- Interview by
- Lynsey Hanley
Nathalie Olah is the author of Steal As Much As You Can: How to Win the Culture Wars in an Age of Austerity (Repeater), and grew up in Birmingham. Her pieces about Birmingham and the Midlands for Tribune have identified and explored the region’s chronic under-confidence in relation to its size.
She and Lynsey Hanley both grew up on estates at the city’s periphery—Nathalie in Northfield in the Blair era, Lynsey in Chelmsley Wood during the Thatcher years—and here, they discuss Birmingham’s sprawl, its uncertain sense of identity, and its under-appreciated cultural life.
Accents and Transport
I feel really fraudulent, right, because I haven’t got my accent any more. I left Birmingham when I was 18, I’m now 32, so that’s 14 years ago. When I went to university my tutor was like, ‘If you talk like that your life’s going to be miserable.’ So I’m in an unenviable position of being like, ‘No, I am from Birmingham, I am from a council estate in south Birmingham’, but no-one believes me because I’ve got this posh voice.’
I was lucky I guess because I went to Queen Mary University, although I had this interview at Cambridge which was idiotic, and I never got in, so I went to Queen Mary and luckily no-one ever said that to me.
I get upset when I think about it.
You’re right to. It was pure luck that no-one said that to me. Although I get worried sometimes about mine – you know how whenever Jess Phillips opens her mouth and you’re just like, ‘Is that really your accent or are you putting it on?’ Do you know what I mean?
She’s definitely playing it up, she’s definitely exaggerating it. I feel like her popularity is predicated on giving posh people—privileged people—what they want, this view of what they think a working-class woman should be like, even though she’s not by any measure. It’s like she’s playing to the court a bit.
And she just loves being on the telly! You can see it in her eyes! Anyway – I’m so excited to be talking to you about Birmingham. I’ve spent so many years kind of deliberately not thinking about it, and then I’ve just given up that pretence and become really obsessed with the place again. So I’ve started writing this book about public transport and it’s become a book just about Birmingham really, because it’s the ideal place to consider transport through.
It’s interesting because public transport is so bad in Birmingham.
Yes, and my parents didn’t have a car. I’m from Chelmsley Wood and we didn’t have a car! So that’s why I’m obsessed with it. It was the ’80s when I was growing up, and everyone worked at Rover or Lucas, but my dad didn’t, he worked at the council. And everyone who worked at Rover did buckets of overtime so they could afford a car. There was a moment where cars went from being thought of as quite dangerous – a boy in my reception class was run over and killed a few yards from our house, and another one was knocked over by a bus and had his leg broken, and there was this sense that car traffic was dangerous where we lived. But then around 1983, when Mini Metros came along, it was like overnight everyone decided they were going to do whatever it took to get one of their own.
And so we went from, as kids, playing out in the streets all the time—and the underpasses!—to all of a sudden kids disappearing from the streets overnight. All of a sudden there was a lot more traffic – there were parked cars everywhere and suddenly no one walking around everyone, so the daily encounters just stopped. Once people got cars they started driving to the corner shop! My friend’s dad used to drive 100 yards to get the paper. It was like a collective hypnosis.
We didn’t have one, and I think we started to feel more and more trapped through not having one. And it made me, even from an early age, militantly against cars, because we wanted the more neighbourhood life that was going on before everyone had cars, whereas it felt everyone else was pushing towards cars rather than against them. And with everyone working at Rover as well, it knitted things together – you worked on cars and then your home life was about cars as well. Birmingham was just about cars.
Yes, it’s interesting isn’t it, because in lots of ways it was built around this modernist utopian idea, the whole of the centre of the city. I’ve never thought about it before – there was this new way of planning and accommodating the city that did allow for individualism in that it was all built around the car, like the way (Smallbrook) Queensway was built. Often we celebrate Birmingham as being this highpoint of ’60s modernism in terms of thinking about how it can be planned, but it did pave the way for everything to be about the car.
And this was reflected in the sort of culture of the city – it wasn’t just a practical thing about jobs, people were really proud of the (Rover) car plant and saw it as holding up the city as the centre of Britain’s automotive industry. Have you ever seen the pictures of Clint Eastwood in Birmingham? He was filming in the UK and he came to visit Birmingham because it was this celebrated modern city. Architecture students from around the world would come to it and consider it.
There used to be a much more extensive tram network in the city, and my granddad told me how once he was playing marbles by the tram tracks and one of them got stuck in the track, and derailed a tram! He got into really big trouble for that, but then him and my nan moved from Digbeth to Longbridge, and later they both got jobs at Rover. We were a Rover family – my nan and granddad, my aunts and uncles worked there, my mum did partially, my dad did for a while.
Do you know about Kalamazoo, the printing company in south Birmingham? Some of the younger people like my mum got a job at the printing company, and that sort of marked the transition in the family away from Rover to working elsewhere. My mum worked there, and my dad did a bit of IT there, as well. But also what’s interesting about the car, and you were talking about cars being dangerous, is how new technologies get absorbed into fears, or fearmongering, about other issues. All the threat around being careful about being abducted, it was always around the car. It’s like, it wasn’t necessarily the fear of traffic or accidents, but it was about cars –
– cars meaning abduction?
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the public information film—you may be a bit young for this one—where Duncan Preston from Acorn Antiques is sitting in a car outside a primary school with his car door open and he asks a girl if she’d like to see a basket of puppies?
Or would you like some sweets, yes. Never get in a strange man’s car, that’s what you were always told.
Growing Up in the Second City
Reading your article for Tribune about Birmingham, and some other stuff—a book about Birmingham in 1968 (This Way to the Revolution)—stirred up a huge amount of thoughts and emotions in me. About realising how much you internalise this idea, as a Brummie, that everything about Birmingham is shit and that the only worthwhile thing you can do is get away from it.
I was wondering if you were very aware of this – you had a slightly different school trajectory to me, didn’t you? Did that affect how you felt about Birmingham?
Yes, I went to primary school in Northfield.
And then you went to King Edward’s School?
King Edward’s Camp Hill. The main high school in Edgbaston is private, and then the other four aren’t private, but the fees from the high school subsidise the others, which are state schools – that’s how the King Edward’s Foundation works. It’s like, you’d get rich people to pay for the education of the other kids – it’s not ideal as they’re still selective. Camp Hill school is in King’s Heath, which is closer to the city centre than I lived but not as close as Edgbaston.
I was wondering if your experience of going from primary school locally to going to one of the King Edward’s schools mean you started receiving different messages about Birmingham itself?
Yes. King Edward’s was very diverse – it’s something I was very grateful for, that element of my education, because you don’t really experience that level of diversity in most schools in Birmingham. Birmingham itself is very diverse but within local communities it’s not, it’s really segregated. But because it was a selective school, you got people from all over the city going there. The beautiful thing about it was that I learned all about Sikhism and Hinduism and Islam because you had to and because it was completely secular, the school itself, it was really good at integrating and celebrating all these things.
But there was never any effort to educate about local history or even about our situation or where we were. It was definitely a vehicle for getting you out of Birmingham. It was like from day one you were being basically trained to get out. I went to Oxford University in the end, but there’s a world-class university on our doorstep with some of the best minds and thinkers in the world. I was an artistic person and that’s what I like doing, but it was like Birmingham University didn’t exist. You would be going to Manchester, or Liverpool, or London, but there was never an expectation that you would stay in Birmingham.
But also King Edward’s exposed me to lots of different experiences of living in Birmingham. There were very affluent people there and also very very poor people all brought together, and we would all know each other and go around to each other’s houses, so I think I saw a much bigger cross-section of life and people from going to that school.
I’ve always said I didn’t know I was a working-class person until I went to university, but I don’t think that’s right – I think I realised it at school. I just didn’t have the vocabulary to identify that what I was experiencing was a class thing. I think part of that was being young and part of it was the political climate of the time. Class consciousness was being almost destroyed. I knew I felt different. Me and my best friend Lumi came from the same primary school together and we knew we were different, and it played out in that we got into trouble a lot more. We were different, and we were louder and probably more disruptive, but there was a definite prejudice against us as well. We weren’t the type they wanted there.
Even though you got there on your own merits?
But it was only later on that I realised the class dimension to it – like, you’re sullying the girls around you with your foul mouths, whatever it was. So yes, I absorbed a lot of shame from school and I’m probably not through it or over it. I’ve only started thinking about it more as I’ve got older.
But yes, there was no emphasis on local education or educating you on local history when obviously it was so important. I didn’t know about the Handsworth riots, for instance, but also I didn’t know about the foundation of local industries, and then de-industrialisation, and how that plays out all around us. That was only through my own reading much later and wanting to understand what was going on. What about you, your schooling?
Well, it was earlier, obviously, it was the 1980s. A lot of the teachers were at my secondary school were there because they were socialists, basically. Some of the teachers you realise were there because they couldn’t get jobs anywhere else, and some of them could easily have taught at more successful schools but chose to teach there because of the values they had. My English teacher, especially, she was from Washwood Heath and her dad was a trade unionist. She used to tell us about that when we were kids but I don’t think any of us understood what she meant, what it meant. It seemed so separate from our experience, it seems so strange.
We were so atomised in that situation. I mean, talk about the Red Wall, the idea that it’s a new thing! Ha! That was going on in Chelmsley Wood 35 years ago, you know what I mean?! When they used to interview the Luton workers at the car plants in the 1970s, the class dealignment was already starting to happen. They were still hanging on for Labour at that point but it was obvious they weren’t going to for much longer!
So all that was happening. Our history teacher asked us, just before the 1992 election, when we were 15 and 16, if we could vote at that election who would we vote for. I think about 90 percent put their hands up for the Tories. I think there was this belief that if you can’t beat them, join them. Thatcher was great – she was a massive git and a massive racist, and that was great! We don’t want to have our better natures appealed to any more, we’re too cynical for that. You know, we’re glad the council houses have been sold off because we got to buy one, we don’t care there’s no buses any more because we’ve got cars instead. But people who remained poor and marginalised, rather than finding anything useful in the idea of trade unionism or Labour politics, just didn’t vote at all.
It was a very apolitical environment. I was interested in politics but none of my friends were, and my parents weren’t very interested either. I think they voted for Tony Blair because everyone else was, but beyond that I don’t think they gave it much thought. There was that guy Red Robbo at the Rover plant, wasn’t there, and there was a sense that they would get whipped up every so often to strike at Longbridge and I know there was a huge amount of suspicion about him, you’d hear people talking about him in a really derogatory way, but what I always found interesting is that seemed to come more from the housewives. I think it was quite gendered in that way, and I think a lot of the men going to the factory floor were more amenable to the ideas of socialism and wanted better working conditions for themselves or whatever. But the women often cared more about protecting their lot. There was a sense that they’d escaped somewhere like Digbeth, and got a council house, and would do everything they could to make sure no one would take that off them.
Handsworth in 2011. Credit: Owen HatherleyWhereas my granddad just seemed to be – well, he wasn’t politically engaged, but he was someone who was more sort of, he was like, ‘My mates are striking, so I’m going to strike with them.’ And then if you go down into the younger generation, my aunts and uncles and my mum, they were really politically apathetic. I don’t know, maybe it was because there were no organised workforces (by then) and that political atomisation was already happening, but they were working in the factory and stuff. Even then, the Rover factory was already becoming corporatised and people were being split up from one another, and they were my observations of it.
This was in the ’90s, right?
That was in the ’90s. My dad’s family aren’t really that representative as my dad’s Hungarian, and their experiences weren’t as kind of representative in the sense that they were obviously working-class but they had immigrant status so it was a bit more like, what’s the word, like paid-in-hand jobs, working on building sites, that sort of thing –
Much, much, much more precarious, as opposed to relating to labour and workforces – they were disenfranchised from that, even.
I think that we weren’t so much encouraged to get out of Birmingham as, you know, you probably were. The thing was, in Year 11 (of school), our taster courses for college were hair and beauty for the girls and car mechanics for the boys. And that was it – that was what you were gonna do. And if you showed real—like, say two girls and two boys out of every year—if you showed real promise, you would be picked to do work experience at the TSB in Chelmsley Wood.
And were you chosen?
Well, this is it – I was put in for that and I basically said to them, ‘Fuck that shit!’ in as many words. I wouldn’t have said that at time! I would have said, very meekly, ‘But I don’t wanna work in a bank!’
So what I did was I wrote to the (Birmingham) Evening Mail, and I said, ‘I’m at secondary school in Chelmsley Wood, do you do work experience?’ – and amazingly they wrote back and said yes, and I did a week’s work experience!
Ah, and did you keep in touch with them?
I did for a bit. That was 1991, and I was sent out with this photojournalist to take all these pictures of the Symphony Hall and the convention centre, and he said, ‘So, you’re from Chelmsley Wood then, are ya?’ I said, yeah, yeah. And he said, ‘Well you know what, if you’ve got dreams, if you work really really hard, you can get a job at the Evening Mail one day.’ And of course at the time that seemed like the pinnacle. I wanted to go to Solihull Sixth Form College. But again the school said, they do great A-levels at the Tech (technical college), you know, and I said, ‘Yes, but I want to go to Solihull Sixth Form College.’ And I think by that point they were used to me so they just said, ‘OK, you apply to them then,’ and I did and I got in.
So I put this weird cobble of A-levels on my application, English Language, Art, and Biology, my favourite subjects, and then I turned up on the first day and they were like, no one in the history of Solihull Sixth Form College has anyone ever done that combination of A-levels. And by the end of the day, I’d met my (now) oldest friend, Richard, who was doing English, History and Politics, and I was completely unaware that that’s your like humanities trilogy. But again it was pure luck in the end, it was always about stumbling into these things that other people seem to know about.
The same, my A-levels were a bit bonkers. I did English, Art, and Drama, and then I did Maths, because you did four at that point. And it was a similar thing where those were the things I liked, so I did them. And this is like my little cross to bear, I’m still quite angry about it, but even though I went to a good school, because of what I just told you about, you were put in lower sets. It wasn’t a deliberate thing, it was more just the innate prejudice of these teachers that were like, ‘You talk like that, you’re the thick one, you’re from that part of town.’
In my first year of AS levels I got all As, and I thought, well, I’ll apply to the best university then, what’s the best one? It’s Oxford. And the teachers were like, ‘Don’t go getting your hopes up, don’t apply there.’ I think if I’d been any more initiated into it I wouldn’t have applied, I would have thought it wasn’t for people like me. But I was like, ‘Wahey, I’ve never done this, I’ll just apply!’ And I went there! So obviously I’ve had a privileged experience in going to that kind of school in Birmingham and going to that university, but there was discrimination through that whole experience and that process.
But also thinking about it, it wasn’t necessarily that you were meant to feel shame about being from Birmingham, it’s that there was no sense of belonging or identity at all, and when I started to meet people from Glasgow or from Liverpool, London, Bristol, they were always really conscious that that was where they were from.
And I’m no advocate of patriotism, but I never really knew I was a Brummie, despite the fact that we all supported Birmingham City, despite everyone working at the Rover factory. I never realised I was a Brummie until I was older. I was like, that place I was from had its own identity. It had its own history, it had its own dialect in lots of ways, words that I used that no one around me seems to know, it has its own culture, and I was completely oblivious to that. It almost felt like I lived in a non-place, does that make sense?
Absolutely. But anyway, you were talking about how at King Edward’s you met lots of people from different backgrounds, people much more affluent than you and people of different ethnicities, than you would have encountered in your own neighbourhood of Birmingham – it reminded me a little bit of reading Zadie Smith. She went to a non-selective comprehensive school, in London. She talks a lot about meeting people much posher than her at her school, mainly white people posher than her, and going around to their houses, but also people from loads of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. But I wonder whether, because she was from London, she and her friends weren’t being told that they had to leave there in order to make lives for themselves. And also, perhaps, there was an idea that it would be completely normal to go on and write a book about it!
To be told you cannot talk about the dearth of economic prospects and the sheer lack of media representation, comparatively, in the North, without someone coming along and saying, ‘But London’s full of marginalised and unheard people as well,’ – it’s just missing the point. I lived in London for long enough, I know what it’s like – like, Bromley-by-Bow, where I lived most of the time I was there, is an absolute exemplar of the sheer degree and entrenchment of poverty in lots of areas, and yet I could see there were crucial differences going on. Kids at schools locally—just the sorts of visits they would have from visiting speakers, the sorts of trips they would get to go on—they would get nationally or even internationally known speakers to come and give motivational talks. And I would think, there’s no way you’d ever have anyone like (Michelle Obama) coming to a school in Chelmsley Wood!
This is where I think questions of cultural capital come in, because, as you say, it brings up questions of proximity to a centre of culture and everything that goes with that, in the school trips that people go on and the sorts of people you get coming to talk, and outreach, you know, the efforts made to reach state schools in London to engage those kids. And that’s great of course, but it should also be happening around the country as well, and it’s not.
And that does culminate in what you could only describe as a lack of cultural capital. Because it’s those experiences and it’s that exposure that then sets you on your way to thinking about those things, that might get you reading more or whatever, which you just don’t have, you have to rely on fortuitous, sort of – I mean, the only reason I got into reading was because I met a boy who was from a richer family who I fancied! And he was really shocked because I hadn’t read 1984—I didn’t really pick up a book till I was 15—and I went away and read it and I thought, ‘Oh this is good, I quite like this.’
So it’s things like that, and my parents, for whatever reason, my dad, he was an immigrant and therefore, I don’t know, my parents were a bit more culturally engaged and interested, I suppose, which did help. But I think you’re right. And in any case the two things aren’t mutually exclusive. You can say, you know, there is serious poverty in Newham—parts of Newham feel to me like Sparkhill, they do feel like really impoverished parts of Birmingham—and those things are both bad. And it’s bad that both places exist in that state, but there are possibly more avenues to education and cultural immersion in London than there are in the North, or north of the M25 I suppose.
Centre and Periphery
I always thought I felt I came from a non-place because it felt like Chelmsley Wood was a non-place, and it’s only very recently that I’ve realised it’s Birmingham as a whole. So we’re both from the peripheries of Birmingham, having sort of been cast out to the edges, to new or newish places that don’t have much of an identity, but then you’ve got the same thing replicated in the centre itself.
I wonder if it’s got a lot to do with the fact it’s such a large conurbation, that so much of it is about the car – and the slum clearances before and after the war, the dispersal of so many working-class communities out to the suburbs, so that there wasn’t a great deal left in the centre. It was pretty much like a shopping area with Victorian buildings. It’s interesting now that they’re trying to encourage people to move back into the centre, into these new bougie areas they’ve created.
There’s that big empty space next to Digbeth coach station. Are they going to build luxury flats there or something?
Every time I come in on the train I see that giant empty space and I think, ‘What are people going to think when they come into the city?’
They’re holding on to that space for HS2, because the new Curzon Street station is going to be there. I get so bollocky about HS2, because I’m like, that thing is never gonna get any further than Birmingham and trust me, nobody needs to get to Birmingham any quicker! But you describe Birmingham as ‘beautiful’ twice in your Tribune piece –
Oh, do I?!
Yes! Which I thought was, in itself, an extraordinary intervention to make, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard Birmingham described as beautiful. You also said Birmingham has a ‘beautiful culture’ – I was just wondering, what are the things you find beautiful, and that you wish everyone else knew about?
I think the thing I was referring to is that, when I reflect on being a teenager and a kid in Birmingham, you know, take away some of the hardships that were there and undoubtedly difficult – but I loved being a kid and I loved being a teenager and I think that to be quite honest with you, it was the sense of humour that I just don’t encounter that much any more, and that sort of imaginary life. Now I know I used the Alasdair Gray quote—and a couple of people have pushed back on me with that and said they don’t agree with it—you know, ‘If a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.’ What I always took him to mean by that was that they don’t romanticise the place they’re from, whereas someone from London might be inclined to see romance in, you know, the cobbled streets of Southwark because they’ve seen it in literature, whereas with Birmingham I didn’t equate it with any kind of like creative or romantic associations.
I didn’t mean that people living there don’t live imaginatively: the opposite in fact. I think we were more resourceful because of not having everything on our doorsteps. Through our resourcefulness, we were very creative, and made our own avenues for fun, and found humour in situations that I think other people would just take for granted. And so it was that kind of alertness, we were alert to the absurdities of things, and that was through a lens of limitations and kind of hardship as well. There is a Brummie sense of humour that I like as well – it’s quite cynical and it’s quite sarcastic and that’s what I like about it… It offends some people, and sometimes sensitive people –
Oh yeah, yeah –
– get put out about it and don’t like it. But you forget, with everything that’s happened, that there were some really utopian aspects, you know, like the Cadbury Trust, and the housing around the Rover site. There were pockets of Birmingham that are very chocolate-box, decorative – like Northfield, Bournville. I went to a church primary school in Northfield because it was the nearest one, it was at the end of the road. We used to go to the church every day and it was like this thirteenth-century church. My grandparents lived at the foot of the Lickey Hills so we used to go there—the Lickeys are beautiful, Sarehole Mill and the Lickeys are where Tolkien got all his inspiration for the Lord of the Rings, not that I’m a Lord of the Rings fan!—but in the stories that are told about Birmingham these are the stories that get erased.
I used to love, like, Curry Mile – every Friday night that’s what you’d do, you’d go to the pub and you’d go for a curry, there were like these rituals that I don’t have any more, because there’s an abundance of stuff (to do) in London. Also I do think there’s a sort of haunted, morose Brummie frame of mind, or way of being, which is a horrible generalisation, but if you were going to think of an aesthetic that emerged from there – people like Mike Skinner, whose music was quite haunted, and a lot of the garage and drum’n’bass that came out of Birmingham also had that slightly haunted industrial feel to it, like a place out of time, like people were aware that they came from a place that has been ignored. That in itself creates quite a beautiful lens through which to see the world.
And that was very formative for me, because we used to listen to a lot of local pirate radio: I suppose they would be grime artists, not that they would have been called grime at the time. And they had this slightly mournful tone to (the music), so for all those reasons I described it as beautiful. I also found it gratifying to reclaim my experiences in that way and to not accept this shame or embarrassment I was told to feel about it. Because I did used to go, ‘Oh, I know it’s shit, urrgh.’ You know, people would go, ‘Oh, I’ve never been there,’ and I’d be like, well why would you? And I’d be guilty of perpetuating that horrible stereotype. I mean, do you think of it as beautiful?
I think aspects of it are. I do go back a lot, and just before Covid I was down there all the time because my dad was ill and he was in hospital for eight weeks. I was going down there from Liverpool every other day, and he went from Heartlands to Sandwell and Dudley (hospitals) and then he spent about four weeks in City Hospital on Dudley Road. So every other day – I mean, I left home 27 years ago but I’ve gone back on average every two or three weeks –
To Chelmsley Wood?
Yes, always to Chelmsley Wood, but to the city centre as well – and over time I’ve begun to realise my relationship with Birmingham is more of a love-hate than a hate-hate one. What I can’t stand is – to give an example, I’ve got two kids, and my mum’s favourite thing for us to do is to take them to the science garden at the Think Tank. And the walk from New Street Station, under the underpass, past Moor Street station, to Millennium Point – the urban environment there is so awful it’s literally making me cry. It is so anti-pedestrian, it’s so aesthetically disgusting.
It’s funny how Moor Street station is this weird little oasis and then they took out all these underpasses and what they replaced them with is even worse! You have this knot of traffic lights at the side of the Selfridges building, where the 50 bus goes. It is The. Worst. Urban. Environment—and I’ve travelled a lot in Britain—that I have encountered the whole country. And that includes Leeds!
How can a place be repeatedly knocked down and rebuilt, tinkered with, demolished, and never in the actual interests of the people who have to negotiate this space every day? It makes people annoyed, it makes them grumpy! (You have) so many aggressive encounters just on that walk between New Street and Millennium Point because it’s so grotty.
Have you ever been towards Lozells and Handsworth? About 18 months ago I was last there, and I was just horrified by how every shop was boarded up, and the bins – there was a huge bin strike which has made everyone furious. Lots of civil unrest historically has started with bins not being collected – like, if you leave people in squalor, if you leave bins unemptied everywhere, people are going to get furious. But you read constantly about gang crime in Lozells and Handsworth, and it’s always narrated in a racialised way and never in a socio-economic way. That’s never factored into the reporting. The place looks like a bombsite and no one’s doing anything about it, to instil pride and purpose into the area.
Further out towards Longbridge, where my nan lives, it’s also really sad. The car factory they replaced with a retail park, and the retail park is always dead, and anyone can get precarious retail work for a short amount of time but there’s no long-term employment, never any serious regeneration at all.
I’m going off on a tangent, but the centre of town has always been a nightmare. The most effective part of town has always been that stretch – I hate the building, but I always thought that the Mailbox didn’t do a bad thing because it created a new area of the city. I remember in my teens a lot more people going down towards the canal because that building was there. And the really good bit of urban design was around Broad Street going up to Centenary Square, which would lead up the (old) library, which had its own thoroughfare but was also a destination. Sometimes as teenagers we would spend days and days there. After school I would just go to the library because there was a McDonald’s downstairs –
– wait for my mum to finish work, and she would meet me at the McDonald’s at 6 or 7. It was perfectly safe, and it was perfectly safe because it was a big, open, urban setting. And then obviously you’re at the top of town and you’re then going down to New Street, and I always thought that was always very well considered.
You had the (1974) Central Library and the Conservatoire right next to each other. What they have done there is horrific –
You’re absolutely right, it has destroyed a fundamental public gathering space. For one reason because it’s hardly ever bloody open, and it’s not in the right space for it to be, and there was something organic there. Although I do remember at one point in the (old library) atrium, as well as the McDonalds, do you remember this, there was a topless bar – Hooters? (It wasn’t topless but waitresses had to wear skimpy tops and hotpants.)
How could I have forgotten that?
And I remember, when my son was a toddler, just before the library was knocked down, we used to go all the time and get a panini for a pound, you know, from the pound baguette shop! Which was rammed all the time! I mean, why wouldn’t it be, you can get a baguette for a pound! So we’d go to the library and get a baguette. I did find the old library very dank, but of course you only appreciate something when it’s replaced needlessly.
Yes, I don’t think they executed Madin’s plans properly. The building was never finished – it was never meant to have an open roof in the middle, it was meant to have a glass ceiling, and then the inside of the library was shit and it never got renovated! They never spent any money on it. I would go there after school, get the bus into town, work in the library for a few hours waiting till my mum finished work, and she’d come and meet me downstairs. I revised for my A-levels and my GCSEs in there. I would happily spend a whole day there, I would meet friends there.
Did your mum work in town?
Yes, in my late teens she got an office job in town, and my parents had broken up, so she would work in town and then drive me home. School was quite annoying because it was a long way from where I lived – when my parents got divorced me and my mum moved to Hall Green, Shirley, so yes it was always all over the place. It was easier to get the bus into town and then meet my mum there. But sometimes my mum would drop me off at the Maypole and I would get the 50 to school in Kings Heath. Famously the most frequent bus service in the country, and it was always packed!
When the new library first opened, I didn’t like the building but I was really heartened by how well-used it was. And that’s when I really began to find things to love and appreciate about Birmingham, when I was going to the new library a lot, as I would see people from every country on earth using the library, and you would get a sense that Birmingham was a place you could come to and make your future. There was a space for you to do that there.
What I can remember, it was open ten or twelve hours a day, seven days a week when it first opened, so it was always there. Within two years they’d cut the opening hours to 40 hours a week. On some weekdays it doesn’t open till 11am, and you get people waiting outside for an hour or more just waiting for the bloody thing to open. And it immediately lost some of its spirit, because you just need somewhere you can go that’s always there, that you can just drop into.
The old library for me was the centre of the city. For some other people it might be Colmore Row or the cathedral but for me it always was, whenever you needed to meet somebody, you would just arrange to meet at the library because it was always safe, it was always lit, there would always be people. And I think with the new library they just overlooked – I mean, I can see what they were doing with the design, that they wanted to acknowledge Birmingham’s cultural diversity, but in the execution it just felt gimmicky and as though too much of the money had gone into just appearances. You had a functioning building already there –
And so environmentally and financially unsustainable as well. You have the biggest local authority in the country, and so many people living in Birmingham are living in such unbelievably hideous conditions, like, in Bromford, Kingstanding, Druids Heath on the peripheries, as well as Lozells, Newtown. The idea that they thought they could afford £188 million replacing a building that served the same purpose, you know – what are your priorities? Do you really care about the people in your city, who are making this city exist?
It always feels as though, rather than listening to people and finding out what people need to be prosperous and to live in the city, they seem constantly to resort to gimmicks in the hope of endearing themselves to this international corporate class, and the retail sector, and it comes across as fawning. It’s a basic law of confidence: if you’re proud of your assets and your heritage, if you actually own them, that would be a much stronger pull to investors and would also give people living there a sense of pride and identity, which could only be good for the city.
Yes, you get that in Liverpool, where I live, but I think that lack of confidence afflicts the West Midlands as a whole. If you see how the Capital of Culture is playing out in Coventry this year as opposed to how it was in Liverpool in 2008 – in Coventry they’re saying, we’ve got this really beautiful postwar city centre that everyone knows the context of, and we want to bloody get rid of half of it, in the year of the capital of culture. This lack of confidence is obviously something that afflicts the whole of the West Midlands, not just Birmingham.
I don’t know why that is. Liverpool just seems to get it right every time.
It doesn’t always get it right – if you’ve been following the local politics situation, that’s a major cringe. You know, when Joe Anderson was the mayor it was so blindingly obvious that he had a dodgy set-up going on, because of the amount of incredibly poor building decisions in the centre, but it hasn’t affected the parts of Liverpool that make it what it is and make it such a great city to walk around and to live in. There’s just a really positive pride rather than a defensive pride that you have in Liverpool, which Birmingham could do with replicating.