The Book of Birmingham is the latest title to be published by Comma Press in their ‘cities in short fiction series’ which serves as an excellent introduction to some superb contemporary writers. The ultimate in armchair city tours, the series is ideal for discovering other places, other lives.
The Book of Birmingham – focusing on the second largest city in the UK after London which “sits at the central crossroads of England, the industrial heartland of the country” – brings together short stories by some writers known to me, (Kit de Waal, Bobby Nayyar, C.D. Rose, Sharon Duggal, Kavita Bhanot), and some not, (Sibyl Ruth, Malachi McIntosh, Joel Lane, Jendella Benson, Alan Beard, Balvinder Banga). The city’s “working-class foundation is inseparable from the city’s literature, reflected in the voices of its best-known contemporary authors: Jonathan Coe, Catherine O’Flynn, Benjamin Zephaniah, Kit de Waal, Joel Lane . . .”
The voices in this eclectic collection are all significant and have a powerful sense of engagement with the city. They convey a thoughtfulness and lyrical elegance imbued by anger as well as a tender melancholy.
The place is, of course, famous for being a major hub of the industrial revolution and the home of trailblazing innovators like Matthew Boulton, James Watt and Samuel Galton.
Kavita Bhanot writes: “Perhaps less well known, or less well-acknowledged, is the role that these figures played in colonialism, a role which was entangled with Birmingham’s historical contribution to Britain’s banking, industry, and science – not only because of the coins that were minted here, or the guns that were forged here, but also because of the workers who were later invited to fill labour shortages . . . these new immigrants . . . were housed in pockets circling Birmingham city centre Handsworth, Aston, Balsall Heath and Sparkbrook . . . The city derives a lot of its energy from those who have come from other parts of the world, their children and their grandchildren.”
The non-conformist urban creativity of the place is exemplified by the cultural pluralism of its literary, musical, theatrical and artistic activity which sets Birmingham apart from the London-dominated English cultural mainstream.
This independent spirit is represented in the collection by some of the key members of the Tindal Street Fiction Group founded in 1983. While C. D. Rose – who took part in the inaugural BookBlast 10×10 Tour 2018 – writes about Emmy Bridgwater and the Birmingham Surrealists, active from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Inner City Life
Racially diverse culture, unemployment, racist police and inner city decay all feature in The Book of Birmingham, as do community camaraderie, bleak banter and dark comedy.
“The man gets closer and closer and as he walks past Alfonse, their eyes meet, black man to black man and again, Alfonse feels a shift in his world. The black man walks to the corner of the road and Alfonse has to follow. ‘Malcolm X,’ his heart says over and over, ‘Malcolm X’.” Kit de Waal’s story features an African-Caribbean man who is inspired by the civil rights icon walking down Marshall Street. Alfonse stands up to the racist mother of the white woman he loves whom he claims as his wife.
Sharon Duggal writes about Indian workers in a factory and the influence of a galvanic new Punjabi arrival. “‘This Wolverhampton politician is dangerous,’ Suresh was saying. ‘He is causing hatred towards us on these streets. Already I’ve been told to carry a metal chain if I walk home after dark alone’. . .”
Bobby Nayyar’s 1970s portrait of a factory-worker-turned-taxicab-driver who builds up a property empire buying “exhausted, rundown properties” after breaking both ankles is a bittersweet tale. “Amir used his contacts to fill the house with Pakistani migrants, young men who weren’t ready to get married, most of them recently arrived and working in warehouses and factories . . . [he] was a success and the stench of his achievements followed him around Birmingham.”
Brave New World
Widespread bomb damage during World War Two gave rise to vast building projects in the 1960s – exciting for some residents, while for others their mental map of the city was disrupted. The poky little shops – ‘Victoriana’ – were torn down and bigger, taller modern buildings sprang up.
The regeneration of Birmingham during the 1990s and 2000s took in residential as well as central commercial areas which were substantially altered. The 1960s Bullring shopping complex, (on the site where the market was first held in the Middle Ages), was bulldozed and rebuilt, and reopened in 2003.
The Road to Wigan Pier
The battle between man and machine has deep roots. Depending on how you see it, machines either take our jobs, or ease our workload. Currently, the new industries are ‘knowledge-based’ technology and finance. Sooner or later cab drivers will be dislodged by self-driving cars. HS2 facilitating business travel between city regions may be touted by the government as a way to build a stronger more balanced economy in the Midlands and the North, but the reality is less rosy.
Sibyl Ruth’s heroine is a volunteer for a helpline as a way to fill time while job hunting, “Julie was good at it. She knew how to sound empathic, so people would talk. She understood the need for boundaries.” However a young female caller triggers the memory of a traumatic past event . . .
Alan Beard’s main man, Mark, is stuck. For him and Doreen and Ian there’s no exit. “‘Just no call for steel these days,’ I said, ‘‘s all computers now.’ I was tired; I didn’t want to talk about it. That’s why I hadn’t caught the work’s bus – words wouldn’t reverse the closure, not now, words were no good . . . Falcon’s would end up like the old tyre place a mile down the road, just the remains of a factory, a massive ribcage of girders dissolving in the rain
While for Malachi McIntosh’s lost hero, job hunting is a fruitless job in itself. “I’d never aspired to be a stereotype, a breadwinner or whatever, but I was starting to feel like I’d turned into one of the men I’d wished I’d never be – wreckage, unmotivated and aimless – and felt shame for thinking that as I thought it . . .”
Summer of discontent
Shops are smashed and petrol-bombed. “Everyone was sleeping with hammers and kitchen knives, telling their mothers and sisters, ‘Best to stay in until it cools down a bit’.” Balvinder Banga focuses on the Sikh community – “It felt like we had been under siege for a year” – as does Jendella Benson writing about the aftermath of rioting, “rumours about the Sikh taxi driver burned alive in his minicab had sent warnings ricocheting around the community . . . the stories had been the fuel that caused the streets to blaze.”
Joel Lane’s description of infiltrating a white supremacist gathering in “the highest and the most northern district of Birmingham,” culminating in a debilitating ceremony, is oddly surreal in its nasty, viscous viciousness.
The human problems underpinning the pithy, poignant stories in this collection reflect the continued growth of social disparities across Europe – in all of the West in fact – made manifest by the anger underpinning the Brexit vote, the ‘yellow vests’ movement in France and those who voted a gangster-President adept at spreading fake news into the White House. Fabulously high-earning top managers, wage poverty and the difficulties of getting stable jobs in our post-industrial, globalised societies are social problems that create division and strife. Right now, things seem to be getting worse not better.
“Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone,” John Maynard Keynes
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