At the close of the 19th century, an area known as Palestine was home to Arabs, Muslims, Christians and Jews, who lived among each other in relative harmony. True, the banter got a bit lively on the local newspaper’s forum but it wasn’t an accurate reflection of how well the various people got along.
It’s an incontrovertible yet nonetheless contested fact that Birmingham’s Electric Cinema is the oldest working cinema in the UK. Birmingham can, then, claim an important part in the history of cinema in Britain. The Electric, though, is a peculiar beast. Those who would dismiss its claim to be an historic venue might point out that very little remains of the building of 1910, and so look instead look to the South East – to Brighton’s Duke of York’s or London’s Phoenix (née the East Finchley Picturedome). Of course, it better suits the accepted narrative of arts and culture that such things would belong to the capital or its artistic dormitory town, so The Electric is easily brushed aside by historians and journalists.
In explaining to you how Birmingham invented going to the pictures I will also brush aside any mention of The Electric because going to The Electric is not, you see, going to the pictures.
The 1960s, as we’re often told, was a turbulent time. A time of sexual liberation, mind-expanding drugs and endless streams of footage of Twiggy walking down Carnaby Street, and George Best pouring sparkling wine into a pyramid of champagne glasses.
When talk turns to radio, however, the cameras always inevitably turn seawards, a bobbing sea trawler covered in radio masts, swiftly followed by fashionably dressed men staring earnestly at dials and switches, then wheeling their chairs over to pick another seven inch from the rack.
I am talking, of course, about pirate radio, and if you were a hip young thing in the early to mid 1960s, pirate radio was the only way you could listen to pop music over the airwaves. That is, until 1967 when, after pirate radio stations were outlawed by an act of parliament, the BBC split the Light Programme into two stations, BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio 2, the former having a remit to play popular music.
Radio 1 sprang into life at 7:00am on 30 September 1967, with Tony Blackburn introducing the very first record, Flowers in the Rain by The Move, marking the beginning of the establishment’s acceptance of post war rebellion, and the end of the ’60s.
The Move were, as any fule kno, formed in Moseley in 1966, and the band have a strong Brummie pedigree. Vocalist Carl Wayne went on to star in Brummie wobbly soap Crossroads and lead guitarist Roy Wood later formed Wizzard (and enjoyed having his Christmas dinner at Walsall Rugby Club, though not every day). Bassist Chris ‘Ace’ Kefford was so cool, even the mighty Sabbath were in awe of him after catching a glimpse of him climbing out of a Rolls while they waited for the number 11 bus. Bev Bevan, drummer and Jasper Carrott’s best man, was once told by Paul McCartney that he was a better drummer than Ringo Starr and rhythm guitarist Trevor Burton went on to form Birmingham supergroup Balls (no sniggering at the back there).
It’s often said that the first step you take on a journey sets the tone for the rest of that trip: The Move, for all they were pop stars, were never properly cool, and Radio 1 would never really be either.
Who knows what journey Radio 1 could’ve taken if Tony Blackburn had picked Massachusetts by The Bee Gees (which turned out to be the second track he played) instead of The Move’s opus.
Perhaps the airing of such a
middle-of-the-road track would have set the station on the road to cosy conservatism, with Tony Blackburn’s breakfast tenure lasting well into the mid-90s and a young John Major shockingly rising to power in 1979 instead of Margaret Thatcher. Or it could’ve gone the other way, a revitalised rebellion seeing John Peel doing drivetime, and dinner tables across the country being treated to The Fall in session every other Thursday, influencing a socialist revolution and Britain becoming a rock ‘n’ roll utopia.
This is of course all idle speculation, but one thing is certain, we can categorically state that the Tea Cosy’s first choice of record gave a distinctly Brummie twang to a national institution.
Nancy Mitford was a terrible snob. In a letter to Evelyn Waugh, she mentions with glee a mutual friend who uses the expression “rather ‘milk in first’” to express condemnation of those lower down the social scale.
In an essay for Encounter magazine, called The English Aristocracy, she listed a glossary of terms used by the upper classes along with the equivalents used by those who, to paraphrase Noel Coward, thought that television was for watching rather than appearing on. In doing so, she unleashed a wave of nose-looking-down directed at anyone caught saying ‘settee’ instead of ‘sofa’, or ‘perfume’ rather than ‘scent’.
Yes, Nancy Mitford not only needed to check her privilege, but even created a ready reckoner with which to do it.
Nancy Mitford was a terrible snob, but at least she wasn’t a Nazi. Nor did she come up with the idea of using a list of shibboleths to separate the English upper classes from those that would desire to emulate them. The groundwork, the idea of using synonyms rather than accents as class indicators, was done by Alan S. C. Ross, linguistics professor at the University of Birmingham and inventor of the terms U and non-U.
In 1954, Ross published a paper in a Finnish journal on ‘the terminology of popular discourse of social dialects in Britain’. But it certainly didn’t cause the stir that Nancy Mitford’s use of his ideas did, just a few months later. Proof that it is indeed who (whom?) you know rather than what you know.
Birmingham, home of really understanding the class struggle: sweet. I mean, ‘pudding’.
A pint without the boys in a pub full of not much noise because loudness increases the chances of shouting and more droplets of virus in the air. Is that living alright? We send Danny Smith, the canary in our covid coal mine, into town as pubs open their doors for the first time in god knows how long. Will he get irate about the R-rate?
I’m in a Wetherspoons and things are not going well. In the Before Times being in a Wetherspoons was usually a pretty good indicator of how well things were going in general. The binary state of being in or out of a Wetherspoons nearly always correlates to ‘not so great’ and ‘going well’. But now, on this historic day? It’s both a historic and personal failure – and there’s a sheet of paper here with evidence.
To be honest it didn’t start well. I was dropped off on the Smallbrook Queensway and the first thing I see is Snobs with its windows boarded up*. It’s a sobering sight – literally – but also like the ravens of the Tower of London, if Snobs ever closes for good Birmingham falls. There is no reopening sign on the boards, just a note directing deliveries to next door.
Heading south I see the Old Fox has had a refurbishment and somehow earnt the qualifier “sly” into its name. It’s closed too, which is probably how it earned its new name. Opposite, the Hippodrome lies dormant. Stripped of the livery of show posters and lights it looks corporate and dead. As I write this the entertainment industry has still yet to receive any support from the government despite it hugely important to both the financial and emotional well being of the country. Some cunts need their names up in lights so people know who’s to blame.
The Dragon Inn is a Wetherspoons and this early in the day I was reluctant to go in. I’m here in town to cover the opening of Birmingham pubs after over 100 days closed, the longest enforced closing of public houses in this country since, well, ever. Given, the founder of The Wetherspoons chain, Tim Martin’s close ties to the government and headlines at the start of the lockdown, it’d be impossible to talk about pubs reopening without going to one, but not my first one, and not here. Before it was a ‘spoons, the Dragon Inn was an O’Neill’s, an O’Neill’s I worked at four two years before it closed. I worked the last shift: good memories dust my mind like fresh snow and are too dear to me to sully them with that ruddy faced scarecrow’s dirt wellingtons.
The bars in the Arcadian are all closed and my thoughts flash to all the lower division footballers and dental technicians sitting at home on Saturday night bereft of places to sell them mid-range wine and forgettable cocktails.
OK, I thought, I’ll start at the Bull Ring Tavern, a place notorious for being where nights end, not start. Often maligned for the perceived quality of its patrons, I’ve always found it nothing if not friendly. And the clientele is self editing: the sort of person that drinks there is the sort of person that doesn’t care about what type of person people think drink there (if you see what I mean). So it’s devoid of lower tier footballers and dental technicians.
As I get close a woman with a high ponytail, smoking over the top of a disposable face-mask, dramatically sidesteps in front of the door: “We’re full love” she says, and I become the only person in history to be knocked back from The Bull Ring Tavern**.
Something something largest unsafe reopening of a Primark in Europe. We sent Danny Smith to die for capitalism.
Her voice is mournful, an acapella lament closer to a wail than a dirge. I don’t speak the language but it vibrates with loss and a pleading sorrow. The lady has lines on her face chiseled in by the pain in her voice. She’s wearing a hijab and blue nitrile gloves. Another glove is stretched over the McDonald’s cup she is collecting money in. The cup sits in front of the empty crate she is sitting on, head back to allow the long notes of fragile misery to escape her body.
Opposite the queue for Poundland trails down the street in impossible perspective like an Escher print.
During the last three months I think we’ve all had the fantasy of when lockdown ends, a shared utopian vision of happiness in the streets, greeting our neighbours and strangers with warm hugs and handshakes. Sunlit pub gardens full of smiles, and cider with ice in.
Continue reading “Danny Smith: Non-essential”
Like an old Monty Python cash-in LP: for lockdown listening the full live show the Paradise Circus troupe did at the mac a little while back. 90 mins of hyperlocal satire now available to listen to in your home.
Paradise Circus Live is old fashioned revue with a local twist – a host of satirical sketches, stand-up, songs, games and monologues. Jon Bounds and Jon Hickman bring a version of their popular Birmingham miscellany, Paradise Circus, to the stage with biting satire of the media and Birmingham itself — all refracted through a thick lens of Marxist critical theory. It’s funnier than it sounds. Hickman is not from round these parts and Bounds will take him through what it really means to understand Birmingham.
Learn just how to be a local Breakfast Show DJ, what happens at a Birmingham City Council meeting about promoting the latest Big Plan, and how to write a broadsheet article about Birmingham in an editorial meeting down in that London. Help us to find King Kong, discover who won the 1972 Snooker World Championship (which was played 60ft underneath the BT Tower) and work out how much the Council has paid to Capita during a stirring rendition of Mr Blue Sky.
Mark Steadman is at the piano with comedy songs like his famous 11 Bus song which mentions all of the 280 stops in order (11A of course). We may even end on some ELOke.
Paradise Circus Live may finally prove that Birmingham is not shit, or die on stage trying.
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.
“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.
Thatcher was dead: to begin with. There could be no doubt about that. Johnson had been to the funeral himself, sat near Osborne who was failing to hold back the tears. She was as dead as a doornail. Or less metaphorically, the 96 football fans who her government smeared and denied justice after Hillsborough.
It was a cold afternoon in early December, and after cancelling another interview, Johnson was heading home for an evening with a good Russian vodka given to him by a close friend. The knocker on the door of Johnson’s temporary accommodation seemed to form a face, the digits 1 and 0 became a winking eye and a nose that seemed to follow the average wage down a graph. And was what was once a letterbox a handbag?