City Breaks? Brum's the word
Birmingham for a holiday? Who are they trying to kid. But look again. Once an industrial powerhouse, it has transformed into the flashy centrepiece of the Midlands. Nick Coleman is seduced
Sunday 24 December 2006
You may or may not be familiar with the etymology of the word "Brum", an adenoidal grunt denoting the city of Birmingham and its citizens. "Brum" is a contraction of "Brummagem", or twinkly thing made in Birmingham, which, when deployed adjectivally, says Chambers dictionary, describes a thing which is "showy and worthless, sham, counterfeit".
Good heavens. A whole city that rejoices in its own flashily conspicuous inauthenticity - how unusual. How compelling. How tricky for the marketing department, whose job it is in these millennial years of conspicuous regeneration to sell the city to the rest of us.
I'm in Birmingham being given the show-around by a pair of non-Brummies involved in that marketing effort. One is from Kent, the other from Buckinghamshire. They seem inordinately proud of their adopted city. They seem to love it, in fact, not out of professional duty, or even out of the get-ahead compulsion to "really believe" in things that make money for you, but ... well, because they seem to like being here a lot.
They've shown me round with energy and enthusiasm, so much so that my back is beginning to go. I've been up the perpendicular new Radisson SAS - peeped out over the purlieus of Edgbaston through the "shower curtain", as it is called because of the bathroom-drape effect created by the hotel's fancy glazing. I've marvelled at the acoustics in Symphony Hall. I've vowed never to go shopping at the Mailbox development (too posh) and at Selfridges (too tempting). I've nodded appreciatively at the civic bounties of Brindleyplace, its reversible stream, its sculptures, its galleries and its sophisticated canalside leisure opportunities. I've been hauled up to the dome of the rock of the Bullring - remade from its dismal concrete beginnings as a Sixties retail precinct-cum-turd - to gaze out over Solihull under mid-afternoon clouds going Barbie-pink beyond the spires of St Martin's. I have been, I have to say, taken by surprise.
The last time I was in Birmingham, other than for football, was 20 years ago, and I couldn't get out of the joint fast enough. The place appeared to fulfil the terms of every snide word that had ever been said about it. It was grey; it was indecipherable; it had no focus; it seemed to have no vitality; it was a place in which the forward gaze was met by the crushing weight of civic, industrial and cultural recession coming in the opposite direction. It was the middle of Britain and the end of the earth. What on earth, I found myself wondering as I fled, is the point of Birmingham?
The operation that markets the city in the 21st century - pithily known as Marketing Birmingham - is very keen to stress that Birmingham has many points. It's Marketing Birmingham's purpose to highlight those points so that the real virtues of the city might overwhelm the memory of perceived failings - virtues given extra substance by a mighty influx in recent years of corporate investment and Euro-cash. To this end, it has mounted a series of three-year campaigns, aimed at tourist and business alike, accentuating the city's many-pointed personality. There have been "peaks and troughs of noise".
There has been a Birmingham fashion push, a sports shove (the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show was held at the NEC only a fortnight ago), a gastronomic heave-ho called "Birmingham Bites". Next year, arts and culture will be getting a leg-up. The upshot is a hi-vis message platform (I'm not entirely certain that this is what these things are called in the world of marketing, but let's pretend) which serves to suggest that the very best things in life are condensed into one glowing, pulsating, wowsering business and leisure milieu: the grand old crossroads city of the Brummagem. Put it this way, if a measure of the economic health of a city is the number and prominence of its gleaming restaurants and retail emporia, then Birmingham is ruddy cheeked and nourished to bursting point.
But the bit of Brum I like best is neither hi-vis nor gleaming, except in the most detailed and localised sense. And it certainly isn't stuffed with corporate capons. The Jewellery Quarter. You ought to be aware of the city's long-standing reputation for metalwork and engineering. But you might be forgiven - as I am prepared to forgive myself - for not being aware of the Jewellery Quarter, its 400 businesses and its 250-year-old reputation.
I am assured by Andy Munro, operations director for the Regeneration Partnership, that a solid 40 per cent of the nation's jewellery business is conducted here - here, in this modest, low-roofed, surprisingly pretty light-industrial quadrant just north-west of the city's central core. Actually, it's not so much pretty as comely, the Quarter, especially in and around St Paul's Square, which hints at the planned Georgian elegance of Bath without being so vainglorious as to demand comparison. If you have the slightest taste for 18th- and 19th-century light-industrial architecture you should come here and just walk the streets. They are lovely in the way that only organic, sui generis developments are lovely: they have what you might call "grain".
Better still, if you have jewellery to buy, hop on a train; you get the works here, from bespoke wedding sparklers to full-on modern designer treasure, modestly displayed for your consideration, and without a hint of snobbery, in dozens of small, friendly shops which appear to have been in the same spot since the periwig was in fashion.
I have ghastly memories of slogging up and down that vile gulch, New Bond Street in London, my betrothed in tow, pleading inwardly that the next bijouterie would not be screaming with overpriced bling and staffed by snooty inbreeds - only to be disappointed, yard by gruesome yard. If I'd known about the Jewellery Quarter, I wouldn't have soiled the soles of my brothel-creepers. We'd have gone to Brum for the day, got what we wanted in the way we wanted to get it, and had a story to tell ourselves ever afterwards. And seen some fascinating architecture.
So how is Marketing Birmingham doing in its fight to overturn prejudice and convince both consumer and business alike that the city is not only fair but worth it? The figures are pretty good. Visitor volumes went up by nearly 6 per cent between 2002 and 2004, to nearly 20 million. The "visitor spend" increased proportionately. But perhaps the most significant numbers are the ones for overseas visitors: an increase of nearly 22 per cent. The message is certainly being registered somewhere that something is stirring in the Black Country.
But if there's a presiding metaphor for what makes Birmingham a good place, it's the relationship between the gleaming, hi-vis world of the Mailbox, ICC, NEC, NIA, Bullring, Brindleyplace and Selfridges and the more discreet world of the Jewellery Quarter and its deep grain. We might call it the Brummagem Principle. You can be as bright and shiny as you like, but if you don't have the means to back up the gleam with substance, you will be for ever vulnerable to accusations of Brummagemary: of being "showy and worthless, sham, counterfeit".
It's the same with any city. You can't have your sparkly stuff without your deep structure. A place will stand only on its foundations. Oh, and while we're in the mood for glib epithet, all that glisters is not necessarily gold. It might of course be platinum.
THE COMPACT GUIDE
HOW TO GET THERE:
Nick Coleman travelled courtesy of Virgin Trains (08457-222 333; virgin.com/trains), which offers returns from London to Birmingham New Street from £20.
Contact Birmingham Tourism Centre (0870-225 0127; visitbirmingham.com).
The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations
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