Tuesday, 9 March 2010

This is Birmingham, a book review

This is Birmingham
by Jan Bowman

Or maybe the title on my copy should read "This is Birmingham, but not as I know it".

Can you tell that my review is going to be less than favourable?

Andrew Denny reviewed this new publication and kindly sent it on to me, knowing my interest in both Birmingham, my home for 20 years, and my passion for anything to do the the BCN.

I am struggling to work out exactly who this book is aimed at. Jan Bowman is an architect by profession and has produced a pictoral backdrop in the style of a series architects impressions, which may seem a bit odd at first but as I looked at the scenes I warmed to them. Each image is a skilful pastiche, which successfully conveys various aspects and landmarks of our city in a bold and engaging manner.

A quick flip through the book, as you would in a bookshop, reveals lots of images of children looking on or at play, suggesting that this is aimed squarely at kids, maybe of junior school age or possibly in years seven, eight and nine.

In this context the book walks through the colourful history of our fine city, perhaps taking the intellectual contribution of the Lunar Society a bit far, but certainly highlighting the area as the cradle of the industrial revolution. Whilst the contemporaries of the "Lunatiks" may have been instrumental in the abolition of slavery, I think that history will reveal that this trade was mostly over (abolition in 1833) before Birmingham and the Black Country really got going as a major industrial force (New Main Line canal completed by Telford in 1838).

I do find the application of modern eco ethics onto a past generation irksome, as revealed in her comment about Boulton's new steam engine which "helped men use more energy than ever yet the world had seen". It's a bit rich to take a pop at the use of fossil fuels 200 years ago, when the supply appeared infinite and coal could literally be picked up off the ground.

Then we get to the narrative, and this is where it all falls apart. The wording is clever, in an unrhymed poetic sort of way, but better suited to the educated readership of Spiked that than the more populist Express and Star. I am tempted to refer to the poetic style as blank verse, but it isn't written in Iambic Pentameter, so technically it isn't - but you get the idea.

 My question has to be: How many inner city school children do you know that could understand phrases like "floriferous canals"? There is no way that these words have been drafted for consumption by typical urban kids, to whom the book appears to be targeted. The cover sugests it is a book which should be at the right hand of every local teacher, but the text condemns it to a life of the bookshelf.

Taken as a whole, the book reads as something drafted by the Birmingham Council PR machine.  "A marvelous metropolis of parks and waterways and spires. Little streets that snake for miles and children play". It's something straight out of a Pathe newsreel of the 1930's, extolling the arts and crafts glories of Welwyn Garden City.

Yes this book is about Birmingham, but in truth the city I know isn't the rose tinted place portrayed. Yes, there is a diverse mix of ethnic groups in the city but they are not seamelssly blended in together. Instead we are more like a marble cake where pockets of different colours gather together, Yuppie on Broad Street, Afro Carribean in Newtown, Indian in Aston and blue and white collar Whites in Kingstanding and Sutton Coldfield respectively - and that's just one slice I pass through every day on my way to and from work.

Nor is there any mention of the homelessness, poverty, unemployment, industrial decline, crumbling tower blocks and elevated motorways. Nor are the shortcomings of the City Council evident, a Council packed with vision which has erected these magnificent landmarks, but still presides over an utterly failed social services offering.

This book describes a Birmingham one aspires to, a Birmingham where boaters moor up under Spaghetti Junction to pass the time of day with dog walkers, out minding their children who wizz around on skateboards. The only reason I stop under Gravelly Lane Interchange is to clear crap from my propeller, the only dog I am likely to see will be floating, head down in the cut and the only kids you see down there are more likely to have you reaching for your hard hat than your camera. 

Fearing I had been too harsh on the book I decided to conduct a small survey of 16 year old's who were readily to hand. Actually it was a survey of just one - Jeff. I asked him for his thoughts and he replied "Well, uh,  the pictures are for kids like, but the words. The words, uh, they were like hard and I didn't really understand a lot of them ".

Sometime I just love that lad, who calls a spade a, uh, spade, and would never fail to spot an emperor devoid of his apparel. Oops, now she as got me at it, that should read "without clothes on"!

I have a copy going spare if you want to take a look.

ISBN 978 1 902407 93 7

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