‘I’m from Des Moines. Somebody had to be’ (Bill Bryson)
Despite my obnoxious tendency to declare Yorkshire identity at every opportunity, I am actually a Brummie (and a liar). When confronted with this fact, people respond:
- But you don’t look/sound/seem like you’re from Birmingham.
- Vague and bigoted expression of sympathy for me due to my origins
- Do you ever go back? (looking doubtful)
Doubt then turns to confusion as I say yes, I Actually Quite Like It there, and There Are Actually Quite A Lot Of Cool Things To Do. I like Birmingham. Well, more specifically, I like(d) my middle class, artsy, literary, private schooled, pretty Victorian neighbourhood life in Birmingham. It’s a few light years away from the conception you might have of my birthplace – ugly, postindustrial, poor. It’s all of those adjectives too, but here’s the weird thing: a city can be more than one identity at once.
I also loved, even when I was very little, the true variety and mixing of cultures that makes the city so unique. Quite separate worlds exist together, sometimes interweaving, sometimes parallel. Birmingham is one of the most diverse cities in England, with roughly 1 in every 3 people being from a BAME background. The car journey to York from the urban reaches of Brum was an
It’s easy to attach simple labels to categorise places, people, and cultures, and I do it all the time. Islington’s posh, isn’t it. (Ignores anybody on a low income). Glasgow’s so gentrified now. (Ignores the communities who still live in poverty, or who are shut out by swish coffee shops and shops)
Since leaving Birmingham my parents have returned a few times a year, and I too have made stately annual visits. The most recent time was different, as I was taken (sickening proto smug married alert) by my boyfriend, as a surprise birthday present (apparently Rouen was too expensive for the weekend). I enjoyed patronising him with commentary on the city (‘that’s a mosque’), and he enjoyed pretending to listen to me. Returning to the places you remember as a child can be a disconcerting experience: street signs that were once near your face are now at your hip, and the spaces seem to have shrunk in the years passed.
Anyway. Here’s my ‘What’s Sizzling in Birmingham’.
Took a train York to Birmingham New Station. We stayed in the Clayton Hotel, v. close to the central station and Bullring area. This was fancy for two 20 year olds, but probably not fancy enough for you middle-aged folk.
On the first day I showed Jake around the unashamedly glitzy paean of capitalism, the Bullring centre + Selfridges, where I was very taken with the bull made out of Jelly Belly beans and somewhat overwhelmed by the designer boutiques on the top floor. Looked in vain for the toy shop dream palace of my childhood, which had (has?) a clear plastic tunnel running around the shop, for jittery small people (me) to writhe around in. It’s a great highlight of my youth, perhaps my life. Then our Quakerly education prodded us out the door and into more noble pursuits.
The Jewellery Quarter was our next stop: Jake’s sister is a jeweller, and almost all his family are very good craftsy artsy people, so he was yanked by umbilical cord to this area. It’s streets and streets (slightly dinghy) of small, unassuming shops / workshops with millions of pounds of jewels inside. We visited (on Jake’s insistence) the Pen Museum. More accurately, this is the pen-nib production site, as thousands of these tiny, elaborate gold and silver styluses fill the space. Apparently back in the good old 19th century over 75% of the world’s pens were produced in Birmingham. Ah, the pen nib empire on which the sun never sets. A dusty high-ceilinged building, with a creaky and quite strange introductory video on loop, and as many nibs as a girl’s heart desires.
Post pen-world, we trotted off to the art gallery to see the Staffordshire Hoard in the Birmingham City Art Gallery. This rich and tall-columned civic institution is testament to the wealthy industry of Birmingham’s Victorian birth, and was so beautiful and marbled inside. Luxurious café on the second floor:
(we didn’t actually press for champagne: as I said before, I’m a liar)
The Staffordshire Hoard was beautiful and entirely bewildering in its freshness and clarity – how can something so ancient be so new, so immediate? I stared and stared at it all for a long time, before giving up and moving onto the optical illusions room (which was similarly disconcerting…). Could have spent a lot more time here, as they have a fantastic selection of art works.
For dinner we went to Bodega Cantina & Bar, where I had a delicious Pisco Sour (in preparation for my upcoming travel to Chile), and Jake had something else that was equally delicious. If only we had gone during Happy Hour (and I won’t say here, ‘like I suggested’, because that would be petty). Dinner followed in the same vaguely hispanic theme at Bar Estilo in the Mailbox. It was at this point that I became VERY over-excited, because this building had always represented to me the height of adult sophistication and glamour – and now I too was a sophisticated adult (or at least 60%). Also great. It’s tapas, we love tapas, the tapas was good tapas. (This is not a food blog). Wandered around the canals at night, beautiful. I told Jake on an almost constant loop that Brum has more canals than Venice. He watched the boats and did some good nodding at me from time to time.
2nd day: Explored the revamped Library, which has approx. 6 million floors; the Shakespeare room has been moved 3 times in its 100- year existence, and now resides, in fake Victoriana glory, at the top of this cool glass + concrete construction. (Ah, the contrasts, the architectural symbolism of this city…).
After a lunch at the Ikon Gallery (bumped into the director, Jonathan Watkins who is, predictably, one of my parents’ friends) – which was a beyond amazing combination of Turkish eggs and Tres Leches cake – we looked at the exhibitions. Jake (remember: craftsy artsy family) made more intelligent comments than me.
We finished the day by visiting the Custard Factory complex. It’s a 10 minute walk from the city centre, in a more run-down area. The Factory was seriously cool, with blaring techno, neon-lit pop-up shops, and hip clothing joints – i.e. too edgy for me and Jake on our weekend trip from York- as well as a zero-waste shop, where I bought a soap.
Back on the train, we were delayed by 2 hours and got 🙂 back 🙂 at 🙂 2AM :))))))
I loved re-visiting my city independently of my parents for the first time. The visual memories I hold of the buildings and people from my childhood now are meshed with this new, thriving, playful urban centre, and I still feel that it’s part of my identity, even if other people may decide it is not.