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

101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 83: The Great British Worker

At Cofton Park nr Longbridge

Stalwart vessels of early British satire, Ronald Barker and Ronald Corbett had a fine line in jokes about the perceived work ethic of the country’s factory fodder. “An aerial photograph of the track at British Leyland,” they announced, “was spoilt when somebody moved.”

You see, it had become an establishment trope that the car workers of Britain – and those in Longbridge, Birmingham in particular – were not industrious and prone to stoppage. That was of course untrue, the workers of those car plants were hard-working: not a house in Birmingham wasn’t freshly painted in mini green at least once a year.

But there was media and establishment bias against the workers of Longbridge, and that was often focused on one man: Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson, of Northfield (you wouldn’t want to live too far from where you worked in those days, the cars were terribly unreliable).

Born in 1927, Robinson started work there during the height of the Second World War and joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union (now lost in a midst of mergers like most left wing organisations). The political situation at work was very different then, the Communist Party dominated the factory’s workforce, and many hundreds of Daily Workers were sold there every day. You can imagine the lads on their tea break, talking about last night’s game (and Birmingham City were often on top in wartime football) when one holds up a page three essay on the theories of Antonio Gramsci. “Phwoar, eh lads? Look at the critique of bourgeoise hegemony on that.”

You might think that the bosses have a lot of weight behind them these days, but in the late ’70s the real boss was the real establishment: the government. Nationalisation (in 1975) ensured that any futures disputes could be framed by politicians and the papers as not just bad for business, but bad for Britain.

The creatives back then were more Austin 7s and ermine robes than flannel shirts and fixies. Leonard Lord, the designer of the Mini, which was Longbridge’s main output, became Baron Lambury of Northfield. Although it can’t have been much fun in the House of Lords being Baron of Northfield, imagine having to explain that, yes, there is game and shooting on your estate, but not a huge amount of grouse.

When Derek Robinson, by then trade union convener, took on the management he was taking on both the Commons and the Lords. But he was used to large odds, having stood as a Communist candidate in four consecutive general elections in Northfield between 1966 and 1974 (he lost his deposit on each occasion).

Whilst it’s true that the company lost a lot of cars and money through strike action, what ended up being the real problem was the effect that the strikes — mediated through the news establishment — had on the public’s perception of the company and the cars it made. British Leyland began to symbolise all that was supposedly wrong with Britain, what we were told the rest of the world was calling the ‘English Disease’ – which would seem a bit rich, especially from the French.

The narrative became that, alongside the strikes there was a marked decline in build quality, for which the unions and the workers were blamed. Brummie craftsmanship was now being called into question, with ‘a Brummagem screwdriver’ becoming a poor comedian’s unwitty euphemism for a hammer.

The story goes that he was getting in the way of the company’s preparations to bring the new Austin Metro into production, probably the only thing on which he would ever see eye-to-eye with Jeremy Clarkson. Longbridge was being redeveloped and heavily automated, there would be job losses and Derek wouldn’t stand for that.

MD Sir Michael Edwardes admitted, “The answer is ‘Yes’, from a strategic point of view we knew that we couldn’t have the Metro and him.” Robinson was eventually sacked by British Leyland in 1979.

Taking on the management took guts, but Robbo had to contend with Spooks too. At the time of his dismissal one of his union officials was rumoured to be in the pay of M15. You may think this sounds plausible, we couldn’t possibly comment.

Derek Robinson has been credited with causing 523 walk-outs at Longbridge between 1978 and 1979, costing an estimated £200m in lost production. So next time the media talk about productivity losses caused by an early football kick off or some inclement weather, pay tribute to Red Robbo: a great British worker, strong enough to take on the establishment, and a Brummie to boot.

101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 82: The Cardboard Box

When Charles Henry Foyle invented the cardboard box, in Birmingham, in the late 19th century, he by turn invented supermarkets: for would they be able to pile ’em high and sell ‘em cheap if they didn’t pile neatly in cartons and boxes?

They, including Jack Cohen who came up with that motto and founded Tesco, would not have been able to. That the real idea turned out to be to pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap, force other smaller retailers of ‘em out of business, before using your virtual monopoly of ‘em to control both supply of ‘em and the eventual higher price of ‘em isn’t Charles Henry Foyle’s fault. He just originated the process that made manufacture of brightly coloured containers to put ‘em in cost effective. They call it the ‘folding carton’.

Charles was lucky to be in Birmingham. Birmingham as we’ve discovered is a place where lots of people invent lots of things. And those things that aren’t cultural concepts, or gases, or types of buildings, or sports, often need boxes to put them in. In Birmingham he had bicycle bells and kettles, and shit shoes to make boxes for. if he’d lived in Manchester or London what would there have been to box up? Cotton? Rain? Alan Sugar’s wolf-like hands pointing across a glass table?

The invention of the box, and the founding of the excellently named Boxfoldia Ltd made a fortune as well as the future. If you’ve been to the MAC or the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery then you’ve shared in those profits too: Charles Foyle used some of his wealth to start a trust for the good of the city, one that’s still going nearly 70 years after his death.

A renaissance man as well as a philanthropist, Charles privately published Alice Through The Paper-Mill, an Alice In Wonderland inspired satire on war-time paper control regulations — a delicious subject for humour. No doubt he had to lean heavily on brothers William and Gilbert who had founded Foyle’s bookshop in London to stock it.

The book contains a chapter where Alice exclaims to one of the odd inhabitants of the world, “I thought you’d gone to Reading?”, the very idea of which is so surreal it rather makes the whole book seem unlikely. Even when Boxfoldia Limited was resurrected a couple of years ago — it had lasted until 2005 when it was liquidated — it only went as far as Redditch.

All hail the cardboard box, a plaything of children who are ignoring the latest toys, a place to put your shit, and a home to many in these Tory days.

101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 81: Books about Birmingham

Like Neville Chamberlain before you, you have the opportunity to hold in your hand a piece of paper. And, per page at least, it could have fewer lies on it. Why not buy 101 Things Birmingham gave the World right now? A fantastic Christmas gift.

But there wouldn’t be books about Birmingham without the work of the 18th century’s Thomas Warren, who was the first publisher to come from Brum: and let’s face it no-one from anywhere else was going to publish them.

From his house over the Swan Tavern on the High Street, he founded a modest book making empire, and eventually a book shop. No records of the shop remain, or of any other independent bookshop in Birmingham at all.

Warren edited and published Dr. Samuel ‘Dictionary’ Johnson’s first book – a translation of Jerónimo Lobo’s Voyage to Abyssinia – which was a huge success and sold hundreds of copies, absolutely none of which ended up for sale second-hand at Reader’s World.

Without Thomas we’d never have had: David Lodge’s campus novels which pretend not to be set in Birmingham, Alton Douglas’s Dogs In Birmingham, Jonathan Coe’s Rotters’ Club, Henry Green’s Modernist classic Living, Washington Irving’s Bracebridge Hall (set in Aston Hall), Benjamin Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil which uses Birmingham as a background political barometer, or the wonderful work of Catherine O’Flynn. Nor this one, which has been called “wiser than it seems” by non other than Solihull’s Stewart Lee.

He also founded and published the Birmingham Journal – in 1732 – our first newspaper, and a hard slog that must of been too as there were no existing papers or websites in the city to copy content from.

Three cheers for Thomas Warren, a man who managed to change the world, despite living over a pub.


This is the book that proves that Birmingham is not just the crucible of the Industrial Revolution, but the cradle of civilisation.

It’s the definitive guide to the 101 things that made the world what it is today – and all of them were made in Birmingham.

Read how Birmingham gave the world the wonders of tennis, nuclear war, the Beatles, ‘that smell of eggs’ and many more… 97 more. It also includes a foreword by Stewart Lee called ‘A Birmingham of the memory,’ all about his relationship with the city.

101 Things Birmingham Gave The World, is not a Birmingham of the memory. It is a living breathing thing, wrestling with the city’s contradictions, press-ganging the typically arch and understated humour of the Brummie, and an army of little-known facts, both trivial and monumental, into reshaping its confusing reputation.
Stewart Lee

101 Things Brum Gave The World. No. 80: The Inevitable Downfall of the BBC

The Plarchers, a Twitter parody
The Plarchers, a Twitter parody

It’s amazing that, with the modern attention span the way it is, the BBC has managed to keep any programme going for over 60 years. That’s a testament to a wonderful variety of writers, producers, and editors, it’s a tribute to the management that held faith and more than anything it’s a case study in how taking a punt on an innovative idea can produce something astounding.

The Archers, recorded in the Borsestshire village of Ambridge — but produced and broadcast from the nearby big city of Birmingham — is not only wonderful entertainment, but was the world’s first ‘scripted reality’ show. The genre, with The Only Way Is Essex, Geordie Shore and Midlands Today all riding high in the ratings, feels like the very definition of NOW: but did you know it started in May of 1950 for those of us in the Midlands, and on 1 January 1951 for the rest of the country? We’ve all been listening for 64 years and counting, or maybe it just feels like that.

But innovative and important though it is, The Archers’ tales of everyday country folk are a pernicious cancer at the heart of our Public Service Broadcasting.

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101 Things Brum Gave The World. No. 79: The White Line Down The Middle Of The Road

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To be a Cockney, you need to be born within earshot of the sound of the Bow bells. To be a Brummie, so Lawrence Inman’s joke goes, you need to be born within earshot of someone moaning.

The truth, however, is somewhat cooler: Anyone can become a Brummie, and that’s the beauty of it.

When outsiders do move to Birmingham – reluctantly or otherwise (although it’s usually reluctantly) – they are indeed welcomed with open arms. All they have to do is ride a full circuit on the 11 bus and they can collect their lifetime Brummie pass. It’s as simple as that.

In truth, no-one actually checks if you’ve done the 11 thing, and most Brummies haven’t done it themselves.

Once settled into their adopted city, these nu-Brummies begin to notice something strange: They find, perhaps in spite of themselves, that they begin to like the place.

When pressed on this, they will say things like, “Well, it’s not as bad as I expected,” which, whether these interlopers know it or not, is a very Brummie way of positively appraising a situation. Or, “the people are really nice… and they talk to you on the bus/in the street/at the shops”, or, “It’s a lot greener than I thought it would be”. Slowly, but surely, we reel them in, just as we have done since the city was founded.

The newcomers also point out unlikely things. They point out things that the indigenous Brummie would miss, or not consider important, or not even dare to dream true. For example, one adopted Brummie I know, who spent a decade here, thinks the accent is a genuinely beautiful, lilting tone, and has described it as ‘the English Italian’. Mind you, he was from New Zealand (a Brummie invention, incidentally) so perhaps he was just pleased to find a tribe of people who are more malicious to vowels than his own.

The other thing a lot of these adopted Brummies almost always point out is how crackers it is on the roads. Brummies, it seems, have what has been described by another outsider-cum-Brummie I know as a ‘free jazz’ approach to motoring. Birmingham is a town where ‘No U-Turn’ signs, for example, are an affront to the driver’s inner Ornette Coleman and are often viewed and read as a direct challenge, rather than an instruction. As with the lilting accent compliment above, we’re perhaps too close to notice this because we’ve lived with it all our lives, but it’s probably true.

Whatever it is they teach you, for instance, about how to behave when negotiating roundabouts when you learn to drive is something we Brummies swiftly and proudly forget. This is highlighted by the fact that we, uniquely, refer to them by the more conceptual and poetic name of ‘islands’. In fact, as any Brummie knows, the only real and true function of an ‘island’ is to provide, along with pubs, collectively understood points along an imaginary breadcrumb trail that enable us to give another Brummie directions from A to B in the city.

The irony in all of this motorised lawlessness is that road signs, whether they be warnings or general travel instructions in the form of images, collectively understood these days as ‘street furniture’, would not exist without the city of Birmingham.

It was here, in 1921, that following a series of traffic accidents at the junction of Maney Corner in Sutton that white lines were painted down the middle of the road, instructing drivers to keep to their lane and to WATCH IT. The experiment duly reduced low-speed pile ups between men in driving gloves and goggles and the practice quickly spread throughout the world. The rest is history and inevitable progress, and one that has recently returned to bite visitors to Birmingham in the wallet with the introduction of 200-metre-long Bus Lanes that appear and disappear at the will of Birmingham City Council, who use them to fine unsuspecting drivers.

Beyond it’s original motoring safety function, the white, centralised line – the middle of the road, in other words – has taken on a number of other, separate meanings throughout modern culture. A politician who deliberately occupies a position that makes them seen less of an arsehole than the others occupies ‘the middle ground’, for instance, just as a piece of popular culture, a film, or a pop song perhaps, that is inoffensive but entertaining is often said to be ‘middle of the road’. No-one likes the middle of the road particularly, but there are sometimes worse places to be, and sometimes it’s the best and most expedient place you can be. Which brings us back around to those newly arrived, newly minted Brummies.

So, next time you go out to or watch, listen, eat or vote for something, and upon reflection you find that it was dull, uninspiring, but, ultimately, not as bad as you were expecting, and if you then manage to make it home in one piece, just remember that you have Birmingham to thank for that entirely forgettable evening.

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!

101 Things Brum Gave The World. No. 77: The kitchen-sink modernist novel

LivingNovel

Two o’clock, 1929, Tyseley, Birmingham, Henry Green walked Warwick Road, near current DFS, Foam Cut to Size, Hollywood Monster.

Standing in Tyseley, son of Mr Yorke, thought in mind and it seemed to him that these factories were beautiful and he reached out feeling to them and he touched them; he thought only in Birmingham now was honesty left for in the county and Oxford and Eton, in society, words were like sheep while here men created what you could touch, soft like silk, flowing without definite article, which would last, although not as well as those of contemporary Orwell or Oxford tutor C.S. Lewis.

He thought, he declaimed to himself, this was life to lead, making useful modernist novels that were beautiful, and glad for making them, which you could touch; but when he was most sure he remembered. He remembered how it has all been said before and experience of father’s bottling factory became basis for great work of modernism; first to use working class experience. And then what had been so plain, stiff and bursting inside him like pumps at Mermaid on Stratford Rd, died like fun at Acock’s Green Wetherspoons, and he felt embarrassed standing as he did in fine clothes.

Apologies to Henry Green’s great modernist masterpiece Living which is set in Tyseley.

101 Things Brum Gave The World. No. 76: The hollow promises, lies, and shattered dreams of fame and stardom

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Yesterday I was happy to play

For a penny or two a song

Till a fellah in a black sedan

Took a shine to my one-man-band

He said, “We got plans for you, you’d never dream”

You’re a Star, Carl Wayne’s theme song for Birmingham-based television talent show New Faces, tells the story of art constrained by commerce, of authentic culture packaged by a star system. The narrator finds success of a sort, measured in his new possessions and receives acclaim from all around but his song is a confidence trick. The only positive emotion he has is in the first line, and is already linked to the past: “Yesterday I was happy to play”.

Musically too this is dour stuff, its leaden rhythm is hidden by a sing-along hook in the chorus. This is a cathartic song. Such melancholia makes You’re a Star a strange anthem for a show like New Faces that fetishises stardom, a show whose very MacGuffin is the pursuit of fame. Yet this is perhaps the greatest trick of stardom, that it hides its shame in plain sight. Indeed New Faces‘ great rival, Opportunity Knocks, achieved much the same feat of doublethink with Kiki Dee’s Star, which camouflages the lines “They can build you up / And they can break you down / With just the right words” behind the jauntiness in an almost Smithsian way.

Now you’ll be forgiven for thinking I’m about to claim that Birmingham invented Saturday night television (it played a hand in that, of course). Possibly you suspect I’m going to say that New Faces, filmed firstly at the ATV Centre off Broad Street and then latterly at the Birmingham Hippodrome, was the first television talent show and therefore the precursor of the blockbuster global formats X-Factor, Pop Idol and, er, Fame Academy. Sadly not: Opportunity Knocks predates New Faces by many years.

Perhaps you think I will make the case for Birmingham inventing the light entertainment public vote, which is so ubiquitous in the modern talent show era? To be honest we bodged that one. The theatre audience at New Faces could vote live via push buttons wired to Marti Caine’s ‘Spaghetti Junction’ scoreboard but the rest of us at home had to write in on a postcard to place our vote. Uncle Bob and his Opportunity Knocks lot responded to the postcard innovation with a telephone vote meaning that the London show could give results on the night while here in Birmingham we had to wait a week for the postal votes to be collated. In any case, these are all petty side issues compared to the real issue at hand: how Birmingham invented the whole sham that is fame itself.

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101 Things Brum Gave The World. No. 75: Batman

I’m the goddamn Batman
Jim Lee: All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder no.1

Jim Lee: All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder no.1

Why claim Batman?

Birmingham isn’t short of its own, real, superheroes after all. The Statesman is a Bromsgrove bank clerk by day and at night prowls the city in mask and ever-so-slightly too tight T-shirt ready to thwart drunks and burglars. Malala Yousafzai is a symbol of peace and hope all over the world with a seeming immunity to bullets. And Birmingham’s Lunar Society were a team-up of some of the country’s greatest free thinkers, geniuses, and crusaders for equality.

So, why claim Batman?

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