.

101 Things Brum Gave The World. No 2. Nuclear War

Schoolchildren in the 1950s and ‘60s spent as much time learning how to Duck and Cover in the event of a nuclear missile attack as they ever did about algebra and home economics. They grew up in a perpetual and very real fear that the Cold War would one day escalate into a mind-boggling violence that would be played out on a global scale. Their own kids fared no better, exposed as they were to a seemingly out-of-control 1980s arms race that was, such was the fascination of the time, to be apparently conducted in outer-fucking-space.

These fears were constantly backed up with footage and accounts of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan by Allied Forces at the end of World War II, on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with powerful (childrens!) fiction such as Raymond Briggs’ “When The Wind Blows”, and the still-terrifying-but not-for-kids BBC drama, “Threads”.

Two generations of children, then, had a very clear understanding of how the world would eventually and inevitably end. It would end in a rain of fire, where dying instantly within the 1-mile blast zone was infinitely preferable to surviving the explosion and then waiting for the sweet release of choking one’s last breath, some weeks later, if you were very lucky, in a refugee camp riddled with the radiation pox and human shit.

None of this death, destruction, fear and creeping terror would have ever been possible without the city of Birmingham.

In the early 1940s, at the city’s University, Rudolph Peierls and Otto Robert Frisch developed a technique whereby Uranium Bombs could be constructed with a critical mass of only 6 kg, which made them a viable airborne threat. This development lead directly to the creation of those deadly missiles dropped on Japan and to 40 years of enduring panic.