There are eight million stories in the naked city. Danny Smith is always up for naked stories, so we sent him to the city. Turns out that this particular Commonwealth Games launch didn’t have any of the nudey volleyball.
The couple behind me have been talking since I arrived. Their accent is a cut glass received pronunciation I associate with a old flat mate from Kent, who would need putting to bed after two glasses of wine and once offered me money to wash his work clothes because he didn’t know how and did not want to learn. It’s getting close to seven and the full moon hangs in the sky with a buttery soft light that, coupled with the crowd’s excitement, adds to the atmosphere. The crowd is mostly families, a solid block of expensive walking anoraks and friendly dad beards.
Tonight is the start of the Birmingham Festival 2022, a nebulous collection of art events being held by organisations with the patience and resources to get through the byzantine application process. Tonight is acting as the beginning of the Commonwealth Games apart from the multiple ‘countdown beginning’ and other photo opportunities
We’ve obtained a leaked internal email showing early designs and concepts for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games mascot. No bull.
To: Andy.Street@WMCA.govFrom: Andre.De.Jong@zaphiks.inDressing up for the Games8th March 2021 11:03
How’s the shop going? I am joking of course, I know that you no longer run the shop and it is closed in the Bull Ring. I blame Thatcher, as I believe you English say! Those blooming Tories eh? All ready for the games? Of course I am kidding, I know that you are not. I have communication about the mascot concepts you asked for. I know you have an election coming up so will keep this brief.
I am sad to tell you that we cannot bring in our original mascot concept OnWe on budget. We liked the way his name referenced the city’s motto, Forward, as in ‘on we go’ but also our listlessness and lack of enthusiasm for our consolation prize Olympics. However, the graphics people just found this abstract feeling a tough one to work with in a way that will fit on the merchandise.
Luckily, De Jong Group has expanded into the Education sector and we now have taken over a number of your ‘needs improvement’ schools, we now run almost all of the Perry Beecheses. We set the kids at St Hollywood Monster’s (formerly Perry Beeches III: Mission to Moscow) a competition to come up with a mascot, then we took the ideas and fleshed them out for you.
You just pick the one you like, we give the kid a T-shirt and two tickets to the swimming in Sandwell and Mike is your uncle. Sorry about the quality of the pictures, kids are crap at this!
“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.
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.
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’.
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?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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. Continue reading “Danny Smith: The A38 killed my dog”
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.