More revealing than the Kerslake Report

Library Story: a history of Birmingham Central Library by Alan Clawley

“I read book once,” says Mr Heslop — played by Brian Glover — in Porridge, “green it was.” And I’m fairly sure if the green book Mr Heslop had read was on architecture or morality then it was one more book than any of the people involved in the decision to demolish John Madin’s Birmingham Central Library have ever skimmed.

I’ve just read a book, called Library Story, by long time campaigner for the library Alan Clawley — which is nothing more than heartbreaking as it reveals how influence and patronage rips through the city, how the cosy collusion of the media — it’s a small town, after all — allows scrutiny to be sidelined. And it shows just how decisions are taken, and defended against logic.

What the book isn’t is a book about the building, or really about about the history of its use. It moves very quickly from construction and opening to the campaign to prevent demolition. But that campaign, doggedly and determinedly helmed by the author reveals more about decision making in Birmingham than anything the Kerslake Report has done, and more than a million council consultation events will ever do.

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Brutal, beautiful, battered: we’re losing the war for our soul


The demolition of Madin’s Library is victory for cliché and gormless ‘opinion’. A triumph of pluralistic ignorance, with the blood on the hands of an unimaginative fourth estate who sleepwalked with what passes for a second round these parts into an act of pointless vandalism.

Karl Marx developed a theory of what’s now called creative destruction: he postulated that capitalism needs continual cycles of devaluation or destruction in order to clear the ground for the creation of new wealth. As Stereolab explain, this is often by recession or war — but in our local context neglect and bogus ‘civic renewal’ serve the purpose. Capitalism has won over beauty, and the cheers of the braying classes as the thin exterior is punctured celebrate the powerlessness of all under money’s rule.

It is a war, a war for history and the public realm. The casualty of this war is beauty. The collateral damage the psyche and soul of the city.

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Satirical Cartoon: 2014 in review

A very wide fish-eye lens ‘shot’ of Centenary Square and Chamberlain Square – this is a big New Year double page spread, ‘a year in Kerslake review’ if you will, a bonus for all fans of our satirical cartoons.

Outside the new library there is a group of people protesting with ‘Save the Library’ placards, they are chanting ‘No to the cuts’. Malala Yousafzai is holding her Nobel prize, which has her name and what it is on the plaque, and leading the protest.

A fat man who may be Eric Pickles (wearing a badge that announces who he is, and carrying a big pair of scissors labeled ‘cuts’) is hiding in a Trojan wheelie bin, and being pushed inside the council house by someone with a Ukip rosette. They both wear flat caps with razor blades in.

Outside the old library there is a group of people protesting with ‘Save the Library’ placards. A man swings a wrecking ball. He has a bunch of papers sticking out of his pocket – they say ‘Kerslake Review: Council are crap’ on them.

One man with a box brownie camera is trying to film everything, spinning around. He has a tabard that identifies him as working for City TV. Another man in a hat that says ‘Press’ is not watching anything but is taking notes with a pencil on a pad, while reading Paradise Circus on a laptop.

A man in a suit stands in the centre of the cartoon, talking to another man in a suit. The one man has a ‘Leader of the Council’ badge, he says: “I haven’t seen so many people since the Police and Crime Commissioner election.”

The caption reads: “Forward.”

It’s 2am and there’s only Baileys left

You can be fashionably late to a party – arriving after the nominal start, when everyone is warmed up and in the swing of things, lubricated by the richest pickings from the drinks table, kitchen counter, or bath full of ice. But you can also arrive unfashionably late, when people are tiring, feeling jaded, and all that’s left to drink is a two year old bottle of Bailey’s.

I’m unfashionably late to the Library of Birmingham. Like a pub worker who had to clean down then jump in a taxi to catch the last hurrah of the night, I come to the LoB three weeks later, making a metaphorical 2am appearance at its launch party. The bunting and the zany have all gone. The spectacles that caught the lenses of the media and the instagrammers have slunk off, leaving the library naked with only its truth to present to me.

The foyer has the feel of an airport terminal, with desks for the checking-in (and out), escalators that promise to pull you up into the business end of things and a bespoke unbranded eatery that offers generic options at air-side prices. The only way is up, and I’m pulled into the feature rotunda that I’ve heard so much about. It reminds me of Waterstones in the Pavilions centre, the area which was sort of modelled to make it feel like a library. I feel these two design conceits clash – the bookshop like a library, the library like a bookshop – and I’m lost for a moment to make sense of where I am, what this is for. I’m jostled by a group taking photographs. I move on to find a place where I can work.

I found that Central Library was a wonderful place to read, study and write; Central’s work area, with its bashed up desks, was unambiguous and surprisingly user friendly. You had a chair, a light, a plug and you were insulated from the outside world – buried in the centre of walls of books, hidden from the light and the view. The LoB works the other way, throwing you out from its centre to sit in brightly lit study areas in gallery windows that throw attention not onto the job in hand but onto Birmingham. I’m Goldilocks now, trying to find a seat: this area is too hot, this private study room has no clear booking rules, but this area, at the back, is just right. I look out onto tower blocks and concrete car parks and I get a glimpse of Paradise Circus. The LoB is a reaction to those things, a rejection of that vision of a city and yet in truth she is hemmed in by them. For now.

Another thing, there’s an edge here that I’m not used to. Phones go off, bodies stiffen. There are sighs, people obviously relocating to remove themselves from disruptions. I see an argument developing about a booked computer even though others are available. There’s clearly an old library crowd (am I amongst them?) and a new one, and they are still finding ways to accommodate one another. All of them are learning the building, and the building is learning all of them. Soon the building will have to react to them. 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. The LoB will be all the better for that. It needs a few scratches, knocks and dents, it needs to become less popular, less of a destination, before it can do its job.

Embarrassing Public Bodies

I don’t think I’ve ever taken a book out of the Central Library in Birmingham, nor used one for reference. I’m not really a library person. I used to copy CDs from there like everybody did before mp3s, and I’ve wondered around looking at the shelves, breathing the mites and the refreshing book dust. I’ve stroked the static and brushed the peeling selotape from the yellowing computers by the escalators. I’ve been frustrated by trying to use the photocopiers, toying with the intense flaccidity of the coin reject button.

I’ve done pretty much everything it’s possible to do in a library. And, like a good boy, I’ve done it all quietly.

But the prime function, no. While I love words I have an old fashioned compunction to own them. Imagine being in love with a story and having to give it away to be intimate with others who maybe wouldn’t love it as wisely and well. A library is nothing but a fountainhead of potential heartbreak. And Central Library had the potential to be the worst.

Central Librray

So maybe I shouldn’t care about what’s happening to Central Library: but I love the building, I love the size and the shape, I love the angles and the implausibility. I love the incongruity and placement most of all. Where-ever you stand it’s not possible to get straight on to its parallel lines. So whatever your view the building flows away from you, meeting at a horizonal distance, pointing toward the future and the past.

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Shelf sacrifice

The thing about anywhere you consider ‘home’ is that you never really start considering it that way until it’s not there any more.

Walking into Central Library on its last day I found it devoid of books, mostly partitioned off, infused with dour atmosphere and dotted with cheap furniture. It looked for all the world like a second world abortion clinic. And it felt like being punched in the back of the head.

But even then walking out of the doors—knowing it’ll be the last time—bought a lump to my throat the size of a child’s fist.

Sometimes home is stolen gradually. Changes adding up slowly between each visit until you look around one quiet afternoon and wonder where the fuck you are and who these fucking people are anyway.

Other times you’re standing outside the charred remains of the club that defined your young adult life noticing that even days later the heap that was Edward’s Number 8 is still kicking off heat and smells like Bonfire Night.

Being dyslexic meant that learning to read was difficult. But my mum not only more than prepared me for school, she sparked a love of reading that meant I quickly burnt through the children’s section of the local library. Then, because I was a regular in there, the adult section. So I was allowed on the bus to go to the other local libraries. And when I had inhaled the contents of those, my parents relented to my nagging and allowed me to go to the Central Library.

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So farewell then Central Library…

 So. Farewell
Central Library

John Madin’s ziggurat
You were a huge
With books in.

But that was not
Your only purpose.

You stood for
Ambition and
Birmingham’s ideals.

But you weren’t
Or “iconic”,
So the philistines
Pulled you



E J Thribb (40 years into a 100 year lifespan)


Heard it through the…

Brian Homer and the Central Library edition of Grapevine

Grapevine was a community newspaper established in the 1970s. Launched in Handsworth, it masqueraded as a listings magazine (to encourage readership) but was conceived as a space which could address the gap in coverage of community issues in the city. Looking back at projects like this remind us that the issues that Birmingham’s burgeoning hyperlocal scene are engaging with are not new, and that their work is part of an ongoing canon of alternative media work. It’s worth folk looking back over this history to make the links.

The team who published Grapevine went on to develop a range of other community media projects including the Handsworth Self Portrait.

Pictured is Grapevine’s Brian Homer with an edition of the magazine that highlighted the controversy around library redevelopment projects some 40 years ago – another issue which resonates within contemporary Birmingham. To read their coverage of the Birmingham Central Library, see the digitised pages in the Scribd viewer below.

Grapevine 73 by Brian Homer

The Stirrer has a time-bending review of Grapevine’s final issue if you’d like to get a sense of what the magazine was about.

You can also look inside

On a clear morning you can see forever. As long as forever is the tower blocks of Perry Barr being pushed into the centre by the surrounding hills, as long as forever is the take away detritus huddling against itself and the kerbs of Broad Street, as long as forever is taken to mean Alpha Tower not angular enough against the skyline.

You can also look inside.


Sabres of Paradise

Fans of vague marketing talk and transparent attempts to make the public feel as they’re in control really should head over to and marvel at the property developments Argent.

Apparently Argent and the Birmingham City Council have an ‘exclusivity agreement’ and if that brings to mind the result of an awkward conversational from a couple of Uni friends that have been occasionally drunkingly ending up in bed together, then you wouldn’t be far wrong. Argent and The Council have promised not to see other people, but on the promise that Argent phone their mates and check they don’t mind. The ‘mates’ in this analogy are us and the phone call they have promised to make is the website, its feedback forms and a small presentation they made in Paradise Forum.

I went to this ‘public exhibition’ which consisted of all the different pages of that web site on four-foot banner posters and collection of smarmy PR drones, I believe the collective noun of which is a ‘toss’. Not so much an exhibition as a talking down to. These guys talked in non-committal terms about improving the ‘flow’ of pedestrian traffic from Victoria Square to what’s behind it. Now, considering what’s behind it is/will be the library they are having to build because of the redevelopment, the exhibition centres and Broad Street, the question is do we really want to improve traffic? That is if its mainly going to consist of bored business tourists looking for lap dancing clubs and red faced Broad Street louts spewing WKD vomit like sprinklers? Or should we actually dig deep trenches filled with flaming tar and post irritable machine gunners every fifteen yards.

OK I’m being facetious, but if improved pedestrian flow is one of the major concerns — do we really think that having to walk through an enclosed shopping area is such a barrier? Are blank-faced pastel people drinking coffee in a way no English person actually does going encourage this flow? And could we not just put up better signs?

This stock photo ridden example is the most patronising and indicative of the vagueness of said drones. Hilariously suggesting that shops cafés or bars could move in, exactly like Argent’s other development, Brindleyplace. Only this time all the major bar, café and restaurant brands are already represented in Birmingham, and in this economic climate nobody is opening those sorts of businesses any more – just look at Broad Street, where nearly every other unit is a gutted smeared window, a tombstone to another dream dying.

After a while of looking at the site you notice how the entire text of its prefaced with words like ‘possible’ and ‘potential’ Is this because they so really want to avoid giving away the dirty reality? They’ve already decided what’s going to be done, and nothing will change that.

Not even protesting.

I was born in 79 so I grew up with Thatcher smashing the unions and images of policemen beating up picket lines, by the time I was a teenager student protest had become a bad cliché, and as an adult saw the biggest civil protest this country has ever saw roundly ignored as we were taken to war. So sure, email your opinion if it’ll make you feel better and part of the process, that’s what it’s there for.

In fact that’s the only reason it is there.

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.