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Birmingham? Try Birmin-Glam!

Britains second city is vastly undervalued

Birmingham, Britain’s second city, is one of its most important. But on the whole, that’s not how it's treated. Reach for cultural imaginings of the place, and you find little. Reach for prejudices which the rest of the UK has of the city, and you generally find disdain. For Birmingham, a city of over a million people, with a rich history and cultural life, this isn’t just unfair and insulting — it's actively damaging. And for predominantly middle-class British conceptions of Birmingham, which tell you the town is little more than a supersized provincial market town, it reveals a stark and gaping prejudice.

Birmingham has contributed a lot to our shared national life, even if we’ve forgotten that. For one, as one of the most diverse places in the UK, with over 50 per cent of the city non-white, the city has contributed disproportionately to our understanding of Britain’s multi-racial society. Among a good deal of others, it was Birmingham who produced one of the most important recent thinkers on race, the late dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah.

Zephaniah represented a radical attempt to connect both immigrant communities to modern Britain, and also real people — not just academics — with deep thinking on important questions about Britain after empire. By specialising in the spoken word, using a simple, evocative vocabulary and speaking primarily in public forums, Zephaniah represented a subtle radicalism. Zephaniah, understated, brilliant and radically innovative, speaks of the character of the city that produced him.

Birmingham, in fact, far from its public image as stagnant and boring, is defined by innovation, creativity and adaptability. The city produced three times more patents in the Industrial Revolution than any other city in the UK — and as a result, it rebuffs mindless generalisations of what industrialisation meant. In Birmingham, the period was defined more by small businesses selling specialised goods than large factories and mindless discipline.

It’s a legacy that continues today. Despite the misguided view that industry died with Thatcher, Britain is still the eighth-largest producer of manufactured goods in the world. And at the centre of that is Birmingham — which, through its small, family-run industries, was able to dodge the worst of Thatcherism. The East and West Midlands remain the two parts of the UK that employ more people than any other in manufacturing.  

Birmingham as a result retains more of a genuinely working-class identity than most parts of the country. Its connection to its football clubs, tellingly, is exceptionally strong — often overlooked because the clubs themselves do less well than those of proud northern cities like Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, and Newcastle. In fact, I would argue that the connection to its clubs is in part due to this lack of recent success. Shorn of trophies and top-six places, its clubs have a feel-good atmosphere and a genuine sense of solidarity — and a sense that supporters will stick by the club no matter what it goes through. As a supporter of Aston Villa myself, I can attest to the deep passion of supporting a team just because of its importance to the community.

Yet what sticks out most is the sheer quantity of well-supported, community-grounded clubs. In the West Midlands, there’s Villa, Birmingham City, Wolves, Walsall, West Brom, and Coventry — all firmly based in the community they play in, and regularly playing to large stadiums. In contrast to the much-mocked ‘Emptihad’ — whose working-class credentials and sense of self rely on the efforts of two ageing 90s rockers — Birmingham offers hope, an alternative, and a sense that the game might not quite be gone after all. 

Yet Britain scorns its second biggest city. Too often, its important role in shaping modern Britain is ignored or mocked. Britain — perhaps the most centralised country in the world — has tended to treat the city as a basket-case, and, as a result, has shaped it in the image of one. The horrible architecture that defines the city — and the historically limited funds that bureaucrats have apportioned it — have deprived it of its potential. Like hundreds of other places across the UK, a snobbery, negativity, and disdain for Birmingham makes it what it is — in spite of, and not because of, its efforts.

Illustration by: Lauren McAndrew

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