No sad songs, an interview with Stephen Duffy

The excuse for talking to Stephen Duffy is the release of the first Lilac Time album in ten years, but that really is just an excuse: we could listen to him forever. Paradise Circus is more named after the Lilac Time album  of that name than even the traffic island. That said, No Sad Songs is a wonderful collection that you should head out and pick up right now.

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“Yes, we have always been guilty of self mythologising,” Stephen Duffy tells me, so allow me to build my own. I’m talking to him not sitting on the grass near Nick Drake’s grave, nor in a dappled Digbeth pub where our words would be lit with dusty spikes of light though the stained glass, but over the phone. He’s at home in Cornwall, I’m in an almost quiet enough corner of a conference centre in London that will from now be forever Birmingham.

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Wondering stars

In an old episode of BBC science programme The Infinite Monkey Cage the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson described how as a young boy growing up in New York City he never saw the stars in the night sky; in a city, when you look up you just see more city. When he eventually saw the wonder of the stars it was in the New York planetarium. That was where he found his love of science, and that was how his life’s work in cosmology began.

Tyson is quite the poetic scientist, and I found his story captivating. The city exists, he seems to suggest, only between its highest penthouses and the ground below them — all the sky above is lost.

Of course New York is a very different cityscape to Birmingham, but there’s something in what he tells us about wonder, about knowledge and enquiry, that is relevant to us.

Our skyline thrusts ever upwards, fuelled by the speculative construction of inner city apartments. Meanwhile the social housing of the past is being brought back to the ground. The clear message here is that the vista of the city is a reward for success, in the starkest capitalist terms. This tells us that only winners are now allowed to look down upon the mighty work of Birmingham. Perhaps they are able to see the sky from up there too. Perhaps they can wonder at the wandering stars; for them they are reserved.

What Birmingham lacks in height it makes up for in light. The modern city, even a modestly risen one like ours, still beats back at the night sky with a haze of halogen. Part of the deal with cities is that, though they may rob you of nature’s riches, they give back to you what you need for an enriched life. They do this through civic works, as New York did for Tyson when it gave him the wonder of stars through the planetarium.

In BMAG today they exhibit a model of one of many master plans for what is now Centenary Square. The classical architecture of Baskerville House and the Hall of Memory are mirrored by sympathetically designed buildings. The Hall of Memory’s twin is a planetarium. In that square today you will find the new Library of Birmingham.

A library, like a planetarium, is a place of wonders, a place to enrich our lives and light the sparks of promise in us all. A library can unlock the mysteries of the sky above us, too.

The deal is the city takes the natural world from us but gives it back to us in some way so we too can wander through it and wonder; the building itself isn’t the wondrous thing.

The library at night is lit up like a galaxy of the stars it obliterates from view. Tonight perhaps it’s lit in a regal purple? Look upon it and despair and wonder what’s inside.

The Craft City Line

We’ve been out drinking for about six hours, we’ve lost a lot of people and one of us is bleeding. In a few minutes one of us is going to try to pick a row with a train driver. I am cool hunting in the suburbs of Birmingham, and it’s going poorly.

train

Here are two things that are hot right now: craft beer, and Birmingham.

So hot are these two things that when The Guardian ran yet another piece a piece on how Birmingham is cool now, craft beer formed a central part of its thesis:

“Two years ago, you struggled to get a pint of real ale, let alone craft beer, in most of Birmingham. Now, from Colmore Row, down John Bright Street, to Digbeth, the city centre is awash in the stuff. It’s as if a phalanx of hipsters, fleeing London’s housing market, have swept up the West Coast mainline to alight at New Street.”

Now that’s not true (we’ve had real and craft beer for at least two and a half years*) but it doesn’t mean it’s not interesting. If craft beer is a measure of how cool a place is, then just how cool is Birmingham? And what would be a fair test?

I’ve got an idea.
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Danny Smith: Disappearing World

This week, Danny writes a eulogy for Birmingham’s last independent bookshop.

Some things, like grotty flats, go with a bang: a big showy controlled demolition surrounded by smug men in yellow jackets who pretend that playing with explosives doesn’t give them trouser tents. Some things, like the Central Library, go with a fight: even if all that fight actually consists of is an echo chamber of social media, people showing each other photographs of what was and what could have been. And some things, like dear Readers World, slip off in the night like a pensioner on the morphine train to oblivion: creaky middle finger raised in rigor mortis.

“THIS SHOP  IS NOW CLOSED  NOT OPEN EVER DO NOT BANG ON THE WINDOW OR DOORS”

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The longest German Market planning email thread in Europe

Due to the unique way that Service Birmingham’s email security systems are funded, this correspondence about the Council’s festive plans has somehow been CC’d to us. It’s just nice to see that they actually plan things.

From: Albert.bore@bham.gov.uk

To: Jurgen.Beckenbauer@germanmarket.de

Re: Das Markt

1st October 2014 11:01

Dear Jurgen,

I hope this finds you well. I’m conscious that it’s October and that we will shortly need to begin the process of planning for this year’s German Market. So we can get the ball rolling at our end I’d like to hear some your ideas for new product lines for 2014 that reflect changes in local and national culture and events.

As you know, the council are facing a dire financial situation so I’d be particularly pleased to hear of ways you plan to boost revenue this year.

Kind regards,

Albert

 

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The Small Room On Big Wednesday

Editor’s note: Some time ago we started working on a story about Snobs. Darren sent us this to use. It’s lovely. He told us ‘No tongue in cheek here, it’s a straight up poem about meeting my future wife at the Big Wednesday night in the mid ’90s. Love Snobs and have great memories of the place’. This poem is quite a big part of the story we are still writing, but we wanted to share it with you now, the day after Snobs as we all knew it closed. If you have anything to tell us about Snobs use the comments, and let us know if we can nick your story for our own (Jon H)


 

The Small Room On Big Wednesday

He was a vertigo-liver, but for tonight he’ll spin.

‘Just gimme some more!’

The unworn denim sleeves are a counter balance,

but it’s so fast, he’s seeing the inside of a potter’s wheel,

covering a vase from within, painted with a smear of ruby spot lights.

‘Pass the peas, like the used to say, pass the peas…’

They never talk; he’s only heard her mouth ‘Alright?’ to him all summer,

but they know each others’ moves instantly:

a midnight jigsaw of skin, sin and soul.

‘Doing it in the park, doing after dark, oh yeah, Rock Creek Park…’

Just be in a fag cloud’s distance from the DJ booth and it’ll happen,

tattooed by the same violet beams – a regiment line appears –

feet in-line, dance formation conceived,

45-degrees to 360-degrees, trainers played the parquet floor like a stylus on a record:

‘It’s a family affair!’

He thinks this is the closest he will ever get to women;

he’s soaked, his skin has been crying out of happiness all night,

but thinks: ‘I can’t hug and sponge sweat on your dress.’

The boy will be thinking about tonight for years to come,

in a still, warm house with a dawn storm roaring outside,

after they are married.

Disappearing Brum

Marti De Bergi first saw the legendarily punctual Spinal Tap in a little club called the Electric Banana but advised us “don’t look for it—it’s not there anymore”. And the director of Kramer Vs Kramer Vs Godzilla is right, nostalgia is a fool’s game.

The gateway drug is TKTVP, street name ‘Talking about old Kids’ Television Programmes’. No matter how it makes those lonely first-year undergraduate conversations in the Union bar seem easier it’s just building up an empty existence propped up only by Shine compilations in your work cubicle. By my age, you’re drawn and haggard and fit only to frequent the back rooms of the seedier pubs in Moseley talking about bloody Tolkien.

But like a pusher, I’m going to attempt to give you false nostalgia for a past you needn’t have bothered to remember. Let’s see if you can develop a simulacra of a misty eye over these gone, or soon to be gone, Birmingham fixtures:

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B’ham Student Guide: how to avoid students

Students are annoying: they sit around in groups wearing clothes that blogs tell them are cool, quoting Noel Fielding (probably, I haven’t listened since 2006), and have endless conversations that are inextricably pulled towards them all listing their fucking A-Level results. You don’t want that sort of thing putting you off your beer, so here’s where to go for a pint in Brum without seeing the skinny-jeans of anyone doing a degree in Meeja Studies:
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The Paradise Circus Buildings at Risk Register

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The ‘BUSK’ (Birmingham United Services Club) round the back of the Mailbox isn’t the prettiest of buildings, but it is in prime development territory. Since the great fire of 2006 Eddies has been rocking there, but now there are problems — due to a ‘Change in Ownership’ of the ‘Property’ — so we’re officially placing the building on PC Buildings at Risk Register.

Fires seem to plague buildings in nice areas that are well used or loved by uncommercial communities. It’s tragic when they go up in flames, only for structural tests carried out later to conclude that they are best knocked down. What’s lucky is that often firefighters are able to prevent flames spreading to nearby apartment blocks.

It’s a curse that can dog some of the city’s brightest entrepreneurs. Who would know just what delights would have become of the Villa Leisure Centre or the old Holte Hotel if they weren’t so damn flammable in the late 80s and early 90s.

It can happen to old bingo halls like King’s Heath Kingsway, or even beloved pawnbrokers like King’s Heath’s Cash Converters. If it can happen in these areas of high rented housing need it can happen anywhere.

Do help, add buildings to the register here…

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Lost Shops of Birmingham, No.1: The Andalusian Cafe

The Andalusian Cafe in Moseley was a couple of shop fronts up from the Prince of Wales. No one ever went in… we did.

The counter staff seemed uncertain when asked for food, there was no menu and they went in to a fizz when we opted for a plate of food with Harissa; they had none and had to go to their mum’s house for a tube of the stuff.

The food did arrive. But just then so did a white van unloading domestic hardware such as fridges and washing machines which were trooped through the dining room and put at the back as we gobbled down what had to be the only meal ever served there.

I asked why it was called The Andalusian. It was explained they always wanted to go to Morocco and we didn’t get out a map to show them Andalusia was in  Spain.

You always knew the cafe by its sign, the only words on it were ‘Andalusian Cafe, Tel’ maybe the owners ran out of paint before they could add the phone number.

It closed down soon after  our meal.

 

By Richard Lutz