Birmingham: Out of the Blue

Posted by in Culture, Travel

If only this was the first thing I had seen!

INTRO

Quick note here, this is one of the hardest blogs I’ve done but as one of the biggest cities in the UK you can’t leave Birmingham out of the equation. It’s a pity that during my time there, like Manchester, several key places to visit were closed.

PEN MUSEUM – CLOSED
CHINA EXPRESSION GALLERY – CLOSED
ART GALLERY AND MUSEUM – CLOSED until 2022!

Not only that but I spend several visits trying to locate the city’s iconic Selfridges building only to find the mottled pink, and black blob before me is it! As always I’ve soldiered on to bring you the city as I saw it and some parts you may consider as alternatives. This blog also contains an affiliate link.

BIRMINGHAM BLUES

Prefab Sprout once told us it’s a life of surprises and that pretty much sums up Brum (as we affectionately call it in the UK). At first glance New Street station and the Bull Ring is a modern glitz fest, a shining ode to the future, like someone has landed a space ship in the middle of town, yet in mere minutes on foot you’re officially in the hood! 

Was this really central Birmingham!? It’s run down and feels like the city may have looked in the sixties or seventies. Rundown shuttered shops, railway arches and barren wastelands, no wonder Jeff Lynne had the Birmingham Blues and took the last train to London. And let’s not forget the Moody Blues; dear diary, what a day it’s been.

So at first glance – a step in the wrong direction and Birmingham can feel tired by comparison to Manchester and Liverpool. The Square is an architectural hangover of eighties urban planning and feels like it. But rest assured Brum is not sleeping and is throwing itself into the future as much as other British cities. 

The shape of things to come and the present past of Moor Street.

For a start there’s the HS2 High Speed Rail Project at Curzon Street which will almost adjoin the bygone era that is Moor Street station, I can’t wait to see the shock of the new rubbing shoulders with the well worn traditions of yore. 

But 2026 – Curzon’s projected opening date is five years away and you can see how slow we Brits are compared to the Chinese who build railways longer than the length of Britain with ease and already have massive stations built and serving the people! 

*I then learnt that Curzon had in fact been Brum’s main station in the 1800’s and the original building still stands and is being renovated to be part of the new station so that’ll be an interesting juxtaposition of styles, let’s hope they don’t cock it up like Newport did. Ho hum.

The buildings of Brum

IF PARADISE IS HALF AS NICE

Birmingham City University is housed in modern campus blocks, such as the Curzon building designed by Associated Architects, dotted around Eastside. The nearby ‘aloft’ Hotel is suitably placed for students or those in their 20s. 

On the other side of the central district lies – wait for it – Paradise (Where Commerce meets Culture says their website) one of the new business districts which will operate alongside Arena Central (think HSBC HQ) which in turn isn’t too far from The Mail Box mall (see below) and The Cube.

Then there’s the new library in Centenary Square, not sure why it’s designed the way it is but it stretches from the music library in the basement to the secret garden and there’s even more floorspace beyond that, nine in total. 

The Jewellery Quarter is just that, a collection of establishments selling bling with a few cafes which is ok if you want bling or coffee, but as mentioned the one drawcard for writers is obviously the Pen Museum and that’s closed (for now anyway).

Like Cardiff there’s no shortage of inner city arcades some more lively looking than others. The Minories, Piccadilly and Great Western mall near Snow Hill station are a few examples.

No rendezvous in Rio

FIND DURAN DURAN

‘Full of hope at Barbarellas, We named our first group after Barbarellas, Got to play on stage at Barbarellas, Car park now instead of Barbarellas’ from Barbarellas The Devils

Find Duran Duran? Chance would be a bloody fine thing wouldn’t it. Around Centenary Square lie remnants of their past though you wouldn’t know it. Everything has been glossed over with redevelopment. The Rum Runner club is now a gleaming black mirror tile skyscraper belonging to the HYATT hotel. 

The interior bears more resemblance to Michael Franks Rendezvous in Rio album cover than Duran’s iconic nod to things exotic. Behind the hotel is the (currently empty) Rum Runner Works, and aside that the nearby Reflex bar is about as close as I get to any sign of DD, no plaque, no nothing. As Simon Le Bon sings on the Reflex, ‘Isn’t that Bizarre?’ 

I sold the Renoir and the TV set

On nearby Cumberland Street there is nothing to note the passing of Barbarellas and although there is a Black Sabbath bridge featuring Ozzy and co there is absolutely zilch celebrating Duran Duran even though it was their stomping ground. 

And on that note, not far away in one of the city’s art college windows I happen to spot ‘I TOO WAS IN ARCADIA.’ It’s about the only nod to Duran I can find and even that may be nothing to do with the much cherished side project.

In Chinatown, something fishy lurks in the urban art.

ANOTHER CHINATOWN

Chinatown or the Chinese Quarter is visible via its pagoda (erected in 1998), and at first glance appears a huge let down, another dreary urban has been. No arch this time and let’s see, an Oriental supermarket, and a Vietnamese shop line the outskirts. 

A kindred style of relationship to the Hutongs of Beijing suggests beauty is hiding in the details. Scratch the surface and you’ll come across some fantastic urban art and Cathay Street which is more restaurants, a Chinese bakery (with real Chinese breads not the western food served up by most takeaways) and there’s a travel agent near by too. 

I haven’t come across a community centre but the Chinese I did exchange dialogue with couldn’t understand my Mandarin which is limited at best though the words I can remember worked in China. Maybe they were Cantonese? Or were the Chinese in China just being polite? Having said that they did give me what I ordered (in China) therefore my Mandarin must have been ok but not so in Brum. Strange but true.

An Asia closer to home.

LITTLE LAHORE

If it’s excitement or bustle of Asia you want, that lies a couple of miles out of town. There are Oriental people in Brum but they are greatly outnumbered by the Asian communities of Pakistan and India though the city is twinned with no less than three Chinese cities including Guangzhou.

Closer to home I stumble on the extraordinary Stratford Road comprising many Pakistani eateries and markets. It may look like Britain but the vibe and smells are distinctly Asian. This is great news in a time when international travel is still (for me) too risky.

They are celebrating EID and then their national day (this just before the fall of Kabul in neighbouring Afghanistan) and when I call in to a convenience store with a Pakistani flag draped outside to wish them a happy national day, I am greeted with a smile and a ‘thankyou sir.’ Great people if only we would spend more time talking to them.

Anyone for pink tea?

A street side stall sells Pink Tea garnished with cashew nuts. It’s my first taste of Pakistan. Further down Stratford Road toward the central city is Mushtaq’s food court selling all manner of sweets and some savouries – again it feels like one of the university canteens I remember in China. The mood is dour, grey and I can imagine tin trays.

Another persistent problem from the middle kingdom resurfaces in that the woman couldn’t understand what I was asking – what is in them? It took a passing younger generation Pakistani to help out. 

She could speak Urdu, a language I know absolutely nothing about. The sweets themselves are moist and crumbly – or very dry, not really to my liking to be honest but was if nothing else great to be able to try something new.  

According to some of the locals the area is not safe after dark (more so in the early hours). This may or may not be true but bear that in mind if you happen to be a night owl who takes random walks. 

That said even the central city can be dangerous with attacks on gay men by – allegedly – some of the Asian populous. Why anyone would seek out people they don’t like and then attack them I really don’t know, maybe they need some better hobbies.

Hopefully these are isolated incidents but pretty disturbing ones should you happen to be set on with no warning. Take care if in the Gay Village (I’ve not been myself but regardless one should be able to walk around without harm).

Run with me, river man

RIVER MAN

All the more reason then to ‘get back to nature’ as the Chinese say and on that note if it’s a stroll you’re after then I’d recommend the John Morris Jones walkway along the River Cole (not sure if it’s named after Jude, Lloyd or Paula – joke 😉

Sarehole Mill – billed as an ‘idyllic childhood haunt’ of TOLKIEN lies at the edge of the first portion of this walk. Never knew he had any connections to Brum until now. There’s a plethora of walks along the canal and the river, you could walk both for miles in either direction if you wanted to. 

One of the benefits of travelling the UK this summer has been to join the dots and learn how the country connects with itself; Banbury and Oxford to the Southeast, Hereford, Gloucester and Cheltenham to the Southwest, Shrewsbury, Telford and Mid Wales a touch upstream.

Be aware that on some days you might come across a few youths doing the odd bit of weed (and I don’t mean gardening). I didn’t encounter any ‘trouble’ and for the most part you’ll merely come across other walkers. *For newbies here, it isn’t so much people doing weed that bothers me but the smell.

Hall Green – not exactly on the visitors list of things to do in Brum is a very nice area as are the neighbouring locals of Shirley, Solihull and further down the proverbial track Leamington Spa (similar to Bath in the west of England); well worth a visit.

Also the parks in Solihull and Leamington Spa are better than Shirley Park which is good for families or if you want to play Tennis but not much else. 

I also learn that the Botanical Gardens (in Brum) once hosted an early gig by Spandau Ballet! Their manager gave Duran Duran short shrift and they quite rightly came away smiling (according to Nick Rhodes). Nowadays to enter the gardens will set you back £7.50

An intriguing collaboration at St Paul’s Gallery; a-ha, Duran sound wave art and Peter Gabriel.

DISCOVERING THE FUTURE PAST AT BIRMINGHAM’S GALLERIES

So let’s take a quick look at the galleries which are open. IKON Gallery lies in the upmarket Brindley Place just off the canal a short walk up from the Mail Box and The Cube. When I call it’s showing Mit Jai Inn’s Dreamworld. In the past it has hosted the likes of Dan Flavin. I’d say it’s a little like the Saatchi in London in that I found the building more interesting than the exhibits.

The Birmingham Society of Artists and Argentea (Photographers’ gallery) are at opposite ends of the same street, the northern side of St Paul’s Square. However it’s the St Paul’s Gallery – a stones throw off the main square that really ticks all the boxes. Although not technically a gallery you can visit by appointment. 

Surprisingly it’s one of a few ‘galleries’ that specialises in the area of record cover art (or more so entertainment art as some of their stock is from film), some signed by both the musical artist and graphic artist. Gemma, my host, tells me the gallery was once bigger but now shares a space with a water company – anyone for a new sink? It’s the last thing I’m expecting to see.

Turn the corner and as if by magic one is transported to a selection of mostly Pink Floyd (if you’re a fan of Floyd or Storm Thorgesson this place will be another form of paradise). My favourite though is the imagery from Genesis Lamb Lies Down on Broadway album. In addition are prints for almost all of Peter Gabriel’s solo albums (and yes some of these are signed).

There isn’t too much in the way of new wave but there is hope as Gemma pulls out a signed sound wave print for Duran Duran’s Hungry Like The Wolf (this on the same day their album Future Past is released). Other than Duran Duran is a-ha’s imagery for Foot of the Mountain.

Out of this world and back to the future!

FACE THE MUSIC

During my tenure in Brum, it is announced that Duran Duran were to host two intimate shows to foreshadow their album (Future Past) and tour. This would be a great opportunity to see them on home turf!

Come ticket sale day and I’m gutted to see they are simply beyond my means BUT could Scritti Politti at half the price be an option? Why yes they could! Genesis play the same night as Scritti in a huge arena and charge an equally huge price and although it pains me to say it, are way past their sell by date.

Other than ELO, Ozzy and Duran Duran the city has been home to UB40, three quarters of early nineties electro-soulsters Electribe 101 and more recently Laura Mvula whose Pink Noise is fabulous and very eighties! Of course I’m a bit biased here 😉 

Ian Eames – the artist known for his work for Pink Floyd and also Duran Duran’s The Chauffeur video also hailed from Brum as did saxophonist du jour Theo Travis (Robert Fripp, Steven Wilson, John Foxx among many others). 

And I couldn’t come to Brum without mentioning the painter David Bomberg, a long time fave who again I can find no trace of. I reached out to the Art Gallery and Museum who said his Russian Ballet lithographs are only shown for limited periods as are his oil paintings. These include a self portrait (1937) acquired from his widow Lilian Bomberg.

Moo-ve out of my way!

THE BULL AND BIRMINGHAM

Birmingham is known for The Bullring – a standing joke much like the Elephant and Castle in London; both shopping centres were considered cheap or naff in the seventies and eighties. The latter was a bright pink colour for many years. So what is the significance of the bull to Birmingham, I mean Oxford makes sense but why Brum? 

The Hereford Bull apparently has a strong (well it would be wouldn’t it) connection to Birmingham. The origins of which stem back to the 16th century when John Cooper was given the right to bait bulls at a site opposite today’s shopping mall (one assumes near the outdoor market and St Martin’s church). Hence the name the Bull Ring and today a sculpture of a bull stands outside the main entrance to the modern mall. So now we all know.

The airport and its Costa.

GETTING ABOUT

In normal times the airport is one of the busiest in the UK outside London though I’d say Manchester has stolen some of its thunder. Nonetheless Brum is a nice and reasonably big airport with connections to Europe, and the Middle East courtesy of the ever present KLM, Emirates, and Turkish Airlines. 

My impression was that in ‘normal’ circumstances the terminal must be bedlam! While I was there it was more or less empty – nicely designed Costa coffee by the way, sweeping curves and all that. In addition are some nice hotels on site; Hilton Garden and even the IBIS budget is looking good. Bus connections into Brum, Coventry and also to Heathrow.

In town the modern bright blue tram glides around and connects to the nearby city of Wolverhampton. The network is being extended within Birmingham as we speak. The National Express run from the Coach Station in Digbeth, which is nicer than I remember it being but still a ropey part of town. 

To be fair I think the local council are attempting to clean this area up hence the new tramline and some other swanky bars dotted around. Also home to the o2 Institute and some of the urban art but tread carefully at night.

If you’re getting the FlixBus into or out of town then note it stops on a grotty street beside the sprawling New Street Station very close to the Electric Cinema. Megabus don’t fare much better; a grotty sloping street. And that about wraps up Brum.

PLAYLIST AND CREDITS

Thanks for reading here, should you be interested in my work; principally writing, photography, and teaching, check out the MEDIA page, and/or the UNIVERSITY page for my teaching ethos. Thanks Victoria from the Birmingham Art Gallery and Museum and Gemma from St Paul’s Gallery.

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PLAYLIST
Burning the Ground – Duran Duran
Birmingham Blues – ELO
Barbarellas – The Devils
Dear Diary – The Moody Blues
It’s a Mystery – Toyah
Soul Train – Swans Way
Set Me Free – Jaki Graham
Don’t Let it Get You Down – FYC
You’re Walking – Electribe 101
One in Ten – 808 State/UB40
Give it All Up – Duran Duran
Before the Dawn – Laura Mvula

ELO and Moody’s album covers from Discogs.com, Duran Duran’s Future Past shot at HMV Brum not long after its release 2021.