The Book of Birmingham
I had lived in Birmingham for a year before moving to work with Comma in Manchester, and ‘The Book of Birmingham’ was the first title that I began to publicize. The relationship that I had built with the city of Birmingham the year before was a confusing one. I had spent a lot of time there wondering why everything felt so disconnected; why, as numerous and driven as they were, its creative organisations seemed so scattered and hidden, and why, as ethnically and culturally diverse as the population was, these various communities often still felt separated from one another. Moving around the city could be like hopping from one island to another, as though one side of the street was almost invisible to its opposite neighbor. I was in Birmingham to study Film Production and, alongside these emotional observations, I was learning from those I worked with that the city was largely neglected by the film and television sector. I started to piece older ideas together with these new ones, things picked up as a person growing up in the Midlands; that the Brummie accent was a horrible thing to hear, that you ought to keep your wits about you in Birmingham, that there really wasn’t much to be there for other than to shop in the Bullring. When I spoke to other people in Birmingham about this sensation of a disjointed and misconstrued place, there was large agreement, but we could never quite put a finger on the conception or reason.
When I read Kavita’s introduction to this collection, things began to click into place, loudly and firmly. Her explanation of the ‘ring of complex, conflicting and often neglected neighbourhoods’ comprised of varying immigrated communities from across origins and generations, and a mistreated and misinformed white working class, which circles the city centre, ‘a never-ending work-in-progress, constantly in flux, endlessly undergoing ‘development’.’ Kavita seemed to be sketching the Birmingham in my mind’s eye onto the pages when she continued to describe this gentrification of the centre, which was like watching money being pumped into money as if to try and compensate for its less than appealing reputation ‘like a done-up front room for guests, hoping all this expensive new furniture will finally enable Birmingham to live up to its ‘second city’ status.’ Instead, this airbrushing and overfeeding of the centre has served to muscle out the city’s long-standing settlers with less money than is needed to afford this new housing, dining, entertainment and people seem to move around each other in a contrasting bustle of much separated selves.
The stories Kavita Bhanot has compiled in ‘The Book of Birmingham’ then, are a way of knocking down the illusions which surround the city and make the truth of it inaccessible to people from the outside. Instead, these stories invite passing visitors (or readers) into local experiences, opening doors to very specific pockets of time and place within the city’s recent history that they otherwise would not see for all the demonising headlines and glaring canal side apartments. Bound together as they are, these stories of interracial coupling in 1960s Smethwick, social affluence between generations of immigrants, rumours, tensions, desires and surrealism, complete a jigsaw of Birmingham that tells real versions of real people from a long made-up location. After reading this collection, the next time you walk through Birmingham it will be softer; you’ll live the moment of realisation as with a new friend when you both find that you’re comfortable in sharing the depths of your lives. And you’ll hear no bad word said about them; rather, you’ll urge the understanding that everybody carries a history, some more complicated than others.