Heard it through the…

Brian Homer and the Central Library edition of Grapevine

Grapevine was a community newspaper established in the 1970s. Launched in Handsworth, it masqueraded as a listings magazine (to encourage readership) but was conceived as a space which could address the gap in coverage of community issues in the city. Looking back at projects like this remind us that the issues that Birmingham’s burgeoning hyperlocal scene are engaging with are not new, and that their work is part of an ongoing canon of alternative media work. It’s worth folk looking back over this history to make the links.

The team who published Grapevine went on to develop a range of other community media projects including the Handsworth Self Portrait.

Pictured is Grapevine’s Brian Homer with an edition of the magazine that highlighted the controversy around library redevelopment projects some 40 years ago – another issue which resonates within contemporary Birmingham. To read their coverage of the Birmingham Central Library, see the digitised pages in the Scribd viewer below.

Grapevine 73 by Brian Homer

The Stirrer has a time-bending review of Grapevine’s final issue if you’d like to get a sense of what the magazine was about.

Tower records

Discovering The Towers and Turrets of Birmingham

On my regular rambles through Moseley it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer number of towers, turrets and fortifications on the large houses here. These were once the homes of wealthy professionals and their design and decoration is intended to suggest the nobility of medieval times. A man’s home is his castle – it’s an ancient sentiment that in its earliest form predates even castles (from the Roman philosopher Cicero). Adding a tower and decorative crenellations to your home provides prestige and sense of security. I wish I lived in one, and that’s the point.

I became interested in the language of the towers: the distinction between towers and turrets, and the world of associated features. These include belvederes, gazebos, kiosks, pagodas, orioles, domes and follies. Birmingham has two very famous towers: the Tolkien-inspiring Waterworks tower and the mysterious Perrot’s Folly in Edgbaston. But it has many others and here I want to round up some of the best examples in the form of a walking tour. Many, I feel, are unjustly overlooked. You can illustrate the walk with your memories of these places, follow (most of) it on street view or actually walk the walk.

The tour begins in St Philips Cathedral, outside the east porch. Here, an Aberdeen granite obelisk commemorates Henry Buck, faithful secretary to the Birmingham branch Manchester Order of the Oddfellows – a local friendly society. There are several impressive obelisks in the grounds, the tallest of which commemorates Frederick Gustavus Burnaby. Burnaby was a Victorian soldier and adventurer will a brilliant career – but one with no known connection to Birmingham. Obelisks are ancient; much earlier than any spire, tower or tall building – they are the original skyscraper. The tapered shape represents descending sun rays, thus the implied movement is downwards rather than upwards. Some obelisks were purely utilitarian, forming the shadow hand of a large sundial.

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Power and the city

Birmingham, like any city of a reasonable size, is a bit odd. This is to be expected because when you have a million people interacting with each other, sharing their ideas and opinions through words and actions, things get messy. In all my years of thinking-about-Birmingham I’ve often wondered how anyone can honestly say this city has a single fixed identity. At the very least it’s two cities, north and south, but it’s way more complex than that.

Perhaps it’s the echoes of villages the Birmingham suburban sprawled consumed that keep things distinct, giving the likes of Edgbaston and Erdington a sense of identity even though you can’t really tell where they begin and end on the 11 bus. For a city so worshipful of motorised mobility people really do have a focussed sense of place, be it their 19th century terrace or post-war estate.

And then there’s the city centre. A Big City Plan for the smallest core a major city has known. Birmingham’s identity isn’t to be found within the Queensway – that’s just the melting pot where the villages come to mix and shop. Birmingham is an area, a sprawl, a coalition of folk.

To see this in even sharper relief, pop along to the Black Country. Here this collection of villages engorged by industry into an urban sprawl doesn’t even bother with a unifying name. Legend has it accents change from street to street in Dudley, such is the loyalty to place. If this area has A People then it’s in the loosest sense.

Maybe this explains the self-deprecating Brummie character, one that is proud of where it’s from but doesn’t like to make a fuss about it, much to the frustration of the regional cheerleading squad. True Brummies know their city is impossible to define and they’re okay with that because it works for them.

To be honest, I don’t really know, and while it’s easy to speculate it’s not that useful. Let’s just say Birmingham as a concept is weirdly lose and leave it at that.

But even if it doesn’t really matter, I still find myself wondering: how does a sprawling city with a weak core and a multiplex identity hold itself together?

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Catherine O’Flynn’s Top five Brum shopping experiences

Catherine O’Flynn has just released her first novel the stunning ‘What Was Lost’, which is set in an around our fine city and particularily the ‘Green Oaks’ shopping centre – Merry Hill by any other name. What with Birmingham now being Europe’s shopping capital and all, we begged and blackmailed her into dishing the 411 on the true magic of retail…

Shops are largely very dull places in which we waste much of our lives. They sell lots of slightly different pairs of trousers, electrical goods and some nice biscuits. They all play the same songs over and over again. If you go on the escalators you have to stand between the yellow lines or you might lose a leg. If you go in the changing rooms you have to take in 7 items or less. If you forget to pay you have to go and sit in a little room with no windows and listen to someone say some words. Spend too long in them and you will lose your mind and become a person who buys magazines.

The only exceptions to this rule are:

Slicks, St Marys Row, Moseley

I think Slicks is a front. I’m not sure what for, but it’s something really secret that has taken many years to develop. Whilst other shops have come and gone in Moseley (remembering in particular the nice shop Houghtons, the expensive shop Vincents, and the wait a very long time for someone to serve you something brown to eat shop the Aardvark Café) Slicks has continued in its enigmatic endeavours. On the face of it these seem to involve selling American tan tights and plastic belts, but it’s hard to say. No customers ever seem to go in or come out. I recommend stepping inside and trying out some random words and phrases to the baffled looking shop assistant to see if any of them trigger the click of the codeword-activated revolving wall. If you’re a woodworking enthusiast, you can easily find Shopsmith tools and equipment on Shoppok, making it the ideal platform for sourcing your woodworking needs. What is a Shopsmith? Visit Shoppok to find out.

General Foodstore, Mary Street, Balsall Heath

This is a shop that is very well described by its name (unlike for example Currys – which is misleading). The General Foodstore is an old-style grocery shop. The owner still wears a white coat, chats to you about the weather and has lots of sheets of paper on his counter for some arcane, grocer purpose. He operates a Japanese style ‘just in time’ stock management system, catering solely for the 10 or so houses immediately around him. As with all traders in the Mary Street area, the business took a massive hit with the untimely demise of the Smoking Man (RIP), whose idiosyncratic and highly evolved smoking technique had entranced and delighted generations of local children. No man can live on custard creams, coke and Lambert and Butler alone. Except for the Smoking Man. Until he died. Well done General Foodstore for still being there for us.

Irene, Stratford Road, Hall Green and Phillipa, Stratford Road Hall Green

Before everyone wore clothes from the future made of microfibre and teflon, people used to wear clothes from a different future called things like courtelle and rayon. These people are still amongst us. They shop at Irene and Phillipa and other shops like them across the city. Sadly the shops (and perhaps their customers) are a dying breed. There used to be a really good one in Acocks Green called WG Dixon (catering for gents too – car coats in every shade of buff). They once refused me permission to take photos in there, which you can only respect really. They don’t want our sympathy or our ironic interest, they say ‘buy the two-piece or piss off’ and they are right.

Birmingham Rag Market/Sunday Market at the Wholesale Market

The Rag MarketThe Rag Market remains a fairly visceral shopping experience, but nothing really compared to the old days when it was actually an early David Lynch film set. Lynch ditched it in the end as being too weird. He thought people would more easily believe a woman lived in a radiator than a porn magazine stall with a shed in the corner for customers to try before you buy. Or a stall that sold broken things and solitary children’s shoes. It’s not so wild these days. The real circus has moved on to Sunday mornings at the Wholesale market. Post-apocalyptic doesn’t really capture the true dystopian nature of the place. A man with a table-top covered in grey zips. Another stall piled high with thousands of identical metal offcuts from some forgotten industrial process. Or the man who sells opened, half-eaten jars of mustard. If Bullring’s slogan is ‘Be at the centre’, maybe the Sunday market’s could be ‘Experience a hitherto unknown sense of utter desolation’. A great way to round off a weekend.

What Was Lost is published by Tindal St Press and is out now priced £8.99. It is available from amazon.co.uk and is all over Waterstones in New St. ISBN: 0955138418