Birmingham pops into my mind all the time, unbidden. There are good reasons for this. In the early 70s we took Lumiere & Son to the Birmingham Arts Centre several times, on tour. I couldn’t believe what a shithole the city was. I had seen shitholes in my time but this was the clear winner (Sunderland came close). Ugly wherever you looked – that was something. Not a single vista that could even be described as tolerable.
Sometimes, while kicking my heels before shows, I would walk out of the Arts Centre and look around. I found a pub nearby, possibly called the Sack of Potatoes. I came to think of it as the Sack of Shit. Such was the tourweary spirit at the time that I would say to my fellows “I’m off to the Sack of Shit” and they would not grin because I had said it several times already. The pub itself wasn’t too bad. You could sit outside on a bench and gaze across at the unbelievable mess of flyovers and roundabouts. You’d feel mournful and then you’d say “Still, being mournful is part of this adventure of being on the road” and then you’d feel worldly and weatherbeaten.
Then, a couple of years later, I was up there again for some reason, nothing to do with touring. I had to stay the night and I stayed in a cheap hotel. Instead of rooms they had cubicles with walls which stopped short of the floor and ceiling. Partitions. I stood on my bed at night and looked across the tops of the partitions. Under a blue light men and women were sleeping; sighing and shifting. It was utterly mournful. I don’t know why I was there. I had no reason to be. I can’t think of a reason.
I think this happened in Birmingham but I can’t be absolutely sure. It was, however, very Birmingham. I say ‘very Birmingham’ a lot. To myself. It wouldn’t mean much to other people – they’d think I meant “This is like Birmingham” when what I meant was “When I stood on the bed and when I walked in the streets something happened. And now it comes back, like an unbidden odour.” The thing is it doesn’t just come back when I am reminded of it by a place. It comes back unsought and unasked, for no particular reason.
But something happened in Birmingham. No incidents, nothing like that. One wouldn’t expect that. Although it must be said we were in our dressing rooms the night the bombs went off round town (November 21st 1974) and we heard the thuds and wondered then realised and rang our parents and loved ones who already knew what it was and we said don’t worry we’re fine, no we’re not going to go for a drink afterwards. But something else happened and it made Birmingham very indelible, a single chord mixed from fragments of that time, and it comes right back when the conditions are right.
Possibly what actually happened was that so little happened in that city apart from the IRA or seemed at all likely to happen that it became a non-event of great moment. A place where absolutely nothing will happen. Chilling. Reassuring.
And still it comes back. The Sack of Shit. The partitions. Often prompted by a single vista or particular shade of gloom. Bonnie Tyler singing ‘Holding Out for a Hero’. Or a singer like that, blonde in a blue light. Very Birmingham.
And when it comes back it’s a perfume not a picture. It’s moved away from the city with all its junctions, the place where I wandered aghast. Now the pieces have blended and it’s a distinct thing of its own, a taste. It has a very appealing drabness, so much so that I think I miss it.
But how could you miss Birmingham? I never liked it when I was there, as I believe I have already indicated. Or Sunderland? Or Lund? Or Dundee? Dundee wasn’t that bad. There was the bridge over the Tay and the landlord of the hotel, Jimmy, peering out of the dining room window and intoning “A…vast…Siberian…wasteland.” Or Eindhoven?
But Birmingham is the perfume while the others are the mere eau de toilette. Birmingham is pure uncut mauve mood. Very the distillate.
The thing about this kind of thing is if you go back there, to renew the mauve – a perverse act, for sure, I mean, spend money on fuel, walk around the appalling streets, try to recover something melancholy from all that long time ago – it probably isn’t there. But, on the other hand, were you to do this, to go there, just suppose, then what might come back, in 2009 or whenever, is traces of the new visit, a new distillate. A melancholy recollection of an attempt to find the source of a melancholy recollection. And that would be another story.
But it’s a perfect match. On the outside, in the world: the city wastes, and on the inside, in your mind: any number of wan, drear, disconsolate moments. They belong together.
That’s not quite right, it’s the other way round. Birmingham is on the inside now, a reserve of mauve that will suffuse those lacklustre occasions that crop up, as they crop up, either in the world or in your mind. A place that comes with a raft of associations, like Waterloo, Henley or Land’s End. And when such an occasion does arise, suddenly the partitions are in place and the windswept traipsing and those singers, Bonnie, Jennifer Rush, just as they were in 1974 or whenever it was (Jennifer’s ‘Power of Love’ was 1985 and she came from New York City), and I see that blue light again and I say to myself “Very Birmingham.”