Go West! The Bearwood Question

Welcome to Birmingham (you're leaving Bearwood)

The Bearwood Question is an idea I coined a while back when writing about local media policy – but bear with me it’s much more interesting than that!

Bearwood is a lovely area of the West Midlands that I’ve lived in a number of times. It sits across a local authority border and manages to not quite be in Sandwell and not quite be in Birmingham. When I lived there I looked to Sandwell for local government (well, if I’m honest mostly for bin collections and street lights), and to Birmingham for my cultural and social life. To all intents and purposes I was living in Brum, but I was paying a much more favourable rate of council tax for those street lights than I would have been just down the road. It was like living under some sort sort of flag of convenience or being a council tax exile. This is the reality of life on Brum’s fuzzy edge, and it speaks, I think, to our tendency to argue with ourselves about place: we are pulled in various directions through a tension of civic, emotional and cultural life.

Years back over one weekend two hashtag games emerged on Twitter that were based on this sense of place. #brumsouvenirs revolved around wordplay on Birmingham place names; the aim to come up with a souvenir idea that reflected the place name (the game was originated by Pete Ashton, who collected the greatest hits on his blog). The second game was #doesntmeanyourbrummie (sic), started as a response to the #doesntmeanyourblack meme (see, the grammar is fine, it’s part of the joke); this tag was about uniquely Brummie experiences.

Each game threw up border disputes pretty quickly, such as:

  • “faggots come from the Black Country” (if you’re not a midlander this is OK to say)
  • “chips and gravy is a Black Country thing” (not a Brummie thing)
  • “Great Barr is in Walsall” (so not Birmingham)
  • “can we do Wolverhampton?”
  • “why is everyone OK with Bearwood, when that’s mostly in Sandwell?” (see above)

I once proposed a Birmingham update to Godwin’s Law. Godwin’s Law is an Internet adage that states:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

To that end I suggested a Brummie’s Law (I’m not naming it after myself):

As an online discussion about Birmingham grows longer, the probability of a boundary dispute approaches 1.

At the heart of Brummie’s Law sits the Bearwood Question, the quintessential distillation of the city’s fuzzy edges: what does local mean if you live in Bearwood?

Editor’s note: yes essentially this was a “flashback episode” made to pad out the series cheaply – we hope you’ve enjoyed our City Limits edition. Oh what you don’t know what we mean? Well go here and see!

Pic: Welcome to Birmingham sign, Bearwood / Sandwell Border – CC Elliot Brown. Elliot notes there is no welcome to Sandwell on the other side. Still, the council tax is much cheaper.

Look, up, look East

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:

[polldaddy poll=”7637852″]


If you feel you would like some discussion, then here’s a video:
Continue reading “Look, up, look East”

South, pacific

Bournville Maypole: The Stage is Set

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.

Continue reading “South, pacific”

North by North West Midlands

Typical northern architecture

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.

Pic: Chapel, Watford Gap, cc Antony Dixon

Nr. Birmingham

The Birmingham / Sutton Coldfield border

My wife’s great aunt* was born and raised in Sutton Coldfield. Growing up between the wars she and her siblings saw Sutton grow and change a great deal, eventually becoming officially part of Birmingham in the 1970s. The last letter she wrote to us when we lived in Erdington was, as was all of her correspondence, addressed to “…Johnson Road, Erdington, Nr. Birmingham”.

Sutton has never got over the idea that the edge of Brum moved from the Chester Road, B23 to Rosemary Hill Road, B74.

*Watch out for autocorrect on that one.


Five things that I miss now that I don’t live in Birmingham

Two years ago this week we lost the vote (Birmingham lost if I may be so bold) on giving the city an elected mayor,  I got on a train to Bristol that night and haven’t really been back since for work, lovelife, miscellaneous reasons. I visit, and talk to people that live there and do stuff for this site, so the concept of Birmingham weighs heavy in my part of ideaspace (ideaspace can be compared to Jung’s ‘Collective Unconscious‘, or Dawkins’ memes). I’m unlikely to forget King Kong, or discover him again myself, but there are limits to how much the representation of a place in our collective unconscious can be held by just one person.

To that end I am recording these things I miss here, a memetic hope chest for a lost living space, with a view to reconsumating at some point in the future:

Continue reading “Five things that I miss now that I don’t live in Birmingham”

How Brummie are you? Quiz

There are physical limits on the city, but what are the limits to being counted as her son or daughter?

Londoners negotiate their rights to belong through the soundscape of their districts: born within Bow Bell’s peel and you’re a bona fide cockney, anywhere else you’re just mockney. Northerners can define themselves by pies and places named after cakes. If you weren’t at the Sex Pistols gig at the Free Trade Hall then you’re not from Manchester, which is okay as pretty much everyone was there. These are complex rules and systems, and we distrust them. Of course we do for we are BRUMMIES. And what defines us? It’s not space, time, or seminal music experiences. It’s wanting to be here or from here.

As Mayoral Candidate Emeritus Siôn Simon said


It is the best kind of club: something that is worth being part of, which anyone who wants to can join, just by wishing it.

If you feel you belong here, you’re a Brummie. If you’re proud of this place, with all its kinks and wrinkles, you’re a Brummie. If you want to be a Brummie, you are. It’s a simple as that.


You can be a Brummie if you want to be. You can be born and shot in Pakistan and be the quintessential Brummie. You can be from Kiddy and pass it off. You can be what you want to be. Just don’t tell anyone, that’s not what we do.

We were going to make a quiz, but then we realised you’re all too modest to tell anyone.



We’ve tested you and your result is:

You can be a Brummie if you want to be.

Tweet your result ** Share on Facebook.

City Limits

280 Stops eBook_ Jon Bounds, Adam Juniper, Leonardo Morgado, Danny Smith, Ben Waddington, Ben Whitehouse, Jon Hickman_ Amazon.co.uk_ Kindle Store

How do you find the edges of a city, the limits on its space and imagination? You could draw a map and give it borders, put one thing in, one thing out (and shake it all about). You could give it a centre and let its gravity draw people to call it home. The bigger the city the heavier the mass the stronger the pull. Keep going until its pull ends and you find the event horizon, the tipping point where we move from belonging to one place and start to belong to another, where our accents change and we have a different name for a bread roll to the people down the road.

Or you can plan a bus route, an audacious bus route that describes the outer limits. The outer circle, the edge of reason, a big route around it all. The bigger your global heart the bigger the circle you’d need. Birmingham has an outer circle, and yet it’s an outer circle that sits well within the city limits and also bleeds into other places and captures stray objects that want to be pulled into its sphere of influence. The 11 Bus runs rings around Brum and cuts through Solihull and Sandwell for good measure. Who lives on this edge? What are they doing or thinking? Last year we found out with a short story called 280 Stops – it tells the story of 11 people on the 11 bus using maths for reasons that will become apparent if you read it.

To celebrate 11 Bus Day, and to kick off a new issue of Paradise Circus in which we will pick at Brum’s frayed edge we have published 280 Stops as a Kindle ebook. Kick back, relax and ride with us.