Friday, 16 May 2008

Telly Savalas Digs Birmingham

This had me in tears of laughter. I feel a traitor to the city my father was born in, but take a look at what the BBC has uncovered

I confess I felt a twinge of nostalgia at seeing the concrete monstrosity that was the Bullring market. The church of St Martin's was famous for being blackened by traffic fumes. These days, after a multi-million pound facelift the shopping centre is still a concrete monstrosity, just a 21st century one, but the church is frankly much better for a clean.
The pubs Telly speaks of in the film have largely all gone. The Ship Ashore. The Barrel Organ. The Hummingbird nightclub. The West End Bar. Sinatras. The Pen and Wig. Sticky carpets and linoleum floors have been replaced by bland laminate and chrome. Is Birmingham any richer for this proliferation of chain pubs and themed bars? No. Grubby boozers were where I did my growing up, fuelled by Purple Nasties (a Goth drink containing cider, Pernod and blackcurrant) and Vodka and orange (squash). And how I miss those cesspits.

The thing is, Birmingham was doing alright until it tried to pretend to be anything but ugly. The film says it all. In the glory days of the motor city, it seemed like a good idea to hire Kojak to take a voiceover ride with the city's cops around the maze of Spaghetti Junction and the dangerous underpasses of old. I did smile to myself at the realisation that in the 70s the police were running 'one of the most specialised traffic control units in the world'...because the city was in a stranglehold of its own making. "Birmingham's roads are revolutionary," Telly proclaims. Bloody dangerous more like.

And with that danger came a certain frisson. I could frequently be found as a teenage punk Goth creation staggering about paralytic in dingy underpasses near the shitholes my father would come and pluck me from before midnight. Pumpkin time, I used to call it.

"There's a sophisticated shopping centre over New Street rail terminal," Telly informs the delighted 70s suburbanites ooh just itching to get on the next train to Brum.

With some sticky-on bits of 80s plastic fascia The Pallasades looks so much better than it did in the 70s. And the shops are... well, it's not Knightsbridge as that gruff old henchman off The Apprentice observed this week. The ramp leading up to the shopping centre was where many of us did our courting. "Meet you at McDonald's". "Which one?" (there were three in Birmingham city centre, three! Oh the excitement). "The one on the ramp." It was always the one on the ramp. The one above the public toilet where none of us dared to venture for fear of being raped.

Meanwhile Telly is back in the embrace of 70s optimism: "I walked on the walkways and sat on the seats and admired the spacious traffic-free pedestrian precincts." Telly, if you were walking down Union Street, how come we didn't see you walking the walk? And why do you sound like you're reading from a Marketing Birmingham brochure? Talking the talk more like. Not that they had Marketing Birmingham in those days. Oh no, that horror was to come much later in the 90s, when Birmingham really did lose the plot.

And why? Because this was indeed a city built on the manufacturing industry - Britain's 'motor city'. And with the collapse of industry came the collapse of Birmingham's identity. There is an impressive financial quarter springing up in the district where I used to work. Impressive if you like hemmed in, frenentic and ant-like city striving. Now it's left to focus groups and marketing non-entities to recycle ill-conceived ideas of just how to attract the mythical band of tourists that frankly will never, ever materialise.

Unless you love shopping. In which case the new monstrous carbunkle that is the Bullring is most definitely for you. As Trinny and Susannah recently exclaimed, probably in surprise: "Birmingham! You've got everything!" And in that single, vacuous statement came the realisation that Birmingham, you've got nothing. Not if you are now built on statements like that.