Why are clever-clever people so rude about Birmingham? Bruce Chatwin dismissed his hometown as absolutely hideous, Kenneth Tynan called his birthplace a cemetery without walls. Britain’s second city has always been belittled, not least by those who’ve left it, and now the old slights have been revived in the current debate about HS2. Never mind the pros and cons of that controversial high-speed railway — it’s the destination which really gets London’s goat. If HS2 went to Liverpool we’d be sure to mind our p’s and q’s, but Brum has always been an easy target. As Londoners never tire of telling one another, ‘Fancy forking out all that cash, just to make it a bit easier to get to Birmingham.’
To be fair, not so long ago these patronising put-downs had some substance. Birmingham’s city centre was uniquely awful — a sociologist’s paradise of high-rise flats and flyovers. Yet when I returned here last year, for the first time in ten years, I was amazed to find this unloved metropolis had had a dramatic facelift. Birmingham was still a concrete jungle of subways and dual carriageways, but for the first time in half a lifetime the city centre seemed like a single entity. You could actually walk from place to place.
I walked from New Street station to the Mailbox, Birmingham’s smart new shopping centre, and along the towpath of the old canal — once a no-go zone, now a pleasant place to stroll. I walked to the municipal art gallery, to see Britain’s finest collection of Pre-Raphaelites. I dropped into the Symphony Hall, famous for its rich acoustic. And then it struck me: the entire debate about HS2 has been about business. Bugger business. Businessmen (and women) will still drive their company cars between London and Birmingham, as they’ve always done, or Skype each other, or whatever else they’re doing nowadays. The hidden benefit of HS2 won’t be more people dashing between London and Birmingham for boring business meetings. It’s that cultivated Londoners will be able to jump on a fast train after work, see a first-class concert at the Symphony Hall, and still get back in time to catch the last Tube home. For Birmingham’s best-kept secret, largely unknown to the London cognoscenti, is that, in spite of all the bad jokes, this is actually an incredibly cultured place.
How many Londoners, for instance, have ever visited the Barber Institute of Fine Arts? Tucked away in the tranquil grounds of Birmingham University, it’s a treasure trove of European painting, from Bellini to Magritte. ‘Almost any of these would hang happily in the National Gallery,’ says the Barber’s acting director, Robert Wenley, as he showed me round recently. And the art deco gallery that houses them is an exquisite work in its own right.
Birmingham’s city centre, on the other hand, is widely (and quite rightly) regarded as an architectural disaster area — but after half a century of brutalist monstrosities, it’s finally getting the makeover it deserves. Donning a hard hat and safety goggles (and a natty pair of steel toe-capped boots), I took a site tour of Birmingham’s spectacular new library, due to open next year. Towering over the surrounding high-rise blocks, this vast construction is the new centrepiece of the city. From its flat roof, high above the other rooftops, you look down on the concrete monolith, due for demolition, which houses the city’s old public library. These two buildings encapsulate the city’s changing face. True, this flamboyant replacement has cost a lot of public money (£188.8 million, to be precise, against an initial forecast of £193 million), but it’s rather refreshing that, for once, such a prestigious building in such a prime site is being used to house something sensible like library books, rather than impenetrable works of modern art.
A short walk away is Birmingham Town Hall, Britain’s oldest concert hall. This splendid neoclassical pile has staged all sorts of premiers, from Dickens’s first public reading of A Christmas Carol (he brought the house down) to the world premier of Elgar’s ‘The Music Makers’, conducted by the great man himself. Mendelssohn also premiered his ‘Elijah’ here. ‘No work of mine ever went so admirably or was received with such enthusiasm,’ he wrote, after conducting the opening night. ‘I never in my life heard a better performance.’ Standing on this famous stage, looking out across the auditorium, the ghosts of these composers feel very close at hand.
Simon Rattle was the last musician to make his name here, and his subsequent career at the Berlin Philharmonic confirms that, whatever snooty Londoners may think, Birmingham has always been an important player in the European arts scene. Tourist numbers bear this out. Other provincial cities may be more fashionable, but Birmingham welcomes more foreign visitors than any British city outside London.
In the Symphony Hall, across the square, Rattle’s old colleagues are tuning up. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is busy rehearsing for a concert in the evening, and in the foyer I meet Stephen Maddock, its chief executive. ‘It’s easy to be a second city if you’re a bit further away from the capital,’ he says. Ironically for HS2, Birmingham’s problem isn’t that it’s too far from London, but too close. Munich, Milan and Barcelona all enjoy geographical separation from their national capitals. Birmingham’s misfortune is that it’s always felt a bit like somewhere on the way to somewhere else.
Another factor, I reckon, is Birmingham’s natural modesty. Liverpudlians and Mancunians tend to be relentlessly loyal about their hometowns. Most Brummies, on the other hand, are refreshingly unassuming. Brum’s best comedian, Tony Hancock, was notoriously melancholic. Even the accent is phlegmatic and downbeat. ‘Birmingham sometimes finds it difficult to know what to shout about,’ concurs Stuart Griffiths, CEO of the Birmingham Hippodrome. Maybe the city’s spoilt for choice. Griffiths’s theatre presents an eclectic mix of highbrow and lowbrow entertainment. It’s the home of the Royal Ballet, and the corridors are decorated with old playbills from the Hippodrome’s annual pantomime: Les Dawson in Babes in the Wood, Larry Grayson in Aladdin, and so on. No wonder this theatre boasts more bums on seats per annum than any other British auditorium. Yet despite its varied programme, it’s never received any public funding. ‘We’ve never asked for it and we’ve never needed it,’ says Griffiths, with quiet pride. In 2008, Birmingham lost out to Liverpool in the bid to become European cultural capital. I reckon they were better off without it. Birmingham doesn’t suit noisy jamborees.
I finished my cultural tour on the top floor of the Cube, the city’s most iconic modern building. Built by Birmingham-born architect Ken Shuttleworth, it resembles a gigantic jewellery box, a homage to the city’s historic Jewellery Quarter — but Birmingham’s main focus is on the future. From Marco Pierre White’s penthouse restaurant on the 25th floor (nursing a pint of Stumbling Badger), you can see how this fractured city is slowly being put back together. Will Birmingham ever become the height of fashion? I doubt it. This is a practical place, the city of Watt and Boulton, the men who turned the steam engine into a going concern. During the 18th century, more patents were issued here than in any other British city, and its artistic heritage is a direct result of its industrious, resourceful temperament. Before I left for home I returned to Birmingham’s magnificent gallery for another look at those Pre-Raphaelites, and came face to face with ‘Work’ by Ford Madox Brown. Brown actually painted his heroic navvies in Hampstead, but as Birmingham rebuilds its city centre, eradicating the modernist eyesores of the past century, it feels most fitting to find this Victorian celebration of hard work hanging here.