Lost histories of Britain

Forgotten tales from every corner of this island

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August 17, 2020

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.

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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 Grazynyté-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 célèbre 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.