The question repeated itself as I groaned my way up the M40 in my Morris Minor, all of my life wrapped up and packed away in battered cardboard boxes, piled up high on the back seat, rammed into the spaces between the seats, and almost falling out of the boot. Well, it's a measure of my life that I can shove the whole of it into cardboard boxes and fit it into a Morris Minor. Not much to show for my 43 years on this planet. A few books. Two sacks of clothes. A computer. And all of these crumbling notebooks in out-of-date diaries and sheathes of paper in stained and tattered folders chronicling the story of my life over the 25 years since I last spent any time in this town.
I left Birmingham in 1971, with a carload of stuff, vowing never to come back. And here I am again, with a carload of stuff. Back.
Birmingham has a certain reputation. The very act of writing about it as a native puts you on the defensive. As Jane Austen said (Emma, 1816): "One has no great hopes from Birmingham. I always say there is something direful in the sound." Actually, I think there is something comical in the sound. "Birmingham," you say, and you expect a joke. Like: "Birmingham, Europe's meeting place" (the current corporate slogan), which implies a romantic assignation under Spaghetti Junction. Or: "Birmingham, Venice of the Midlands." Of course, there's nothing more unromantic (or less like Venice) than Birmingham. It's like the opening of a comedy sketch, and not a particularly good one. The truth is, when I left the city all those years ago, I was embarrassed by it. But then again - like Jane Austen - I was an insufferable little prig. I'd read too many books. I'd seen too many films. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a citizen of the world. I wanted to be sophisticated, urbane, intelligent. Anything, in fact, but a Brummie.
I remember sharing a flat with a couple of Londoners, the summer after I'd moved. They were talking about food in an urbane manner, comparing the merits of various national culinary traditions. One of them favoured Italian and the other French. I said, "I like curries". The first one turned round to me. "I've never been that enamoured of Indian cookery," he told me. "It seems like the Oriental equivalent of meat pie and chips to me, the sort of thing you drink lager with." I said, "What's wrong with meat pie and chips?" They gave me a look of complete contempt. Later on, I became a vegetarian.
So what has brought me back? Serendipity. Circumstance has led me here. I was homeless and someone offered me a room. At first I thought, "No, no, I can't, I can't go back." It seemed like a defeat somehow. I was looking for flats in London, Brighton and Kent. I was staying with my sister near Greenwich, but she needed the space. But then this, too, seemed like a stepping stone. My sister is just like me, a Brummie wherever she lives, and now I was hearing my own, native accent day-in and day-out, despite the fact I was living in London. And, bit by bit, the idea began to grow on me. It had a vague sort of appeal somehow. Maybe there was something I could learn by living there. Sort of return of the native son. One day, I was um-ing and ah-ing about the decision, and a few days later, there I was, finalising the arrangements. Suddenly, all those things which had embarrassed me in the past - Birmingham the comical, Birmingham the working class, most of all, Birmingham the unpretentious - had become the very things I was thirsting for. The day my sister needed me to move was the day my room in Birmingham became available. Serendipity, as I say.
And then came the final confirmation. I still had my doubts, but I was down in Whitstable in Kent for a few days. It was New Year's Eve, in the back room of a pub. "Where are you living now?" someone asked. "I'd heard you'd moved."
"I'm moving to Birmingham," I told them.
"Birmingham?" someone piped up, in the way you always expect to hear. "Why Birmingham?"
"I'm living in Birmingham these days," someone else said.
"Moseley," she said.
"I'm living in Moseley, too," I said. "Where in Moseley?"
"Opposite the most notorious pub in Birmingham." And she told me the name of the pub. It's about five minutes from where I live.
"It sounds like my kind of pub," I said.
"Oh no," she said, rolling her eyes, "you're not going to start writing about everyone and pissing them off again are you?"
"Of course," I said. "It's my job. I like pissing people off."
You can't argue with fate, can you? A couple of months later, here I am, in Moseley, eating curry and drinking lager, in a flat opposite the most notorious pub in Birmingham, with a bunch of people from Whitstable, taking mental notes so that I can write about them. And they're guests in my town this time, not the other way around.
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