Monday 10 March 2008

Beautiful Birmingham, The Jewel of The Midlands

England isn't about the sound of cricket on the green, district nurses riding bicicycles through the countryside and pints of mild.
If John Major really thought that, no wonder they laughed him out of office.

It's not the England we live in. Maybe it does exist somewhere, but not round here.
And I really wouldn't want to live in that England.

They say the Midlands has no soul. It hasn't the distinctive identity of the north, it is the south, but without the ostentatious wealth.
It is the true England.

London is still, in many ways, not just the capital of the UK, it is one of the capitals of the world; New York, London, Paris, Tokyo. The cities that matter.
Manchester basks in its new cool, Liverpool is- well, Liverpool. The northern towns thrive in their regeneration.

But Birmingham never needed to regenerate, it quickly changed from the workshop of the world into a commercial centre for the future.
Those outside the Midlands deride it as a soulless city of glass and concrete, they shun the Midlands as a wasteland of business parks, industrial estates, out of town shopping centres, executive housing estates and dreary motorway service stations.

I actually live in a satellite town, just outside the city. Well, it calls itself a town, about thirty thousand people live here, but it's a village to me. The town centre is little more than a glorified shopping mall.

Those of the population who don't commute, either work on the industrial estate- which only exists primarily because of its motorway connection to the city, or they work in the handful of shops. Or they don't work. The 'town' has a couple of quite large council estates, which earn the town the sobriquet 'Browntown', an allusion to the high rate of heroin addiction in the town.

It's a satellite village, a dormitory. It orbits Brum, as the Earth orbits the Sun, and would die without it. I work in the city centre, I shop in the city centre, I go out on Friday night in the city centre. In fact, I always have done. I've not always lived here, but I have always worked, shopped, and gone clubbing in the city.

I have always lived in, or outside the city, and my life has always focussed on it.

I guess this affects my perspective. The West Midlands is a huge urban structure, and in my view, a highly successful one. It WORKS.

Everything really orbits Birmingham, but some of the places within its orbit are large enough in their own right, if you're not used to populated regions.
Wolverhampton and Coventry both exceed 200,000 people, though I don't really think of them as cities in the proper sense of the word.

It's to do with amenities- they don't have them, because they don't need them.

The Black Country is an amazing phenomenon in some ways, completely incomprehensible to those outside the region. Look at a map, and unless you can see the local authority boundaries, it seems like a vast urban sprawl tacked on to the western edge of the city. That's deceptive.
The Black Country accent bears no ressemblance to the Brummie accent, an accent that actually penetrates out to satellite towns like this, identifying them as firmly within the Birmingham orbit. Brummies sound like Jasper Carrot (watch this clip, he's bang on!), Yam Yams (The Black Country locals), sound like Noddy Holder.

I sound a TINY bit like Jasper Carrot (it's much more hidden, in my case). I sound NOTHING like Noddy Holder.

And the Black Country, for all its urban appearance, is country. Just because there is no country between the towns, doesn't mean that it isn't a conglommeration of small, former industrial towns, with small town mentality.
A million people live in Birmingham.
Another million live in the Black Country. They live in Walsall, Wolverhampton, Dudley, West Bromwich, Smethwick, Oldbury, Wednesbury, Rowley Regis, Tipton, Bilston, Brierley Hill, Coseley, Sedgeley, Tettenhall, Wednesfield, Darlaston, Willenhall, Cannock.

It's like the valleys of South Wales, you can't really tell where one town ends and another begins, but the locals know.

Commuter land stretches out further, to Telford, to Stafford, to Warwick, to Worcester, the road and rail links create a vast spider on the map, Birmingham really is the beating heart of this vast human megastructure, the life's blood of maybe three million people, all told.

Commuter land is the land I grew up in, a land where fresh business parks, fresh retail parks, new housing estates appear annually, with the inevitability of the change in seasons.

Somewhere beyond, lies the real countryside, but it is not home to me.
For so many of my generation it isn't.
The countryside is a place with no pavements which stinks of manure.

There's nothing wrong with the countryside, I don't mind visiting it, a day in Broadway (Cotswold flagship village par excellence), a toasted tea cake in Ye Olde English Tea Shoppe, a pint in a pub full of other day tripping suburbanites, a wander through antique map shops, but I wouldn't fancy lingering after dark. God knows what they get up to in these places.

I look at the people who live there and their lives and attitudes are alien to me. The fact is, they live lives that are as relevant to the life I know, as the lives of Icelandic fishermen. They live outside the metropolitan infrastructure. They live in a Microcosm, a sheltered world.

In their world, it is normal to see a ruminant Artiodactyl.
In mine, it's normal to see people from ethnic groups other than your own.

I wouldn't go near the first, they wouldn't go near the second.
In my world, it's normal to sleep with the second, in theirs...
Enough said.

Urban life is often played down, but really, it's the most amazing triumph of human living.
Systemised living, is urban living. Making cities work, is working towards progress.

I guess many people, like me, try to have the best of all worlds. We're put off inner city living, because of the gang warfare, the poverty, the drive by shootings, the prospects of our children in inner city schools. But it's defeatist, because those problems will only fester and follow us out to the suburbs.

We choose to work in cities like Birmingham, because that's where the real opportunities are, Birmingham is alive and kicking. And I think that's true everywhere. If you're working in a city with a population of less than half a million, there's a limit to how far you'll go.

We choose to shop in cities like Birmingham, because that's where the choice is. Why would you want to go to an HMV, with only one floor? If you're like me, you want to spend an hour browsing.

We choose to socialise in cities like Birmingham, because it's more cosmopolitan. In many ways it's more tolerant. Who wants to go out in a place without choice? Birmingham has Broad Street, Digbeth, Chinatown, it has comedy clubs, dance clubs (of all types), straight clubs, gay clubs, black-oriented clubs, theatres, multi-screen cinemas- everything. Whoever you are, there's a place for you in Brum.
You need to live in, or live near a reasonably sized city to get that.

City life really is BETTER life.
We know it, which is we try to bask in their glory, but stick our homes at safe distance. Outside the city boundaries in the 'green' belt.

We need to sort this out really.

Inner city living, is of two kinds, live in a ghetto, or live in ridiculously priced city centre apartments.

Quite how we reclaim our cities, is a major twenty first century social problem.

But I think we'll do it.
We need to.

Because our cities are our cultural hubs, our centres of innovation, of forward thinking, it is in our cities that the best our species has to offer is to be found.
How sad, it currently also shares that with the worst.

But I have faith in a glittering future of glass and concrete, and I believe that here, in the Heart of England, here, in the former workshop of the world, we are doing what we can to show the way.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting post Crushed.

I've always been a city person and Vancouver is the smallest city I've lived in.

Of course we have to remember that the city only works because the country people exist and support it. You can't eat concrete and glass.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I've been such a poor commenter, Crushed. I've been madly busy, I'm afraid.

I love when people give a glimpse as to what the true nature of a particular city is-- because they all have a specific type of soul, which sometimes is easier or harder to excavate.

Anonymous said...

(1) While I've heard that industrial and port cities were rather rough, at least back in the day, I didn't realize they were rife with drive-bys and the like. That sort of stuff seemed fairly, well, American.

While I can imagine ghettos there, I wonder how they would compare to others around the world.

(2) Birmingham is one of the few major cities that I didn't see in England. Sounds like a worthwhile trip just to see the progress made.

Anonymous said...

Haha! Funny post allright - you nice looking or not? Maybe come right by make sexy times by the by? I invite you to come eats by me many times a day do I!?

Anonymous said...

jmb- I don't think many of those living in the UK countryside work in traditional agricultural occupations. From what I can see, most of the actual countryside is owned by insurance companies and devoted to oilseed rape. It's hard for farmers in the UK to make a profit these days. We grow too much food in Europe, and it's not possible to do it profitably here.

Cresecenet- It loks a good site, but my Spanish is limited.

Princess P- Brum does have a soul, but people often don't see it.
We're a forward looking city who have risen above a lot of potential social problems, and we haven't needed help to do so.
It's probably one of the most cosmpolitan regions of the UK, plus of course, one of the most dynamic.

X-dell- I'm afraid a lot of it is American influence. Gand culture is a real problem, and in parts of the city, vis. Aston, Nechells, Washwood Heath, it has spiralled out of control. Gun crime is rife, and whilst we're not on a London scale yet (27 gang members shot in the last year), shootings are not uncommon in Brum.

These are real gehettoes. Handsworth is the name that springs to mind outside Brum, because of the riots in the 80s, but actually Handsworth isn't that bad.

Birmingham is the most ethnically diverse of UK cities. It is estimated in a few years there won't be an ethnic majority in the city. But we seem to deal with that in quite a grown up way.

Mu Tai- Just let me know when, I'll be ready!

Anonymous said...

Interesting . . .

I've spent my life in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast sections of the North American continent . . .

Western New York, Upstate New York, Central Pennsylvania, the Delmarva Peninsula, and Northern New England . . .

Mostly rural and small town areas . . . in the mountains or at the beach . . .

Portland, Maine is the coolest city I've ever lived near . . . and Vancouver, BC is the coolest city I've visited . . .

Who knows where the journey will take me next . . .

Anonymous said...

Well you know where I live, Ingsoc and what it's like here. I'm glad we picked a town which is fairly vibrant and I can make an ass of myself in the local pub and not be remembered - any smaller a town and this would be difficult.

Up until recently I had been a London boy born and bred (a true Cockney) and it's been a difficult transition. I still prefer being next to London on reflection. I miss it's racial diversity though it was immigration which precipitated my move. I think that Tony Blair has spoiled what was good about cosmopolitan Britain by abandoning border controls so I fled. Wrong thing to have done (partly because everywhere is affected now) but that's in the past now.

I have no problem with free flow of people but Tuscan Tony reveals here why I can't wax lyrical about immigration in Britain anymore. It's mostly because our welfare and healthcare have been put up for grabs and I'm expected to foot the bill:

"Like the elements and their compounds, innocuous things sometimes combine to create pure poison. Disparate wealth between countries matters not one hoot if one has to pay one's way in one's wealthy host country.

Where the wheels come off is where a welfare state is set up to benefit anyone living in that wealthy space, and cheap air travel and unrestricted movement of people allow incoming non-contributors to dip their ladles deep and often into the largesse. Further, a large State whose principal self-created role is scum-farming (i.e. whatever bluster it puts up, its favourite clients are mainly the drones: after all, why would a self-determining populace neeed a large state?) clearly will want as many of pointless societal dog-ends (e.g. Ken Livingstone supporters) about the place as possible to supply them with their raw material - disfunctional and inadequate people that they can feed, water, and harvest.

The Tuscan is 100% in favour of the free movement of populations (anything else would be - and is - open to abuse), but only once social housing is switched off and once the welfare state is rolled back to a bare minimum (Can't afford to live here? Fine, sunshine, buzz off back to Eritrea, then).

The current situation is of an unfenced but wealthy property in the middle of a favela, with the garden filled with open hampers of food and money for all to see. Who can blame the favella-dwellers from beating a path to all that free grub 'n cash?

Not such fun for the hardworking providers of the garden and the hampers, though."
(Tuscan Tony)

Anonymous said...

How can you not call Wolverhampton a city?? At about 200,000 people I'd say that was a fair bit bigger than a town!

No village on earth consists of 30,000 people.

It sounds as if really there should be a bit more greenery down there. It seems a very barren place.

Anonymous said...

My memories of Birmingham are the M5 and M6, the bus station at 4am and not too much else. Very big and concrety. My dad lives in Hereford and goes to Birmingham to buy wood for his cellos and violins that he is making.

Interesting post.

Anonymous said...

Oceanshaman- I think New York and New England are still the most similar bits of the US, to the UK. I often think this when watching US Television. Even the modern buildings, are more similar to the way we build. Boston, I think, especially so- it looks very like an English city.

E-K- I think there is the other end of the problem though. We keep asking how to keep them out, not why they come.
Our part of the world is so much more pleasant to live in, because we have a developed infrastructure, and efficient systems of production and distribution. But the labour of the whole world went into that.

We forget, we are reaping what our forefathers sowed.

Oestrebunny- Littlehampton, West Sussex. Technically a village, population, 30,000 :)

It's not a very green part of the country, no. Not many parks in Brum, except we the locals call Pidgeon Park, which is a bit of grass by the Anglican Cathedral. Which isn't much of a Cathedral.

It's what you're used to, I guess.

Colin- It is very much the classic vision of a concrete jungle, especially if you take Gravelly Hill Junction (Spaghetti Junction), or look at area around the Mailbox. But quite striking, all the same.

I was in Hereford the other week with the Chimney Sweep, we watched Hereford United play Dagenham and Redbridge. Hereford won 4-1. Quite a nice little grounds, really. Some nice little pubs in the town centre as well.

It's not a little shop on Digbeth he goes to is it?