Our Second City

Birmingham. There, I’ve said it. The UK’s second city. Heart of the West Midlands. Powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution.

Just where, exactly, is its place in modern cultural life? I mean, Manchester has traded on its musical heritage as well as its architecture.  Liverpool has its history of seafaring and looks outward to sea, with its back to the rest of the country.  Our great cities are all undergoing their own personal renaissance to some degree or other as whole quarters are cleaned up, gentrified and regenerated.  But what of this giant sprawl smack in the centre of the country?

I walked the streets in order to try and find some semblance of what this city is about.  Quite a mission of course, and one I came nowhere near completing.

I have stayed in Birmingham a number of times while working there, and it has always struck me that this is a place that seems to struggle with its identity.  It is large, like London.  But where London has in effect become almost like a little country of its own, with its boroughs having retained their earlier identities as distinct from one another, Birmingham has always seemed to me to be a big lump of sameness.

Approaching the city is not one of those things that instills a sense of awe and wonderment in the same way as, say, arriving by train in Newcastle from the south does.  There is no jaw dropping river dividing the city, no distinct geographical feature to draw the eyes to, and what there is – the admittedly impressive Fort Dunlop building for example,  has been traduced and dumbed down by infantile marketing logos into a giant lego model of primary colours and childish fonts.
Arriving in the city centre, I am happy to admit, does rather change your perspective.  Once again, we have our Victorian forebears to thank for this – grand buildings arranged into terraces, and intersecting in the various, delightfully named ‘Circuses’ that now look down on the competing traffic that swirls round them all day long.  But again, there is really no grand focus.  No central point worthy of a city that should aspire to world standing.  Even the main railway station is a concrete, subterranean monstrosity, entered via a shabby shopping arcade in which defeated looking people seem to shamble about.  No grand ironwork and ambitious glass roof [ironic, since both materials were made in the city, but shipped out to be used in the impressive buildings in the rest of the world].

One enclave which will no doubt be on the minds of anybody who has spent time in this city is Broad Street and its attendant exhibition centre, hotel district and canal.  This, again, confuses me rather.  By day, a rather shabby looking row of chain owned bars, restaurants, nigh clubs and takeaways, Broad Street transforms by night into the kind of scene you would find on any provincial High Street – namely crowds of drunks, empty bottles drained of their lurid coloured alcohol cocktails, and vomit slicks.  But what is depressing is not the all-too-predictable drunkenness, but the fact that such a huge city has a single main drag that is the focus of its’ night life.  I suppose I thought that perhaps Birmingham would have bigger ambitions than this.  And no doubt the outlying areas of the city have their own attractions, but to outsiders there is no clue about what, or where these could be.

I wandered under the concrete tunnels that allow pedestrians to get from one side of the ring road to another, and was rather excited to find the Chinatown district.  Now I am, frankly, used to disappointments where such interesting developments occur.  I mean, you only have to go to Manchester, turn off Portland Street, and pass the impressive, terracotta-roofed Chinese arches, and, filled with a sense of promise, feel an immediate deflation as the Chinese district almost immediately runs out of steam and you find yourself amongst anonymous back streets again.  But is was slightly less so in Birmingham.  A little labyrinth of streets is filled with an enticing array of restaurants and shops, steamed windows revealing golden roasted ducks hanging from hooks as hungry locals devour their exotic food within.

Vast and mysterious menus fill the windows, and for a moment you are in another land.  It is strange how quickly one feels a foreigner in these situations, but here all reference points are momentarily gone.  The signs, the speech of the people around you on the street, the smells, the items in the shops all contribute to a rather pleasant feeling of complete disorientation.

Then, as with my similar and brief immersion in Manchester, I am cast out the other end and, rather like emerging into bright sunlight, I was back to mundanity.  All those flights of fancy  disappeared into the background, and I found myself on another of those streets that Birmingham seems to do so well – sheer, vertical grey concrete and uninviting steel doors.

I began to realise that I had no idea where I now was.  Being daytime, I was not possessed of any kind of fear, but simply felt frustrated that once again Birmingham had eluded me.

I trudged back towards the City Centre, past the Market, and was suddenly cast into the appalling mediocrity of the new Bull Ring shopping quarter.

So, this is what regeneration is all about, is it?  Well, apparently so.  The Bull Ring reminds me very much of the rather similar and equally monstrous Liverpool 1 development – bright, new, clean raised walkways leading to chain stores offering mobile phones, computers and expensive clothing.  The signature building, clad in circular metal times, looks something like a giant slug.  This is the modern idea of a ‘statement’ in architecture and, forgive me for sounding rather like Prince Charles for a moment, but what will these places look like in a hundred years?  How will they compare with the rampant beauty of Leeds’ Arcades, or Bath’s simple sandstone Terraces?

The view from the balcony area takes in the Central Market, which is somewhat ironic in that this ageing institution is now overshadowed both literally and metaphorically by the new development.  Like a lot of city markets, this one is just the place to go if you feel an overwhelming urge to buy a vacuum pack of bacon offcuts or a block of that rather distressing orange cheese.  However you can only observe that the cheerful banter of the traders, the undoubted feeling of community that the market inspires and the very human scale and pace of life there are close to being wiped out by the impersonal shopping experience that bears down on it.

And that really concluded my rather perfunctory ramble around the underbelly of the city.  It is a city that is worthy of further exploration, but what I learned from my day here was that there is really no point comparing one city with another, as I did at the start of this misssive.  To do so is pointless.

Simply to say that, because Birmingham is the second largest city in the UK in terms of population,  it must somehow contain all the showiness of London, is a mistake.  Birmingham is drenched in provincialism, as it were.  It is a utilitarian place, used and needed by the people who live and work there.  And in this sense, it is far more real than its southern capital.


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