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Review of books

December 2009
spiked review of books
A pictorial paean to England’s Second City

Rob Lyons

A pictorial paean to England’s Second City

It’s long been derided as a super-dull city where the inhabitants have irritating accents, but Birmingham was the cradle of industry and has been a hotbed of free thought.

My name is Rob and I am a Brummie.

Being born and bred in Birmingham, England, has never had much in the way of kudos. It means living with arguably the most ridiculed accent in Britain, one often used as a shorthand for crass stupidity. (For those who don’t know British accents, we all sound pretty much like Ozzy Osbourne without the shaking.) When a major insurance company ran an advertising campaign a few years back to show how their investments could give you flexibility and freedom in life, they simply contrasted a woman’s hopes and dreams with the prospect of having a baby with a Brummie. She scarpers, backed by her index-linked savings. Nuff said.

Despite being Britain’s Second City, most people only experience Birmingham through that abomination of motorway planning, the Gravelly Hill Interchange, better known as ‘Spaghetti Junction’. Birmingham is a city whose contribution to popular music includes Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, half of Led Zeppelin and Duran Duran. These bands may have plenty of followers, but they’re not the Beatles. They’re not even the Stone Roses. I never liked any of them. Even the late Seventies ska revival had more to do with Birmingham’s smaller neighbour, Coventry, with the honourable exception of my favourite Brummie band, The Beat (or The English Beat, as they were known Stateside).

Birmingham’s reputation is as a town of bone-headed metal bashers living in a bleak, industrial landscape. Writing in the 1930s, JB Priestley said of Birmingham: ‘I saw nothing, not one single tiny thing, that could possibly raise a man’s spirits. Possibly what I was seeing was not Birmingham, but our urban and industrial civilisation. The fact remains that it was beastly. It was so many miles of ugliness, squalor, and the wrong kind of vulgarity, the decayed anaemic kind.’

I left Birmingham in 1992 and I’ve rarely been back. So I raised an eyebrow when Jan Bowman, illustrator for the spiked review of books, declared that she was producing a pictorial paean to my hometown, titled This is Birmingham. What would possess anyone to write a book in praise of a town when even the natives seem to have little affection for it or knowledge about it? Sometimes, it takes an outsider to point things out.

Bowman was born in Scotland and raised in Canada, returning to Britain as a student. She freely admits she wasn’t exactly enamoured with Birmingham when she first arrived there in the late Eighties. ‘I hated it’, she tells me. But returning after a couple of years in London made her rethink her attitude to the city. She was always a fan of the mix of cultures in Birmingham’s curry quarter where she lives. But digging into local history, she realised there was a lot more to Birmingham than meets the eye. Inspired by the This is… series of children’s books by the Czech illustrator Miroslav Sasek, she decided Birmingham could do with a little well-earned praise.

‘The more I learned about the city, the more I thought that Birmingham needed a book, too. Reading about things like the Lunar Society, the more I realised what a wonderful history Birmingham has. So it became more than a book about hidden treasures; it became a book about how Birmingham became. It’s something that the city fathers don’t seem to make enough of, yet it is right there on their doorstep.’

‘The more I learned about the city, the more I thought that Birmingham needed a book’, says Bowman

Birmingham has a decent claim to be the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. The first Abraham Darby developed the method of smelting iron using coke in the county of Shropshire, west of the city, and his grandson built the famous Iron Bridge across the river Severn there. James Watt worked with Birmingham businessman Matthew Boulton to build the first really good steam engines that powered the nation’s factories. When Britain became the ‘workshop of the world’, Birmingham became the workshop of Britain. Birmingham has remained a centre of manufacturing and engineering ever since, becoming the Motor City of the UK. It was utterly appropriate that the city’s major contribution to popular music should be ‘heavy metal’, even if that label comes from elsewhere.

But the city was also a hotbed of free-thinkers and scientists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including the clergyman and scientist Joseph Priestley (one of the discoverers of oxygen and supporter of religious dissent), the ceramics manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) and William Small, described by his pupil Thomas Jefferson as ‘a man profound in most of the useful branches of science’. These luminaries and others came together with Boulton in a dining club called the Lunar Society, which met monthly to discuss the latest scientific ideas. A paper from 1962 noted that ‘of all the provincial philosophical societies it was the most important, perhaps because it was not merely provincial. All the world came… to meet Boulton, Watt or Small, who were acquainted with the leading men of Science throughout Europe and America.’

But the city has more to offer than simply an important role in the transformation of production. ‘People know about the canals around Brindley Place’, says Bowman, referring to the recently refashioned city centre with its canalside bars and shopping malls. ‘But they don’t know that the city has more miles of canals than Venice. Brummies usually think that is a myth.’ The dreary industrial image is also out of kilter with reality. ‘Birmingham is a very green city, especially the inner suburbs’, says Bowman. Indeed, I was surprised to learn that the city claims to have more parks (over 200) than any other city in Europe, while Sutton Park, on the north side of the city, is the largest urban park in Europe outside a capital city.

So why has Birmingham got such a poor reputation? Perhaps because the very thing that it has traditionally been successful at – manufacturing – has been in decline. As attention has shifted to finance and tourism, the business of making things has become rather unfashionable. Throw in the sniffy, middle-class attitude to industry that is part-and-parcel of the current obsession with sustainability and it’s easier to understand why Birmingham might have an image problem.

Hopefully, This is Birmingham will help to change that. The book takes the form of a poem singing the praises of Birmingham’s history, culture and people allied to Bowman’s colourful, stylish illustrations. Although the book is inspired by those of Sasek, Bowman has her own individual style. She sees illustration as the perfect medium to bring the subject alive. ‘Illustration is making a comeback’, she says, as ‘a more human way of picturing things than photographs in some ways’.

This is Birmingham is an artistic project, not a tourist guide (though there’s a map, for those who are interested). ‘This book is extremely partial, one particular individual’s view of Birmingham’, says Bowman. The book is also out of keeping with the navel-gazing of much contemporary art. ‘These days when it is trendy to regard art as merely a way of expressing your inner angst, I think people need cheering up. As David Hockney observed, the world is full of horrible things, but it is also full of beautiful things and it is the job of the artist to be a counsel against despair. One of the tasks of art is to see what is beautiful around you, in your immediate neighbourhood.’

For Bowman, that means everything from the simple pleasures of a boating lake to the friendly, creative collision of dozens of different nationalities. Above all, Bowman’s Birmingham is about people and ideas. As her poem tells us:

Designed and built by immigrants
From near and very far away
Whose longing for a better life
Created all this industry.

Themselves inspired by those few who
Refused to bow to old conventions -
Took risks, liked to experiment,
Believed the world could be improved on
And therefore questioned everything.

It’s 20 years since I put all my worldly goods into a van and left for pastures new. Perhaps it’s time for me, like a lot of Brummies, to rediscover our city.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

This is Birmingham: A Glimpse of the City’s Secret, by Jan Bowman, is published by Waverley. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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