Last night was a fun night for a midlander to be on Twitter. Footage emerged showing Steven Emerson, noted US terrorism theorist, describing Birmingham as “entirely Muslim” and “a no-go are for non-Muslims”. This of course came as news to the the 78% of Brummies who don’t identify as Muslim, many of whom took their sarcastic selves to Twitter. Highlights included this one, probably my favourite of the evening:
— Peter Moore (@petermoore) January 11, 2015
Birmingham is the perfect city for our so-called expert to have chosen. If he’d have picked Manchester or Liverpool you just know he’d have got a massive earful off some chippy Northerners – people become very passionate about being from these places. If he’d picked Bradford or Burnley, probably more likely candidates, I imagine he’d have got more of the same ire. But Brummies have always been utterly self-deprecating, it’s like a regional trait. The British stereotype map isn’t really right: most locals are fiercely proud of their city. But when you’re blessed with a Brummie accent and your most famous landmark is a motorway junction it’s only natural to develop a slightly ironic take on civic chest-beating.
For most, this episode comes on the back of the Paris terror attacks. For me, it comes as a precursor to the demolition of the Central Library (I recognise this is a bit abstract, bear with). The library is a bold symbol of the High Modernism of mid-century Birmingham, but also of the last 150 years of Brum’s history. Like the other Great Cities of industrial Britain, Birmingham grew up with little planning or thought for its growth – it just exploded. Again as elsewhere, this led to tremendous inequality between people and places; the thriving industrial sector and the wealthy elegance of its beneficiaries stood in stark contrast to the appalling poverty of much of the city’s working class. From this time on though, the city became a kind of social laboratory for planners and reformers.
The first major intervention was Chamberlain’s Corporation Street project. This bulldozed slums and drove through a major new commercial thoroughfare which remains today – but it left a legacy of homeless slumdwellers with nowhere to go (see Mayne’s The Imagined Slum for detail on this). In the twentieth century, the Birmingham Blitz gave city fathers another opportunity for redevelopment, and they really went for it. This was the era of estates like Castle Vale and Chelmsley Wood, and the tower blocks which dot the city’s horizon. It saw the reconstruction of the Bull Ring in orange and grey, and the construction of a space-age road system, the Queensway. The Library was part of this. Although it was originally intended to be clad in marble, its concrete facade typified the age of Brutalism, so successfully that it aroused the ire of Prince Charles.
Birmingham has been messed with and played around with for years, an experimental field to try out new ideas. Success has been judged on all sorts of criteria, and many of the changes have been “remedied”, for better or worse. The library is the latest. Its replacement is a thing of genuine splendour, but to just knock down the old one shows a remarkable lack of appreciation of the effect places and spaces can have on hearts and minds. It’s held in great affection by many people who spent their childhoods in there, or who read and wrote and learned great things within its many walls. But its getting knocked down for a new shopping precinct, which is just what everyone needs.
But that’s Birmingham, it seems. Massive schemes come and go, and people have to get used to it. I wonder if that’s what contributes to the region’s self-deprecating humour and the sarcasm that made Twitter such fun last night. When the things you love can get torn down and replaced whether you like it or not, what’s the point in getting all romantical?