In praise of Brummagem: Home of the ancient street ballad

Jon Wilks has been our gateway in to realising that Birmingham has a folk song tradition that’s rich and varied. Jon says that he started writing about traditional folk music as a way to learn more about it, and he’s a fine interpreter of them too. His first LP of Midlands folk has been a firm favourite at Paradise Circus Towers, and not just for him inserting a reference to the Friday night trek from The Ship Ashore to Snobs in his version of  I Can’t Find Brummagem.

Anyone who knows a bit about the history of Birmingham and the Midlands will be able to tell you a bit about car manufacturing, chain and nail making. It’s no coincidence that the region is so heavily related to heavy metal. But here’s a little-known fact. Long before Ozzy Osbourne showed up, Birmingham was known for manufacturing of a different kind. Songs were involved, and on an industrial scale, too.

According to the late, great Roy Palmer (a scholar of traditional music in the area), Birmingham was a major producer of street ballads. Sometimes known as broadsides or penny ballads, these were songs that were printed on single sheets of paper and sold on street corners. The seller would sing the song he was hawking, and if you liked the tune, you stopped by and bought one. Some were traditional folk songs with no clear origin, and some set contemporary news stories to music. Whatever the subject, Birmingham produced far more of these songs than you might think possible.

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The Francis Galton Lunar Society Sketch

From the wonderful Paradise Circus Live, a sketch about the how breeding gets you everywhere:

By the early part of the 1900s the Lunar Society had lost its glimmer. The French Revolution and the riots in Birmingham have driven Joseph Priestley to America. The second generation of Lunartics aren’t quite up to scratch and as for the third…

Lunar Chairman: So, Mr Galton, you’d like to join the Lunar Society?

Francis Galton: Call me Francis, please. Like my father and Grandfather I’m nothing if not humble.

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Eating out

flatpack_takemehigh_broadstreet_oct16_29

A film and a burger. Deck chairs in a little square off Broad Street, customers in Jimmy Spices watching out the window and some staff at the Hyatt waving to us from up above the screen. That was my Thursday night, how was yours?

But it wasn’t just any film, it was Take Me High – a musical set in Birmingham starring Cliff Richard where he pulls off the banking deal of the century, gets the girl and re-invents local cuisine with the ‘brumburger’. But more about the burgers later.

Showing as part of Flatpack’s excellent Birmingham On Film season, Take Me High is a cult piece of Birmingham nostalgia, only ever released on VHS and as a free DVD given away with The Daily Mail six years ago (though there is a version on Youtube if you can get round the geographical content restrictions). It currently flickers as brightly as Cliff’s eternal flame.

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Halfway through Brookside on a Monday night —The Handsworth Riots, 30 years on

I knew this anniversary was coming—I’ve been busy and forgot it was today—the memories are very real. Someone posted a link and these memories that have never left me came to the fore.

I was there—aged 14—half way through Brookside on a Monday night – will never ever forget it. I remember seeing a fire engine going up the road to put out the fires only for it to come back the other way minutes later with its windscreen shattered with stones – I remember people trying to sell us stolen goods – I remember fleeing my house – I remember a police van burning on its side in the petrol station on the corner of our road and the two lovely brothers from our local post office who died – I remember our high street looking like a bomb had hit it – I remember not going to school the next day and then being told off with the teacher not quite realising what we had been through – I remember when Douglas Hurd came and it all kicked off again and a car pulled up outside our house and when they opened the boot there was a milk crate of petrol bombs so we fled the house again as the threat of the petrol station being blown up was getting real and I remember a newspaper photographer being beaten up and all his equipment stolen. I remember being terrified.

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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2014 reviewed by Brummie kids

From Ebola to ISIS, 2014 has been a pretty shit year. Danny Smith is no stranger to shit years, having grown up in the 80s, so we sent him to find out what Brummie kids today made of it all. This piece was originally written for and published by Contributoria.

I grew up scared. This isn’t a ‘woe-is-me’ tale, I was a weird little kid born during the tale end of the Cold War and somehow, possibly through harrowing TV shows like Where The Wind Blows and Z for Zachariah, I absorbed the horrors of the nuclear bomb. I remember clearly looking at maps trying to work out the blast radius from the centre of the city to my house and my school. Would I be vaporized in the first detonation? Have my clothes melted to my body with thermal radiation? Or would I be forced to fight severely-mutated former friends for fetid water? Actually, I knew the last one wasn’t true – I knew I would kill myself before then. I was eight. As I said, I was a weird little kid.

But I’m not sure which is worse: gleaning what information I can by cultural osmosis, with all the myth and hearsay that involves, or having access to truly terrifying, peer reviewed, Wikipedia articles. Today we have unparalleled access to information, streams and screens spitting it right in our faces. So much, it could be argued. that its actually harder to filter the signal from the noise: leaving us information rich but data poor.

This past year has been tough for anyone who follows the news, the summer soundtrack was a percussive rhythm of images and stories of schools and hospitals being shelled into rubble in Gaza. While pop culture seems obsessed with zombie fiction and other pandemic diseasecore a genuine outbreak of an infectious disease has killed thousands of people. A whole aeroplane went missing. Read that last sentence again. that’s the year we’ve had.

My school contacts let me down but I was able to visit a scout troop in south Birmingham and ask them some questions. Scout ages are from 10 and a half to fourteen, with Explorers — a little older — there as well. The names have been changed, and picked by them. They’re disappointingly mundane considering on the same night they came up with team names for their games such as “Currybomb” “Epic Ninja Friends” and “Just Bob”. Continue reading “2014 reviewed by Brummie kids”

Burn your house to the ground: why you need to kill your darlings to maintain your independence

I’m Howard. I’m part of this here Birmingham miscellany called Paradise Circus – an ongoing love letter to a battered city. Paradise Circus writes, films, photographs, draws, makes and records things about Birmingham. I am, we are, Jon Bounds and Jon Hickman, Craig Hamilton and Danny Smith, and a number of other people who want to contribute to a conversation about what the city is, was, and could be. We weren’t always Paradise Circus and we used to be famous. We could have been contenders, but we threw it all away. You should too. And in this article, originally published on Contributoria (CC licensed), I’m going to tell you why.

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A Literary Map of Birmingham

Flushed with the success of our 101 Things Birmingham Gave the World Kickstarter, for which we thank you all, we’re thinking of expanding into other types of merchandise.

Literary_London_Map_-_Black___Anna_BurlesImpressed by Anna Burles’s Literary London Map, we’ve taken stock of all of our city’s artistic heritage and produced our own.

 

“A fine art print map of the borders of Birmingham featuring characters from art based in Birmingham. The famous and infamous. And also the less well known. Those with an amazing moniker or brilliantly conceived nickname who are a credit to their creator. Each character has been plotted in the corners of the city they most liked to roam or chose to call home (sometimes on Her Majesty’s Pleasure). Combining hand-drawn typography and illustration, the posters are available now, framed for £29, unframed for £13 (both + P&P).”

See it in all it’s glory:

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Ghosts

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before: I’m not from Birmingham, though I’ve lived here for some time and I’ve learned to pass myself off.

Over the years I’ve developed a fair sense of Birmingham’s official and folk history and I’ve picked up a Brummie twang and an authentic sense of loss and frustration about my (affected and now apostate) fandom for Aston Villa. No matter what I do though I can never acquire a lived experience and innate sense of Birmingham. Cultural osmosis cannot equip me with a deep down connection to this place in bone and blood, a fact of which I’ve now decided that I’m glad.

You see I’ve been home for a few days, back to Guernsey. I’ve reconnected with my childhood haunts and found them… haunted. Everywhere I go there are ghosts. Continue reading “Ghosts”

5 Better Birmingham Tourist Selfies

It’s being desperately compared to making a pilgrimage to Abbey Road – that’s right all the cool kids are doing a selfie* over at James Turner Street. Wait that doesn’t makes sense. The Abbey Road photo you want to take isn’t a selfie by a road sign, it’s a photo of you crossing the road in an homage to the famous record cover. You want to recreate the moment and touch the magic.

Ahead of the influx of Benefits Street tourists expected to flock to Birmingham to be near their heroes we’ve pulled together an alternative list of Birmingham selfie spots where you can recreate some magic moments. Continue reading “5 Better Birmingham Tourist Selfies”