Monday, 7 November 2011

Dirty old town…

What is it about Birmingham that makes fat, bearded artists hate it so much? Edward Burne-Jones 'claimed he didn't know he had a soul until he left Birmingham', and said 'I can't think it matters at all how I paint or what I am if I ever had the baseness to be born in such a hole': he called it 'blackguard, button-making, blundering, beastly, brutal, bellowing, blustering, bearish, boiler-bursting, beggarly, black Birmm'. (All quotes from Fiona MacCarthy's magnificent - and massive - new biography of the Victorian medievalist artist.

Monsieur L'Artiste

Edward Burne-Jones

Over a hundred years later, Steve Bell, my favourite cartoonist, has a similarly dismissive approach - he recalled that after a year teaching art there, he resolved to a) never teach again and b) never visit Birmingham ever again (he'd 'rather live in a blocked toilet than live in fookin' Birmingham'. Since then, he's consistently drawn Birmingham as a network of dystopian flyovers and canals littered with dead dogs, floating paws-up. (Link above leads to full-size version).

Is Birmingham so bad? Yes, it's suffered the depredations of heavy industry, political oppression, the Luftwaffe, local planners, economic insanity and the cynical short-termism of property developers (if you think the Bullring complex is decent urban design, you're mad), but I rather like it. There are some decent pubs, identifiable 'quarters' that aren't the fantasy of some 'regeneration consultant', and an interesting identity which derives from a fascinating history. OK, it's ugly, damp and knackered - but from here in The Dark Place, it's the Shining City on the Hill.

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