Thursday 21 January 2010

Putting the brum back into Brummie

This is Birmingham, written and illustrated by Jan Bowman
‘This age of reason and Enlightenment, Was a most thrilling, optimistic time, To be alive.’

I had the misfortune of growing up before Birmingham’s redevelopment and the establishment of its now rather good nightlife. All I remember about the takeover-threatened Cadbury is drunken nights with friends who worked at the factory, counter to Bourneville’s Quaker dictates to his once resident workers. And yet, even though Birmingham’s most ‘beautiful bits’ seemed to pass me by, after years in industry-lite London - failed financial centre of the world, and still the country’s only genuine ‘world city’ - I’m forever grateful to my home city for its grubby dynamism, the glimpse it offered of the possibilities thrown up by urban life. This is the Birmingham that comes shining through in Bowman’s book.

This is Birmingham is an exhilarating, beautifully illustrated and lyrical trip through Birmingham’s past. It’s a celebration of the nation’s now-and-then second city, and more importantly the Brummy contribution to modernity. It examines from an almost mythical eighteenth century, a time when ‘cities did not exist’ and ‘there were no machines’, to the sudden ‘burst of ideas and energy’ that made the world that we live in today. It may be designed for eight year olds and overs, but it manages to convey in a few short pages the story of how what happened in Birmingham not so long ago, transformed people’s lives forever. The city, we discover, is more than a bleak drive-through. It’s a sleeping giant that once played a leading role in the making of the world.

In the driving seat, an apt metaphor, given the city’s love affair with the motor car, were the ‘Lunar Men’, or ‘Lunaticks’ as they dubbed themselves. The Lunar Society met when the moon shone brightest, as that was the only way they could get home safely from their highbrow gatherings. They were, like most modern day Brummies, inventive, practical souls – but more than that, they were men of ideas. They were important figures of the Enlightenment period with an impact that was diverse and profound, from the beginnings of steam power to literally lighting up the world when they pioneered street lighting. Josiah Wedgwood was a Lunar man. His famous ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother?’ coin is a reminder, to those of us that toured his factory on school trips, that he was not only a notable ceramicist and industrialist but an opponent of slavery.

Their ideas inspired great public works: ‘An aqueduct was laid to Wales, So all would have enough to drink, And wash in’. A fact that impressed me as a child, as it took three long hours to get to Towyn where my grandparents lived, and there were we drinking their water! No wonder the locals daubed rude words about the English on the bridges. But however much that particular aqueduct was put to national (or at least regional) advantage, the whole of humanity would benefit from wider applications. Which is why the story behind the ‘optimism and inspiration’ of Birmingham’s particular Enlightenment – the Lunar men and their ideas about science, politics and society, and how the city, the region, and in turn the nation became the ‘workshop of the world’ – makes for a great children’s book, inspiring wide-eyed wonder about where the lives we lead today actually came from.

With this in mind, Birmingham City Council could do worse than order a copy for each of its primary schools. It is not only an important corrective to the notion that Britain’s second city is a grey and miserable place you pass through on the way to somewhere more interesting. It’s also a counter to the equally daft ‘eco-miserabilism’ that children are bombarded with, to no apparent practical end other than to detach them from the past gains of humanity. Much better to foster an appreciation of what their future-oriented ancestors once did for the betterment of humanity, and how their legacy lives on today. We don’t set a particularly good example. For adult Brummies a vague sense of disappointment, embarrassment even, is mixed in with a sometimes fierce, if none too defensive, pride. There is the desperate resort to the banal and tangential that even Bowman indulges: Brummies once manufactured ‘the nibs for nearly every pen’ in the world. The city is the home of Balti and Bhangra and to ‘nearly half of Europe’s bluebells’. Everyone’s heard of the Bull Ring, and Spaghetti Junction is a landmark of sorts. The canals? There’s more than in Venice ya know!

While resorting to this sort of thing is more than forgivable for a children’s author, and an interesting distraction for kids and adults alike, it cannot disguise the fact that Birmingham lost its raison d’etre a long time ago. Consequently, the city fails even to live on its past glories. While there’s still a misplaced romance about Manchester’s satanic mills (did they do anything else?) and an undeniable if slightly shaky swagger about the Mancunian present, Birmingham, annoyingly, not only fails to convince with its shopping lists of useless facts and trivia, it also fails to draw on its world-shaping heritage as well. No matter how hard it tries, Birmingham is a deeply unfashionable city.

Industry, particularly the motor industry, isn’t what it used to be. As Bowman puts it, from the Lunar Society’s ‘chariot’, the ‘world’s very first powered, And functioning land vehicle’ – ‘Birmingham embraced the car, And its accompanying shopping malls’. Countless people I know have worked with cars in one way or another: at ‘The Rover’, for instance, or servicing cars for the family business like my dad and his dad before him. Equally, while the custard factory that once ‘made all the world’s custard powder’ is now a part of an apparently thriving cultural quarter, it’s hard to imagine great artists and composers like Dvorak flocking to Birmingham, never mind lavishing praise on the city as they once did during its industrial heyday.

Birmingham may be putting itself forward as city of culture, something which (when the word actually meant something) it clearly had a good case for, and its great civic buildings are a lasting legacy. But today this speaks to the sense of a city desperately searching for a new purpose in life, and running away from its old associations. Cars and consumerism, whatever the economics of the matter, are not the sort of things you’re supposed to boast about anymore. Cities – oddly – are expected to embrace their polar opposite, and celebrate the ‘local’ and ‘community’, rather than the wealth and mobility that allow people to escape these things. The ‘muge soaring, roaring carriageways’ and the ‘many miles of motorways’ that Bowman wants us to love are no longer an asset, they are a liability.

The heights of a more ambitious age described so vividly in This is Birmingham are quite alien to us today. This isn’t surprising in a society that has turned its back on the great achievements of the industrial age and become estranged from its past. In its place is the search for what Bowman describes as the ‘beautiful bits’ of Birmingham, the café society, the park bandstands, the shops and markets. Or what Brian Travers of UB40-fame describes in his salute to the book as a window on ‘our city full of secrets’. But it is no good looking in the more picturesque nooks and crannies, you won’t find Birmingham there.

As Bowman herself tells the young reader, the biggest secret of all is that Birmingham created the modern world. And then forgot. We should be putting this right and rediscovering the promise of ‘this’ Birmingham, and inspiring younger generations to shape their city and their world in the inquiring and industrious spirit of the Lunar men before them.


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