This article is from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To receive the full magazine, why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
A a few years ago I was filmed in Birmingham for a BBC documentary (the footage was not used). As a location, I had suggested outside the monumental 1834 Town Hall – built not for the government but as the venue for the famous triennial music festival of the time, which would feature premieres by Mendelssohn, Dvořák and Elgar. Instead, a concrete gutter of a two-lane road was chosen: the usual dismissive shortcut for the city if, indeed, one thinks of it at all.
Birmingham is practically absent from our national life. Peaky Blinders may seem like an exception, but that only adds to this ignorance. As Richard Vinen points out in this captivating book, the city was much more a place of wealth and confidence, modern factories and spacious housing, than the whimsical world of Tommy Shelby suggests.
Modern brummies can only express civic pride when diluted with irony – this is a town that elevated greasy spoon cafe Mr Egg to icon status – so rather than trying to confuse some of the stereotypes, Vinen the students to the virtues. His Birmingham is a centrifugal place that is exceptional in its banality; its charm is in the banal, its history in its absence, its total lack of beauty.
This applies to some extent to all industrial towns in the interior of Britain and is perhaps less true here. It was the third largest city in England in the mid 1700s, used to producing tenacious eccentricsand actually has pretty bits – its central squares, its surprisingly leafy suburbs, its many parks, the jewelry district.
Vinen is a very good writer, however, and these themes work well in the central part of his book. The town between Chamberlain and Thatcher is illustrated by a wide variety of illuminating asides and undertones. It really comes to life when we look at Birmingham’s role as a pioneer of interwar modernity: cinemas (the Odeon chain started here) and sprawling family-run ‘Improved Pubs’.”.
During the war, its pivot industries were diverted to the production of armaments, in particular Spitfires. Shadow factories were built to ensure the continuation of work despite the bombardments. Remarkable prosperity continued for a few decades, but was slowly undermined.
Vinen claims the ’60s didn’t really happen in Brum
Herbert Manzoni, who tore down all opposition and plenty of Victorian gems to produce a ‘concrete neck’ ring road that squeezed the city center together for a generation, is drawing undeserved sympathy. But the damage wasn’t just homemade. As in London, the post-war government banned businesses from settling or expanding into the city, forcing hundreds of businesses to North or Wales. This, coupled with mismanagement and industrial strife, left it ill-prepared for the 1980s. Birmingham went from a wealthy city to a poor city within a few years. Unemployment soared and has remained stubbornly high ever since.
The book is terrific on post-war immigration; more have arrived here than anywhere outside London. There are lots of scary stories, but also uplifting stories – all masterfully told. The city’s transience is a key factor for Vinen, but it can be overdone; after all, the 1971 census showed that about 80 % of the city’s inhabitants were born in England. Among them, my own parents, of whom the ancestors were almost all living in the city in the 1700s.
The great moments of the deep past, its role in the Great Reformation Actor the “Midlands Enlightenment” by Boulton, Watt and Priestley, are treated somewhat superficially, as if the city of today were unrelated to the industrial melting pot that produced three times as many patents as anywhere else between 1750 and 1850.
The exception is the ubiquitous Joseph Chamberlain. Vinen gives him a great biography, but he feels detached from what really drove all these civic improvements – preacher George Dawson’s “municipal gospel”. It’s unclear here why Birmingham has been labeled ‘the best-governed city in the world’ a decade after the great man left.
Even in detail and captivating 20th century narrative, the exceptional or distinctive are sometimes overlooked. There is incisive material on council estates and patron-class settlements, such as Regency Edgbaston or nouveau-riche Solihull, but nothing on Moseley’s emergence as a bohemian outpost. Drama critic Kenneth Tynan’s disdain for the city that made him is considered iconic, but there is no mention of Cathy comes homepartly shot and shot there.
Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears and Alan Bleasdale’s debut first gay kiss on British television, and the first drama produced and written by and starring non-white actors, Handsworth-set Empire Road – all BBC Pebble Mill products – seem like strange omissions.
Dark and Heavy Sabbath The metals are at the forefront of the music section, although Vinen gives some space to reggae which, through bands such as Steel Pulse, probably had more influence locally. Vinen underestimates the 60s of the city music scene, mentioning The Move but ignoring Steve Winwood, the teenage prodigy of Kingstanding, one of the most influential figures in British rock history.
I’m not sure those who frequent the legendary Mothers – twice voted the best club in the world by Billboard, but not mentioned here – see, say, the beginnings of Winwood The traffic would agreed with Vinen’s assertion that the ’60s didn’t really happen at Brum.
Maybe it was a tentative return to George Dawson City
Vinen’s account is far more illuminating when it comes to the cultural vibrancy of the interwar period, including a hilarious tale of 1930s locals WH Auden and Louis MacNeice attending a wedding of convenience in a fake pub Tudor in Solihull, all – oddly – funded by Thomas Mann. Unfortunately, it misses one of the most enjoyable parts of Brummie’s story: the incongruous mid century surreal group led by the provocative Conroy Maddox: presumably the great eccentric from Balsall Heath was not ordinary or disengaged enough. More generally, we miss the part of Birmingham’s history that most upsets stereotypes: its artistic heritage, with its proto-Impressionists and its Pre-Raphaelites.
William Morris was president of the municipal school of the arts, the first, and a center for the Arts and Crafts movement. The building survives and its influence is evident in the surrounding streets, a late Victorian as unique as Brummie Spaghetti Junction. All of this is perhaps a bit too high for Vinen, who downplays the survival of urban fragments of the pre-war city.
It’s partly a matter of perspective. My most centripetal Birmingham is that of the 1990s. Manzoni’s concrete collar had been partly removed – a heroic achievement that is not mentioned enough here. New Street and Victoria square were pedestrian, giving large civic survivals a decent setting.
People came back to town, bars opened near the channels, and rave created a hedonistic nightlife, with hubs of alternative culture such as the opening of the Que Club and the Custard Factory – all organic creations of ordinary young Brummies. Vinen pays little attention to these changes, appearing to regard them as inauthentic and dishonest – but perhaps it was a tentative return to the town of George Dawson, Shakespeare festivals and music triennials.
Nonetheless, it’s a gratifying portrait of ordinary lives and increasingly mediocre politicians in perhaps the definitive industrial city of the 20th century. It’s a bit too partial, however, to deliver on the promise of the title and to demonstrate to a skeptical British audience just how they or they owe to this complex place.