Second City Blues

Two new accounts of growing up and leaving Birmingham provide moving accounts of the snobbery and misunderstanding directed at England's second city by the country's social elite.

Something odd happened to me while reading I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal by Charlie Hill and Bolt from the Blue by Jeremy Cooper, both set in my native city of Birmingham. I devoured the two books at breakneck speed, both of them requiring of me almost no concerted effort of imagination or concentration. What I now realise is that I was experiencing, perhaps for the first time, complete validation through literature, where every place name and casual reference glided through me like water.

Famously in Lanark, the magnum opus of Glaswegian writer Alasdair Gray, protagonist Thaw states that, ‘if a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.’ What he meant was that certain places exist on a mythical as well as physical terrain, thereby imbuing their citizens with a sense of place, purpose, and identity. Growing up in Birmingham, I assumed for a long time that culture was something that happened elsewhere, and pursued literature with the enthusiastic appetite of an observer looking out. Lifelong inhabitants of New York, Paris, Moscow, and London can scarcely have the same perspective. I wonder what having the streets you walk down immortalised on the page does to your psyche. It creates a sense of importance, no doubt an illusion of order amidst the world’s chaos.

By tacitly dealing in that same sense of cultural estrangement, Hill’s book — an autobiography — is a sublime rendition of a state that seems to be specifically located in the hearts and souls of those who inhabit Britain’s second city. The idiom has changed slightly since his recollections of acid house, and my own recollections of bassline, indie, and drum and bass, but the elevation of minor club night promoters and gossip hounds has stayed the same. Likewise, the friend of a friend from London, imbued with an almost otherworldly importance, smoking hash on a sofa in Moseley where the middle-class bohemian mothers hardly mind, is a trope almost as old as the city itself. Despite the slight shift in cultural reference points, then, what remains most poignant about Hill’s book is a sense that things hardly ever change in a place degraded by industrial decline and disparaging propaganda.

While Hill leads us on a tragicomic romp through Balsall Heath, Moseley, and Selly Oak — detailing love, loss, alcoholism, minor drug addiction, and the emergence of his own poetic voice — Cooper’s tale, a fictional biography, is more brutal in its depiction of social mobility and the resulting dislocation from self, place, and family. Chronicling thirty years of letters between a mother and her art school daughter, transplanted to London where she eventually goes on to mix with the likes of the YBAs, Bolt from the Blue is a painful reminder of the snobbery and condescension that attended the social mobility peddled by Blair and Thatcher. Reading protagonist Lynn’s derogatory remarks about Sparkhill — a deprived suburb of south Birmingham — many will easily perceive the more glaring shortcomings of the careerist communities of the Whitechapel Gallery or Jay Jopling’s White Cube.

Not that Lynn is blind to the gruesome aspects of the art world. But there is hubris and denial in the lengthy diatribes through which she confides in her mother — decrying the influence of crooked investors and auction houses — while failing to hear the ageing woman’s own complaints about money, loneliness, and ill-health. The fact that Lynn’s (Labour-voting) mother is personally sympathetic to Thatcher is enough for all her beliefs to be dismissed. And she is stung by it. Perhaps there’s a lesson in this.

In conveying that sense of yearning to be a part of something else, only to discover it lacking in ways we had never imagined — a London rife with social climbers and a bald ambition that you simply don’t get in a city like Birmingham — both books convey the essential experience of the Brummy native: Hill by somewhat reclaiming that maligned culture and romanticising it, Cooper through a fairly stark and unapologetic look at the way we deride the places and people that made us. Both writers depict people who have been led to reject their home, reflecting a tendency that is also rife in all the regeneration strategies that continually failed to recognise what is essential and beautiful about the Birmingham experience and identity.

From bulldozing John Madin’s celebrated Central Library and filling its spot with a slew of generic office spaces, to pasting over the gaps left by industry with a retail model already in a state of collapse, the misguided efforts to salvage Birmingham from financial ruin have centred on making it more generic. It’s a strategy that seeps into the psyche, generating shame and embarrassment — so the city’s beautiful, funny, imaginative culture often reveals itself at the point where it is too late.

I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal by Charlie Hall is now available from Repeater Books.

Bolt from the Blue by Jeremy Cooper is now available from Fitzcarraldo Editions.

About the Author

Nathalie Olah is a freelance journalist and editor. Her writing focuses on the intersection between politics and contemporary culture, and she is the author of Steal as Much as You Can.