A Birmingham peculiar

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Last Sunday took me back to Birmingham, for a screening in the Flatpack Festival of a short film I’d made of the walk I did to Twyford Abbey with Nick Papadimitriou and Peter Knapp. Nick joined me for the jaunt to the Midlands and I managed to persuade him to take a detour with me through the splendour of the Piccadilly Arcade.

Piccadilly Arcade Paul Maxfield

The beautifully painted ceiling of the arcade is by Paul Maxfield and with the glimmering lights and tiled floor recalls the dream palaces that inspired Parisian poets and German social theorist Walter Benjamin who, when he described the Paris arcades as ‘a land full of inconspicuous places from which dreams arise’, and that the arcades were ‘galleries leading into the city’s past’ could as easily have been writing about Birmingham’s Piccadilly Arcade as the Passage des Panoramas.

Ben Waddington later told me that the Arcade had been built as a silent cinema but had declined in the 1920’s and converted to a shopping arcade. Nick seemed unimpressed by the arcade, the video I attempted to shoot on my pocket camera (a Canon Powershot sx230 Hs) has a soundtrack of him impatiently drumming a rolled up copy of the TLS against his hip climaxing in an instruction to, “Hurry Up John”.

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Nick seemed to enjoy Victoria Square much more than the arcade. We’d detoured around some of the side-streets leading away from New Street and remarked on how hilly this part of Birmingham City Centre feels. It’s a city that cries out to be explored.

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After using the toilets in the Symphony Hall our explorations led us into the Museum and Art Gallery where there was a display of the recently discovered Staffordshire Hoard, “The largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found”.  The delicate filigree pattern on the jewelry and sword mounts was hypnotic – at odds with the idea of a brutal and barbaric ‘Dark Ages’.

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I was equally seduced by the work of the Birmingham Group of artists, particularly ‘Sigismonda drinking poison’ by Joseph Southall. The above painting of ‘tower block with old lady’ by Arthur Lockwood found in a room displaying architectural models of the city stayed with me throughout the day. Lockwood has documented the changing urban landscape of West Midlands with watercolour paintings, leading him to be described as “Birmingham’s very own Lowry”.

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The screening in Digbeth was looming so there was little time to absorb the ambiences of the City Arcade of which Nick was even less forgiving. Curzon Street Station (opened in 1838) was another matter – dominating the landscape on the approach to New Street on the train from Euston and soon to be the Birmingham terminus of HS2. Perhaps the reopening of the station will breathe new life into the Eagle and Tun.

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Fazeley Street Birmingham

The sun broke through as we reached the Digbeth Branch Canal at the junction of the Typhoo Basin. We had half-an-hour before the screening in an old industrial building beside the towpath and Nick told me more about his interest in the Birmingham poet Roy Fisher whilst I talked of walking the River Rea and doing the Tolkien Trail.

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We had been invigorated by our short stroll around Birmingham, it seems to offer so many possibilities for the urban rambler. We are already plotting a return.

1 Comment

  1. Sean McBurney   •  

    Pat Roach (wrestler and actor) used to own a gym above Picadilly Arcade. He also wrote a great book about Birmingham.

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