Birmingham: Move along, there's nothing to see here

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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law

footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
Designer Oscar de la Renta takes a bow after showing his Spring 2015 collection in September, his last show before his death
fashionThe passing of the legendary designer has left a vacancy: couturier to America’s royalty, says fashion editor Alexander Fury
Life and Style

Company reveals $542m investment in start-up building 'a rocket ship for the mind'

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are