I'm here for a JuicePlus+ Conference, and arrived by train mid-afternoon. The journey across England was difficult to fathom because although I had been allocated a 'window' seat, I was in fact next to a panel which obscured all views. Felt as if I was in the naughty corner.
However, I had glimpses of my past - bits of road, canal, motorway which I remember from journeys as a child... I battled against nostalgia, too many thoughts and memories. This is the first time I have experienced this, which is an acknowledgement that the old days are gone, swept away, irretrievable. England has such a rich past, sometimes very painful, but marked with its own livery of architecture, proportion and light, but the new buildings and machines for living use bigger and more brutal scales, which pay no attention to locality..... This kind of thinking set the tone.
I have not been very often to Birmingham - I used to drive past, or sweep past in the train on my way to Manchester (university) and Liverpool (BBC). But I have vague memories of the old Bull Ring, and some very pleasant Victorian suburbs.... Nothing prepared me for the new centre.
They have created great clusters of high-rise hotels and offices made of glass and concrete which force fierce winds to batter along the crumbling pavements and mess below. The traffic controls everything, like a non-stop trail of soldier ants. The walls of the buildings, at ground level, present hostile series of ventilation panels, and solid brick or metal in stead of shop windows or anything friendly to a pedestrian. Shops etc are now corralled inside malls, away from the streets, which are consequently devoid of interest.. As a pedestrian, you are constantly looking not to trip over the cracks and kerbs, and sizing up the safety of the next 100 yards if an assailant should attack. There are occasional doorways or loading bays leading to service areas or emergency exits, and in these little wind-breaks men huddle in ones, twos and threes, keeping out of the blasts of dusty air which swirl around the the high buildings. They seem threatening - probably not in reality - but they are hooded and carrying rucksacks or bags, looking dispossessed and sometimes muttering or calling out. 'Hello girly', says one, in a Scottish accent. Girly! As a city-centre experience, it sucks. I did not feel safe.
The roads have complete dominance - to get from my hotel to the centre I must use an underpass, which may be safe in terms of traffic/pedestrian management but always looks dodgy to me - these tunnels offer cover to beggars and muggers, and there are so few people around. And they often smell of piss, and are graffitti'd. Hateful places.
The old Birmingham is still there - individual buildings or small rows of shops, dwarfed by their new neighbours, and presenting a weird disjoint between times - the old and the new. The old has quaintness and probably dry rot and awkwardness and dirt... but the new is out of scale, hostile, challenging and anonymous. The old has its roots in medieval times, with quaint street names (Horsefair), and Georgian or Victorian styles of building, all of them going out of their way to entice or attract passers-by on foot. All that is going now. I saw old pubs with their guts ripped out and transformed into cafeterias, and everywhere the pavements quaking and coiling and looking unfinished or smashed.
I found the Mailbox which now houses all the shops and services which used to be on the streets, by walking under another underpass with steps and weird pavement art patterns which made me feel dizzy and anxious. It is a rather handsome building with eye-catching red lights highlighting the architecture - but they're doing it up and a commissionaire refused to let me in unless I was going to Harvey Nichols. He said, go right, go right.... but his directions were inadequate and I walked quite a long way up windswept frightening streets to get in round the back, missing the temporary boarded entry tunnel. There, part of the old canal basin is now surrounded by concrete balconies and a couple of dozen smart new restaurants... each of these has its own branding, but they're all part of huge national or international chains and offer (to my mind) a faked up eating experience. The old has been totally subsumed by the new. It's all illusion, and corporate....
You may say, what is wrong with that? But I remember the old days - when it was real people with real businesses and real skills and passions and real commitment, family-based as like as not, each doing their thing, with their own pride, and running their own destinies... I know, I know. It wasn't really like that.
But this new version is less human. It's huge and swirling and untouchable and bitter. Birmingham seems to be full of hotels, servicing all the people who come to the huge conference centres. Everyone's on the move. I felt like no-one actually lives here. I liked the two taxi drivers I talked to, both Indian. One had never been out of Birmingham though his brother in Slough keeps urging him to go and visit. This weekend, our conference coincides with Crufts, and there are masses of pretty dogs everywhere in the hotel. Quite unusual to have woofing during breakfast (I hope that doesn't have a meaning I don't know about).
The skies are clearing outside - we have some blue. It will be a nice day.