In praise of: Birmingham

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In my two novels, A love foretold and The inequity of redemption, the bulk of the action takes place in my former former home city of Birmingham, where I lived between 1986 and 1995.  Many people have a prejudiced view of Brum, but I enjoyed living there and I still retain very fond memories of my decade in the West Midlands.  It was a city full of culture and opportunity- not just shops and pubs and music venues, but alternative cinemas, galleries and more outdoor activities than you might have expected.

This page is the first of an ‘In praise of:’ series that I plan and it is a list of some of my favourite things to be found there and which often provided backdrops to my stories.

  • The Midlands Arts Centre, Cannon Hill Park- for much of my time in the city I lived in Moseley and Kings Heath and the MAC was virtually on my door step.  I was always a regular attender of its exhibitions, films, shows and classes.  Highlights include live comedy from (former uni acquaintance) Jeremy Hardy, an exhibition on Japanese kumihimo silk braids which was an eye opener to a previously unknown craft, seeing loads of films including Mike Leigh’s Life is sweet and, most imortatly to me, my pottery classes- which were brilliant.  The craft facilities at MAC are excellent-I have never come across any to equal the range of glazes and equipment that their dedicated studios offered.  One of the best experiences was a raku weekend in which we made the pots and then constructed the Japanese style wood fired kiln outside.  The results looked like little burnt biscuits, but hey ho.  Over the years, I made loads of vases and plates, one of which was entered in a class exhibition in 1993- labelled ‘John Kruse, aged 9’.  It was the work of a 32 year old…. No hard feelings though.

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  • Walks by the rivers– to non-residents this may sound improbable, but you can follow the River Rea for a couple of miles south from Cannon Hill Park whilst, when I lived in Sparkhill, I discovered that I could walk beside the River Cole almost right out of the city, passing on the way Sarehole Mill where Tolkien was a boy.  It was almost a rural idyll in the summer, with rank vegetation and the air thick with the scent of Himalayan balsam.  Weirdly , on one such walk, I once came across some Saxons having a fight with axe and sword (Dark Age re-enactors, of course); it was a bizarre time-travel experience, rather like the time I was on a bus at Birmingham International and some knights in chain mail got on…  Anyway, the many large parks and green spaces of Birmingham are one of its attractions and too little acknowledged.

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  • Stoney Lane and the Ladypool Road- how could I not mention the source of the Birmingham balti?  The discovery of chili pakora, the mysterious yoghurt and onion in red sauce dips you were always given for free, mangla naans and mustard leaf balti at Adil’s was a revelation after the mounting tedium of veg biryanis.  Life would never be the same again.  I should also highlight the couple of small cafes selling South Indian food- dosas, idlis, etc- these were another hitherto unknown Indian cuisine for me and, in fact, in the longer term far more interesting than the curry in a bucket that is Brum’s contribution to the curry world (which isn’t meant to detract from my regard for the dish).

balti

  • Birmingham City Art Gallery- given the Victorian wealth of the city, it will be little surprise to learn that, like Manchester and Liverpool, Birmingham has a stunning collection of Victorian genre and Pre-Raphaelite paintings.  Generally it is a fine gallery with a pleasant cafe and well worth a visit for itself alone.  Honourable mentions are also due for the Ikon Gallery and the University’s Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

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Oh, what’s in that hollow? by E R Hughes, BMAG

  • The library– Brum has a (dis)honourable record of demolishing great buildings and the original City library was no exception.  I experienced the hideous 1970s concrete replacement, not the flashy new building, but the grim grey exterior could not detract from the contents.  As befitted a great city, it had a very well stocked library.  This may not be true now- the advent of the internet and of budget cuts has tended to mean a disappearance of books on shelves and a spread of tables and PCs- but when I was there it was a admirable place for research and reading.

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  • Canals- more miles of waterways than Venice they say, to which we reply, yeah but- in Venice you sail past the Rialto and the Doge’s Palace; in Brum you can walk behind a derelict coking works in Saltley.  Nonetheless, there is a network of under-appreciated canals in the West Midlands.  When I worked in Newtown, I often used to walk into town via the canal, just to escape the noise and fumes of the ring roads.  There’s peace, greenery and solitude by the canals, hard to find in many a huge conurbation.  If you’ve read A love foretold, you’ll also know that the transport executive proposed the canals as additional routeways into the city (in my imagination at least!)

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  • Historic buildings– you may think that Brum’s all about concrete flyovers (not so much anymore), the Rotunda, Selfridges and the snazzy new library building- but think again.  There is an old town (and villages) buried under the spreading brick suburbs of a new city. Aston Hall, a grand mansion of the century is well known, standing as it does next to the express way leading into the city centre from the motorway and because Aston Villa FC were named after it, but there are other rewards if you search. Sights worth seeing include: The Old Crown Inn, Deritend- a late fifteenth century pub that is still trading as a hostelry, albeit looking rather sad and lonely amidst the urban bustle of a major dual carriageway into the city centre; Blakesley Hall– a timber framed farmhouse dating to 1590 and now surrounded by houses in Yardley and Hay Hall, Hay Mills, a former moated manor house whose timber core dates to the late 14th or early 15th centuries, but which was faced with bricks in Tudor times.   It’s illustrated below- the picture is skillful as it misses out the massive factories that stand either side, dwarfing the venerable structure.  Further afield, there are historical buildings to be found at Weoley Castle, in West Brom and around the old village centre of King’s Norton.

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The Old Crown Inn, set off perfectly by its surroundings…

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Hay Hall, nestled in an industrial estate just off the Coventry Road

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Blakesley Hall, Yardley, B’ham

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