Lost

“Fuck, fuck fuck, fucking hell”. I banged the steering wheel, it was the moment I lost it.

Lost my home town. 

I’d gone the wrong way on Spaghetti Junction. 

Coming from an unfamiliar direction, following signs to the M6, tired and attempting to avoid the traffic building up between the Scott Arms junction and Spaghetti, I’d ended up going north. 

And then, turning round at junction 7  – the motorway island I’d driven round more than any other – about to give up and face that traffic, I did it again. 

Back onto the M6 going towards Ikea, I decided I could swing round and hit the M5 and in the end, got where I was going without adding much more than half an hour to the journey. But I knew it was significant: going the wrong way meant that the pathways in my brain that mean I don’t have to think about some things, they just happen, were re-wired.

Some years back I was working in Worcester, driving every day from Moseley, and would often ‘wake’ as I parked at the office with little knowledge of how I’d got there. If interrogated that seemed dangerous, that you could drive at 70 for miles and have no real clue about it, but I was aware, I was safe. What I was doing was being on autopilot because I’d trained myself. And now, the pathways that held the old ways, what were the usual ways were gone.

I’d already stopped knowing which pubs were the decent ones in town. I’d long since had to use maps to find out where the 16 stopped to get back to Hamstead. The new New Street is not just a maze to me because it’s a maze to everyone: it’s because it’s not my home town any more.

There were times when just coming down the escalator and seeing the departure boards would feel like taking off a restrictive jacket. Deciding whether to get a can for the train, meeting people there in the mass of people watching the letters flick over, or standing – bag between ankles – before going down to 1A, would be a Proustian rush far better than the texture of a bag of Porky Puffs or the smell of a long-marinaded beer mat. 

There used to be a button you could press in the old local history bit of the museum: sort of on the side of the room, turn around and you’d see some old corporation fire service uniforms. The button played ‘I can’t find Brummagem’ – it wasn’t a great song, but songs of Birmingham are rare. It wasn’t a great museum, either. But it did: and the button was a highlight. I’ve often thought I should update the song, but then other people have over the years. And done it well enough for me not to bother.

The place has always changed, too fast for some, but I’m not just being nostalgic. I think I’m reflecting that it’s not the place that changes so much as us. And if it’s an effort to move around you have to acknowledge that: because you’re acknowledging that your reflections are a distortion in the fairground mirror of your memories.

Birmingham is the place that made me. I can find it, if I look hard. But I can’t call it my home: not if I can’t find my way out of it.

Brummie of the Year 2019 — Stephen Duffy

This is the tenth Brummie of the Year award, first awarded in 2003 by the then Birmingham: It’s Not Shit. Past winners and nominees have included UB40 saxophonist Brian Travers, itinerant blues guitarist Charlie Mitton, and escaping red panda Babu.

This year we thought long and hard, and Tom Watson nearly snuck it at the end. His dignified exit as West Bromwich East MP nearly matched the one as Baron Tweetup in my Twitter pantomime, where we think he left a glass slipper on the dance floor at a karaoke bar or something.

Stephen Duffy

However only one Brummie so far this year has written and released a record that will make you smile and cry at the same time, will have you running up Constitution Hill and worry about losing your accent. It’s another triumph for the man who once told us: “people from Birmingham do have a slightly more sentimental nature to them”. Yeah, we do.

In his neglected masterpiece he revealed how he “sang [his] songs of Birmingham” and asked us if we digged “the proletarian way he got it wrong”. We did, we do, we probably will for ever.

For the achievement that was making a drum machine sound sexy in the 80s, through making us like a record that features Nigel Kennedy, to making this beautiful, nostalgic, sad and funny record – and all without losing his accent.

He recently said “Most artists think they’re dreadful, but I think I’m brilliant.” For a boy from Alum Rock that’s unusual. So for the distinctly un-Brummie trait of blowing his own trumpet (though, not ever on record) and actually being right we award Stephen Duffy ‘Brummie of the Year 2019’.

 

(Go get the LP)

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Non-uniform day

School uniforms are odd, especially for teenagers. You take the group that are producing the largest smells and the greatest number of secretions and you develop a system where they wear the same clothes every day. Shirts for two days, unless you spill something, trousers all week, blazers for a least a year. Dry clean only.

But non-uniform days are worse.

As a teenager, my eyes swelled with frustration as I didn’t know what ‘Gallini’ was, nor why everyone would be wearing it tomorrow. Without the internet, and Tower Hill library was no help on this, how would I have known?

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A child’s Christmas in Birmingham

It may not have been snowing that Christmas, or any particular Christmas – snow and Christmas are interlinked so that we see it even if the day itself is clear. Even if we see ourselves carrying dining chairs up Hamstead Hill in the sun, across roads and clear dry pavements, there will be snow in our memories. There will be dripping gutters, splashing onto noses, wet but still comforting. There will be rutted slush in the gutter, darker grey on the frozen ends nearer the traffic fumes.

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Danny Smith: Shiny cappy people

At Paradise Circus we try our hardest to compete for web clicks, and we’ve noticed that glowing reviews of bars in the city centre must go down well considering how many the Evening Mail publish online. What time and when did we send Danny Smith to get all ‘wow Brum’ at a boozer? Erm, we’ll tell you after these messages.

Stepped on a snake and slid back down to Birmingham. Tired, grumpy, and trapped in a city I escaped two years ago. The continuing adventures of a man lost in his own city. Hoping that the next leap, is the leap home.

There is certain received wisdom in the pub industry, ways of doing things that can’t be deviated from. Edicts not learnt from working behind the bars, on doors, or in cellars every night, but from spreadsheets, focus groups, and uninspired middle management types. These are things that a successful pub must do to survive. Chiselled into laminated handbooks and handed down from on high to chain pubs up and down the country. They are:

Thou Shalt Always Serve Food – the gross profit on food is normally a huge amount more than can be made on drinks alone (unless you’re stinging people on cocktails but that scam is for another column). Also if someone orders food their stay is going to be a lot longer, which means more drinks sold. The bar is already classed as a food preparation area the same as any kitchen so serving food needs to be so the paperwork is already done.

Thou Shalt Always Cater To Families – families are money walking through the door. Drinks, particularly the huge mark up on kids drinks, more food, and the fact that larger family groups are an incredible pain to move once settled which means they stay for hours. Families bring in the cash, so the regulars are being told not to shout “oi cuntychops” across the pub, or spend time grumbling at the sheer affront of not being able to use the play equipment naked for a dare*. Regulars buy the cheapest beer and haggle over the price of peanuts like it was a market in Marrakesh, they do not bring the cash.

Thou Shalt Always Have Wifi – how else can you attract the panini-buying, expensive coffee drinking ‘digital nomad’ type without guaranteeing friction-less internet access?

“But won’t this turn all pubs into coffee house bland, cream wallpaper, bore holes with identical menus, music, and zero atmosphere?” I hear you ask, and you’re right it can, will, and has. Gentrification of our culture is inevitable when profit is our only goal.

“Is there a point to all of this one that preferably relates to Birmingham and has either a bad pun underpinning it or finishes on a dick joke?” I hear my editors ask, and yes, in a bit, leave me alone.

You can imagine how warming it was to my anarchist cockles when walking across town I saw a five foot A-board announcing:

“NO KIDS
NO WIFI
NO FOOD
Just Good Quality BEER!”

Why does a board outside a pub need its address on?

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From a man to his son, on missing his home town

You’ll never see the back streets in the same way I do. They change, things change fast round here, but even if they don’t your connection will not be the same. I won’t be able to show you the old pubs, the thick green leather stapled to the heavy wood, the splinters and the tears. But when it’s time, I’ll share a pint with you anywhere.

The streets have a new brick, clad with a special kind of fresh decay. There’s a new corner around every corner. The roads have moved themselves, move traffic differently. I won’t be able to show you the back ways. I haven’t kept up and that’s soon to be your problem — if you chose to care.

Will you care? I think so. Sometimes I feel such a deep connection to the roots of my caste I can’t believe you won’t. It’s often music that does it. Not in the simple proustian way, not always. I can feel the connection not only through chance hearings, yes, I catch Working In a Coalmine and am transported to the back room at Snobs as you’d expect, but there is something about musical culture that connects much more deeply. Music made by people I was, or am, or could have been – could have been because they were where we were. The rubble filled spaces that donkey jacket Dexy’s stood in were still the places I played football with a tennis ball, played cricket with a tennis ball, never played tennis with a tennis ball as we didn’t have bats or nets or flat ground. They took the train to Euston from the platforms I did, unsure of how to take the bigger city we reached. The platforms are the same now, but god only knows how to get to them. You’ll find them better than me.

The world is changing more quickly now than it seems it ever did. Even in the ‘80s I remember bomb sites, long-gone factories behind rough fences, compacted dust on which to park cars or cut through. The desire paths of our urban life, the secret passages and hollow ways through unwanted and overgrown spaces. Take the gulley, leave by the side gate to avoid the ticket collector, there’s a hole in the fence along here. The short cuts are the hardest to learn. We probably won’t share them, but there will be some.

We can go back, of course, we will. But my disconnect has become a fence without a hole, a song with a half-remembered melody. Maybe when I stumble across it it will connect us rather than divide us. Maybe we can discover new routes together, maybe there’s another version of Kiss Me that has the vibe of the country rather than just the rhythm of the factory. We can walk both, sing both. Maybe.

I’ll teach you what I can. Much of it will be wrong, or at least useless, configured for a town that isn’t mine really. Never was, I just lived in it and made my own maps. The winter darkness smeared with festive lights just highlights that as it obscures the way. But winter is a good time to sing together.

We can sing Mr Blue Sky at the end of the night, or the start of the game, or just in the street for no reason. I’ll sing with you anywhere.

It’s your heritage, your town now, if you want it.

Danny Smith: The A38 killed my dog

Like a bad penny, licked and then pushed quickly into a chip shop slot machine, Danny Smith returns to Birmingham. Delighted to have him back, we wanted him to stay in Northfield, its streets his alma mater and tell us all about it. The first thing he did was get the bus out.

Stepped on a snake and slid back down to Birmingham. Tired, grumpy, and trapped in a city I escaped two years ago. The continuing adventures of a man lost in his own city.

Vigor is a classic range of wool rich moquette fabrics providing comfort, appearance and durability developed to meet the specific requirements of the bus & coach interiors market

I’m on a bus in Northfield, it’s Saturday: so it’s full, and only getting fuller. Only the people getting on seem to confused by the whole bus business and are approaching it with the time consuming trepidation of first-time flyers on a steampunk zeppelin. The bus is waiting for an usually long time.

Luckily buses now have TV monitors and cameras so, if you do get mugged, you get to take home the footage. CCTV just blurry enough for it to be of no use, apart from to bring back the lovely traumatic memories, like photos of a ride at Drayton Manor.
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Subterranean, homesick, Blues (although we don’t think he goes down much)

We sent Danny Smith down the re-opened Costermongers, Brum’s finest underground alternative drinking hole near a market, because he was going anyway. 

The weather today isn’t really weather just an unremarkable middle ground between everything. Spring is the ultimate liminal season. Probably best to put your head down and plough through till summer.

I’m in Birmingham and my feet have already began taking me to Costers, like there are ruts in the road. No conscious decision, like the newly reopened pub is the bottom of a steep hill.

The door is ajar and a sign proclaims “WE ARE OPEN!” as if the sign itself can’t believe it either. But the dark dark staircase still leads to the dark dark door and behind the dark dark door is two people behind the same old bar. A six foot viking type a couple of stone away from being intimidating and a vaguely familiar girl with a slightly grown out undercut and a comfortable hoodie. The guy had definitely spent more time on his look today. They continue their conversation somewhat performatively and I oblige them with a tip of the tongue blank the viking was having. (‘Westlife’ btw). They hand me Export I have no recollection of ordering, and in fact distinctly remember vowing never to drink it ever again. Time will make a liar of us all.

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#Savetheflapper save our souls

“I curse any nights sleep in these flats to be ruined by the ghosts of a thousand lost nights of noise and lights and friends.”

The beautiful darkness inside the Flapper captured on a bright day.

Either you die a mouthy prick who gets barred for throwing the garden furniture into the canal, or you live long enough to see your city turn into a nameless suburb of Blandtopia. I’m drinking in the Flapper steeling myself for another bitter goodbye.

Me and the flapper have history, serious history. I remember being ten on a school trip to the canals in Birmingham. As a class we walked past and I remember the yellow building with arcade games in the window (it was a Firkin pub back then). I asked my teacher, Mr Goode, if we could go in and he just laughed. Possibly because even back then he could see the type of person I’d become. I remember because it was the only thing that day that I saw that I gave even half a shit about. Honestly, when it comes to the canals in town, it still is.

As a late teenager it was always a straight choice between Exposure and the Foundry then after, Eddies or XL’s. But on sunny days. No question, The Flapper. One of your mate’s shitty bands playing? The Flapper. Getting ID’d everywhere? The Flapper will definitely serve you.

But it’s going. It’ll go down swinging. But it’s going. BCC owns the freehold so could still block it but Birmingham city, partly through lack of funding, but mostly due its own incompetence, is skint. Birmingham City Council is a beaten dog with no master, cowering at anyone wielding a big enough moneystick. So poor it had to reach into its chest and pull out its very heart and sell it to developers for pennies. I’ll never forgive them for the loss of Central Library. And if they can’t see the value of a world famous historically significant and loved landmark, what chance does a pub the arse end of town stand? It’s worth fighting though. Sign the petition, show your support. Even if it is to show the developer wrong who said “All those people who come to defend that pub are like someone who’s got an old banger parked outside their house, and starts screaming when it gets keyed”.

The developers, Whitehorse Estates Ltd, claim the resulting block of flats will be addressing the badly needed housing shortage by offering two bedroom apartments for “young families and first time buyers” but similar properties in the area go for around 200k. I’m wondering who these first time buyers are. Maybe they’re the ‘london professionals’ we hear about in that article that the broadsheets write now and again. My favourite quote in the above linked article is from the developers describing a three metre wall as a “forgotten space” and a “den of iniquity of drugs and prostitution”. A three metre wall.

He also downplays its musical significance, but how many small venues are there left in Birmingham city centre? Two? Three? You don’t get big bands without small bands, and you don’t get small bands if there’s nowhere to play. Here’s the thing – when you chase all the artists, weirdos, musicians, punks, freaks, goths, and kids away they don’t come back. And all the vibrancy and excitement that drew people here in the first place disappears with them. Then the city becomes a Wetherspoons version of a city, sure it has all the features of the thing it’s replacing and certainly isn’t short of people there pretending it is, but the atmosphere will only ever swing between boredom to desperation and nobody will ever be proud of being there.

The Flapper is worth saving. I’ll say that again. THE FLAPPER IS WORTH SAVING. Every time I come back to Birmingham it’s a little more sterile. Another ‘flagship’ store has opened and another place with character, history, or heart has gone. Culture grows in the cracks and soon they’ll be nowhere left. Birmingham will be just another theme park to Mammon, a heartless temple of glass and brushed aluminium indistinguishable from the next city.

So fuck you Capitalism, double fuck you the cowards at Birmingham City Council, and triple fuck you Whitehorse Estates Ltd.

I fucking curse this ground. I curse any ‘cheeky’ glass of wine on your balconies to taste of cheap beer left in the sun. I curse any nights sleep to be ruined by the ghosts of a thousand lost nights of noise and lights and friends. And I curse your view never to be as beautiful as a summer afternoon with friends in the sun but only of a bland sprawling metropolis of cookie cutter developments occupied by wankers.

And people of Birmingham now more than ever we’re standing in front of a tidal wave of conformity and indifference. Keep being weird, keep being kind, and keep being you.

#savetheflapper

The Foel Tower Agreement: A manifesto for creating a healthier public sphere for a diverse city.

Birmingham has a young, diverse, integrated population. The city council declared it a city of sanctuary, it has a history of attempting to welcome people of all creeds and faiths. However it also has a history of tension and politics that has attempted to sow division for its own ends. In many ways we are at a point where there is a fork in the road about which sort of city we want to become.

During the 19th century clean water was in short supply in Birmingham and there were major epidemics of water-borne diseases including typhoid, cholera and diarrhoea. Birmingham City Council under Joseph Chamberlain, set about finding a clean water supply for the City. James Mansergh identified the Elan and Claerwen Valleys as a place that could supply the water, and the Foel Tower is the starting point of the 73 mile journey of the water from the Elan Valley to Birmingham.

With the creation of online distributed discourse there are a number of publications and organisations acting as hosts for the civic debate — and they have a responsibility to make that debate clean and safe. Elan Valley water rather than Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’.

Birmingham has an opportunity to lead in this space, as it did in public health all those years ago. So we urge people to press those with the power to influence the debate to sign up to this manifesto:

The Foel Tower Agreement

A manifesto for creating a healthier public sphere for a diverse city.

We call all organisations, individuals, publishers and publications that host online debate about and in the city to work to create a healthier public sphere for a diverse city.

These hosts should commit to the following principles in hosting online debate.

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