101 Things Birmingham Gave The World. No. 50: Panhandling

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If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Despite the protests of anyone who’s ever wanted to make it from one end of New Street to the other, asking people for money is profitable and it will continue. Birmingham has some world class panhandling: the girl with the odd voice and dreads who needs 65p to get home to Bearwood, the squaddie who’s missed his train back to base, Vernon the Big Issue seller who made a Christmas single, and not to forget the historical local begging on a global stage that bought us the ICC with all that European money.

So would you be surprised to see that the city invented a certain type of begging? Of course not, but it happened some way before there was a city to beg in.

In the Domesday Book, Birmingham is recorded as one homestead: worth about two goats. But in 1166 the Lord of the Manor Peter de Birmingham obtained a royal charter from Henry II permitting him to hold a weekly market “at his castle at Birmingham” and crucially to charge tolls on the market’s traffic. Money, in effect, for just passing up New St.

This was one of the earliest of these charters that would be granted in England, and definitely the cheekiest: imagine charging people to come into a rough area to look at some stalls of turnips and mead. Not only did Lord de Birmingham invent panhandling, it seems like he started the first farmers’ market.

Come to Birmingham, it’s yer money we’re after, baby.
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King Kong, Sex and The Americas

Discovery is subjective.

When Europeans discovered the Americas, they didn’t let indigenous races spoil their narrative: that continent was discovered and it would stay discovered, damn it.

They say that every generation of teenagers thinks it’s invented sex. The moment we become sexually active we reinvent the wheel (you ever tried it? I’d advise you stretch first) and simultaneously project our parents into a sexless hinterland (a bit like Telford, where fittingly Philip Larkin worked), denying them a sexual history despite being embodied evidence of it.

Brummies have an Americas: it’s the King Kong statue, a monument forever being discovered.

 

Photo by Paul Anderton
Photo by Paul Anderton

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One Mile Away

Four years ago I wrote this, a slightly hysterical but solid blog post about the film 1 Day. 1 Day is a grime musical starring actual members plucked from Birmingham’s rival gangs, the Burger Bar Boys and the Johnson Crew.

The article was written during a time where I was working in a Pupil Referral Unit in north Birmingham with kids that were gang members or vulnerable to them. The posts trepidation to the film coming out is an echo to my higher-ups absolute panic about the film which they (wrongly) thought would cause another spike in violence between these two gangs.

I eventually left the unit, and a large portion of me leaving was down to not being able to fully leave work at work, you get to know the kids and through that you are afforded small peeks into their worlds. Eventually this, and the sheer hard work it took to connect with them, wore me down.

The opportunity came for someone from PC to go watch a press screening of the documentary One Mile Away in which members of both gangs try to broker a truce through the director Penny Woolcock who became a trusted during the making of 1 Day. I couldn’t pass it up, so exhausted and still a little hungover from the weekend I dragged myself to Aston.

In a room that is normally used as a nursery I eat my chicken and drink urn brewed tea as three or four unassuming black guys mill around and press buttons on their laptops. We soon settle down and the documentary starts.

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Tag nuts

So I spoke to the Editor* about what to write about this week and he gave me this, probably to wind me up, which suggests that ten people are responsible for most of the graffiti in Brum. I knew my feelings on graff have been documented ad nauseum in other places. Also I find the weary ‘is it art?’ argument nonsensical and unhelpful and am at loathe to drag it out one more time. So, for once, I thought it would be good to give someone active in that world a chance to reply. The guy I spoke to didn’t want to be named so I haven’t.

What do you think of the thought that there only ten people responsible for the graffiti in Birmingham?

I doubt the council see it like this to be honest, I can imagine they have a wanted list a lot longer. But who knows. They will have probably whittled it down to their top ten targets who they have literally charted as the top ten. However what they don’t realise is that if your a “tagger” part of that concept is to get up. As many times as possible. More than anyone else. So in a way with this approach they may encourage some of them to go harder. Get to number 1. If they publish this list. Its possible there will even more tags on road then before… There’s so many factors involved its really hard to say.

Do you think you’re one of the ten?

No. I am probably about number 40. This might encourage me to work harder as I was just saying. No in reality I rarely “tag” these days and if I do I think about the size, the placement, the camera’s… The problem with a lot of the younger kids these days is they just write on anything, anywhere without thought. The whole problem with “tagging” itself, lies in there somewhere.

How about the fact that 10% of the city was ‘blighted’, is it a blight? Where do you think that figure comes from?

It’s a media figure. A bullshit figure. 10% of a city is a lot no? Maybe its 1% I just don’t really understand what they are trying to say there to be honest. It makes little sense. With regards the concept of “tagging” being a blight, in some respects yes it is, mainly due to what I was referring to in the previous question. A nicely placed, crafted, practices, hand-styled tag to me is beautiful. And people need to remember, all this scrawling and seemingly messy paint they see on the street are TAGS, Bombs… This is NOT “Graffiti Art” these are two separate entities. Although someone reading right now will cuss me for saying that.

Do you make a distinction between ‘good’ graff and ‘bad’ graff – where should toys learn if not on bus stops?

Good question. Half of the problem with “graffiti” in a broader sense is related to legal spaces and understanding of it as a culture. But hey, a bus stop is only a bus stop. It’s a public space. Its everyone’s isn’t it? Write what you want on it I say, but maybe just try and be positive with what that is. And maybe do write on a bus stop, but NOT on someone’s garage or garden fence, you know?

Is what you do an act of aggression against the city?

Not at all. Not for me. But for a lot of the angry youth of today maybe it is. Their way of marking their territory. But a lot of the tags in Brum, you might see in other places. Its not all about Brum, Its about the UK, the world for some of us. To a lot of older artists the street becomes their platform for freedom of speech. Sometimes that will be aggression towards an area, more often it will just be something they want to say. Anything from political messages about the system to a simple “I love you” to someone. We need some kind of freedom of speech out there. The street fills the gaps.

What would you suggest to answer the graff ‘problem’?

In Birmingham and in this current situation, the powers that be need to think about this whole thing in a bigger sense. They need to do their research; they need to watch films like Bomb It and Inside/outside. They need to communicate and reach out rather than trying to come down with an iron fist. With this heavy approach they will simply lose. Some of these younger writers (who I know will be in the top 5 say) some of them are angry young people with no other outlet. Like I said earlier a big top ten wanted list will probably just up the ante, up the potential fame. I remember years ago I “got up” on the front page of the local rag. I loved it. It was king of the town in certain circles.. top of the wanted list. I never got caught either. Fame.

Any thing else you want to add?

To all the bombers, taggers, dub writers, people, just try and think a little. Everyone gets drunk and smacks a tag where they shouldn’t sometimes, but just think a bit more about where your putting your name. And go paint a piece! A proper piece, somewhere out the way, take your photo’s and enjoy it. Its not all about getting up. Its much more fun than tagging a shop and running away from the police. To the establishment, as I said, do your research and try to understand this is a culture. Not just gang style youth’s going mental out there… for some of the kids, its all they have. A little empathy?

*when I say Editor, I of course mean Jon Bounds, but I like to think of him as my editor with a cigar in his mouth, cursing and shouting ‘GET ME PICTURES OF THE SPIDER-MAN’

The opinions of Danny Smith do not necessarily reflect the views of the publishers of this blog, its affiliates, or any sane adult human beings. He currently lives in your cupboard, watching, always watching.


Surge Domine et dissipentur inimici tui et fugiant qui oderunt te a facie tua*

Anglo-Saxon England was a horrible violent place with different kings and fiefdoms slaughtering for land, old gods, and, when the Danes landed, shits and giggles. Not unlike Newtown (except the bit about the Danes – I’ve never seen a Dane  in North Birmingham).

Another thing worth stabbing your neighbouring villagers up the arsehole for, was gold. Not the tatty mass produced Elizabeth Duke crap the third generation crack-babies are killing each other for at present. Beautiful, hand crafted gold unique items; normally it was used for decorating the weapons you yourself used to rob people for their gold, thus making you more attractive to rob. You can see why it escalated.

To keep it safe they buried it, and The Staffordshire Hoard was discovered last year in the West Midlands; if you mean the ‘West Midlands Region‘ which pretty much covers everything with buildings between London and Manchester.

Folks, we already live in a world where pirates in Somalia fight off big corporations dumping waste into the ocean. Now it seems that buried treasure is not just storybook fantasy but a possibility if you plough deep enough. The world is slipping into fiction; trust me it’ll be mermaids next.

So who owns it? Well according to The Treasure Act 1996, no I’m not making that up, it belongs to the landowner and the finder BUT English museums have first dibs because the Queen says so. The Art Fund working with Birmingham museum and a bunch of others are campaigning very hard to raise the 3.3 million pounds it has been valued at so they can keep it in the Midlands. This is typical Birmingham behaviour, many is the hour we brummies have spent in the pubs ‘claiming’ any favourite products events, or celebrities that are in some way connected to Birmingham, however tenuous.

“Led Zepplin?”

“We’re ‘avin em” we nod sagely

“Cluedo?” someone else will suggest

“we’re ‘avin it” everyone agrees

“Elvis?”

“Spent a lot of time in Alabama, that’s got a Birmingham. We’re ‘avin ‘im”

(By the way, its good to see that this tradition of claiming pseudo-brummies as our own has been carried on by Broad Street and its marvellously silly Walk Of Stars’)

The Art Fund campaign has garnered some attention from the likes of Brummie-when-it-suits-him Frank Skinner and probably-never-even-been-to-Birmingham-even-though-he’s-been-to-all-the-other-third-world-countries Michael Palin.

gold-arse

The campaign is to ’Save’ the Hoard, save it from what? Being stuffed into an envelope and smelted by cash4mysterioustresureofhistoricalsignificance.com? Do we really need to keep it in the midlands so badly? Do we think ‘The West Midlands’ was a region ruled by ancient warrior kings with spit in their beards and copious supplies of concubines an pork scratchings? Must we fight for their piggy legacy? Real history; it’s an artificial political region dreamt up by John Major (without doubt the least viking-ish PM ever).

Are we hoping for pre-dark ages artefact tourists? A quick look at Facebook reveals that the largest relevant group would probably be Anglo Saxon England and most of them seem to be rudderless English guys looking for some sort of cultural identity. Even if the combined membership of the first three pages of Anglo Saxon fans on facebook, rounded up to a generous 3,000 they would have to pay £1,100 each for the museum to break even.

Okay I’m being spurious but I’m still not convinced why we should care.

*the title taken from one of the inscriptions found one of the artefacts. Translated it means ‘Rise up, Lord; may Your enemies be scattered and those who hate You be driven from Your face.’ – ‘Those You Hate Be Driven From Your Face’ being the name of my autobiography.

The opinions of Danny Smith do not necessarily reflect the views of the publishers of this blog, its affiliates, or any sane adult human beings. He currently lives in your cupboard, watching, always watching.


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Danny Smith: Merry Winterval

For those of you whose memory has been damaged by brolly spokes entering your ear waiting for some lights to be switched on, Winterval was the blanket catch all name for a series of council ran events that included Eid, Christmas and New Year. That turned, with the help of some lazy journalism and right wing knee jerking, into BIRMINGHAM BANS CHRISTMAS. No doubt someone will bring this story out of the loft again this year, blow the dust off and string it about, Christ it been going since ’98, it’s almost a tradition. Do you remember it now? When Birmingham became a laughing stock because we had chosen to be inclusive and tolerant? Pah! Who would want that?

Certainly not the church, when the Winterval shit storm was kicking off the shit was so deep that young children were sledding down hills on it while their dads toiled away clearing the path and the church were quick to condemn it. The Church of England leaders disgusted accusing the council of ‘trying to take the Christ out of Christmas’. So what business does the big JC have being in Christmas after all? When you look at the facts (although they won’t, facts are like kryptonite) Christmas was around way before Christ.

Firstly shepherds watching their flock at night, people sleeping in barns etc. Do you have any idea how cold it gets at night in the middle east? In winter, the shepherds would be dead and Joseph would have to chip the lord Christ incarnate from the virgins frozen womb. No, the early sellers of the Christian myth placed his date of birth on an already popular pagan festival, the Winter Solstice, or, depending on who you read, a Roman celebration that was around the same time.
I think it takes more front than Brighton to come from a religion that used its power to dominate and change an already existing festival with the intention of pushing a religion and then complain when a council does the same thing for the reasons of showing consideration for other cultures. (Even though, as mentioned before, they didn’t, the story is nonsense.)

So what else is Christian? Tree in the house? Germanic version of a pagan tradition. Decorations? Roman. St Nick? Surely St Nick must be Christian, he’s a saint for crying out loud!? Nope sorry, Norse god with a Christian name. Sitting in a cold church singing dreary hymns being threatened to be good by a man with an invisible, needy boss? Yep, well, you got me there.

So if you do take the Christ out of Christmas what have you got left? All the fun stuff Except no more midnight mass, or ridiculously inaccurate nativity plays. And St Nick would be a one eyed, Norse bastard called Odin riding an eight legged horse and throwing presents down the chimney like missiles. No turning the other cheek for him, so next time the Bishop of Birmingham climbs atop his puny four legged high horse and makes noises he has no right to make in the first place or someone jabs you in the ear because they think its perfectly reasonable to carry a umbrella round an uncomfortably packed German Market. Kick em in the balls and tell them that the real Santa Claus told you to.