Conroy Maddox, The Lesson, 1938/1970

The beauty and richness of Brum

Richard Vinen offers a rewarding portrait of ordinary lives and increasingly mediocre politicians


This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

A few years ago, I was filmed in Birmingham for a BBC documentary (the footage wasn’t used). As a location, I’d suggested outside the monumental 1834 Town Hall — built not for government but as a venue for the then-famous triennial music festival, which would feature premieres from Mendelssohn, Dvořák and Elgar. Instead, a concrete gutter of a dual carriageway was chosen: the usual dismissive shorthand for the city if, indeed, it is thought about at all. 

Second City: Birmingham and the Forging of Modern Britain, Richard Vinen (Allen Lane, £25)

Birmingham is virtually absent in our national life. Peaky Blinders might seem an exception, but it really only adds to this ignorance. As Richard Vinen outlines in this absorbing book, the city was far more a place of affluence and confidence, modern factories and spacious housing, than the fanciful world of Tommy Shelby suggests. 

Modern brummies can only express civic pride when diluted with irony — this is a city that has elevated Mr Egg, a greasy spoon café, to an icon — so rather than attempting to confound some of the stereotypes, Vinen raises them to virtues. His Birmingham is a centrifugal place that is exceptional in its ordinariness; its charm is in the mundane, its history in its absence, its lack of beauty total. 

This applies to some extent to all Britain’s inland industrial cities and is perhaps less true here. It was the third largest city in England by the mid 1700s, has a habit of producing dogged eccentrics, and does actually have some pretty bits — its central squares, its surprisingly leafy suburbs, its numerous parks, the Jewellery Quarter. 

Vinen is a very good writer, however, and these themes work well in the core part of his book. The city between Chamberlain and Thatcher is illustrated with a huge variety of illuminating asides and underheard voices. It really comes alive when we get to Birmingham’s role as an inter-war pioneer of modernity: cinemas (the Odeon chain started here) and vast, family-oriented “Improved Pubs”. 

During the war, its pivotal industries were diverted to producing armaments, Spitfires in particular. Shadow factories were built to ensure work continued amid the bombing. A remarkable prosperity continued for a few decades, but was slowly being undermined.

Vinen asserts the Sixties didn’t really happen in Brum

Herbert Manzoni, who demolished all opposition and a lot of Victorian gems to produce a “concrete collar” ring road that constricted the city centre for a generation, gets some undeserved sympathy. But the damage wasn’t just homemade. As with London, the post-war Government banned companies from setting up or expanding in the city, forcing hundreds of firms to the North or Wales. This, alongside poor management and industrial strife, left it ill-prepared for the 1980s. Birmingham went from a rich to poor city in a matter of years. Unemployment soared and has remained stubbornly high since.

The book is tremendous on post-war immigration; more arrived here than anywhere outside London. There are plenty of appalling stories, but some uplifting ones too — all masterfully depicted. The city’s transience is a key factor for Vinen, but it can be exaggerated; after all, the census of 1971 showed that about 80 per cent of the city’s inhabitants had been born in England. These included my own parents, whose ancestors were almost all living in the city in the 1700s.

The great moments of the deeper past, its role in the Great Reform Act, or the “Midlands Enlightenment” of Boulton, Watt and Priestley, are treated a little perfunctorily, as if today’s city is unconnected with the industrial crucible that produced three times as many patents as anywhere else between 1750 and 1850. 

The exception is the omnipresent Joseph Chamberlain. Vinen gives him an excellent biography, but it feels unmoored from what really led to all those civic improvements — the “municipal gospel” of the preacher George Dawson. It’s not clear here why Birmingham was labelled “the best governed city in the world” a decade after the great man moved on.

Even in the detailed and engrossing 20th century narrative, the exceptional or distinctive are sometimes glossed over. There’s incisive material on council estates and boss-class habitats, such as Regency Edgbaston or nouveau-riche Solihull, but nothing on the emergence of Moseley as a bohemian outpost. Drama critic Kenneth Tynan’s disdain for the city that made him is taken as emblematic, but there is no mention of Cathy Come Home, partly set and filmed there. 

The debuts of Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears and Alan Bleasdale, the first same-sex kiss on British TV, and the first drama produced and written by and starring non-white actors, Handsworth-set Empire Road — all products of BBC Pebble Mill — seem strange omissions.

 Black Sabbath and Heavy Metal are at the forefront of the music section, although Vinen gives some space to reggae which, through such bands as Steel Pulse, has probably had more influence locally. Vinen underestimates the city’s 60s music scene, mentioning The Move but ignoring Kingstanding’s teenage prodigy Steve Winwood, one of the most influential figures in British rock history. 

I’m not sure those attending the legendary Mothers — twice voted best club in the world by Billboard, but not mentioned here — to see, say, the debut of Winwood’s Traffic would have agreed with Vinen’s assertion that the Sixties didn’t really happen in Brum.

Perhaps it was a tentative return to the city of George Dawson

Vinen’s narrative is much more enlightening when it comes to the between-the-wars cultural vibrancy, including a hilarious story of 1930s residents W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice attending a marriage of convenience in a mock Tudor pub in Solihull, all — bizarrely — funded by Thomas Mann. Sadly, he misses out one of the most enjoyable parts of Brummie history: the incongruous mid-century surrealist group led by the provocative Conroy Maddox: presumably the great eccentric of Balsall Heath was not ordinary or disengaged enough. More generally, the part of Birmingham history that most confounds the stereotypes is missed: its artistic heritage, with its proto-Impressionists and pre-Raphaelites. 

William Morris was a president of the municipal arts school, the country’s first, and a centre for the Arts and Crafts movement. The building survives and its influence is obvious in the streets around, a late Victoriana as uniquely Brummie as Spaghetti Junction. This might all be a bit too elevated for Vinen, who underplays the survival of urbane fragments of the pre-war city.

Some of this is a matter of perspective. My more centripetal Birmingham is that of the 1990s. Manzoni’s concrete collar had been part-removed — a heroic achievement which is not given enough attention here. New Street and Victoria Square were pedestrianised, giving the grander civic survivals a decent setting. 

People moved back into town, bars opened near the canals, and rave created a hedonistic nightlife, with centres of alternative culture such as the Que Club and Custard Factory opening — all organic creations by ordinary young Brummies. Vinen gives these changes little attention, appearing to deem it all inauthentic and dishonest — but perhaps it was a tentative return to the city of George Dawson, of Shakespeare festivals and music triennials. 

Nevertheless this is a rewarding portrait of ordinary lives and increasingly mediocre politicians in perhaps the definitive industrial city of the 20th century. It is a bit too partial, though, to deliver on the promise of the title and to demonstrate to a sceptical British public quite how much they owe to this complex place.

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