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.

London beers #1: Reliance Pale Ale & Wu Gang

London is currently bursting with breweries, at least 50 at the last count. Luckily for me a place has opened on my doorstep that sells a great selection of the ales they are turning out giving me the opportunity to sample them by taking the short stroll across Wanstead Flats to the Wanstead Tap

Brixton Brewery Pale Ale

Reliance Pale Ale – Brixton Brewery

According to the eye-catchingly designed label this luscious golden pale ale is named in honour of one Brixton’s dreamlike arcades – the Reliance Arcade built in 1925 and now thankfully granted Grade 2 listed status. I wrote about the arcades in This Other London. German theorist Walter Benjamin used the Paris Arcades as the inspiration for his seminal work The Arcades Project. Benjamin saw the arcades as being like the portals to the underworld of ancient Greece, ‘a land full of inconspicuous places from which dreams arise’. The arcades were ‘galleries leading into the city’s past’ that we pass during the day not realizing the wonders they hold.

In the case of the Reliance Arcade the dream that has arisen is this glorious pale ale. I don’t know how to describe it in terms of its aromas and the varieties of hops used in its brewing except to say that my taste buds ascended to the heavens and did laps around the evening sun. It’s bloody gorgeous.

Pressure Drop Brewery

Wu Gang Chops The Tree – Pressure Drop Brewing

I had no idea what a Hefeweisse is and was beguiled into buying this curious brew by the idea that it contained ‘foraged herb'(s). Dan at the Tap suggested it had hints of sage. It’s also got a lovely label – you don’t find artwork like that on a tin of Carlsberg. Pressure Drop are also relatively local being based over the valley in Hackney.

It slides down like a melted ice cream working it way over your knuckles on a childhood summer afternoon. I couldn’t taste the foraged herbs to be honest but by the time I’d worked that out it didn’t matter.

I’d better get over to the Tap for the next batch.

Arcades of Paris (with Walter Benjamin)

On New Year’s Eve we stumbled across these two arcades in Paris (I’d love to say that this came as a shock as we’d been taking a stroll along Leytonstone High Road, but sadly nothing mystical was involved, we traveled on Eurostar).

I thought of Walter Benjamin and his Arcades Project, a book I confess I’ve only read snippets of, but is difficult to avoid if you have an interest in the life of cities – it is a grand work dreamt up in these very arcades.

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From what I gather, he saw the arcades as the natural habitat of the urban wanderer, the drifter, the flaneur:
“The Parisians … have made Paris the holy city of the flaneur – ‘the landscape built of sheer life,’ as Hofmannsthal once put it”

Benjamin describes the experience of the urban drift, or what another dweller of Paris, Guy Debord, would recast as the psychogeographic derive (Debord would see the flaneur as a decadent figure rather than a revolutionary or a subversive – I’m not so sure myself)

“That anamnestic intoxication in which the flaneur goes about the city not only feeds on the sensory data taking shape before his eyes but can very well possess itself of abstract knowledge – indeed, of dead facts – as something experienced or lived through.”

“The innermost glowing cells of the city of light, the old dioramas, nested in the arcades, one of which today still bears the name Passage des Panoramas. It was, in the first moment, as though you had entered an aquarium. Along the wall of the great darkened hall, broken at intervals by narrow joints, it stretched like a ribbon of illuminated water behind glass.”
Difficult to imagine Westfield Stratford moving someone to produce such prose.

“Architecture as the most important testimony to latent ‘mythology.’ And the most important architecture of the nineteenth century is the arcade.”

Quotes from The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin
Reading on the video by Heidi Lapaine