Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Nothing: It's more fun than you might think. Birmingham has cornered the market in the void-as-tourist-attraction. And the city succeeds brilliantly.

Nothing: It's more fun than you might think. Birmingham has cornered the market in the void-as-tourist-attraction. And the city succeeds brilliantly.

You may have read about the exhibition that comprises only captions, allowing the observer to "see" whatever he or she wishes. More on that in a moment. But a more dramatic emptiness has appeared at the centre of the city. The Bull Ring, the foulest post-war abomination to have blighted any British community, has vanished. In place of the hideous shopping centre and tangled expressway is a gaping, kidney-shaped hole.

"Gaping" accurately describes the face of every spectator. Your jaw drops as you watch from a footbridge tottering precariously over a vast building site that looks as though it could swallow a small country or two. Thousands of tons of brutal concrete have somehow vaporized, and all that remains is fresh air (well, air) and a gouge that could have been carved by a wayward Soviet space station.

"Changing the face of shopping" is the understated promise of the hoardings that surround a deep wound oozing with red Midland mud. Somewhere down near the centre of the earth, a corps of machines performs a jerky ballet, preparing the ground for a Birmingham planned, for a change, by someone who does not wish to choke the centre with a noose of dual carriageways.

The scale of the project reminds me of Potsdamer Platz in the middle of Berlin; while the bulldozers were in, the new German capital's biggest tourist attraction was a metal box in the middle from where you could witness the frenzy of demolition and reconstruction. The Pit That Ate The Bull Ring is an even more impressive study in nullity.

"THE CITY is a work of art": Plato's assertion is daubed on a spare wall of Birmingham's Custard Factory, whose post-powder purpose is as an arts centre. But how to define a work of art? At the To Be Constructed in Your Head exhibition at the Custard Factory Gallery, the answer is whatever you think it is, with the emphasis on "think".

"The exhibition will consist entirely of description of real or imaginary artworks. You create the exhibition in your head". I spent a joyful hour untroubled by the need to find meaning in painted surfaces and objects. (Meanwhile, my bike remained outside as an impromptu ready-made objet trouvé.)

Captions are scrawled on whatever the artist had to hand. The first exhibit is described on a brown paper bag: "Y'know those rivets you see in the road, and someone has sprayed a yellow circle around them and you wonder why? One of those."

Another caption was written on a 90p Midland Red bus ticket, and cautioned travellers to "Pay attention to where you are, not where you want to be".

Towards the end (and towards lunchtime) a heavy curtain covering a doorway carried a notice announcing "Behind here is whatever is in your head". I peeked, and was a bit disappointed not to find a chicken Balti with peshwari naan followed by kulfi.

Comments in the visitors' book were suitably sparse. "Like reading a book, not watching television." The sad news about the exhibition is that it ended at 9pm last night. Except, of course, it didn't; think about it.

Nothing makes Birmingham exciting. And as a strategy for attracting visitors, in a nation whose tourism industry has collapsed, nothing is as likely to succeed as anything else.

¿ The concept of zero keeps cropping up in Birmingham. The number is the same as the total of wings on Antony Gormley's prototype for the Angel of the North, his Iron Man in Birmingham city centre; the number of "essential sights" in the city, according to the Lonely Planet guide to Britain; the in-tune chords strummed by the busker outside Going Places; youth hostels; shoppers visible in most of the stores in the new Mailbox complex (on the site of an old Royal Mail sorting office) on Thursday afternoon; street names on the beautiful and expensive but blank new signposts sprouting up around the city centre; and beaches.

¿ The number of National Exhibition Centres in the Birmingham area: one. This is also, it seems, the number of doors open to the public at the labyrinthine venue. You are supposed to arrive by train, air or car, and take a central corridor from the station into the exhibition halls. I made the mistake of turning up for the British Travel Trade Fair by bicycle, and spent an unhappy half-hour circling the ghostly cubes that make up the NEC.

Eventually, I saw someone leave through an emergency exit. With a swerve and lunge for the closing door, my fingernails caught the closing door just before it slammed shut. I found myself in Yorkshire, not a Narnia effect; the region's stand was next to the exit. One group of visitors had a better plan to get in: the programme promised that the Royal Marines would "abseil in from the NEC roof".

¿ Nothingness is spreading through central England. East Midlands Airport is steadily becoming known around the world as Nottingham, the name of the largest nearby city. But in the current Icelandair timetable, it is described as"Notthingham".

¿ Travelling and monarchy go together, especially for our globetrotting royal family. It was natural, then, that a sprinkling of guidebook publishers should be invited to Buckingham Palace on Thursday night for the Queen's reception for the book trade.

One, in a shameless bid for a By Appointment crest, asked Her Majesty which guidebooks Prince William had used on his recent jaunt to South America. The Queen would not be drawn. The publisher then asked about HM's next destination, which turns out to be Norway.

"Oh, that's interesting - what will you be doing there?"

Her Majesty's weary response suggested that one does not join the royal family to live life in travel's fast lane: "Visiting the King and Queen."

s.calder@independent.co.uk

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