Dear Birmingham by Maggie Doyle

Dear Birmingham

Writing to you is like renewing a childhood friendship.  We grew up together, me never realising the impact contact with you would have. Our paths crossed but our intimacy was lost when I moved away.  Today I stand back and take a long look at where we both are now, how our lives have altered.

Then, home was a house on a tree-lined road, not a car or garage in sight, but on the right hand corner, a shop. Wooden floor, biscuits lined up in military precision in square tins with glass lids so we kids couldn’t pinch a couple for break time !  An electric wheel cut bacon to order as a length of wire triangle-d cheese to one’s needs.  In such a shop I first heard the word “murdered”  –  the owner, one school morning.

Hessian sacks carried on the backs of faceless men, brought us agate-black coal on dusty lorries, to heat draughty houses and add to the smog which often hid your city roads. Narnia lamp posts leached mustard coloured light creating an eerie sense of an unseen world.  It was safer to walk  than drive! For play, streets were safe, few cars, but a few emerging football stars.

Your ever-open arms welcomed all.  West Indian families brought colours so bright as they marched along roads in their Sunday best, singing hymns, arms raised high praising their lord and life.  Later, you welcomed heads of state to the G8 and even the Pope came to bless you !!! Schools were full and your students did you proud.

I saw your world from misshapen reflections in scooter wing mirrors, smelled you through roasting chestnuts  at Christmas, heard you as the Sally Ann echoed through the Minories. (God rest ye merry gentlemen) Your warmth was all around me.  Mary Quant may have styled me but you beguiled me, moulded me.

Little did I realise how many “firsts” we shared, how we cared about each other; you, the worldly mother seducing me, introducing me to a grown-up world.

Our first festival; Handsworth Park, a spectacle, Ted Heath and the greatest swing band in the world unfurled an event that Glastonbury wouldn’t think about for 20 years plus, and there’s us tapping and a-clapping in the park until dark way back in the ‘50s.

Our first bombings since WWII ;  in the early 70s, me in my 20s. Two pubs, two bags containing Death, sent shockwaves through your city. Pity the dead, dying, blinded, pity Brum. The hum of traffic drowned by sirens as your horizon was lost in darkest pain, your heart torn out.

Our first riot; well yours, I had left you, moved to open spaces and places where oriental spices made way for country smells, where the yells of youthful clubbers  hadn’t a voice. Your tree-lined streets became no go areas, ghettoes and I was not there to see. My tv showed hatred and disharmony and I did not acknowledge you. You were changing – from Snow Hill to New Street iron horses belched and whistled as narrow boats and tugs chugged along polluted canals, past factories whose eyes were now closed and whose trades were dying. You looked the other way. Decay began its insidious journey, graffiti rules OK!

Birmingham you flow through my veins and I tingle when names of your great sons and daughters are spoken. You gave the world, a prime minister, scientists, industrialists, musicians by the score, actors, comedians and so much more.  Plastic, custard,  HP sauce and, of course, Cadbury’s and the Mini.  Silver all around the world bears your Assay mark. I can offer but a token but I am the sum of you and me.

Today I view you with more cynicism, inner wisdom darkening rose-tinted glasses.

My convent school now stands in a red light zone; red phone boxes are collectors’ items; the trees have been lopped and Sunday marches and gospel singing has stopped.  Wives no longer sweep their bit of street, polish their front doorstep red, these traditions are dead. The corner shops so neat and clean now leak their produce on to pavements. This is not who I am, this is not the Handsworth of my youth. You were the cloak of enlightenment, progress and change so it’s not so strange  that I love the old  you, when you were true to your sons and daughters, your values, your architecture, yourself.

I will not return, and I decline to whine like a Brummie, to stretch vowels to the bowels of what you have become, but dearest Brum, I will always love you.