101 Things Birmingham Gave the World. No. 97: Going to the Pictures

It’s an incontrovertible yet nonetheless contested fact that Birmingham’s Electric Cinema is the oldest working cinema in the UK. Birmingham can, then, claim an important part in the history of cinema in Britain. The Electric, though, is a peculiar beast. Those who would dismiss its claim to be an historic venue might point out that very little remains of the building of 1910, and so look instead look to the South East – to Brighton’s Duke of York’s or London’s Phoenix (née the East Finchley Picturedome). Of course, it better suits the accepted narrative of arts and culture that such things would belong to the capital or its artistic dormitory town, so The Electric is easily brushed aside by historians and journalists.

In explaining to you how Birmingham invented going to the pictures I will also brush aside any mention of The Electric because going to The Electric is not, you see, going to the pictures.

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101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 91: Pointless kitchen appliances

Everyone has a guilty secret tucked away in the hardest to reach cupboard of their kitchen. Is yours a donut maker, a Breville or a pasta machine? The answer will depend very much on your age, your class, and when you reached key milestones in your life course but most certainly you have them. Did you marry in the 1970s? You have a fondue kit. Were you a student in the noughties? You have a chocolate fountain. Hit 30 in the late 1990s? That sudden paunch made you invest in a smoothie maker (but didn’t make you stop to think about quite how much sugar there is in a smoothie).

Let’s go through the Kay’s catalogue of the mind and think about some of the other ridiculous single-use gadgets that have come into our homes, been unboxed, used once and then packed away to the high shelf: bread machine, cup cake maker, slow cooker, rice cooker, coffee percolator, milk frother, ice cream maker, food processor, coffee grinder, spice mill… an endless list of useless crap. Most of these things duplicate things that our main appliances already do: the cooker, the kettle, a fucking knife. We buy, we use, we realise our mistake and we swear we’ll never again be seduced by the marketing patter of ‘convenience’, the marketing patter that started here in Birmingham.

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101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 85: Airside Shopping

Plane chocolate at BHX

The amount of time that we spend airside seems to go up year by year, increasing at a faster rate than the processor power increases on new computer chips. It really needs a ‘law’ — and, considering it seems like you are stuck in a place that pretends to be holiday when it is not, maybe we can call it ‘Keith Barron’s Law’.

Whilst we have the response to existential threats of terrorism to blame for this it really couldn’t have all happened without Birmingham.

You see, the reason why we have to get ourselves to the airport so far in advance of our flight is so that we can be screened – for bombs, nail clippers, bottles of water and moisturiser. The fact that we are processed and dumped airside swiftly is just a happy quirk of the system that works very well for the small town of traders we find in what once was ‘departures’. And we wouldn’t get airside so quickly were it not for the x-ray, invented here in Birmingham in 1896 by Major John Hall Edwards.

There are many applications of the x-ray, but none are quite so profitable as their use in airport security to screen our bags, and increasingly our bodies too. It’s the x-ray that gets us into the airside mall with hours to spare; precious hours in which we can enjoy the unique shopping experience. And what an experience it is, friends. For here, airside, we find high street names trading with ‘gotcha’ mark-ups on all the essentials that you couldn’t bring through the security checks: deodorant, water, toothpaste. They’ve also seen you coming and know you’ve forgotten socks or pants so those are heavily marked up too. And once you have done all the emergency shopping you can manage there’s still time for a burger and a pint deal, again charged above the going rate.

Next, take in the ‘duty free shopping’ area. Here you’ll find a bewildering arrangement of ‘airport exclusives’ – products that you can’t buy on the high street at all, so you can’t tell if they’re actually a bargain or not. Finally, if you still have time to kill, you can enter the raffle to win a high performance sports car – something which can only be done airside. This truly is the land of opportunities, and I for one am glad of Birmingham, glad of the x-ray, glad that I got here with time to spare.

Now then, I need to grab some spare socks…

101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No.84: Wankers

This is a wanker parked in Lichfield. Absolute text book. Image CC Kevin Boyd

You’ve seen him on the motorway: coming in off the junction, he could drop in safely behind you and still keep the needle at 70 but instead he drops a gear and punches it past you to win a racing line on the last yard of the slip road. Firmly in front of you now, he jerks the saloon straight and into your lane, robbing you of the stopping distance you’ve calmly maintained for the last fifty miles. With nobody behind you, your foot is coming over to the brakes to get some space but before you hit the pedal he jerks right again. Now he’s into the half car length between a white van and a people carrier in the middle lane—and your heart is in your mouth. He won’t make it. But he does. He bursts through to the fast lane where once again he snaps the power steering hard to his left, bringing the car in line with the rest of the traffic. And there, having gained all of two cars length on you, he sits in the steady flow of motorway traffic which is all moving at basically the same speed as you. And there he sits for the next 20 miles before finally his moment comes to reverse the maneuver. He slaloms back through two lanes just in time to make his junction, cutting you off in the process as you try to make the Castle Brom exit. You seethe all the way to Spaghetti Junction. What an absolute—

You’ve seen him at the supermarket: coming towards you it’s 50/50 who has priority as he guns the two litre injection into the empty bays between you. 19 inch alloys either side of the white line, he takes up the last two spaces. Is this a calculated move to allow more space, to ensure nobody scratches the metallic paintwork he so carefully chose from the options list? Maybe, or perhaps it’s because the disabled bays he usually uses were already full. Either way, there’s no space for you, and so you begin to slowly circle the car park, as he leaps out and walks briskly off, Ted Baker suit jacket swishing and his thousand yard stare ensuring he doesn’t even connect with your eyeline as you gesture to him, rhythmically.

And you’ve seen him on the school run: one hand on the wheel, one hand on the phone, he guides two tonnes of German steel up onto the pavement and deftly steers on Continental all weathers towards kids, parents, buggies, and the school gate. Well he has to, right, it’s just not safe for the kids to walk these days. What a w—

What you haven’t seen is his LED indicators work, or him thank you for letting him out at a junction, and you couldn’t see anything at all after his xenon headlights blinded you with the ferocity of an arc welder. You may well have heard him, with the panache of a cut price Clarkson, boring on about how much power there is under the bonnet and you have definitely heard him tell you how much he pays on his tax bill for the privilege of being an absolute wan—

He’s a wanker, and he wouldn’t be this way if it wasn’t for Birmingham, for it was Birmingham which gave us the BMW, and with it wankers, driver assisted middle managers, climate controlled centrist dads, and statement cars you’ll never own.

When the first BMW, the BMW 3/15, also known as the Dixi, rolled off the production line in 1927 it was simply a licensed Austin 7 — the original family car whose design, of course, was developed in Birmingham. The Austin 7 offered pseudo-individualisation to the aspiring middle classes, and indeed the BMW badged version was available as a coupé, roadster and sedan, all of which screamed “look at me, I’m bang average” but made the driver feel like a discerning motoring consumer.

While the engineering was unashamedly British, we do have to give some credit to BMW for branding: the 3/15 model number designated the tax rate and horsepower of the car, the sort of stuff wankers love to compare notes on today.

Instead of a set of monogrammed golf balls, get them the 101 Things Book for Xmas

Paradise Circus says: Vote Brumain

Local satirical miscellanies, so the mainstream media says, are not doing enough to get out their core constituency for the Remain vote.

We want to, we really want to. But a harder question than the one on the ballot is: is it possible to be funny about it? Sure it’s possible to do tiresome Python-referencing knock offs listing the shiny buildings we’ve built and placed plaques with european stars on them. But the rhetoric is dire, self-satirising, and so far removed from a rational debate that it’s hard to get purchase on.

The EU isn’t perfect, but it does provide some safeguards against the worst excesses of neoliberal capitalism – especially regards workers and individual rights – and of course the Brexit line-up is full of the worst of all people.

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The football train: Villa v Chelsea, 2nd April 2016

London to Birmingham by train!

Just after 3pm today, at Aston, despondent football fans shuffled onto my train. Barely anyone spoke, or would look at one another. It was as though they’d been caught stepping out of Taboo Cinema Club by their kid’s headteacher. All that is except for two.

A beautiful couple they were, not in colours nor in football casuals but in the high end label equivalents. They looked… preppy. As my ears tuned into their talk, I picked up her Sloaney vowels, his public school consonants. Chelsea. Up for the game, now off into Bullring for a bit of shopping. Designer treats, another polo shirt perhaps? Birmingham’s a destination now, ya? Make a weekend of it. Go to the Cube. Eat some salad by the canal. Laugh.

It’s not like they expected at all — Birmingham’s changed.

Full Tilt

Brummie directions, as you know, can only be given with reference to pubs and islands. This works for us. This is a good system, or rather it is until the thing which we need to find is the actual pub itself. It is difficult to find a pub in the same way that it is difficult to find my glasses: I need the glasses to find my glasses, and I need the pub to find the pub. Such is the chicken and egg riddle of finding one’s way around Birmingham.

I’m looking for the pub now.

It’s a city centre pub, and this makes finding its whereabouts doubly hard. Firstly because there are no traffic islands, so I can’t orient myself to those and secondly because it’s not really in a bit of town that has any pubs. I’m lost, and nobody can help me.

The pub is called Tilt.

I first heard of Tilt on a text message. Apparently it’s my kind of thing.

“Where is it?”

“Near Martineau Place. In an arcade thing that didn’t really work out.”

“Ah. Birmingham’s famous Failed Development Quarter.”

Martineau Place is one of Brum’s many mixed use developments and it’s always felt jinxed. It’s currently anchored by two Poundland stores, one on each of the corners that face onto Corporation Street. Inside things have come and gone — mostly gone.

Tilt is a craft beer bar, like the kids have now.

“So is it actually in Martineau Place then?”
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101 Things Brum Gave The World. No. 78: The sound of silence

Chris-Tarrant-Degree

I’ve got something I need to tell you about Birmingham. It’ll be legend…

– wait for it –

…dary.

I need to tell you about Birmingham and how it invented the dramatic pause. Well, the one they have on the telly anyway.

Rhetoricians have always known that the pause is a powerful thing: it’s the white space of oratory design. Just as a graphic designer needs to balance harmony and discord to create, and then play, with tension on the page, so too the public speaker uses silence, the pause, as negative space to better punctuate their message.

In broadcasting one cannot be quiet. Radio folk talk of ‘dead air’ – silence in other words, a moment when no one is speaking, no music is playing, nothing is being advertised. The one thing a radio broadcaster can never have on their show is dead air because the moment that you are silent is the moment that you lose your audience. Dead air suggests that the receiver has lost signal from the broadcaster. Perhaps the radio needs to be retuned, or perhaps the station is off air – whatever it is it’s time to touch that dial. On most stations there is an ‘emergency tape’ (a copy of an M People record) that will kick in automatically should quiet pervade for too long.

When the BBC started to broadcast television, they essentially showed radio with pictures. The techniques of broadcasting had been shaped on the radio, and everyone who worked in television had worked on radio, so television was merely radio remediated with an extra quality: the picture. It took 70 years for the innovation that changed everything: it took 70 years for the invention of a broadcast silence.

It took Brummies, of course, to take the big risks and to bring about these changes: it took a Brummie mindset to realise that with a picture you could sustain a silence in your work because the audience could see that you were still there. This was intentional silence, not dead air: it took Brummies to bring the art of public speaking back to mass entertainment and they did that when they invented the silence.

I can tell you how they did it. I’ve got the answer here in my hand…

…but we don’t want to give you that.

Will you read on, or take the answer? You’re going to play!

Satirical cartoon: Armistice Day in Brum

Five people in suits are standing in front of a war memorial. They’re all standing to be leader of the Council’s Labour group, but you probably don’t recognise them. That’s not our fault, it’s theirs.

They are bowing.

A man with a press ticket in his hat is measuring the angle of their bows.

In the background is the Erdington Conservative Club. Robert Alden is eating a Beano style slap up meal of a pile of mashed potatoes with all sausages coming out of the top. There are mice running around his feet, but he doesn’t mind.

Caption reads: leadership material.

Bladerunner

There are spaces in the city which are designed to be a terminus. Shops are a terminus. Pubs are a terminus. We run to them. We pop to them. We are at them, we are in them or perhaps we are down them. We never travel through them.

Run with me now, run with me through the pubs.

One of my regular city centre running routes pushes me through—never to—the Arcadian.

The Arcadian. Image cc: El Bingle.
The Arcadian. Image cc: El Bingle.

Launched as a confusing architectural proposition of East-meets-West in the city’s China Town, time and use have added to the Arcadian’s cocktail of ideas. Originally its anchor tenant was a cinema which enjoyed a symbiosis with chic bars, chain pubs, High Street restaurant names, and hole-in-the-wall Chinese cafés.

The cinema is now an apartment block stuffed into a multiplex outline whilst those chic drinking holes, still wearing their first fit out, stand as a tired testament to spent 90s optimism—Blair’s Bars. Even the few pubs which have changed hands recently wear this tired air on top of their fresh decor, as though a consumption sits deep in the development’s bones.

The Arcadian is a split level open air mall. I run across first floor wooden walkways, and plunge myself down steel staircases. I choose the path through here because sometimes a runner seeks a certain distance or must complete their exercise within a certain time and we pick the paths that give us the outcomes that we most need; I choose this path because it feels transgressive, to enter a destination but always with trajectory, to derivé but never to arrive; I choose this path because its mishmash of signs and ideas lend a dramatic backdrop to my run, because running through here is weird, like running through the set of Bladerunner.