From Ebola to ISIS, 2014 has been a pretty shit year. Danny Smith is no stranger to shit years, having grown up in the 80s, so we sent him to find out what Brummie kids today made of it all. This piece was originally written for and published by Contributoria.
I grew up scared. This isn’t a ‘woe-is-me’ tale, I was a weird little kid born during the tale end of the Cold War and somehow, possibly through harrowing TV shows like Where The Wind Blows and Z for Zachariah, I absorbed the horrors of the nuclear bomb. I remember clearly looking at maps trying to work out the blast radius from the centre of the city to my house and my school. Would I be vaporized in the first detonation? Have my clothes melted to my body with thermal radiation? Or would I be forced to fight severely-mutated former friends for fetid water? Actually, I knew the last one wasn’t true – I knew I would kill myself before then. I was eight. As I said, I was a weird little kid.
But I’m not sure which is worse: gleaning what information I can by cultural osmosis, with all the myth and hearsay that involves, or having access to truly terrifying, peer reviewed, Wikipedia articles. Today we have unparalleled access to information, streams and screens spitting it right in our faces. So much, it could be argued. that its actually harder to filter the signal from the noise: leaving us information rich but data poor.
This past year has been tough for anyone who follows the news, the summer soundtrack was a percussive rhythm of images and stories of schools and hospitals being shelled into rubble in Gaza. While pop culture seems obsessed with zombie fiction and other pandemic diseasecore a genuine outbreak of an infectious disease has killed thousands of people. A whole aeroplane went missing. Read that last sentence again. that’s the year we’ve had.
My school contacts let me down but I was able to visit a scout troop in south Birmingham and ask them some questions. Scout ages are from 10 and a half to fourteen, with Explorers — a little older — there as well. The names have been changed, and picked by them. They’re disappointingly mundane considering on the same night they came up with team names for their games such as “Currybomb” “Epic Ninja Friends” and “Just Bob”. Continue reading “2014 reviewed by Brummie kids”
“A fine art print map of the borders of Birmingham featuring characters from art based in Birmingham. The famous and infamous. And also the less well known. Those with an amazing moniker or brilliantly conceived nickname who are a credit to their creator. Each character has been plotted in the corners of the city they most liked to roam or chose to call home (sometimes on Her Majesty’s Pleasure). Combining hand-drawn typography and illustration, the posters are available now, framed for £29, unframed for £13 (both + P&P).”
As a part-time journalist and aspiring avatar for the gods of debauchery you are asked to do some unsavoury things. Be it covering some average indie band’s third ‘my dad drives the van’ gig. Or having to find an interesting angle on Valentine’s Day, despite having all romance crushed out of your soul by a government intent on turning the country you live in into a feudal system where big business robber barons set up their own personal fiefdoms using jazzy branding and clown make-up. But sometimes you get given a task that you are so attuned to, so personally right for, that it feels like the hand of Baron La Croix himself has pushed you to this point. Granted, the email only asked for a small article about my favourite independent pubs in Birmingham, but I knew this was a coded communication from the Furies, a challenge. Could I drink in all of the independent pubs in Birmingham in just one day? Of course I knew it was possible, just not very sensible. In my head I counted ten probable targets and beer maths did the rest. One pint in each meant ten pints at least. I was going to need back-up.Jon Bounds is a man with a lot of pie-placed fingers, his intelligence is sharpened by an odd wit. He seems to be the only person whose capacity for the Devil’s Dishwater exceeds my own and can understand the startlingly lucid and intelligent observations I tend to make after four or five small beers. So recruiting him was important and understandably easy given his weakness for strong continental lager and odd tasks.Please note the following account is pieced together from handwritten notes that degenerate into a language, I suspect, is a drunken dyslexic cuneiform, and a memory that doesn’t work properly in the first place.
We asked Danny to do something lighthearted and festive to end the year. Maybe the baby Jesus or the Frankfurt Christmas Market, something like that. He took those themes of religion and dark foreign influence and sent us this. God help us.
I don’t trust this new pope.
I don’t really trust any pope, but this new one, Times Person of the year 2013, Pope Francis the PR pope, I don’t trust especially.
The last pope—the one that looked like an evil ventriloquist dummy made of meat—visited Birmingham, weirdly choosing Cofton Park for his service. I say ‘weirdly’ not only because, it used to be the site of bonfire night celebrations, the most pagan of festivals, but because a few years before a man’s head was found in Cofton Park. I’m not sure if he liked the John The Baptist imagery or had a thing for Rover cars but I’ve had my eye on popes ever since. Continue reading “Papal account”
We couldn’t have thought of two better people to send to the new Library of Birmingham preview tours than Ben (his take here) and Handsome Devil Danny. Were we right? You decide…
Meeting Ben for coffee in Paradise Forum before we go on a tour of the new library of Birmingham felt weird, a slight betrayal. Like going on your first date with someone new in the pub where your ex works. And looking back squinting in the sun, I swear I saw the old concrete bitch scowl at me.
The small reception around the back of the library is bright and sterile, yet to be scuffed and smudged into utilitarian invisibility. The other people there have nearly all picked up their security badges, me and Ben find ours. Where other people have Radio WM or Birmingham Post printed in the space marked for ‘occupation’ ours is left blank. Ben wants to write something in ours. We put ‘Brutalist’: it seems fitting. The rest of the crowd are varied, some recognisable faces from local media, some young-looking ones from the BBC who are obviously sending the cubs to see if there’s anything worth noting other than the usual piece to camera that’ll slip nicely before the sport and weather.
Upstairs now in one of the conference rooms. We’re given coffee and time to curse that neither of us have the ability to small talk with strangers. The rooms that we’re being entertained in are corporate boxes, meeting rooms that could be anywhere: a training centre in Holland, an interview cell in a new-build police station, or the break room on the Starship Bland. Except for the view. Not that just the skyline of Birmingham is particularly striking or memorable, but when seen through the bars of the trellis that surrounds the building the view is transformed into somewhere else – a maths savant’s doodle hovering just out of view like a probability force field.
The thing about anywhere you consider ‘home’ is that you never really start considering it that way until it’s not there any more.
Walking into Central Library on its last day I found it devoid of books, mostly partitioned off, infused with dour atmosphere and dotted with cheap furniture. It looked for all the world like a second world abortion clinic. And it felt like being punched in the back of the head.
But even then walking out of the doors—knowing it’ll be the last time—bought a lump to my throat the size of a child’s fist.
Sometimes home is stolen gradually. Changes adding up slowly between each visit until you look around one quiet afternoon and wonder where the fuck you are and who these fucking people are anyway.
Other times you’re standing outside the charred remains of the club that defined your young adult life noticing that even days later the heap that was Edward’s Number 8 is still kicking off heat and smells like Bonfire Night.
Being dyslexic meant that learning to read was difficult. But my mum not only more than prepared me for school, she sparked a love of reading that meant I quickly burnt through the children’s section of the local library. Then, because I was a regular in there, the adult section. So I was allowed on the bus to go to the other local libraries. And when I had inhaled the contents of those, my parents relented to my nagging and allowed me to go to the Central Library.
Life in the sun just feels better. I think there is a strong case that the notion of the Judeo-Christian God always watching over us is just a bastardisation of the visceral good feeling of being in the warm summer sun.
So the sun is shining and everybody in England runs outside as naked as they can get away with, to drink as much free vitamin D through their dappled, pasty, flesh as they can. And I’m alright with this.
I’m outside my favourite pub in Birmingham: canal side, listening to the geese honk up to the balcony for scraps and fag butts to be thrown down, presumably to eat. This is Birmingham and finding out that our waterfowl need nicotine patches wouldn’t surprise me.
I’ve always loved this place, even during the brief period when me and my friends were so barred the staff would phone the police if we even walked past.
But time be time, and now I’m free to watch the sun slink behind the overpriced apartment blocks, drink my beer, and silently pray to the uncaring fiery god for one of the cyclists or joggers to hit a stone and fall into the canal.
Four years ago I wrote this, a slightly hysterical but solid blog post about the film 1 Day. 1 Day is a grime musical starring actual members plucked from Birmingham’s rival gangs, the Burger Bar Boys and the Johnson Crew.
The article was written during a time where I was working in a Pupil Referral Unit in north Birmingham with kids that were gang members or vulnerable to them. The posts trepidation to the film coming out is an echo to my higher-ups absolute panic about the film which they (wrongly) thought would cause another spike in violence between these two gangs.
I eventually left the unit, and a large portion of me leaving was down to not being able to fully leave work at work, you get to know the kids and through that you are afforded small peeks into their worlds. Eventually this, and the sheer hard work it took to connect with them, wore me down.
The opportunity came for someone from PC to go watch a press screening of the documentary One Mile Away in which members of both gangs try to broker a truce through the director Penny Woolcock who became a trusted during the making of 1 Day. I couldn’t pass it up, so exhausted and still a little hungover from the weekend I dragged myself to Aston.
In a room that is normally used as a nursery I eat my chicken and drink urn brewed tea as three or four unassuming black guys mill around and press buttons on their laptops. We soon settle down and the documentary starts.
A bored looking teenager says something, he’s not really looking at me so doesn’t see my earphones are in. all I see is his lips moving and a hole in his nose where a piercing usually goes.
Realising my rudeness in one smooth movement I tug on the wires and the buds pop out of my ears which I catch in one hand. No I haven’t practised that, shut up.
“Sorry, what?” my apology breaks his reverie and he snaps back into his own head.
“Would you be interested in this DVD we’re offering today for only five pounds?’ he says on reflex. The DVD is terrible rom-com Failure to Launch starring the equine Sarah Jessica Parker and annoyingly likeable Matthew McConaughey, it is the exact opposite of a film I would willingly watch. I’m fairly certain on hell’s television there is a channel that plays that film on loop. Still feeling bad about having my headphones in I bite down my disgust with a “No, thank you” but also try and pack so much human inflection and actual connection into those three words ‘sorry’ I want to say ‘I recognise you ARE a real person and deserve all my attention, look how much we are connecting now’. It comes out weird, like a crazy person.
It’ll come as no surprise that I was a bookish child, I rarely left the house to go out and play and would opt to stay in the massive musty smelling Austin Maxi that my father drove rather than go play in the the sun on whatever day trip my parents would take us on. Evesham or Stourport all enjoyed from the the smeared window of a car built like a tank glanced at by bored eyes while turning the page of whatever comic or book I head stuck my head in. Its why I’m such a good traveller now, I either sleep or read during the boring bits.
So the memories I have of the the little strip of green known locally as the Kala’s I am suspicious of, I never really went outside so why are my memories so strong? So vivid? Are they borrowed from my school-friends’ stories? Squirrelled away in my mind that expects a Wonder Years montage of important childhood memories. Its more likely that the fantasy of being so bookish and anti social are an exaggerated construct to assert my difference and nerdy credentials. Yet, I still don’t know how to ride a bike but can read on almost any transport without feeling ill in the slightest.
The Kala’s has a magical sounding name, and it suits because its a fairy tale sort of place. The name actually comes from the industrial estate it run behind, the bizarrely name Kalamazoo on the Bristol Road where Northfield and Longbridge meet. Its a strip of forest about a football pitch in width that ran parrall to the train lines, a tiny crack of green, a lush hinterzone of my childhood. the grey of the adult world always visable but forgotten trapped between that and the dangers of the railway, we’d all seen the videos but played on them anyway.