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?
From Spain to the Spanish Netherlands. As I contemplate writing up this trip it dawns upon me that this is the first time I’ve blogged Belgium, and only my third visit to the country. Conclusion: I don’t get to Belgium half as much as I should. For so long Belgium was, to Britain, merely the butt of jokes in bad TV comedies. Yet the defence of this place across the water was what dragged us into World War I, and the swift Eurostar connection to Brussels means that these days we can go abroad and explore a relatively unfamiliar country without having to endure the awful experience of airports, and with a quicker journey time than we face going to Newcastle or Glasgow (although who knows what obstacles Brexit will place in our way). When Belgium was at its most unfashionable, Jonathan Meades made his celebrated film arguing that it was interesting because as devout Catholics, Belgians paired the same death-cult as Spain or Italy (where it is leavened by sunny skies and the blue Mediterranean) with perpetually grey skies that rain more than Yorkshire. My own great fondness for the place can probably be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that its brilliance is unsung, under-the-radar, and a wonderful surprise. The tourist goes to Venice in full expectation that he will find one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but what knows the tourist of Ghent? Until recently, not so much, but its greater accessibility these days seems to be waking Brits up to the fact that Belgium has the best beer, chips and chocolate on God’s earth, and much else besides.
It’s funny that England remains a bit of an unknown quantity to me, when I have spent all of my adult life here. I’ve passed through most of its cities when playing gigs, going to away matches or visiting friends, but I wouldn’t usually consider it for a holiday. I think of these towns as insufficiently exotic to go and visit. There is no basis in fact for this; at its best, England matches the picturesque and ancient qualities of my favourite corners of Europe with the state-of-the-art comforts (stuff actually works) of Holland or Germany. There comes a point when it seems ridiculous that you’ve been to St Peter’s, St Mark’s, St Nicholas’, St Anthony in Padua and St Francis in Assisi and yet are wholly unacquainted with the great cathedrals of your own country. And so, to Lincoln.
One day, my primary school teacher handed out blank maps of Northern Ireland and asked us to create our own weather forecast. Everyone got out the felt tips and went to town decorating our six counties with sunshine, rainfall, dark clouds and flashes of lightning. When the finished pieces were handed in, she roared with laughter and observed that we had all coloured around the boundary of Norn Iron with blue water on every side, as if the other twenty-six counties of the emerald isle had never existed. This story sums up the relationship that more obdurate Prods will have with what my grandfather still calls “The Free State”: there isn’t one.
Regular readers will have noticed that this blog is drifting very far from its original course of visiting everything in Nairn’s London. This is partly because it feels hard to write about different areas of London without saying the same thing. This was a traditionally affluent area that in recent years has become solely occupied by oligarchs and sheikhs. This was a traditionally impoverished area that in recent years has become solely occupied by middle-class families with good jobs. This was a traditionally bohemian area that is now all Foxtons and £5 croissants.
Haarlem and Amsterdam are good cities to ponder the Dutch Golden Age, when a backwater became a superpower, with some remarkable things happening along the way. The story illustrates how everything affects everything else, usually with unintended consequences. Catholic Spain kept its hold on the Spanish Netherlands, now Belgium, and expelled all Protestants, Jews, and non-Catholics of every stripe. Antwerp and Bruges kicked out their most mercantile peoples, and Amsterdam took them in; they entered a steep decline and Amsterdam boomed. Where other states were run by aristocrats or churches, the Netherlands were run by middle-class merchants. With no altarpiece commissions, the painters turned to domestic subjects, with thrilling results. More interested in trade than evangelism, they eclipsed the Portuguese as seafaring explorers, and were the only people permitted to have contact with Japan in its two centuries of sakoku. The Dutch East India Company arguably laid the foundations of globalised capitalism that we so dearly cherish today.
The papers have gone, but they have left behind some remarkable mausoleums, and taken the name with them to Wapping and Kings Cross. Fleet Street is an idea as much as a street, yet the street has no little history; this was the route from the City to Westminster. Having spent next to no time working in central London, doing this walk made me feel like a tourist hick in an important place, getting in everybody’s way.