101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 94: The Orwellian Nightmares of the Daily Mail

Orwell House, Sutton Courtney, Oxfordshire

Eric Arthur Blair’s 1984 provides such a compelling vision of life in a totalitarian state that it has become the founding text on which fears of undemocratic control are built. Its ideas are strong and can be easily adapted to suit almost any political purpose.

The left will shuffle in their donkey jackets and point to the opprobrium hurled at immigrants or the poor, look hard, over a plate of custard creams, and cry ‘two minutes hate’ at the right wing press. Libertarians call almost any attempt to do anything ‘Big Brother’. But it’s the likes of the Daily Mail that have taken the contents of the book most to heart.

‘Orwellian’ is a phrase that the Daily Mail use a lot, there are over 30 pages of search results on their website. Its use is often combined with the word ‘nightmare’ and almost always followed by a story about how a local council or the BBC has ‘banned’ the the use of a word. Or talking about black people. Or in one ‘news story’ I came across: broccoli.

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101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 93: The Safe Hand Grenade

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.

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101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 92: Car Horns

Human beings are strange animals. One of our oddest traits is the belief that certain objects are made not of earthly or man-made materials, such as iron, carbon, cotton, or paper, but of fucking magic.

Some items are thought to bring us good luck, such as horseshoes, or rabbits’ feet, or particular types of coin, whilst other things, such as wood (when touched), or salt (when thrown over the shoulder), are thought to ward off bad luck. Not only that, but combinations of apparently unrelated items are either thought to bring about very, very bad luck (new shoes on the table, walking under ladders), or signs of impending very, very good luck (bird shit on the shoulder, black cats crossing your path).

Then, of course, there are the other items, such as a fridges, that are seen simply as white boxes that keep stuff cold and are not thought to contain any magic properties at all. Although, in the case of fridges, the question of whether or not the light goes off when you close the door remains a mystery.

It’s all very odd and arbitrary. But in Birmingham, as you’d expect, things are every-so-slightly different.

Whilst we Brummies might hold with some of those strange superstitions and beliefs, what sets us apart is that we also, as the accounts in this series of 101 things more than capably demonstrate, have long been in the business of creating, with our enquiring minds and ingenious hands, what others around the world perceive to be magic.

Take, for example, the Brummie engineer, Oliver Lucas: In 1910, he invented the car horn, and that is the perfect example. Here are some things it can do:

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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. 90: Saving the world from Climate Change

Don’t worry, we’ll be OK.

On the last day of October 2014, as trick or treaters took to the streets of the city suburbs for Halloween-themed fun, something genuinely terrifying was in the air.

It wasn’t the fact that Halloween has become, over the last few years, a poster child for the creeping Americanisation of our culture. Nor was it the fact that, just like the manner in which we’ve all apparently just rolled over and accepted that ‘High School Proms’ are now a thing, or that it’s OK for the FA Cup Final to kick off at 5.30pm, that we just don’t seem to have the energy to fight this kind of bullshit anymore.

It wasn’t even that we allow the economic machine to hijack dates on our calendar as merely points at which they can market disposable plastic shite to us.

Nor was it the fact that we not only buy this stuff, but that we then chuck it away — even though we know we’ll be buying the same plastic shite at precisely the same time again next year.

And it wasn’t even that the only thing that differentiates one plastic shite sales opportunity from the next one is how one now ‘naturally’ follows the other in a never-ending cycle, with the end of Halloween simply firing the starting pistol on Christmas, and so on.

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101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 89: School

Ada Road School, Small heath, 1955

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.

101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 88: Brexit

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.

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101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 87: One-way Streets

Jonathan Meades :: Birmingham, Heart Bypass from MeadesShrine on Vimeo.

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?”

101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 86: Prog Rock

The history of popular music is the story of youth, sex, drugs and revolution.

It’s also the story of the ruthless exploitation of naïve young dreamers by savage and unscrupulous media professionals, a long process of vertical integration by global entertainment conglomerates, and the development, packaging, and marketing of products to carefully constructed and controlled sets of audiences.

As Hunter S Thompson said, “the music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

Or, as Les, former bassist with the luckless band Creme Brûlée from The League of Gentleman, put it with more slightly more brevity, “it’s a shit business”.

However, what people mean when they talk about ‘the Music Industry’ in these negative terms is often the large and successful parts of the recorded music business, and not all the other, sometimes benign and noble, stuff that happens elsewhere in what we should more accurately refer to as the Music Industries.

The recorded music business, as the name would suggest, is organised around the central idea of ‘the record’, and for that we must go back to Thomas Edison, who successfully managed to record the sound of his own voice saying the words ‘Mary had a little lamb’, in August 1878, and set in motion a chain of events that would eventually give the world The Spice Girls.

But there is also a positive side: the record, or ‘the pop song’, is the most democratic and versatile piece of art there has ever been.

It is the soundtrack to millions of lives, charts our loves and losses, and something that follows us and keeps us company from our wide-eyed, exuberant, youth to our befuddled and doddery old age. The experience you have when you hear a song is no more or less valuable than the experience it gives to millions of others. It’s a Living Thing, as a famous Brummie once said, available to all, mostly cheap and, even when the songs themselves are sad, ultimately very, very, cheerful.

Edison kickstarted a process whereby musicians and singers could commit sound to permanent record that could be played back across time and space. Originally in the shape of wax cylinders, then in the form of actual records (made of various materials, but eventually vinyl), and then assorted other formats across the 20th century and into the new millennium. The process of committing glorious noise to ‘record’ has similarly evolved over time, from speaking into a horn, as Edison did, to multi-track tape recorders in fancy, expensive studios, to pinging music to collaborators across the world via the internet.

Much has changed since August 1878, then, but one thing has remained largely constant in the face of all these technological developments, economic progress and changing social conditions: pop songs are still (usually) under four minutes long. They have been for as long as anyone can remember, and probably always will be.

According to The Billboard Experiment, which analysed and then visualised sales charts and song information dating back to the birth of the pop charts, the average length of a hit record in the 1950s was 2 minutes and 36 seconds. Even though technology has developed at a huge rate since those days, the average length of pop songs today is still under 4 minutes and 30 seconds. Why is that?

It certainly has some roots in the restrictions of the technology of earlier times, both in terms of recording and playback mediums (you can only fit so many grooves on a record, after all), but the idea of pop being short, sharp and simple has, nevertheless, stuck.

Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Middle 8, Chorus, Chorus – done. It’s a straightjacket we no longer have to wear, but still do willingly. And, because of these restrictions, the restrictions of music itself, and of the copyright industry that underpins the business of recorded music, pop has had to be endlessly and fabulously inventive. That’s why pop is great, bab.

There is, however, one particular point in the history of pop music when this brevity was temporarily bunged out the window, along with the idea of pop being a democratic, public art form belonging to us all… and that moment was called progressive rock, or prog.

Prog grew out of the notion of pop singers as artists that emerged in the 1960s around the likes of The Beatles and Bob Dylan. That, along with advances in studio technology and the realisation by the recorded music business that they could make more coin this way, led to the concept of ‘the album’ being the purest and highest form of the pop art.

From Sgt. Pepper it wasn’t too great or long a leap to the idea of rock musicians as virtuosos, aloof and apart from the punters who worshipped them, of rock as high art that could only be understood in terms of it’s ambition and scale. And also to Rick Wakeman’s King Arthur on Ice.

Prog was endless noodling, complicated suites of music, and lyrics based on the worst kind of hobgoblin bothering nonsense imaginable, made by musicians from often highly privileged backgrounds. There were those that battled against this indulgence, including the caretaker of Birmingham Town Hall who locked up the organ and took the key home the night that Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer) tried to play it – but it went on.

Prog eventually bored everyone so silly that we were forced to invent punk rock, which was also shit, but a least it was short shit, and that meant that everything was right with the world again.

Where on Middle Earth would a bunch of University-educated show-offs get the idea that people would be interested in overly-long fantasy bollocks? Step up to the mike, and strap on that double-necked guitar, J.R.R. Tolkien: the Brummie who hated Birmingham — who do you think the orcs are? — and almost helped to ruin pop music.

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…