Birmingham: This is What She’s Like

For a city of its importance, Birmingham is terribly good at hiding in plain sight. A show of hands amongst a randomly selected group of people from SE England would probably show that most had been to Amsterdam or Barcelona, but how many would have spent time in Birmingham? It has an abundance of quality Victorian architecture, yet it is Glasgow or Belfast that come to mind when we think of Victorian cities. It was the ‘city of a thousand trades’ at the start of the Industrial Revolution, but we are likelier to think of Manchester or Sheffield when we think of the coming of the factory age. Even in terms of pop music, having given us Duran Duran, Dexys Midnight Runners, ELO and Denim, Birmingham somehow lags behind Liverpool and Manchester as a pilgrimage point for music fans. Holidaymakers go for the Lake District, York, Bath or Oxford, and Brum keeps a low profile. We all know that it is the second largest city in the UK, and that it has more canals than Venice, but do we know Birmingham?

At university I shared a house with a bloke from Nottingham, whose posh mates deemed Nottingham was so northern that they thought it a hilarious prank to give him a pork pie for his 21st birthday; I remember reflecting that had he gone to Durham, he’d probably have been viewed as a soft southern ponce. Birmingham has the classic midlands dilemma in that it is considered distant by both the Home Counties which bask in their proximity to London, and the Northern hubs that exude civic pride. If it gets mentioned, it will usually be as the butt of jokes that reveal little more than our own ignorance of the city; in our consciousness it is defined by the accent-lampooning “We want to be togevva” from the 1980s building society advert. If you’re quickly passing through, the image you are left with is likely to be a spaghetti plate of concrete flyovers (like Glasgow or East Belfast, but worse). Before today, my only visit was a trip to see Millwall get heavily beaten at Birmingham City where, tight within our police motorcade, I saw next to nothing beyond these flyovers.

In any case we found ourselves needing to go there recently, had the good luck to find £5 tickets on the normally exorbitant Virgin Trains, and were a little surprised to learn that the train gets from Euston-Birmingham in well under two hours these days. Ridiculously, Birmingham was such an unknown quantity to me that my inner arrogant Londoner felt a little like an explorer heading into the jungle. The train up is very sparsely populated. As you pull in to New Street you see some very forlorn and neglected-looking gems in the middle of derelict wasteland.

However, New Street station is a big-budget showpiece. They seem to have gone for some kind of battleship motif where the exterior is sleek curved steel, and the inside has concourses with undulating waves attached to its roofs, opening into a central, light-filled plaza. You have the sensation of being in the belly of the whale. You won’t hear me say this about much modern stuff, but it’s quite good. We rush to Pret for our caffeine injection, and it is very strange indeed to find a Pret where all the workers have English accents. The regions of England can be so exotic.

Leaving the station, however, we come straight into the bad Birmingham of one’s imagination; it takes us around ten minutes just to get our bearings in a disorientating rabbit warren of tiny streets on different levels, and all the bus stops on the first street are closed. Eventually we manage to find a pedestrianised thoroughfare that takes us to the market by the famous Bullring (assuming we’ll come back later, I sadly don’t take photos of what is one of Birmingham’s most interersting buildings).

For all Birmingham’s great musical heritage, the only one whose songs are rooted in a Brummie mythology is Lawrence, the superstar-that-never-broke-through of Felt, Denim and Go-Kart Mozart. The latter act were given their own imprint by Cherry Red and he called it West Midlands Records because he “wanted it to sound like a bus company”. I always associate the infamous Bullring with Go-Kart Mozart’s nightmarish track ‘Mrs Back to Front & The Bull Ring Thing’, which consists of what sounds like an unholy Roger Hargreaves/Aphex Twin collaboration that gets interrupted by the wholesale sample of a song by some working men’s club band extolling the delights of Birmingham’s shopping mall. The ’60s Brutalist version that inspired such devotion was replaced at the start of this century by a glitzy curved behemoth clad in thousands of sequins, like a fat lady about to sing.

A bus out to the northern edges of Birmingham fills up with the down-at-heel folk you would expect to be catching a bus away from town on a weekday mid-morning, although they are notably more eccentric-looking here. As you leave the centre, the arterial roads start off as a jumble of flyovers and ringroads which the driver must navigate. Eventually we’re on our way, passing Aston, which turns into a pretty run-down area that starts to get slightly salubrious at the suburban city limits. We don’t get a glimpse of Villa Park (which apparently sits within the grounds of a Jacobean stately home- who knew?) but we do pass old gasholders painted claret and blue. The bus back is quieter, apart from the people playing music to everyone on their phones; it does happen in South London too, but wherever it happens I find it an intolerable act of social aggression.

Back in central Birmingham, we have a few hours to explore the city before leaving. Consulting the map, we start with one of the nearest Victorian beauties, the old Law Courts. The Gothic facade is great fun, a Hogwarts-style condensation of heraldry, leaded windows, miniature turrets, towers and gables. The lovingly lavished detail is to a standard more commonly seen in Baroque churches. Everything is in bold red brick and deep terracotta, because the materials were found to stand up better to factory smoke and its sooty residue than ordinary stone. In matching materials is the hall across the road, which appears to have a replica of the Giralda from Seville we saw at the start of the year.

We’re not far from the main Catholic church in the city, St Chad’s, so we try and cut through the ring-road that encloses the northern half of inner Birmingham and comprises of around ten different street names, all suffixed with ‘Queensway’. We have to pass lots of 1990s-looking office blocks and at one point find ourselves stranded on an island of shrubbery with no pavement for pedestrians. It’s slightly counter-intuitive to negotiate and feels like it’s been designed with the motorist in mind, however we eventually get to St Chad’s and its twin Gothic spires.

St Chad’s is one of the first big commissions given to Augustus Pugin, best known as the man Charles Barry hired to design the interior of the Houses of Parliament. A convert to Catholicism, he called Birmingham “a detestable place of Greek buildings and smoking chimneys”, but ended up getting many gigs there post-emancipation. St Chad’s looks on the outside much like the typical Gothic Revival fare that is the Victorian blueprint, but when you step inside you notice that this is Gothic Revival at its finest, by someone committed to the style rather than a dutiful copyist.

It has the same feel as a middle-ages church and could conceivably pass for something centuries older than it is; perhaps it’s the choice of a timber roof rather than the classic Gothic ribbed vaulting that gives the visitor a sense of communing with another age. The floor tiles were based on the scorched remains of pre-Reformation churches like Ely, whilst other features include a good carved set of Stations of the Cross, centuries-old carved figures obtained from other churches, and a cap of Cardinal Newman being kept like an ancient relic.

Just outside the church, a group of street drinkers are congregating around a giant speaker and the nave vibrates to the basslines of Bill Withers and Harold Melvin tracks; it is to the credit of the church that it can stand up to this trial of ridicule and seem like a place of stature.

Beyond the centre are a few interesting-sounding areas. To the east is Digbeth, an important industrial area and setting for Peaky Blinders that has a few historic pubs and is regenerating into home of the city’s arts and media. A friend who lived in the city told me the best stuff was around Edgbaston, the leafy southern suburbs, where there is a university campus and an art gallery boasting Monet, Rubens, Picasso and many more. Because it looked quite close to us, we decided to make for the Jewellery Quarter. Crossing Birmingham, you continually find great pieces of architecture that are being left to rot and will be beyond salvage if we’re not careful. I wouldn’t wish the predicament of Belfast (where landowners demolish historical buildings literally the day before they are about to be listed, even if they have no current plans to do anything else with the land) on any city.

Generally, the Jewellery Quarter itself appears to be well looked-after. The warehouses have been converted and sprinkled with the odd artisan sandwich shop or cocktail bar. The heart of the area is St Paul’s Square, a very charming Georgian square with cobbled pavements and a central green containing a good C18th church. It could pass for one of the prettier parts of Dublin.

The church is the classic English church of this period; on the outside, its steeple makes it a kid brother to St Martin-in-the-Fields, on the inside it has kept lots of original fittings; wooden pews, an upper gallery, lots of plasterwork and Ionic columns. The stained glass in the altar is abstract but much of the rest is older vintage.

We do a circuit of the streets beyond St Paul’s, finding many an old factory building. These are not, generally, the dark satanic Dickensian behemoths we associate with the Industrial Revolution, but low-rise places built to a human scale. Some have a quite Ruskinian level of decoration, as if they wanted the buildings to advertise the craftsmanship being carried out within.

There are a few jewellers left in the quarter; a fraction of its peak, when the industry employed 30,000 Brummies, but it still makes 40% of UK-produced jewellery (the electroplating industry was founded in Birmingham). The clock tower is a local landmark named after Joe Chamberlain, mayor of the city who split the old Liberal party over Ireland by forming the Liberal Unionists, who would eventually merge with the Tories.

Back, once we’ve negotiated a few more Queensways, into the city centre, where we find a fantastic building that houses the Birmingham School of Art. This is pure Ruskin Gothic with loggias, pointy arches, elaborate tiling, and even a rose window filled out with carved foliage.

One of the showboating municipal buildings, Council House, sits in front of an irregular-shaped piazza, Victoria Square, which was pedestrianised in the 90s. Two flights of steps down to a lower-level shopping street are separated by a former fountain that was too expensive to maintain and has been filled with shrubs and plants (Wikipedia identifies the sculpture at the centre as “the floozie in the jacuzzi”). With modern sphinxes at its flanks, and much used as a place to sit down, or for children to play, it may be a very long way from Rome’s Spanish Steps but I suspect the echo is not unconscious.

Council House itself is a thumping palace of Victoriana that arrives tooled up with a thick portico, corinthian pilasters, and pediments, both triangular and semi-circular, containing smug townsmen and allegorcial figures. It may be a bit too much for my tastes, but there are some fine details like the Arts & Crafts mosaic hidden behind netting.

The building is a Siamese twin to the excellent Museum & Art Gallery that sits at a right angle to it, its two wings being connected by a replica of the Bridge of Sighs; a tip of the hat from one canal city to another. The clock tower at one end of its asymmetrical facade is called ‘Big Brum’.

The museum is free entry, which is great as it has plenty of big hitters. The most famous section is the extensive collection of Pre-Raphaelite works, so we go straight there and luxuriate in all the Rosettis, Millaises and Burne-Joneses, some of which I’m sure I recognise (although all those stunning statuesque redheaded maidens with bow-shaped lips and green silken dresses tend to blend into each other for me, probably because they tended to all be painted from the same models).

The Pre-Raphaelites thought art took a wrong turn around 1500 with mannerism and academicism, which is exactly what I found myself thinking in Siena & Florence last year, so in theory they ought to be made for me. I don’t love them like I love Giotto or Botticelli, but nor do I find them a risible tribute band; they are very much their own men, rather than a continuation of Botticelli and co. How could they not be, living in a totally different world and painting an entirely imgained and mythologised past-that-never-was?

Fittingly for William Morris’ mates, with many of the pieces the frame seems as important to the artwork as what’s inside it.

If the Pre-Raphs are the headline act, the other rooms are no slouch at all with everything from Simone Martini to L.S. Lowry via Roman landscapes and the Impressionists, contained in a brisk but enthralling sprint through half a millennium of painting and sculpture.

The circuit ends with a circular big hallway and a gallery with fancy ironwork, which we haven’t time to explore fully, but the former has lots of romantic paintings by Alma-Tadema and friends conjuring up places like a very racially diverse Piazza San Marco and imagined Biblical/Roman senate fantasia.

With the exception of Victoria Square, the land around the museum is a boarded-off building site, but the steps of the museum still look onto Birmingham Town Hall, which is a bold marble-and-limestone reconstruction of a Greek temple sitting on top of a tall rusticated platform. People suggest it’s a fuck-you to the British monarchy, ruling classes and the rest of the country because it is based on Rome’s Temple of Castor & Pollux, built to celebrate the new-born republic’s fending off an attempted invasion from Tarquinius, the last of their kings. I don’t know how they can tell when there are only three pillars left from the Temple of Castor & Pollux. It is very good, though, and has hosted performances by Charles Dickens, Mendelssohn, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Dylan.

We push on to Birmingham Cathedral, which sits in a grassy churchyard fenced off from the surrounding square, and are lucky because the visitors who arrive a few minutes after us get told that the church is closed. ‘Birmingham Cathedral’ suggests some vast hanger the size of Westminster Cathedral, but as the church predates the Industrial Revolution it is not cathedral-sized at all. The literature inside acknowledges this by calling it “the church that became a cathedral in the town that became a city”. Built in the 1710s it is attractive, urbane stuff, like St Paul’s but still with one foot in the Baroque age; the architect had been to Rome and is said to have taken Borromini, rather than Wren, as his guiding star. Hence the little dome and cupola on top of the octagonal tower, and the urn-topped balustrade that runs the perimeter of the roof.

Inside, the upper gallery sits serenely under wide round arches. It is a harmonious and happy church, but they must have been alert to the ridiculousness of calling this small parish church the cathedral for such a huge conurbation, because they demolished the apse in the 1880s and built a new one larger, louder, deeper and more befitting the status of our Second City. The extension is far more luxurious, with half a dozen marbled columns that have gilded corinthian capitals, and a patterened ceiling.

As with the museum, the most famous contents are Pre-Raphaelite; tall stained glass windows at either end, made by the William Morris workshop to the design of Burne-Jones, and filled out with correspondingly beautiful faces; nativity, ascension and crucifixion around the apse, and a Last Judgement on the opposite wall.

Outside the sun is just beginning to dip, and the pink/red panes in the west front catch fire from the sunlight. It doesn’t really translate to photographs, but it is quite special and makes me understand why people say you should see Sainte-Chapelle in the late afternoon.

By now we’ve earned a drink and want to try one of Birmingham’s celebrated C19th pubs. On the Cathedral Square is the Old Joint Stock, built as a library but now run as a Fullers pub (with a theatre upstairs). It feels a bit like a theme pub or a Wetherspoons, but the period trimmings are thrillingly grand, and it’s quite fun to identify the miniatures of famous sculptures from antiquity placed on top of the moulding; I spot a bust of Constantine and the Farnese Hercules.

We try to walk out to the west of the centre, where there are a concentration of canals, and find that the boarded-off building site that begins at the museum and Town Hall doesn’t end until the Symphony Hall at the opposite end of Centenary Square; for comparison, this is as if everything from the steps of the National Gallery to the Embankment was a boarded off building site. A lot of the boarding promises an exciting “retail offer” and lots of cafés, and when it’s finished it might be pretty (and, this being Britain, it will definitely be pseudo-public space where G4S will be policing us all) but for the meantime, the epicentre of Birmingham is considerably mutilated.

One of the monuments in the centre of the work, which we can only peep at from afar, is the art deco WWI memorial called the Hall of Memory. An octagon with four pedimented entrances, it looks like an Italian tempietto and is said to have excellent bronze sculptures.

Just past the Hall of Memory is a recent addition to Birmingham’s skyline, the 2013 central library. Super-libraries have the reputation of being white elephants that are built to cover the backs of councils when they shut down twenty branch libraries at one stroke. Birmingham, to their credit, went full out on this one, spending £189m to build the largest library in Europe at a time when the library is being systematically exterminated in most parts of Britain. The building stands out for miles around, and in a city of so much neo-classical Victoriana it is utterly modern and new. On the outside, above a glass-fronted ground floor we see three gigantic rectangles in silvery blue and gold, with a wide golden chimney on top looking like a coffee cup some giant has left on their stack of bedside reading. As a probable nod to the heritage of the jewellery quarter, the external cladding is covered with interlocking rings of various shapes and sizes.

That’s the good stuff; get up close and you get the practicalities of attempting to run a library. There is a hole-in-the-wall machine, where people can return their loans 24/7. It is, of course, currently out of service. Inside we go, and I am blown away by the celestial quality of the library, which feels like a big-budget Hollywood movie’s replication of a gigantic mothership, or of the stairway to Heaven itself. Escalators go up and down between the myriad floors, the shelves on circular upper floors around the vast open space at the centre. I’m keen to explore, but then we notice that the escalators are cordoned off, and a security guard explains that we are outside the ‘core opening hours’. Having built this grandiose library, the council is taking such a kicking from austerity that it cannot afford to pay staff to work there. Foyer aside, the building is only open 11-5pm most days, with no Sunday opening. The tiny library where I work has almost double the opening hours. Better, though, to slash opening hours in the vague, probably groundless hope that Uncle Jeremy will save us all, than to close the doors on your library forever.

Past the library and concert halls, you get to the canals, which were of course the main method of transporting goods around England until the invention of railways. These ones are more on the industrial side than those of Amsterdam or Venice, their surrounding buildings are of varying vintage and most of them appear to house sub-Westfield joints like Slug & Lettuce, but it’s been scrubbed up fairly nicely and being of course free from cars makes the area feel quite relaxed and draws out the crowds. The canal we walk along opens up into a little wharf filled with cute Rosie and Jim canal boats instead of the naff speedboats that clutter up Limehouse.

Making our way back to the general vicinity of the train station, we cut through Piccadilly Arcade, a small shopping arcade not unlike those around Piccadilly, but with the addition of eccentric worm’s-eye-view ceiling frescoes.

There’s time for one more swift drink in an interesting pub before we board the train, and I’m intrigued by the subterranean Bacchus, which sounds like an attempt to do for (or against) Ancient Rome what London’s Black Friar does for the middle ages. The staircase down to the bar has frescoes lampooning some of the erotica in Pompeii. It owes more to Frankie Howerd than to Seneca, but it’s good fun; I imagine that if one of Tony Soprano’s captains opened a ‘sophisticated’ bar next door to Vesuvio’s it would probably look something like this.

Downstairs I’m expecting the eccentricity to continue, but I don’t know the half of it; the bar is divided into half a dozen areas, each with their own theme à la The Crystal Maze.

One part is Roman-ish, one a send-up of a dank devotional chapel belonging to some medieval knight, one of the study/library belonging to a posh gentleman from Jane Austen. We sit in a room which is like a Wetherspoons pub improbably attempting to imitate the interior of a Pharaoh’s tomb. This is like Laser Quest with a Key Stage 2 in history.

It is insane, and people have been shot for less than the copy of Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, but in a world of All Bar Ones I’m glad the insane visions of a few eccentrics have been preserved for us to scratch our heads at. At 6pm, it is particularly notable that there are only around 20 people in the entire place, and no queue at the bar; in central London the bar queue would surely be three deep at this time of day. It’s a much-appreciated moment of calm before the storm of fighting onto a London train, vastly busier on the return journey.


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