We feel rather sorry for Solihull. It’s much maligned as a bastion of the middle class, of “small ‘c'” conservatism, and of big ‘C’ (and big ‘U’, ‘N’ etc, am I right, kids?) Conservatism too. But more than that we feel sorry that it’s got an airport, but it has to call it “Birmingham” because essentially we’re bigger and bullied them into it.
It’s not as bad as RyanAir calling it London Birmingham Airport, but we still feel bad. So here’s a solution—it should be named after a person. A person who’s from Solihull, but who people probably assume comes from Birmingham anyway: it’s the best of both worlds.
But we couldn’t think of anybody really famous from Solihull, so:
A place of civilisation needs symbols, it needs to have masculine and feminine sides, it needs to be fertile to reproduce. In ancient times the mother earth was worshiped for her bounty, but the patriarchy would fight to have the phallic symbol usurp that as a symbol of fertility. In modern times the penis-like skyscraper thrusts into the air, affirming the planners’, the owners’ robust physically—whether they have it or not. London has the large, the shiny, the spiky: the shard. Birmingham under Mike Whitby planned a similarly feline penis, threateningly about to overcome the matronly Venus of Willendorf -ian form of the Selfridges building.
Luckily it failed, and our symbol remained the understated but cylindrical Rotunda. But what of the Brummies of the past? How did they bring life to the settlement? With a traditional May Pole? We’re not sure, as the one above is a latter, Victorian, revival in the enclosed suburb of Bournville. Where was our symbol?
Our Maypole symbolised Birmingham’s confidence in its sexual prowess, tucked on the edge of the city with King’s Heath the veranda over its toyshop. Low-rise, unsung, decidedly un-phallic by its sheer none existence as a pole: our Maypole must have once been so spectacular as to be destroyed but to still live on the race-memmory of South Birmingham. An area named for fertility trumps any ostentatious symbolism.
History has a habit of repeating itself. Patterns and ideas recur throughout civilisation not as part of a linear progression, an evolution of thought, or postmodern callbacks and pastiche – time and time again we see freestanding memes experience convergent evolution and arrive in the world fully formed, identical but without a clear connection. This process seems to lead us to the psychogeographic false friends of Watford Gap, Staffordshire and Watford Gap, Northamptonshire.
We all know Watford Gap as the green line that separates North from South – not so much a boundary as a buffer, isolating London and its surrounding parishes, spa towns and dormitories, protecting them from baths instead of baths, gravy, and cakes named after towns. But the North is, of course, a many splendoured thing and some places are more northern than others. Are Midlanders northern? In the classic North / South divide sense they are, but our friends in the North above 52° might scoff at our pretensions to the title, for we are not as chippy as Mancs, as put upon as Scousers, as … quaint as Yorkshiremen. And we’re definitely not as dour as Scots.
And so it comes to pass that we have our very own Watford Gap, right on our very northern edge, where Sutton Coldfield is finally released from Birmingham’s grasp only to become Staffordshire. Brownhills Bob has collected some discussion about the history of the place on his blog. This is no facsimile or attempt to recreate some Northamptonshire glamour here in Birmingham, rather it is a place with its own history and own claim to the name. So is this a coincidence? Well yes. And no. There is a clue there in the name: Watford indicates there was a body of water to cross, and much of our sense of division of space is rooted deeply in old geographies that we have overcome with time, perseverance and concrete. So it’s no surprise to find that the two Watford Gaps came to mark a boundary land. Yet there’s still something here, some sense of synchronicity that is almost magical. Just think of that next time you’re at Watford Gap Services – this is magical. Magical Costa. Magical McDonald’s. Magical WH Smith – with magical special offer bars of chocolate for only £1 at the till.
Anyway, I like to think of our Watford Gap not so much as a gap but a bridge, a junction, a link from Birmingham to the True North – although I would remind you all that nothing works north of Watford Gap.
Somewhere a laminator is waiting to make some signs (set in Comic Sans) to stick up around the place, to clarify functions and to formalise the new codes of the new building, the ones an architect and a designer can’t plan for.
What he meant was that the true test of the building would be when people started to really use it. We’re glad to note that it’s happening (no Comic Sans just yet). Welcome to the real Birmingham, New Library, we’re happy to have you, you’re lovely.
I’ve been playing around with slit-scan photography lately and at the tail end of a long and boring coach journey I thought I’d try recording the journey into Birmingham as a slit-scan. The app I was using was limited to 2044 pixels so I couldn’t do the whole thing at once but these five pretty much cover the view from Birmingham Airport to Digbeth Coach Station.
(click for full size)
A bit of explanation is probably in order.
The camera (in this case an iPad) is held firmly against the coach window. Any movements are those of the coach itself. It was set to take eight 1x480px photos every second and stack them in a row. So what you’re seeing is sort of like a movie, and sort of not at all like a movie.
When the coach is moving quickly you see a lot of noise as the strips of pixels have little in common and when the coach is at a standstill you see the same image repeated over and over as a block. The inbetween bits, where the speed of movement marries up with the view, is where the interesting stuff happens.
For example, the houses on the outskirts along the Coventry Road:
Or these large office blocks in Sheldon:
As we get into central Birmingham things start getting noisier but we also get an unexpected visualisation of traffic flow. As the coach comes to a traffic light or congestion the blocks of colour emerge. I also liked this slow crawl around a roundabout (after overtaking a big red lorry), scanning the billboard like a desktop scanner might:
There are many slit-scan apps available but I’ve been using this one.
We couldn’t have thought of two better people to send to the new Library of Birmingham preview tours than Ben (his take here) and Handsome Devil Danny. Were we right? You decide…
Meeting Ben for coffee in Paradise Forum before we go on a tour of the new library of Birmingham felt weird, a slight betrayal. Like going on your first date with someone new in the pub where your ex works. And looking back squinting in the sun, I swear I saw the old concrete bitch scowl at me.
The small reception around the back of the library is bright and sterile, yet to be scuffed and smudged into utilitarian invisibility. The other people there have nearly all picked up their security badges, me and Ben find ours. Where other people have Radio WM or Birmingham Post printed in the space marked for ‘occupation’ ours is left blank. Ben wants to write something in ours. We put ‘Brutalist’: it seems fitting. The rest of the crowd are varied, some recognisable faces from local media, some young-looking ones from the BBC who are obviously sending the cubs to see if there’s anything worth noting other than the usual piece to camera that’ll slip nicely before the sport and weather.
Upstairs now in one of the conference rooms. We’re given coffee and time to curse that neither of us have the ability to small talk with strangers. The rooms that we’re being entertained in are corporate boxes, meeting rooms that could be anywhere: a training centre in Holland, an interview cell in a new-build police station, or the break room on the Starship Bland. Except for the view. Not that just the skyline of Birmingham is particularly striking or memorable, but when seen through the bars of the trellis that surrounds the building the view is transformed into somewhere else – a maths savant’s doodle hovering just out of view like a probability force field.
Life in the sun just feels better. I think there is a strong case that the notion of the Judeo-Christian God always watching over us is just a bastardisation of the visceral good feeling of being in the warm summer sun.
So the sun is shining and everybody in England runs outside as naked as they can get away with, to drink as much free vitamin D through their dappled, pasty, flesh as they can. And I’m alright with this.
I’m outside my favourite pub in Birmingham: canal side, listening to the geese honk up to the balcony for scraps and fag butts to be thrown down, presumably to eat. This is Birmingham and finding out that our waterfowl need nicotine patches wouldn’t surprise me.
I’ve always loved this place, even during the brief period when me and my friends were so barred the staff would phone the police if we even walked past.
But time be time, and now I’m free to watch the sun slink behind the overpriced apartment blocks, drink my beer, and silently pray to the uncaring fiery god for one of the cyclists or joggers to hit a stone and fall into the canal.
I didn’t really visit New Street Station very much as a kid. For a start we didn’t go into town that often, and when we did the train was very much more expensive than the bus. The buses, at least for a time, were 2p to anywhere*. There were lots of muggings on the trains in those days and they were very much grottier than the buses. I can still smell the mixture of piss and ripped seat foam that permeated the Walsall to Birmingham line. I don’t think many of my generation have ever got back into using the local trains. New Street Station became a place for longer trips—one I’d still get the bus to get to from Great Barr.
The odd day trip, most memorably to an all-but closed Llandudno—”Change at Crewe” the guard bellowed as we got on the wrong train back—and then as I got older travel to gigs, friends and festivals all over the country. The staff were always helpful, even if the place was dark and the WH Smith’s was expensive. On my first visit to the Glastonbury festival, my two mates and I queued up at the ticket office with not a single clue between us where the place was, nor the train station we’d need to get to. They found out, gave us tickets, and charged us about 30 quid. A lot for the pleasure of standing up all the way there and back but some things don’t change. Except of course all the money now goes to Richard Branson.
For a while I’d feel a lift of spirits as I descended the escalators from the Bull Ring. And along with that a desire to touch the advert for whatever local radio station was pushing its dire breakfast show as footballers do leaving the tunnel at Anfield. Now I live in another town it’s just a point on route. But let me tell you about the time I kipped overnight at New Street.
With considerable local fanfare, the new New Street Station opened to the public this week. The re-development is still only at the halfway stage but the changes visible so far have already made a surprising and positive impact on the layout of the city. I experienced this first hand on Monday morning when I got off the bus in front of the old main entrance (which is now a building site), and strolled down the new walkway for a quick nose around before heading north on another bus.
I expected the short walkway to deliver me inside the new station concourse, but as I neared the other end I noticed sunlight and buildings. When I eventually emerged on what I discovered to be Stephenson Street I stopped, genuinely amazed. Up until this point it had never occurred to me that the New Street entrance and the bottom of ‘the ramp’ were so close together, or even on the same level. The layout of the city as I’ve known it all my life had changed.
According to a friend of mine, who in a previous life was travel correspondent on The Birmingham Post, architects and council officials had been saying for many years that the New Street building was a barrier to pedestrian movement in the city. The appearance of this walkway absolutely proves their point.
I was suddenly filled with Brummie pride and in a moment I became convinced that we might finally get a train station that does the very thing that the old New Street had so miserably failed at: provide a decent first impression of the city. Having not previously paid much attention to the development (I’m not a train user, I’m a bus kid) I immediately became a convert and a supporter of the project, and that was a tremendous feeling to have at 8am on a Monday morning. Prior to this mind-bending trip through a wormhole the most exciting thing to ever happen to me at New Street Station was when I became close personal friends with Hollywood actor Luke Wilson.