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How Birmingham changed the world With its long history of nonconformity and innovation, Brum is a blueprint for a better Britain

'Benny's Babbies' is a joyful homage to Brum. Credit: Christopher Spencer, aka Cold War Steve.

'Benny's Babbies' is a joyful homage to Brum. Credit: Christopher Spencer, aka Cold War Steve.


August 17, 2020   5 mins

When Channel 4 adapted Anthony Powell’s series of 12 novels A Dance to the Music of Time in 1997, the High Tory satirist Auberon Waugh thought they had missed a trick: the dialogue should have been delivered in Brummie accents. ‘Bron’ was getting two barbs in here: one against the author, friend of his father Evelyn; and one against a city he despised even more. Its brutalist architecture, industrial patina and ‘vulgar’ accent were targets for unflattering quips and asides throughout his many columns.

Another satirist, every bit as biting, took the opposite view. Jonathan Meades loves Birmingham, its “aptitude for substance over cosmetic style”, its “self-deprecating, unboastful, and peculiarly ironic humour”, and, most of all, its accent: English as it was before the great vowel shift. It is the closest thing we have to Shakespeare’s English; the Bard knew the northern reaches of the Forest of Arden on which Birmingham was sited. Meades asks you to declaim Polonius’s  “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” in Brummie. It makes perfect sense. An all-Brummie Hamlet would be quite the show.

Birmingham not only attracts satirists, it creates them. Christopher Spencer, aka ‘Cold War Steve’, has become the cold-eyed visual chronicler of Brexit Britain and its post-pandemic wasteland. His bleak, biting collages of two-bit celebrities, floundering mendacious politicians, and Harold Shipman, mark him out as the heir to Hogarth, to Rowlandson, to Gillray. He has tapped into the radical, non-conformist tradition of Birmingham.

Birmingham did not become a city until 1889, when it was already the dynamo of late Victorian Britain. It was a mere municipal borough when it became the “best run city in the world” under its charismatic mayor, Joseph Chamberlain — a self-made dandy, whose fortune derived from screws; a political liberal with a loathing for the aristocracy. In that, he was true Brummie.

Birmingham’s identity was forged, literally, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the centre of a trading and manufacturing network built on iron and coal from its hinterland — what would become known as the Black Country. It was strongly Protestant: a Brummie, John Rogers, compiled the first authorised edition of the Bible in English and was martyred for his sins in 1555 during the reign of ‘Bloody’ Mary. It became an arsenal for the Parliamentary forces during the Civil Wars, attacked by the Royalist Prince Rupert in 1643 — an event satirised in the tract Prince Rupert’s burning love for England, discovered in Birmingham’s flames.

When Charles II was restored, Nonconformism came under fire. But the Act of Uniformity of 1662 — and the Five Mile Act that followed, banning dissenting ministers from within five miles of a borough — didn’t affect Birmingham, a thriving metropole but an unincorporated one. In fact, the repression worked in its favour, as it became a haven of dissent, nonconformist in every sense, welcoming those who were different. And then it changed the world.

If we can point to the Ur-moment of the Industrial Revolution, it is surely 1709, in Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, where the Brummie Abraham Darby constructed the world’s first blast furnace using coke — abundant in the Black Country — to make cast iron. The nearby town of Ironbridge made his achievement tangible.

The Industrial Revolution in Birmingham and the Black Country was different to that in the North of England. There, it was about textile manufacturer on a grand scale, chewing and spitting out a low-paid, low-skilled workforce. In Birmingham and the Black Country, it was built on highly-skilled, highly-paid specialisms, incremental and adaptable. In the 100 years after 1750, Birmingham registered three times the patents of any other British settlement. Matthew Boulton’s Soho Manufactory, of which his Soho House residency remains in the city’s North-West, is where he teamed up with Scotsman James Watt to produce an improved steam engine, central to British manufacturing prowess at the time. No more would mankind be limited to the energies of hand, of water, of beast.

Culture accompanied this revolution. Birmingham became a focus for the British Enlightenment, centred on the Lunar Society. Ignoring the barriers between art and science, it often met in Boulton’s Soho House. Among its luminaries were Watt, Erasmus Darwin (who was an influential poet as well as an empirical scientist), Joseph Priestley, Josiah Wedgwood and Joseph Day (who wrote the anti-slavery tract, The Dying Negro in 1773.)

Political radicalism peaked in Birmingham during the febrile Days of May, just before the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832; the nation had been radicalised by Thomas Attwood’s Birmingham Political Union. Its vast political assemblies on Newhall Hill were the largest the nation had seen. Lord Durham, who drafted the Reform Act, noted that “the country owed Reform to Birmingham, and its salvation from revolution”. You’ll have heard of Peterloo, because it happened in Manchester, where people shout loud. But the real action was elsewhere.

And it didn’t end there. The Second Reform Act of 1867, which brought some of the male working class into the democratic fold for the first time, was led by MP for Birmingham, John Bright. The street named after him once housed the Futurist cinema, a haven, like the old Arts Lab in Aston, for those seeking European cinema during the 1980s.

By then, Birmingham was suffering. It had been bombed heavily, and inevitably,  during the war — but remained prosperous, maintaining its position as the nation’s manufacturing hub. Until the 1970s, the average wage in Birmingham and its environs surpassed that of the City of London. Preposterously, there were those associated with the Heath government during the early 1970s who thought the region should be levelled down, that it was overheating, that too many people wanted to live there, to the neglect of other cities. They didn’t have to wait long. The assault on manufacturing that began in the early 1980s hit Brum hard. Unemployment, which was 7% in 1979, rose to 20% just three years later. But it is a quietly resilient city.

Sometimes one wishes that it blew its own trumpet a little more, but bragging is not in Brum’s nature. So I’ll do it. Its great orchestra, the CBSO, is one of Europe’s finest — brilliant at discovering world-class conductors: Simon Rattle, Sakari Oramo, Andris Nelsons, and now the mercurial Lithuanian Mirga GrazynytĂ©-Tyla, whose repertoire is bold and original. She gets Brum and Brum gets her.

Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company is simply the nation’s (and one of Europe’s) finest — a model of innovation, which mirrors the city in its diversity and its radicalism. It has engaged thousands in performances of the highest quality, making use of the city’s industrial spaces and architecture.

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has prospered, too, with the arrival, to join its Pre-Raphaelites, of the Staffordshire Hoard. This has been a reminder of the region’s deeper past, rooted in Mercia and the magic of settlements with names such as Wednesfield (‘Woden’s Field), Willenhall, Wolverhampton and, perhaps the greatest Anglo-Saxon name of all of them, Bloxwich, birthplace of Noddy Holder.

But let’s return to the present, and Cold War Steve. Not all his visions of modern Britain are bleak. He has created one wonderful exception. It’s called Benny’s Babbies, named in honour of the dim-witted character in the little-lamented Birmingham-based soap opera Crossroads, who became the very woollen-hatted embodiment of the Brummie ‘daft’apporth’ in the city’s darker days. But Cold War Steve’s image is pure joy: a collage of the people and places that are Birmingham, crowned by Black Sabbath atop the Rotunda, and the statue of King Kong that became something of a cause cĂ©lĂšbre in the 1970s.

Jumbled in this image are the mediocre and the magical, the surreal and stable, and what you realise is the sheer diversity of Brum’s people. The latter is still the city’s greatest strength; it has come a long way from the division of the 1970s, when the population was fired up by Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech, made in the Midland Hotel in 1968, and stoked by the IRA Pub Bombings of 1974. Birmingham has passed through that fire, thank God, and feels at ease in its diversity. It doesn’t bang on about it, it just is.

Much has been made of late of Britain’s supposed ‘world-beating’ capacities — in trade deals, in vaccines, its test and trace capacity — most of them chimerical. Birmingham — self-deprecatory, modest but assured — represents a blueprint for a better Britain, at ease with itself, less concerned about being number one, just content to be itself.


Paul Lay is Editor of History Today. 

_paullay

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Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

“Much has been made of late of Britain’s supposed ‘world-beating’ capacities ” in trade deals, in vaccines, its test and trace capacity ” most of them chimerical. Birmingham ” self-deprecatory, modest but assured ” represents a blueprint for a better Britain, at ease with itself, less concerned about being number one, just content to be itself.”
Yes!

Robin P
Robin P
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Birmingham nowadays has little in common with what it was in previous centuries, though I think it does retain a relatively high level of community cohesion (except for those roads infested with “students” of a certain redbrick university). In recent decades it has been greatly damaged by globalist corporate greed-merchants, turning it more and more into just an extension of the social cesspit 110 miles to the south.

Iain Muir
Iain Muir
3 years ago

“Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company is simply the nation’s (and one of Europe’s) finest”

To say that it is ‘the nation’s finest’ is just plain silly. It is a small, painfully right-on company that is a niche within a niche. Its predictably woke output virtually guarantees good reviews.

Get a sense of proportion please.

Iain Muir
Iain Muir
3 years ago
Reply to  Iain Muir

Should have been “its”.

Ben
Ben
3 years ago

I have semi-nostalgic childhood memories of Brum. I was born there (Edgbaston, June 1967), and lived in a new brick-box three-up-three-down in Kesteven Close off Sir Harry’s Road. I recall large, white, mock-Georgian houses nearby with spacious front gardens, elevated behind high walls adjoining the Wellington Road. I recall the the Botanical gardens, feeding the ducks on the pond and the Anglican church on the green. My parents were members of the Priory Club, down Sir Harry’s Road. I suppose it is still there. In those days the club consisted of a squash court or two, some grass tennis courts and and an outdoor swimming pool.

D M
D M
3 years ago
Reply to  Ben

The Edgbaston Priory club is not only still there but a thriving club. The outdoor pool is still there and (I think) 26 tennis courts! They also hold the AEGON women’s tennis Championship on their centre court. Lovely place and area.

Richard Gibbons
Richard Gibbons
3 years ago

Diversity has and never will be a strength

Robin P
Robin P
3 years ago

Indeed. See my own comment here which elaborates on some facts relating to that very theme.

stevemccabe1960
stevemccabe1960
3 years ago

My parents, Irish immigrants, came to Birmingham in the 1950s because it was a place you could get jobs in the many factories and, if you preferred to work outside, ‘on the buildings’ that was part of the reconstruction which, sadly, did more to destroy the old Birmingham than the Luftwaffe. This is why is was such a soulless place for visitors in the 1960s and 70s but was a wonderful city to grow up in (the dreadful atrocity of the murderous pub bombings notwithstanding for the Irish). It is notable that the two largest – pre-Covid-19 – events in the city were the German Christmas Market and St Patrick’s Day Parade.

If you have not read her book, Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men it really is a wonderfully evocative history of how the brilliant minds of those who were developing ideas that would change the world and ensured Birmingham’s preeminence as a city of industry, ingenuity and, of course, opportunity for those who wanted work:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lu

Fast forward to 2020 and exists now? Certainly none of the once great names such as Lucas Industries where my mother worked until she retired.

Will industry return?

Doubtful but the current crisis has turned the world on its head.

I recall going to Manchester University in 1981 and thinking how down on its luck that city felt as it was experiencing the decline of its industries, Birmingham still being the great ‘motor city’.

No-one says Manchester lacks brio. Its renaissance, using existing buildings, has created a city that is aesthetically pleasing.

Birmingham is much better for having lost the ‘concrete necklace’ that was the Inner Ring Road and its multitude of pedestrian underpasses. However, there is still much to be done.

Reminds me of the perennial joke about the city Birmingham; “It will be nice when it’s finished!”

Great article Paul.

D.C.S Turner
D.C.S Turner
3 years ago

Symphony Hall used to be a magnet for high quality classical music. By the start of the pandemic it had become just a large venue that barely managed to put on a decent classical concert more than once a week. As for its cinemas, there aren’t any that deserve the name.

Ian Collett
Ian Collett
3 years ago

“My kinda town” ‘Telly Savalas Looks at Birmingham’,
https://www.youtube.com/wat

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
3 years ago

Paul,
You paint a picture of Birmingham in the past. Then it was the world’s number one manufacturing city. The wealth this produced did allow Birmingham, in Victorian times, to build an excellent water supply (from the Elan Valley), the Town Hall etc. Even by the 1930s; it was still capable of having a great feeder theatre – the Birmingham Rep. I remember going to the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford with my father, who said of the great actors of the time (1970’s), that he remembered seeing them in their early days at the Rep. Does the Rep still exist?
Your last paragraph worries me. I am not sure that people like Abraham Darby or Matthew Boulton would have considered being at ease with themselves – they wanted to be number one.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

“Your last paragraph worries me. I am not sure that people like Abraham Darby or Matthew Boulton would have considered being at ease with themselves – they wanted to be number one.”
I doubt it that the last paragraph is holding back anyone (in the whole UK, not just Birmingham) from building the British version of Intel, Samsung, Google or Fanuc. Go for it.
The British (should I say English?) endlessly “bang on” about their achievements. Surely by now all that “banging on” would have produced the British version of Intel, Samsung, Google, Fanuc and so on…
And won a few more World Cups

Robin P
Robin P
3 years ago

This account misses out the reason why Birmingham became the origin of the modern technologised world and thus most important city in history.

Firstly, Britain was a remote island right on the far edge of the known world, and then cut off by a channel. As a result, there was far less migration to Britain over many centuries, and also far fewer invasions (basically J Caesar then W the Conquerer).

And Birmingham was that much more special because alone among cities it was nowhere near any significant river. (The River Rea is still quite a piddler now and would have been even more so before its input area got built up.)

Birmingham was basically at the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere. As a result it had even lower levels of strangers dropping by. And that is the crucial thing.

When there is a very low level of migrants and other strangers coming to your area, you end up with a situation of just about everyone knowing everyone else. And that enables a very strong community with zero crime rate. People then don’t need to fear one another, they don’t have to worry about saying the “wrong thing”, instead they honestly speak their mind. A high level of trust and honesty develops.

Freed from the need to worry about what others might think or do, and not needing to constantly watch their backs, the people could then become cooperative and creative. And so the still very small town of Birmingham (with an orchard where Cherry Street is now) became, in due course the centre of the world’s creativity.

Local community with low migration is the very foundation of civilisation. And migration is its deadly enemy. Wherever globalisation (and other hypermobility) goes, criminality and discord very soon invariably follows.

jeffreyjguest
jeffreyjguest
3 years ago

Wouldnt it be just bostin to hear and see the taming of the shrew in broad brummie or black country dialect. The Black Country Bugle have published parts of the Bible that my church enjoyed being shared via the spoken word at one or two festivals in Smethwick, (Smethwick was mentioned in the Doomsday Book) and strangely thos who enjoyed it most were the asylum seekers from Iran who followed a printed version as I read out loud. So, if the Bible, why not Shakespear?