You can also look inside

On a clear morning you can see forever. As long as forever is the tower blocks of Perry Barr being pushed into the centre by the surrounding hills, as long as forever is the take away detritus huddling against itself and the kerbs of Broad Street, as long as forever is taken to mean Alpha Tower not angular enough against the skyline.

You can also look inside.

Untitled

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.

Continue reading “Tower records”

Requiem for a piss stained short cut

It was a shocking moment when after nineteen years of living in Birmingham I realised it will never be finished. The building work will never be done, some part will always be being demolished for another part to be built fresh: no one will ever take a step back, with their hands on their hips, and turn around with a ‘TA-DAA’. The ubiquitous cranes will always be part of the skyline, they’re not visitors they’re residents.

Cities are the bodies of our collective souls, and like bodies they change, regenerate, and can be easily marred. Ever see Ground Zero from up high? It looks like a fuck-awful scar across the face of pretty girl.

The Queens Drive staircase is an access staircase that travels from the bottom of Station Street up to the passageway that connects the Pallasades to the Bull Ring, with an exit to New Street station halfway up. And it’s to be closed soon.

Continue reading “Requiem for a piss stained short cut”

Up Bournville Boulevard

Last Tuesday Jon sent me to cover the BBC WM public forum debate about the Kraft takeover of Cadbury, it was held in Bournville. Bournville, for those of you that don’t know, was built by the do-gooding Cadbury family who thought booze was the devil’s piss. Subsequently it’s dryer than Gandhi’s Black and Decker belt sander. Jon sent me for three reasons; one, Jon is a cruel bastard; two, he had a strong idea that I would find it a boring waste of time; and three, if he and Carl Chinn actually meet the universe will turn inside out and reality itself’ll get torn a new arsehole.

The reaction to the news across the the media has ranged from the predicable hysterical cloying nostalgia of ‘oh no they’re going to make wispas taste of Stilton and and shoot curly wurlys into space, how dare they mess with things from my childhood’. To the sort of surprising cynical capitalism normally reserved for European baddies in Die Hard. Myself, although concerned about the job losses, didn’t really give too much of a toss. Cadbury’s as a company has been floated as public stock since 1962 where it set about swallowing smaller businesses with almost religious zeal to, ironically enough, control the American market.

I was shocked when I arrived to find a grey horde — my presence bringing the average age down to about sixty. Seeing as, to me, the only real issue was the potential loss of jobs. There was a surprising lack of people who actually work there, as opposed to used-to-work-there or my-family’s-been-working-there-since-we-made-chocolate-from-pterodactyl-eggs.

I’d be hard pushed to call the meeting a debate as everyone in the room obviously agreed that the takeover was a Bad Thing. The main argument then came between the capitalist apologists personified by Eddie Large look-alike Lord Digby ‘biggest dog in the world’ Jones and Carl Chin, tonight looking like a Vulcan making a guest appearance in a Bristow cartoon. Carl stormed the platform with a series of terrific sound bites and gesticulations, he also managed to cover the first two rows in socialist spittle which is a clear sign you’re getting your moneys worth.

Warren Buffett and Sherlock Holmes

One woman stood up and said that she “didn’t want to see it [Cadbury] turned over to the yanks” as if they were going to force her to wear ten gallon hats and pitch baseball instead of knit. The banter between the panellists turned nasty when LDJ explained there was nothing the government can, or should do to stop overseas investment in this country anybody who said otherwise he said, referring to Comrade Chin, was offering ’empty promises’.

It was was about then the atmosphere changed, before it had been one of pleasant — but excited — solidarity, like Marks and Spencer’s during a blackout, but as the feelings of betrayal came out people started to get upset. The man next to me sniffling in a touching but also gross and really really annoying way. These was no real argument, they just felt hurt, confused and while at a loss to understand the complexities of big business they understood also the inevitability of it. They had questions to ask but what they really wanted was reassurances and to be told it was all going to be all right.

It wasn’t a good way for the residents to express their feelings because the issues were complicated enough to leave no clear pariah to shout at. It wasn’t a good way of disseminating information because there wasn’t really any, and as representatives from neither Kraft or Cadbury turned up, and it wasn’t even a good way of finding out what your average Cadbury worker thought of it all because everybody that still works there was either there working or had an early night because they had to work there in the morning.

What does the future hold? Well, on the 2nd of Feb the votes will come in and the shareholders will have voted unanimously in favour of the sale. That’s seeing as almost 25% of the shareholders are hedge funds that stand to double the worth of their stocks.

Will there be great change? I don’t think so, well not immediately. You don’t borrow a huge amount of money to acquire a company like Cadbury without respecting it as a brand, a brand with an identity, a story, and an ethos. You don’t pay £11.9bn and start fucking with its soul.

If anything Kraft workers in Illinois should be out the front with placards because the money has got to come from somewhere.

The opinions of Danny Smith do not necessarily reflect the views of the publishers of this blog, its affiliates, or any sane adult human beings. He currently lives in your cupboard, watching, always watching.

Surge Domine et dissipentur inimici tui et fugiant qui oderunt te a facie tua*

Anglo-Saxon England was a horrible violent place with different kings and fiefdoms slaughtering for land, old gods, and, when the Danes landed, shits and giggles. Not unlike Newtown (except the bit about the Danes – I’ve never seen a Dane  in North Birmingham).

Another thing worth stabbing your neighbouring villagers up the arsehole for, was gold. Not the tatty mass produced Elizabeth Duke crap the third generation crack-babies are killing each other for at present. Beautiful, hand crafted gold unique items; normally it was used for decorating the weapons you yourself used to rob people for their gold, thus making you more attractive to rob. You can see why it escalated.

To keep it safe they buried it, and The Staffordshire Hoard was discovered last year in the West Midlands; if you mean the ‘West Midlands Region‘ which pretty much covers everything with buildings between London and Manchester.

Folks, we already live in a world where pirates in Somalia fight off big corporations dumping waste into the ocean. Now it seems that buried treasure is not just storybook fantasy but a possibility if you plough deep enough. The world is slipping into fiction; trust me it’ll be mermaids next.

So who owns it? Well according to The Treasure Act 1996, no I’m not making that up, it belongs to the landowner and the finder BUT English museums have first dibs because the Queen says so. The Art Fund working with Birmingham museum and a bunch of others are campaigning very hard to raise the 3.3 million pounds it has been valued at so they can keep it in the Midlands. This is typical Birmingham behaviour, many is the hour we brummies have spent in the pubs ‘claiming’ any favourite products events, or celebrities that are in some way connected to Birmingham, however tenuous.

“Led Zepplin?”

“We’re ‘avin em” we nod sagely

“Cluedo?” someone else will suggest

“we’re ‘avin it” everyone agrees

“Elvis?”

“Spent a lot of time in Alabama, that’s got a Birmingham. We’re ‘avin ‘im”

(By the way, its good to see that this tradition of claiming pseudo-brummies as our own has been carried on by Broad Street and its marvellously silly Walk Of Stars’)

The Art Fund campaign has garnered some attention from the likes of Brummie-when-it-suits-him Frank Skinner and probably-never-even-been-to-Birmingham-even-though-he’s-been-to-all-the-other-third-world-countries Michael Palin.

gold-arse

The campaign is to ’Save’ the Hoard, save it from what? Being stuffed into an envelope and smelted by cash4mysterioustresureofhistoricalsignificance.com? Do we really need to keep it in the midlands so badly? Do we think ‘The West Midlands’ was a region ruled by ancient warrior kings with spit in their beards and copious supplies of concubines an pork scratchings? Must we fight for their piggy legacy? Real history; it’s an artificial political region dreamt up by John Major (without doubt the least viking-ish PM ever).

Are we hoping for pre-dark ages artefact tourists? A quick look at Facebook reveals that the largest relevant group would probably be Anglo Saxon England and most of them seem to be rudderless English guys looking for some sort of cultural identity. Even if the combined membership of the first three pages of Anglo Saxon fans on facebook, rounded up to a generous 3,000 they would have to pay £1,100 each for the museum to break even.

Okay I’m being spurious but I’m still not convinced why we should care.

*the title taken from one of the inscriptions found one of the artefacts. Translated it means ‘Rise up, Lord; may Your enemies be scattered and those who hate You be driven from Your face.’ – ‘Those You Hate Be Driven From Your Face’ being the name of my autobiography.

The opinions of Danny Smith do not necessarily reflect the views of the publishers of this blog, its affiliates, or any sane adult human beings. He currently lives in your cupboard, watching, always watching.


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100 years of The Electric Cinema

The Electric, Birmingham Originally uploaded by new folder

A cosy evening at The Electric with a ‘This Is Your Life’ of Britain’s oldest working picture house in the company of owner Tom Lawes to celebrate its 100th birthday. Opened in late 1909 it was, we heard, one of the first opened with knowledge of what the 1909 Cinematograph Act would require — which is one of the reasons cinemas had to be specialist buildings.

It kicked off with this (DW Griffith!) very early public information film:

We then had some top flight silent physical comedy, when one of the technicians fell off the stage in the dark, and also a bit of Laurel and Hardy accompanied by a organ played by Steve Tovey, the last full time cinema organist in Britain. A real treat was footage of the re-opening of the cinema as a ‘Tatler News Theatre’ in the early 30’s — these showed newsreels and cartoons and locally shot news. The archive was found in a shed on the roof during work in the 70s and must contain a load of local Brum footage — sadly I can find none online, maybe the owners can be persuaded (or helped) to digitise it.

There’s a great quote from one of the staff at the time on this page on Cinema Treasures (which also give a detailed history of the many ownership and name changes over the years):

“The Tatler, I worked at that cinema 1940-1941 as an operator having previously worked at the News Theare High Street, both of these cinemas being owned by Joe Cohen of Jacey Cinemas. At this time it showed cartoons, newsreels and interest films all with the credits cut out to bring the programme down to 70 minutes and if there was a queue one of the shorts was also taken out.
The staff during my time there were manager La Campe, Billy Watts (star screen reporter and later manager of Percival Mackies Band. A dogs- body Schuman. Lesley Tonks was “General Manager” I have many memories of my time there. I remember a Czeckoslovakian refugee starting there, he was the poster writer named Andre Druker, he went on to open all of the coffee shops in Brum.”

Other treasures found around the building include the master print of Eskimo Nell — funded by The Electric’s then owner Berry Jacobs who was a big noise on the ‘continental’ film circuit.

Tom showed a great deal of the refurb work that’s gone into turning the cinema back into an inviting place in recent years — the roof and the plumbing seem to have contributed to it pretty much falling down. I felt a bit uncomfortable with the way in which the previous owners/management were obviously seen. Business-wise they were crap no-doubt, but for a while at least they brought all manner of esoteric, odd, niche and arty films to Brum — I have fond memories of dozing during triple bills of Italian films in the mid to late 90s.

But what has happened to the ‘statues’ that adorned the front in the ‘art’ days? Called ‘Thatcher’s Children’ representing child poverty, they were removed (without care we heard) by the artist John Buckley (creator of the Headington Shark).

Electric Cinema, Birmingham by Ruth and Dave
Electric Cinema, Birmingham by Ruth and Dave

“modelled by unemployed people hung up on coat-hangers.” – will we ever see their like again? We’ll try to find out.

Harry Palmer’s canal eccentric archaeology

VICTORIAN ICE-SKATING CLOG  It was with some amusement that local fisherman, Alf Barnsley, retrieved this skating clog from Soho Loop, Winson Green in 1972. But where did it come from? The story concerns the great winter of 1901 when the entire stretch of the canal from central Birmingham towards Smethwick became iced over. Many people came from all of the West Midlands to enjoy skating and join with the local canal families (who were usually resistant to ‘foreigners’ as they called them). It became such a marvellous four weeks in January that ice skating competitions soon started to occur. Many enthusiastic people made their own ice skating clogs. As you will see from this original clog specimen, many had managed to adapt their working boots to great effect, never underestimate the innovation of the canal boatworker!
VICTORIAN ICE-SKATING CLOG It was with some amusement that local fisherman, Alf Barnsley, retrieved this skating clog from Soho Loop, Winson Green in 1972. But where did it come from? The story concerns the great winter of 1901 when the entire stretch of the canal from central Birmingham towards Smethwick became iced over. Many people came from all of the West Midlands to enjoy skating and join with the local canal families (who were usually resistant to ‘foreigners’ as they called them). It became such a marvellous four weeks in January that ice skating competitions soon started to occur. Many enthusiastic people made their own ice skating clogs. As you will see from this original clog specimen, many had managed to adapt their working boots to great effect, never underestimate the innovation of the canal boatworker!

The Siren (in which this excerpt is taken from)

About Harry Palmer

Harry Palmer is an eccentric archaeologist who has, for many years, actively explored places, spaces and people, circumstances and situations. From early work from the mid 1990s as a reverse pedestrian world record attemptee, through to conversations with Catfish specimen masters and friendships with allotment champions, Mr Palmer has taken it upon himself to joyfully roam and enquire (within) here on planet earth for a sustained period since his birth…
Harry is the co-founder and research editor-in-chief of The Eccentric City newspaper – the world’s first dedicated eccentric tabloid newspaper

Forthcoming events: Eccentric Treasure Hunt across Birmingham (UK). Also, touring talks and visits. For more information and updates www.eccentriccity.co.uk

Harry Palmer’s Life and times of a Submerging Artist 1990-2009 pending www.harrypalmer.co.uk

Cramps? Best Brum gig evah?

Birmingham Music Archive is teaming up with BiNS to find out What has been the best gig ever to take place in the city and what was/is the best venue. Jez from the BMA is kicking things off, argue the toss here and in the forum.

My favourite gig was The Cramps at the Birmingham Odeon. My memory is not what it was but the gig was either April 25th 1984 or April 30th 1986, I’m tending to go for the 86 one due to me age, but anyway.. For those of you who don’t remember the Odeon before it became a 400 screen cinema, selling 2 tonne bags of sugar to kids who need no encouragement whilst showing Rambo 55, it was a fabulous art deco music and cinema hall.

For the gigs, there was a huge orchestra pit which doubled as the mosh pit (well not if you were watching Ultravox or The Thompson Twins), then those lovely plush velvet seats and above, a balcony were assorted punters would cover the crowd below in piss and beer – luckily they were often indistinguishable from one another!

So there I am, fancying myself as a bit of a psychobilly, knocking around at the Barrel Organ, Powerhouse, Zig Zags and all the others when news comes through of The Cramps coming to town to play at the Odeon. Immediately it’s THE ODEON! Who on earth has booked The Cramps to play there? Have they not seen or heard of the mayhem that normally occurs when the play. This reputation was justified. For me The Cramps remain one of THE live music bands. Raw, threatening, chaotic but always brilliant.

As I say above, my memory is no longer functioning as it used to, but this night The Cramps were late on for some reason and literally ripped through the set. Main man Lux carried around the entire audience, climbing right to the top of the pa system, Poison Ivy machine gunning the crowd with her guitar, legs akimbo, hardly, if any, talk by the band and then 30 minutes later they were gone.

Now I wasn’t in the mosh pit that night for some strange reason but they were going wild, calling for encore stamping their feet and so on. But as it became clear The Cramps weren’t returning they had nothing to really vent their anger on. For us in the seats it was different.

I’d never felt such adrenaline or emotion or basic wildness in a live crowd before. As the shouting got louder I can just recall a shower of seats reigning down towards the stage, missing it by some distance and nearly decapitating several hundred pyschobillies (or at least their quiffs). It was over in minutes but seemed like forever, even as everyone filed outside it was as if the whole crowd had become feral.

For the music but mainly for the crowd I think this has to rank as one of my all time favourite gigs in Birmingham. If anyone else was there and would like to dampen my recollection or even agree with it then get it on here and at www.birminghammusicarchive.co.uk, and then add your own best gigs/venues

Nirvana at the Barrel Organ, Oasis at The Jug Of Ale, anyone remember the Birmingham Rock festivals of the mid 70’s, saw the Pistols or Dexy’s at Barberella’s or Rum Runners, Eek-a-Mouse at the Porsche Club anyone?

Signs of the times

We mentioned the Type Tours before, but I couldn’t pass up a chance of a private mini-tour for myself:

Ben Waddington outside Baskerville House

Ben Waddington is one of those people who wants others to appreciate their surroundings. An exiled Manc, he’s been running tours of some kind round Brum for a couple of years – I went on Ben’s tour themed around John Baskerville last year, and was impressed with his research and amiable guiding if not our city’s treatment of Baskerville’s legacy. If we must have a new library (when the current one works, no matter how you consider it looks) then it should feature some tribute – it will be on Baskerville’s old land after all.
As part of the Plus International Design Festival, Ben is running his Baskerville Tour again – as well as ‘Type Tours’ of Digbeth and the city centre. A man who knows Brum well enough to give you a guided tour, as well as being a bit of a font geek? This is someone that I really should get to know, so despite my aversion to meeting strange men in pubs having contacted them over the internet, I popped out to The Old Contemptibles last week where I found Ben, Erdinger in hand. I plumped for a very acceptable Amstel.

We retired to the back of the pub, which now has a gentleman’s club vibe going on, to talk of Birmingham, design, architecture, the M6 and LCL Pils. It turn out that Ben has been posting on the BiNS forums (see if you can guess what name he posts under) pretty much since they started. Looking back it’s obvious that this was a man in possession of facts as well as the sense of righteous indignation that seems to infect the Brum-based internetter.

The first tour of hidden Birmingham that Ben organised was a walking tour of Digbeth’s forgotten pubs, putting adverts in CAMRA magazines and the like. What he neglected to mention in his pre-publicity was that a lot of those pubs were so forgotten that they were no longer open. Despite the James & Lister Lea goodness, some the tourists “were interested in walking to pubs, not so much in walking away from them. There are pubs in Digbeth that are still surviving purely on the indigenous industry, though slowly those are closing.”

We discussed how pubs are in danger as an architectural genre from all sides, the large suburban ones that formed the centre of the community on the post-war estates are fast becoming Chinese restaurants or McDonald’s as they are more and more difficult to profit from and license, squeezed by breweries and the police. In the city centre where pub culture is seemingly still thriving it would be unthinkable to actually design a purpose built pub, Ben says “the most recent one in Birmingham is, I think, The Yardbird – and that’s just a box.”.

Curiously we found out that we’d both got, wildly different, books about Brum that we’re working on – not that I’m about to reveal what’s in either of them – but they both in a way are searching for a reason why Birmingham lost the status as the industrial and creative powerhouse it had during the birth of the Industrial Revolution.

“It was lost a little as creativity and industry separated, Birmingham got industry and that then faded. Birmingham is ready for some sort of renaissance of perception. Maybe that can come though art or music.” Do we need the fabled ‘Tony Wilson figure’? “Capsule are about the closest we’ve got to that.”

As I see it no other city has that figure anyway, for Birmingham it would be the equivalent of Ashley Blake running Capsule and the Custard Factory, while continuing to be news-totty for women of a certain age. I also think that the days of music as the defining cultural force of a city are gone, splintered by downloads and diluted by Blair’s 50% University quotas. Is there a visionary around for Brum from some other field?

There have been plenty of the years, and a brief type-cum-architecture walk Ben takes me on, in rapidly fading light, helps to prove that. Surprisingly, I find that Ben wasn’t a typography expert before being asked to do the tours: “I was asked, originally, to do the Baskerville tour and researched that, then for this year to do the type-specific tours. I find I look at buildings differently depending on what tours I’m conducting. Originally it was architecture, now I’m focusing more on the signage.”

“The type-tours aren’t just about signs that are ‘printed’, the Digbeth one in particular will be as interested in hand painted notes and other letter-forms. You can talk about theory, but often you can only guess at the intended purpose of so much of it – in a way the tours will be a conversation. If people want to disagree with me, that’s okay.”

I couldn’t find any fault with Ben’s observations of what’s been done to the signage over the door of the old Eye Hospital – whatever trendy wine bar that has taken over have plonked a steel and glass canopy directly over the lettering. “It’s as if they’re frightened of you going in, ordering a drink and asking them to take a look at your glaucoma.” They’ve left the work on the corner of the building intact though, and being with someone with a fine eye for detail, I see an almost playful blurring of the letters. Can you imagine an eye hospital

While there is interesting type everywhere, Ben is most animated when discussing the old, the disregarded, ghost signs, and when it’s modern things it’s those that are anything but corporate off-the-shelf Gil Sans. He promises me “what [he] hopes will become [my] favourite piece of signage in Birmingham, but first we take a walk towards the Jewellery Quarter, and past a huge piece of graffiti acting as a sign for the café next to The Snow Hill. “There aren’t professional sign-writers so much in this day and age, you can either go and get something printed or ask some kid who does graffiti. Look at the time and care that’s gone into that, it’s ordered, planned, but that tiny bit organic.”

A building that Ben is enamoured with is the HB Sale building on the corner of Constitution Hill and Hampton St, it has fantastic terracotta lettering on it, and also had this brilliant bit of work in the window:

 sale

It’s round the back of this, and past the painted signwork on the current premises of HB Sale, that we come to the wonder that is ‘Socks Direct’. It’s not often that someone tells me something about Birmingham that I didn’t have an incling of, but I did not know about Socks Direct. Now I’ll not get my socks anywhere else. The sign itself is interesting because it’s not standard in any way, we spend a geeky five minutes pondering if the Ss are upside down. In order to get my own back I tell Ben about the Henrietta St café as we pass, of how seventies rock star Alvin Stardust was a regular there in the late nineties for breakfast. Ben likes research to much and asks for evidence – I will find some, but I don’t have any at the moment.

Proving that not even we like walking away from pubs, we pop for a swift half into the Hen and Chickens where Ben talks a little more about his plans, amongst Channel Five and bizarre alterations to the bar – he thinks there’s enough of an interest in the tours, both type and more historical for him to keep doing them. “There aren’t typographical tours anywhere else in the country, and if people are studying type then they’ll be willing to travel. For the tours of buildings there’s a constant market of tourists and Brummies that are interested – I do one every Sunday now.”

Ben Waddington will be talking to Chinny on his BBC WM show on Sunday 14 October, between 2 and 3pm. And you’ll find an article and photos in this weeks Birmingham News.

Here are the Type Tour details again:

Type Tour of Digbeth – 17, 18, 19 October, 12.30 – 14.30pm
Baskerville’s Birmingham – 20 October 12.30 – 14.30pm
City Centre Type Tour – 21 October, 12.30 – 14.30pm
All priced at £10 More Info

Ben’s Guided Architectural Tour of Birmingham Buildings run every Sunday at 10am and “ a Thursday noon tour for noon-owls”. More info or tickets from the Central Library reception (0121 303 2323) or from birminghamboxoffice.com