101 Things Birmingham Gave The World. No. 66: Pissing

Armitage Shanks

This is one for the guys, ladies you might want to sit down. Remember when you were learning how to ‘do a standing up wee’? The hardest thing was getting your little soldier to hit the target. Now then: what did you aim for? That’s right! There was some writing near the back of the pan.

Now you probably couldn’t read at that age, but very soon you could and one day you’d be having a jimmy and you’d finally decode that writing: ’Armitage Shanks’. From that day on you’d see those letters every time you went for slash for they are the motto to which we urinate. The connection between those words and relief is so strong that I often need to stop several times to spend a penny when I drive past road signs in Staffordshire.

But there wouldn’t be an Armitage Shanks to shoot for if it wasn’t for, yes you’ve guessed it, Birmingham. For it was here that two great sanitary giants met to thrash out a peace that led to the formation of Armitage Shanks in 1969. Yes here in Birmingham, the Switzerland of Pissing, Armitage Wares of Armitage agreed to merge with Glasgow’s Shanks Holdings – and just as well for this writer would not be able to cope with the hilarity of piddling into toilets stamped ‘Shanks Holdings’ (‘Yes! I am!’).

So ladies – welcome back – the reason we never sprinkle when we tinkle is because of Armitage Shanks and all thanks to Birmingham. And if our aim goes wrong don’t worry – we’ll be sweet and wipe the seat.

Buy 101 Things Birmingham Gave the World: the Book now

image cc JJ Merelo

101 Things Birmingham Gave The World. No. 65: Little Tescos in Petrol Stations

The Petrol Station

‘Does it have a mini-mart? A small supermarket, fits inside a garage, sells antifreeze and pasties, that type of thing?’. The words of Alan Partridge back in 1997. One of the most loved traits of Partridge is his ability to highlight the absurdity of the banal. Partridge is in thrall to modernism but the modernism of the mundane is all that he can access, hence his affection for the supermarket-cum-garage.

I’m Alan Partridge arrived during a tipping point for the forecourt shop. In the 1990s a petrol station with a supermarket was a sophisticated new metropolitan invention and as such it was a staple of stand up comedy routines – the gold standard being Eddie Izzard’s surreal queue of murderers waiting at the late night petrol station’s hatch to buy a Twix. Petrol dispensing was, though, still an artisanal affair in many places in 1997.

For example, the petrol stations of my youth, far away from Birmingham:

There were two pumps. You drove in, your tyres crossed the pneumatic tube which made the bell ring and a young guy came out. “Fill her up please, with four star” you’d say. Some light chat, perhaps about the news, weather or football, then when you were done you’d pop in to the little office. You’d hand over a few notes or perhaps you’d “book it” (my local garage was the sort of place that did things on account). There might be a few packets of sweets at the counter, and sundry motoring consumables like oil, tax disc holders and road atlases.

Those were the petrol stations of my youth. Those places were dying off in the 1990s though and the newer garages had more pumps, car parking, a cash point and where the small office used to be, there was a shop. Continue reading “101 Things Birmingham Gave The World. No. 65: Little Tescos in Petrol Stations”

101 Things Birmingham Gave The World. No. 63: TV Box Sets

24 DVD

The TV box set is a thing. It’s so much a thing that it has now detached itself from its own material: a box set is no longer a TV series collected as a set and presented in a box, it is now simply the thing, collected, and placed in a set completely agnostic to the process of boxing. Here’s an example: Sky TV actively promotes watching “box sets” as part of its online services. So you can watch a box set on a computer without ever seeing a box, because the box doesn’t exist except as a metaphor within the marketing material. When I challenged them as to how a video on the Internet could be described as being in a box, Sky’s social media people seemed confused by the question as though through some Orwellian process a box set had always never been in a box.

But why should a company like Sky be so keen to sell us a TV box set in the first place? Well Sky are a very shrewd and successful media company and so they know about things like supply and demand. They also know about trend-spotting and how to make the most of changes in viewing practices. They’ve spotted that you like box sets of glossy telly – they probably knew you liked TV box sets before you did – and so they want to sell them to you. Continue reading “101 Things Birmingham Gave The World. No. 63: TV Box Sets”

Great Brummie Chat Up Lines, No. 1: Martin Shaw and the café sink

The 70s. When men were real men and real men were Brummies. Here’s a professional pick up line from Martin Shaw, of Erdington. You’ll find it at around 42 seconds into this video but try to make time to watch it all so you can see if he takes her up the Ackers.

I Stopped at a café on this road once.

The owner kept telling me about this fantastic new sink he’d just had installed. Kept insisting I tried it. Filled it up. No problem. Washed my hands and face. Fine. Pulled the plug out. And the water ran all over my shoes.


How to keep Birmingham’s Brutalist Architecture. No.6: over many years establish a tradition that it is “a naturally-evolved environment, a found space used in response to accidents of architecture”

Like they did at the Southbank undercroft. Well played.


Pic CC Hatters


Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 12.17.40

“It could just be dehydration talking but I can feel the city. Can you feel the city?”

We’ve paused to cross Bristol Street. Neil looks at me: is that concern, or pity?

“Like circles. It’s all circles. Spinning. Like we’re making a circle, but so is the city, and the Earth, they’re moving too. It’s a connection.”

The Green Man is alight. We’re off. I stop talking, thank goodness. I sound stoned.

Earlier I told Jon Bounds what Neil and I were going to do this lunchtime. Which way should we run?

“It’s Autumn. Always go anti-clockwise in Autumn.” But it feels like summer. “The Met Office say Autumn starts in September.”

So we did it. I’m not sure what we did, but I think it might have been magic.

101 Things Birmingham Gave The World. No. 59: The 45th President of the USA


On Tuesday, November 8, 2016 voters in the USA will choose their 45th President. If it’s not Hillary then Hillary will at least be the story, and behind every great woman is a man and behind that man is a song and behind that song is a woman and that woman is from Bearwood, behind which is: Birmingham.

The song that catapulted Bill Clinton to the presidency was Don’t Stop by Fleetwood Mac: a hopeful song forged in adultery, a message between two parts of a powerful professional couple whose careers were intertwined.

Don’t Stop was written by Christine McVie who grew up in Bearwood, the daughter of a concert violinist and music teacher. She studied art in Birmingham and played in bands, getting connected within the music scene. Her own career was going pretty well but it wasn’t until she met and married John McVie, and then joined his band Fleetwood Mac that she really found success in the music industry. Both partners to the marriage found greater success during their period of professional and marital partnership then they had before, peaking with Rumours the album that gave us Don’t Stop – Bill’s election theme – and the tour that preceded the McVie’s divorce.

McVie has said that the song is about her feelings about the break-up of her marriage. As she’d also written another song on the album about how much she was enjoying her affair with Fleetwood Mac’s lighting director, this might seem bastardly behaviour but it was pretty standard in the Mac at the time. Christine, being an honest Brummie type, at least wasn’t as bad as Lyndsay Buckingham whose contemporary practise was to write songs about how he didn’t love Stevie Nicks: and then give them to her to sing. This author likes to cast her in the role of Bill and so we look again at the lyrics, hopeful but also personal, a love letter to Hillary perhaps:

“Don’t stop, thinking about tomorrow,

Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here,

It’ll be, better than before,

Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.


Don’t you look back,

Don’t you look back.”

What’s next? Hillary in 2016, that’s what.

Image CC Ableman. Fleetwood Mac facts checked by Howard.

101 Things Birmingham Gave The World. No. 57: Exchange Students


When we were at school a mate of mine would occasionally turn up at things during the summer with a weird sidekick: a French kid called Xavier. Xavier was an exchange student, sent over for weeks at a time to learn English how it is really spoken. Unfortunately for M. et Mme. Frenchie, they’d sent Xavier to hang out with a load of teenage boys so all Xavier learnt was how to say “I ave gaz” and then belch very loudly.

But Xavier wouldn’t have got that far if it wasn’t for Birmingham for we had our very own exchange student, America’s Benjamin Franklin, who used to come over to brush up on science and invention as it really happens by spending weeks in the 18th century working alongside the gentlemen of the Lunar Society who, it turned out, actually did have gas.

Photo CC BY: Robert S Donovan