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.

Birmingham wander

Headed up to Birmingham yesterday to show my two Solstice Walk super 8 short films in the Still Walking Festival – a screening organised by Magic Cinema and Video Strolls.

Rathayatra festival Birmingham

Leaving London can feel strange sometimes, my wanderings around and within the city occasionally breaking the borders into Essex or Middlesex feel transformative enough, so coursing through the open countryside on a Virgin train is like traveling to another country, leaving the City State for that mythical isle – ENGLAND.

Rathayatra Birmingham

After navigating a few of the city centre hills and valleys I followed the sounds of music into Victoria Square where devotees of Krishna were celebrating Rathayatra. Hindus always seem to look so happy – they clearly have something going on. I bought a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and chatted to the lady on the stall. I told her that I wanted a copy because I have an audio book by David Lynch where he keeps mentioning it, talking about meditation in that David Lynch voice of his but then digressing into an anecdote about Blue Velvet or Eraserhead. The lady on the stall looked slightly nonplussed.

I had about 2 hours for a wander and just followed my nose, through China Town then the Gay district. I have a pretty awful sense of direction at the best of times but Birmingham seemed to completely fry my navigational circuits sending me in large loops around rubble strewn car parks and wholesale markets. Andy from Magic Cinema said this was the effect of the city’s ‘concrete collar’, the asphalt noose formed by a series of ring roads.

The wide open roads and vacant lots put me in mind of the edge of Downtown Los Angeles. In fact it was Digbeth. I was told later that the area is full of artists’ studios and hidden galleries. It was here on Floodgate Street that I should have picked up the River Rea and followed it to Calthorpe Park, but somehow I missed it. Later at the screening I saw a film about a raft race on the Rea in the Digbeth Olympics, I now vow to go back and complete this walk.

I got sucked into The Custard Factory, and they mean ‘THE’ custard factory – Birds Custard, the only custard that matters unless you’re one of those ponces who does the Jamie Oliver recipe. Typhoo Tea was also round here, the essential tastes of England within a single block.

Birmingham is a Ruin Porn Paradise of which I only caught a glimpse. With every corner of London being magicked into luxury buy-to-leave apartments for offshore oligarchs to dump their ill-gotten gains, it was uplifting to see large parts of a city seemingly left to its own devices. Birmingham offers hope, for now at least, although god knows what effect HS2 will have.

The screening was in a fantastic space – Ort Cafe which had the vibe of the kind of place you imagine you’d find in San Francisco and reminded me of Glebe in Sydney. They made a cracking veggie burger which I complimented with a bottle of local Pale Ale. Ort is next door to the old Moseley School of Art, opened in 1900, closed in 1976 doing an Edwardian glamour contest with the public baths opposite.

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While I waited for the No.50 back to New Street Station, Dennis gave me many of the snippets of local knowledge I’ve briefly (mis)remembered here. He told me about the Tolkien link, how Birmingham is Middle Earth, Two Towers, Mordor and all. There’s even a Middle Earth Festival.

The No.50 in the opposite direction terminates at Druids Heath.

Best to watch this with the ‘HD’ turned on up to 1080


 

Have a look at this video by Andy Howlett searching for the River Rea and giving you some interesting info about Birmingham’s past