The citizens of Birmingham are keenly aware of the snobbery and accent-mocking humour about their beloved home, emanating mostly from London’s chattering classes. But, for the second time in two years, England’s second city has received glowing praise from an international destination that outdoes London in many respects: New York.
New York Magazine has advised its readers to go to “Birmingham instead of London” in an article this week that trumpeted the city’s attractions from the culinary delights of the Balti Triangle to “the world renowned” Birmingham Royal Ballet, its thriving jewellery trade and music scene. A lack of tourist hordes was another reason.
That came after The New York Times last year declared it was “no longer simply flyover country” but a “big-shouldered, friendly and fun” place that its readers should definitely visit. Over the last five years, visitor numbers have seen double-digit percentage growth to some 34 million a year.
Singer-songwriter Jamelia is a feisty defender of the city where she was born and bred. But even she confessed when she first began traveling to work in London at 15 she was “embarrassed to say I was from Birmingham. It wasn’t a place I was so proud of”, she said. “Today, it’s a different story. It’s a fantastic city. I’m such a proud Brummie. There’s no place better on Earth.”
She said she was such a regular in its designer fashion stores and gourmet restaurants in the extensively redeveloped city centre that she feared they might be “sick of me”. She admitted she had once lived in London for about a year, but when her two children, now aged 12 and 8, started talking like southerners it was too much.
“We do have a distinctive accent, but at the same time I love the accent – that’s one of the reasons I moved away from London,” she said. “My children were speaking in this RP accent. I thought ‘Actually no, we’re from Birmingham, we’re very proud of it and want people to know. Let’s get back to Brum’.”
Ian Taylor, a director of Marketing Birmingham, the body charged with selling the city to the world, said the city had “changed beyond all recognition” over the last two decades, but was aware there was a lingering perception problem in the UK. “There are people who probably haven’t been here for a long while... who come and say ‘wow’ this place is fantastic,” he said.
Mr Taylor, a Newcastle native who chose to move to Birmingham eight years ago, said the city had always attracted large numbers of people for business conferences, mainly from the UK. But there had been a recent surge in tourists, particularly from the US, China and India. “There’s much greater recognition of what Birmingham has to offer internationally,” he said.
Second city stats: The best of Brum
Birmingham dates back to Anglo-Saxon times with the name derived from the “ham” or home of the followers of Beorma, thought to have been a Saxon warrior or noble. The Domesday Book lists just nine houses in 1086. Peter de Bermingham was granted a charter to set up a market in 1166. In 2009, a vast haul of 7th century Anglo-Saxon gold and silver valued at £3.28m was found in the area: the Staffordshire Hoard is on display at Birmingham Museum.
Birmingham is bucking the UK trend and has one of the most youthful populations in Europe with nearly 40 per cent of inhabitants aged under 25. This “New Beat Generation” is helping to create something of a cultural renaissance in art, literature, dance and music.
Soul singer-songwriters Laura Mvula, shortlisted for this year’s Mercury Prize, and Jacob Banks are the leading lights of the new music scene, but Black Sabbath, Duran Duran, ELO, UB40, Ocean Colour Scene and Jamelia all hail from Birmingham. The 19th-century Czech composer Antonin Dvorak once wrote of the city: “It’s terrifying how much the people here manage to achieve”.
The Electric Cinema near Birmingham New Street station is the oldest working cinema in the UK, having been established in 1909, when it showed silent films with piano accompaniment.
The University of Birmingham, or Mason Science College as it was previously known, has proved to be something of a hothouse of prime ministerial talent. Stanley Baldwin, who occupied 10 Downing Street three times in the 1920s and 1930s, was a graduate as was his successor and fellow Conservative Neville Chamberlain. The current prime ministers of Saint Lucia, Kenny Anthony, and the Bahamas, Perry Christie, also studied there.
The futuristic new Library of Birmingham is Europe’s largest public library. The £189m building, designed by architect Francine Houben, has ten floors and will house the city’s archives.
James Watt and the leading lights of the renowned Lunar Society radically changed the world in the 18th century. Lunar Society member and clergyman Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen, while other innovations made in the city include the spinning jenny and the pneumatic tire. It is also the home of Cadbury’s chocolate and the Mini.
It may have been built on the back of heavy industry but it is also one of the greenest cities in the country with 6 million trees and more parks than any other European city.
With 32 miles of canals, Birmingham has more than Venice and attracts millions of people a year – more, it was once claimed, than the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. And for motoring enthusiasts, there’s the spectacle of Spaghetti Junction, one of the biggest motorway interchanges in Europe.