Brum tugs at the harp strings: Before you sneer at Birmingham, come and hear the winds of change, says Chris Arnot

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Birmingham will be the centre of Europe on Friday. Not London, not Paris, not Brussels, but Birmingham. No wonder the Lord Mayor was buoyant when it was announced that the city's International Convention Centre would host the EC summit.

'Not long ago no one had heard of Maastricht,' he told John Humphrys on Radio 4's Today programme. 'Oh, I think we'd heard of Birmingham,' Mr Humphrys replied in a voice that spoke volumes about how England's second city is seen by its first.

It takes a long time, and a good deal of money, to change a city's image. Vincent Hanna, television broadcaster and public relations consultant, has just been given a 50-day contract worth pounds 1,200 a day to shake up Birmingham's publicity empire.

The PR is already paying dividends. Shortly before his resignation as Secretary of State for National Heritage, David Mellor suggested that Birmingham could be a future European City of Culture. And he wasn't joking. My old home town has changed, and how.

I have watched the transformation with bemusement and pleasure. Living 20 miles down the road, I can sample the goods without footing the bill. But it takes some getting used to.

My most memorable cultural experience in the Birmingham of the Sixties was seeing Richard Chamberlain play Hamlet. The old Repertory Theatre was packed. Large numbers of teenage girls had been attracted by the prospect of ogling television's heart-throb Dr Kildare in black tights. They screamed when he came on stage. Up in the gods, my appreciation of the soliloquies was somewhat hampered by the sound of the 28 bus revving up outside in Station Street.

Now I can go to the new Rep, Symphony Hall, National Indoor Arena or Ronnie Scott's Club - all within a few hundred yards of each other. True, we have to park on a dimly lit piece of wasteland and my wife may well catch her heel in a cracked paving stone. And we will be uncomfortably aware that the gleaming tower of the Hyatt hotel is very close to the bleak tower blocks of Ladywood.

Birmingham never did anything by halves. It was once the city of a thousand trades, turning out buttons and brass fenders, crankshafts and con rods. But in the Eighties it could no longer rely on manufacturing to keep it prosperous. So Culture, with a capital C, was to be pursued on a grand scale with little regard for any sneers from snooty London critics.

The one-time butt of music hall jokes is now the UK City of Music - home to the Royal Ballet and the D'Oyly Carte, stager of festivals of jazz, film and comedy.

Nothing better illustrates the change in Brum-culture than my recent visit to the Lickey Hills, a 500-acre park on the city's southern edge, a mile past Rover's Longbridge factory. As a boy I used to lie awake at night listening to the clatter of metal in the drop-forging plant of what was then the Austin works.

The Rover Group imports its crankshafts these days, which at least makes nights quieter for the neighbours. But stroll down the road towards the Lickeys, cock an ear to the wind and you might just catch a much more harmonious sound - the haunting strains of an aeolian harp strummed by the passing breeze.

The harp is part of Birmingham's latest venture, an 'environmental sound trail'. Acoustic sculpture has been around since the Twenties, but this is the first time it has been the subject of civic sponsorship.

Birmingham City Council, West Midlands Arts and British Gas met the pounds 5,000 cost - chicken feed compared to the millions spent on projects in the city centre. Yet even 10 years ago such a scheme would have been laughed out of the council chamber.

The sculptor in residence is Jony Easterby, 26, an amiable Brummie with a degree in fine art from Gwent College of Higher Education. Tall and thin, he plays the didgeridoo in his spare time, while 'striving to find the meeting place between visual art and music'.

Among the instruments he has spread around the woods and heathland are log drums, giant marimbas and what he calls walking wind bows - wire strung between sycamore poles set into oak tripods. They look like huge, misshapen longbows and resonate with a high-pitched twanging sound. The aeolian harp is also designed to 'pick up the wind's harmonics', as Mr Easterby puts it. The strings are set in the 15ft hollowed trunk of a Norwegian spruce, along with a small amplifier powered by solar panels.

More beautiful, by far, than the sounds of metal-bashing. The clatter from that drop-forging plant is a distant echo of a city in danger of becoming an industrial wasteland. But at least it is no longer a cultural desert.