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:


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

Rotunda development


Undaunted Council chiefs yesterday unveiled their latest plan to bring more tourist money into the city – by redeveloping the Bullring area into a Brummagem Theme Park.

an artists impression of how the new Rotunda will look. Courtesy of Adam Juniper
The centrepiece will be the much-derided Rotunda, which will have it’s circular floors skewed slightly to allow for it to become a huge slide – at 500ft the largest in the World. Visitors will be able to take newly installed lifts to the top, although fitness fanatics will be able to climb the thousands of stairs, and then will reach up to 50mph sliding down on some of them rough mats like you get at helter skelters at the fair.
Thrillseekers will be spewed out onto the main inner ring-road, allowing them easy access to some of Birmingham’s top hospital facilities.

Plans are also afoot to redesign the new Selfridges building as a giant bouncy castle, and utilise St Martin’s Church as a resturant-cum-souvenir stall.

“As long as you can still get Tennants I think it’s a good idea.” said a passing tramp yesterday.

Pantomime Horse Grand National 2005

Sunday 4th December 2005

Watch the ‘behind the scenes’ video here

Despite receiving a grand total of no pounds (that’s nothing, you tight-arsed little monkeys) in sponsorship, BiNS entered the third Pantomime Horse Grand National. Meeting the other competitors in the Bacchus bar (now open til 12pm relaxed licensing hours laws fans) at 12, we sipped a pre-race bottle of Nastro Assuro despite the outrageous £3.75 price tag and tucked into some fantastic fish-based snack.

Pre-race rituals over with we traipsed up to City Plaza, who were kindly sponsoring the race by letting us change in one of their un-let shop windows. The pantomime horse costumes owed more to Bernie Clifton than anything else, and after squeezing myself into the silks attaching a seemingly never-ending number of false legs I thought I was up and running. Unfortunately I’d put my top on back to front and the cap was made for a five year-old and not my finely coiffured barnet.

Brummieoftheyear & his jockey in official BiNS colours

The 33 competitors were then led a merry dance, down New Street, even out-wierding the Hari Krishna for a change and neigh-ing enough to drown out the sound of the fellas selling the amazing bird whistles. A brief detour up to Marks and Sparks (they didn’t seem to want us in there), and it was up past Brasso and into the Bull Ring (sorry bullringoneword). For once there didn’t seem to be any need for queuing to get on the escalators, and the stony faces on some of the shoppers we trotted past were a joy to behold. I’m truly sorry for disrupting their frantic Christmas retail bulimia.

At the course, all the competitors were immediately sobered up by the sheer dangerousness of the fences, or perhaps it might have been the freezing cold and the inordinately long wait before the actual heats began.

Heart FM did the event proud, filling in until something actually happened with a vast array of single-entendres and we were all very grateful not to be treated to anything too much off their playlist. It was great to see a load of Brummies out and about suspending disbelief and while we hung around we made a load of new friends, including one completely over-excited Frenchman.

Now the race joiners’ pack had promised us the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York and the Lord Mayor, but only the Mayor was in evidence, still I wasn’t too disappointed as we had got to park in the secret underground Council Car Park (it’s not council as in the OTT Christmas lights, white tracksuit exposing ankles smokes Lambert & Butler way – it’s where the Councillors’ park). It’s fantastic, just as you’d have imagined Hitler’s Berlin Bunker with additional silver Daewoos.

Ladbrookes were having a field day, tic-ing and tac-ing for all they were worth, we were a slightly disappointing outsider at 25-1, but since we were drawn in heat two we decided that we could study the tactics of the runners in the first race and copy them. One guy/horse got off to a flyer – Rob Rum – and seemed to be tucking the horse’s head underneath his arm – I thought I would try that. Looking at the course, it also seemed to be well worth getting on the front of the starting grid (is that correct horse-racing terminology? I suspect not, please don’t write in) as the fat arses of the horses were going to prove difficult to get round.

After the first heat, the track had to be completely rebuilt, as most runners had decided to go through the jumps rather than over them – a manoeuvre not seen since the 110 metres hurdles was dropped from the paralympics.

A nip or two from my hip flask and a longing look over to the Bull Ring Tavern, just think I was waiting to start almost on the spot of one of my most famous sporting triumphs – surely you’ve heard about the time me and my mate Tony stopped on the pool table at the Toreador all night in 1994?

I was a woken from my slumber by the klaxon and we were off! Or at least the 15 or so people who had stood infront of me were, I paused and then gee-d the horse up, pelting toward the first obstacle. I place my best hoof forward and onto the fence and, …

went arse over head.

A fall-er at the first, I’d got pictures of people cursing me and tearing up betting slips (I was only to find out later that no-one had backed me anyway). But, broken, but not beaten I struggled on. With my short fat hairy legs, however, getting over the fences was proving to be a difficult task. I’d have done better with a step ladder, and before the final fence I’d all but given up, letting a old woman saunter past me and leaving myself in a dishonorable last place. (In fact I do believe that she’d stopped for a fag at some point)

This had its compensations, as last place in the slower heat of the Pantomime Horse Grand National is far more interesting than the tenth or so I might have been capable of – and at least I didn’t have to do it again in the final. Sky News were on hand to interview me as a gallant loser, I managed to look at the camera and only used one expletive in the short time I was on screen (if anyone has taped this I’d love to see if they can ‘bleep’ me out live on air).

Still, as the – tardy to say the least – Archbishop would have said, ‘the last shall be first’ and I was, the first across the road into the Bull Ring Tavern.

A swift pint or two later I was away, back out to see what was going on, whether they’d got anywhere near staging the final yet. They hadn’t, but the late (not dead) Archbishop of Canterbury had finally turned up. I was overjoyed and looking forward to having a discussion of his view on ordaning half-men-half-horses into the Church of England, but no sooner had he arrived but he was gone. Asking the Archbishop of York, “where’s His Grace f**cked off to?” didn’t seem to be the best answer, so i staggered off for some mulled wine in the German Market and that was that.

No idea who won.

& that’s that, thanks to all those who supported us (if not financially).
It was fun and I’m sure a very worthwhile day out.

Pantomime Horse Grand National 2006

They’re behind you! And they all were as Birmingham: It’s Not Shit’s Airbiscuit, ridden by Mickey Stokes romped home in the Pantomime Horse Grand National.

We’ll openly admit we didn’t think he’d do it – last year our horse came a distant last and the course this year was tougher than ever. Not only was there the chicane round the back of the Council House and people drunkenly celebrating Germanmas, but the final straights were up the 2:1 gradient of Newhall St. Brummie of the Year wouldn’t even of made it round the hard-core parade trip to Marks & Sparks. Down to the Bull Ring they trotted, past Smiths, waited with Brasso, then up to the cathedral where for some reason they did two circuits – amusing the park’s higher than the national average concentration of crap goths.

A canny rider, Mick, held Airbiscuit up and came second in his heat – qualifying for the final with a bit to spare. As long as frostbite didn’t set in he was in with a chance. It was tense, but they soon belted off through to Chamberlain Square and we stood around hoping for the best.

You couldn’t see what was going on round the back straight, Airbiscuit was second coming up to the water jump, but somehow made it into the lead for the torturous climb to the finish. Squirming through the last jump he was free and clear. Barring a Devon Lock, we’d won!

We did – all that remained was to pick up the cup! Councilor Ray Hassal, who has some experience in this area, being a Liberal, presented the third prize trophy, some bloke from the sponsors did second, then it was the turn of the Mayor, Councillor Mike Sharpe, to hand Mickey the magnum of champagne and the title of Pantomime Horse Grand National
Winner 2006.

No word on whether the Mayor is a fan of the site, but he’s certainly got a nice necklace.

Mick went off to celebrate, we’re told with 2006 Brummie Of The Year Jason Furnell – there’ll be some tales for the tabloids, well the Mail perhaps, in that booze session.

Well done Airbiscuit, and well done Mick, we’ll be back next year.

And with that all that’s left is for Big Chief Busks-with-Recorder from down by the ramp on New Street to play us out with the theme from some TV programme featuring horses, er, the Lone Ranger, de de dum de de dum
de de dum dum dum.

There’s loads more pictures on flickr, including some of the fillies race, just click to see.

Catherine O’Flynn’s Top five Brum shopping experiences

Catherine O’Flynn has just released her first novel the stunning ‘What Was Lost’, which is set in an around our fine city and particularily the ‘Green Oaks’ shopping centre – Merry Hill by any other name. What with Birmingham now being Europe’s shopping capital and all, we begged and blackmailed her into dishing the 411 on the true magic of retail…

Shops are largely very dull places in which we waste much of our lives. They sell lots of slightly different pairs of trousers, electrical goods and some nice biscuits. They all play the same songs over and over again. If you go on the escalators you have to stand between the yellow lines or you might lose a leg. If you go in the changing rooms you have to take in 7 items or less. If you forget to pay you have to go and sit in a little room with no windows and listen to someone say some words. Spend too long in them and you will lose your mind and become a person who buys magazines.

The only exceptions to this rule are:

Slicks, St Marys Row, Moseley

I think Slicks is a front. I’m not sure what for, but it’s something really secret that has taken many years to develop. Whilst other shops have come and gone in Moseley (remembering in particular the nice shop Houghtons, the expensive shop Vincents, and the wait a very long time for someone to serve you something brown to eat shop the Aardvark Café) Slicks has continued in its enigmatic endeavours. On the face of it these seem to involve selling American tan tights and plastic belts, but it’s hard to say. No customers ever seem to go in or come out. I recommend stepping inside and trying out some random words and phrases to the baffled looking shop assistant to see if any of them trigger the click of the codeword-activated revolving wall.

General Foodstore, Mary Street, Balsall Heath

This is a shop that is very well described by its name (unlike for example Currys – which is misleading). The General Foodstore is an old-style grocery shop. The owner still wears a white coat, chats to you about the weather and has lots of sheets of paper on his counter for some arcane, grocer purpose. He operates a Japanese style ‘just in time’ stock management system, catering solely for the 10 or so houses immediately around him. As with all traders in the Mary Street area, the business took a massive hit with the untimely demise of the Smoking Man (RIP), whose idiosyncratic and highly evolved smoking technique had entranced and delighted generations of local children. No man can live on custard creams, coke and Lambert and Butler alone. Except for the Smoking Man. Until he died. Well done General Foodstore for still being there for us.

Irene, Stratford Road, Hall Green and Phillipa, Stratford Road Hall Green

Before everyone wore clothes from the future made of microfibre and teflon, people used to wear clothes from a different future called things like courtelle and rayon. These people are still amongst us. They shop at Irene and Phillipa and other shops like them across the city. Sadly the shops (and perhaps their customers) are a dying breed. There used to be a really good one in Acocks Green called WG Dixon (catering for gents too – car coats in every shade of buff). They once refused me permission to take photos in there, which you can only respect really. They don’t want our sympathy or our ironic interest, they say ‘buy the two-piece or piss off’ and they are right.

Birmingham Rag Market/Sunday Market at the Wholesale Market

The Rag MarketThe Rag Market remains a fairly visceral shopping experience, but nothing really compared to the old days when it was actually an early David Lynch film set. Lynch ditched it in the end as being too weird. He thought people would more easily believe a woman lived in a radiator than a porn magazine stall with a shed in the corner for customers to try before you buy. Or a stall that sold broken things and solitary children’s shoes. It’s not so wild these days. The real circus has moved on to Sunday mornings at the Wholesale market. Post-apocalyptic doesn’t really capture the true dystopian nature of the place. A man with a table-top covered in grey zips. Another stall piled high with thousands of identical metal offcuts from some forgotten industrial process. Or the man who sells opened, half-eaten jars of mustard. If Bullring’s slogan is ‘Be at the centre’, maybe the Sunday market’s could be ‘Experience a hitherto unknown sense of utter desolation’. A great way to round off a weekend.

What Was Lost is published by Tindal St Press and is out now priced £8.99. It is available from and is all over Waterstones in New St. ISBN: 0955138418

Frankfurt’s Christmas market


The festive ‘German Market’ has become a popular annual event in Birmingham at Christmas, with literally tens of Brummies getting tanked up on gluhwein – German mulled wine – instead of their more usual white cider.

How many Brummies realise that the ‘cultural exchange’ is in fact two-ways? Very few, we’re sure, but it is. From late November the cream of Birmingham’s street traders have taken a Bunders-break and set up shop, er, stall in Frankfurt’s Praca-Principal.

The lucky Gerrys have been treated to ‘mulled’ Brew XI, West Bromwich Albion mobile phone covers and other Birmingham speciallities. The streets of our twin town ring out to the cries of “eeeeveeeenin mayol”, while the Frankfurters have obviously enjoyed the delights of Mick’s Meat Auction – trying traditional English delicacies, such as pork chops, instead of the more usual over-spiced sausage.

The ‘English Market in full effect, with mulleted foreigners in stonewashed denim besieging stalls to buy knock-off Calvin Klien pants.

“We luv der Englisher Market” said Henirich Von Trap, 44, from Germany, “it is so quaint, ze nut centre, ze stall that sells brand name toiletries that are almost past their sell by date.”

“Zere is alzo, the street theatre that zey bring with ‘dem. My favourite iz zee scruffy woman ‘oo shouts about us needing ze “bigger shoes” – it is zo funny, because we all ‘ave quite well fitting footwear ‘ere in Deuchland.”

The Midlanders are just as happy, Barry, who is over selling disposable lighters, is doing a roaring trade: “It’s great here, we’ve done 10 boxes already this week. The Germans are just like us really, but a bit fatter and with more facial hair. I mentioned the war once, but I think I got away with it.”

The Nut Centre – going down a treat with the sausage eaters.