Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Where the Iron Heart of England....

Growing up in Birmingham (or at least going to school there) as I did, you quickly got used to the fact that most of the rest of the country tried to act like the city didn't exist.

Birmingham was perennially the "flyover" city - on the way to everywhere, but a place that people knew nothing about, except New Street Station, Spaghetti Junction, and *that* accent. I say that accent, what most people think is the Birmingham accent is actually that of the Black Country. Birmingham's is a wee bit softer. Paul Anderson, as Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders, nails it.

The problem was always that Birmingham was good at too many things. The workshop of the world, or city of a thousand trades, never had one identity around which its reputation could coalesce. It was never the capital of coal, the city of steel or cottonopolis. That's not to say that it lacked major employers, between them Cadbury, Austin and the BSA employed enough for a small city by themselves. Just that it was always the city of artisans - which it remains today in areas like the Jewellery Quarter.

And because it was good at too many things, it was a target for the Luftwaffe. Birmingham suffered in the war, and then suffered after the war when the city fathers decided to remake Birmingham in the image of Detroit. Britain's motown. This perhaps reached it's apex in the promotional film Telly Savalas Looks at Birmingham. I'm not making this up, look on YouTube. Allegedly Kojak phoned in his performance from a studio, and never visited the city he extolled. Remember that as you hear him wax lyrical about the disco dancing competition in Cannon Hill Park...

By the 1990s it was rather battered, bloody but unbowed. The outdoor escalators of the Bull Ring were mildewed, the Electric Cinema (Britain's oldest) was reduced to showing the more "interesting" end of the cinemascape, and New Street station was a dark, cavernous hole in the ground. There had been the odd attempt to break out of the grimness, Symphony Hall was a triumph, and a great setting for Simon Rattle's CBSO before he took himself off to Berlin. Then there was the ICC, with it's bridge that wasn't quite wide enough (allegedly), and the turn of the century development of Brindley Place.

Personally, I think fortunes turned with the publication of Jonathan Coe's hymn to Birmingham, The Rotters Club. I'm not sure why that should be, but I went off to university and devoured Coe's depiction of the 1970s, and a school I knew very well, then came back to discover that the city had finally had the rockets put under it. The new Bullring may be a temple of shopping, but it is a supremely intelligent. light and airy bit of architecture. Selfridges is like something that has landed from another planet. The good thing throughout is that the bombs and the 60s planners made a lot of central Birmingham a blank canvas for architectural experimentation. You don't have to like the new buildings, but these days it's rare that anything worthwhile has been demolished to create the space for them.

This trend is likely to continue. Railway enthusiasts mourn the loss of the Euston arch, and the other buildings of the great terminus of the London and Birmingham railway. Well HS2, if it ever gets built is going to breathe new life into the terminus at the other end. Curzon Street still stands, isolated in the wasteland of an abandoned marshalling yard. If you go and look round it on the rare open days you find a building comparable to the best Georgian industrial architecture of the nation's dockyards. Stone faced, sweeping stairs, light and airy, Curzon Street is an unlikely and forgotten survivor and it's about time more was made of it.

Of course, there have been casualties along the way. The 1930s saw the start of the trend of civic vandalism with the destruction of Barry and Pugin's King Edward's School in New Street (although these days, I suppose, King Edward's House which replaced it is worthy of a preservation order itself). It was by the time of demolition utterly unfit as a school building (the school itself relocated very successfully to Edgbaston) but you can't help but feel that they wouldn't demolish it now.

More recently we've seen the destruction of the Central Library, which wasn't to everyone's taste but stood as an example of the best brutalism you're likely to see. I even supported those who wanted to list it as a warning to the future if it would save the damn thing but it wasn't to be.

Birmingham now stands on the threshold of a new age. The West Midlands region, with it's own mayor is waiting in the wings, and this should be the opportunity for Brummies to seize back control of their destiny.

They're a quiet lot, the people of Birmingham, but they know what they're doing. They don't need the glitz and glamour of the brash northern upstarts like Manchester or Leeds to know who they are and where they're going. The Second City is back.

1 comment:

  1. I used to go to the Electric Cinema all the time in the 90s. It was ace! The 'more "interesting" end of the cinemascape' that I took in there included films by the Coen brothers, John Waters, Billy Wilder and Robert Bresson. I went back in the 00s after a renovation ("Son of Rambow"). Sure, it wasn't so shabby, but it only showed movies that were on general release, which kinda defeated the point.