12 years a slave was the last thing I thought about before I went to sleep last night, and the first thing this morning, and ran intermittently through my dreams too.
The amount of water that leaves your face is not, perhaps, an official measure of the power of a movie, and it’s obvious this is not a Feel-Good flick, but it is beautifully acted, scripted and edited, wholly worthwhile and will stay with me as long as I have a functioning memory.
In a spate of popular recent films that address slavery and the not-too-distant and very real, brutal racial divide in modern US History; Lincoln, the Butler, Django; this is one that tells a hundred stories well. It weaves about 20 different perspectives of both colours, told by brilliant acting; villains that can’t sleep at night, heroes wracked by guilt, somehow everything I love about the power of the characters in ‘The Wire’ (a measuring stick of brilliant drama, dialogue and 360˚ characters and I’m only 2 seasons in) and manages to squeeze it into 2 and a half hours.
A good villain is a human one, fully believable and frighteningly undestandable, and Michael Fassbender’s slave owner is as emotionally charged and flawed as Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, as coolly sinister as Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa (a film Fassbender was also in) but effectively frames what incredible newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is put through so beautifully it hurts, very much.
That Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character can carry the whole thing, like a coach loaded with works of art, is what makes him the perfect lead, letting every part shine on its own merits without dimming his own star. That’s a skill on the stage I’ve often seen at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, but to see it coming through on film is always a harder treat to find. His face can say a million things without saying a word.
As with Apocalypto, Saving Private Ryan, Irreversible, and so many of the best films of the last 50 years, 12 Years a Slave deals with the lowest, most brutal points of human nature, our tribal need to justify our place in the pile by brutal force, and the mind games that play with both victim and brute, and how far that can (and does) go.
Now let me ramble. I don’t know where to start on a discussion of slavery. That the same nation I’m proud of being a part of for its part in the Enlightenment, Isaac Newton, Shakespeare, much of Modern Music, the founding of much of what we call Modern Democracy and a society that is in more parts ‘accountable’ or ‘measurable’, but along the way, responsible for so many darker parts of subjugating, trading and debasing other human beings on several continents. Whether money was the motivator, and trade and power the instigators, Michael Fassbender’s role is the face of it, the hand that held the whip, not some Disney Villain with Jeremy Iron’s or Alan Rickman’s thespian sarcasm, but a man who persuaded himself to do this in the name of what he believed in.
Cut to the real world, and the man who brought about an end to slavery, a Brit too, William Wilberforce – and whether it was the Portugese, or the African kings they traded with who sold them their vanquished, whoever started it, 450 years of it, the millions it affected and brutalised are a deserving subject that’s very tough to stare at in the face, but should be.
Cut to a hidden part of real life, and in ‘modern times’, where the new whips are a bottle of acid thrown in the face, and we still have brutality against our own species, now more often on basis of sex, or paid forms of modern slavery, if we know or suspect it’s going on, what do we do about it? Regardless of who started it, and who will end it, it’s great to see a film that addresses the nature of slavery. Films are not truth, but the most brilliant tool for opening minds.
Go see 12 Years a Slave, but don’t expect it to be easy.
Beirut. Capital of Lebanon. A fuzzy, laughing, pock-marked electric oasis, ensconced in the Arabian wedge of the Meditteranean. Garlic, booze, concrete, olives, amorous eyes, hormones on steroids and cigarettes in every hand, cornered between angry nations pointing rockets and fingers at each other.
Seven Brits – alcoholism, nihilism, Borat & Partridge quotes, mutual piss-taking, self deprecation, limited understanding of exchange rates, cheerful and willing abandon at regular intervals.
Three Aussies – construction, management & mining consultants with a vent for hedonism, females and the pursuit of happiness.
Two Filipinas, immaculately turned out, all-seeing, all observing, not about to take any shit. Off anybody.
One Palestinian/Lebanese – the only member to actually understand often less-than-favourable comments from locals. Tolerant, thoughtful counterbalance to everyone else. Loveable.
One South African – Ladykiller, ladles of charm and no problem being the butt of jokes because he always gets the girl (although he doesn’t know what Savoury means or who Bill Murray is).
One Scottish-Indian, bright-eyed, loved up, up for everything, owner of the most inimitable accent I will ever hear.
The ensemble headed to Beirut last weekend for a 30th bash. Memory loss. Fearlessness. Intermittent Aspergers. Regular premature Alzheimers. Puke. Bidets. Abused curtains. Lots of laughing.
Flydubai took us to the city where the Arabs go to party, where Roman ruins dance between the ghosts of old wars and potentially imminent ones on streets peppered with smiles, stares, shwarmas, cigarettes, hugs, handshakes and a smoky warmth wherever you end up.
Biblical stone broods beside bullet-addled bricks, and 70s highrises cuddle up to Maronite churches, while Byzantine columns sleep between cacaphonic pylons. Decent Graffiti frames Hesbollah posters. 60s Mercs cut up brand new Porches. And men, men everywhere – soldiers on corners, old men on chairs, flatcaps and leather jackets, on steps, in doorways, outside shops, fifteen for every lady, with unabashed stares at unchaperoned women, hands forever scratching itchy bollocks (apparently it’s because it’s common to shave your pubes in Lebanon, but the ladies didn’t seem to have the same problem).
One street is old Berlin in summer, the next is Havana in Winter. The manic roads and crumbling history are Athens, with streetfaces of downtown Memphis or Barcelona. Plenty feels like downtown Marseille or Lille in the mid 80s, or like the 80s in general, only everyone’s off their faces, wants to be your friend, to show you the very best of their country and drives like a complete mental. Rear view mirrors are for ornamental purposes, as are lanes, pavements, traffic lights and zebra crossings.
Ha. Not really. Started with good intentions, but there were no illusions that the plot was going to be devised or found on this trip.
At 5am, 1.5 hours before the flight, I met my roomie for the first time, a stunner a long way from the home counties with a clever media job, in a pile of drunken bags and stuffs on the roadside. We’d both separately decided that as it wasn’t a school night, it was fine to travel to Lebanon on NO sleep and extended inebriation. On the plane, one of the Aussies thoughtfully warned a Lebanese man that we might be doing “terrible things to your country”. He was wrong. As much as Brits and Aussies are a royal pain in the arse on a global scale, anything we thought was unacceptable or just plain silly was fine with Lebanon. The locals’ primary concern was that we love the place, and we did.
We hired a coach and saw some sites. A million years of stalactites, (or an incredible, drippy Jim Henson/Terry Gilliam set at Jeitta’s Grotto), the serenely chilled RomanChristian Byblos, with fishermen chilling in the sunset on a 4000 year old port, giant angry marshmallows or rocky fingers swearing out of the bay at the Corniche, electric bars and happy drunks staggering across Jemayze. But mostly we ate, drank, ran, danced, wobbled, sang, questioned scam artists, lather-rinse-repeat as needed.
We met Hamdan, the checker player with the most incredible moustache any of us will ever see, the scamster arsewipes at BO18 who took a chunk of our money for a table guarded by overweight overzealous bouncers in bad suits & attitudes, then charged the entire bill again to the Aussie Birthday Boy’s card once we’d left. The larger than life ponytailed soulsinger Alex Nashef in Bar Louis. The kind taxi driver who didn’t get offended when we observed the thickness of Rafik Hariri’s eyebrows. Reem, the barmaid who kept pouring us ‘surprise’ shots and cocktails. Local ladies with lashings of eyeliner, piles of cleavage and plenty of soul. The Finnish girls who scammed us into paying their Bar tab. Wolf whistling soldiers. Bemused hotel staff. Amused pizza boys who could see a chunky profit a mile off. Everyone you looked at was looking back.
The Script. (Names *****ed)
“I knew it was time to go when I asked that man to drag me around the floor by my feet”
“Reception said they’ve run out of beer – they didn’t sound very apologetic about it”
“I think I’ve got chocolate cake in my ear”
“Promise you won’t make me leave this room or do anything today or I’ll have a panic attack”
“What’s the conversion for dollars into Lebo thingies again?”
5pm on BBM “Is anyone up yet?”
“A good midget porn title? ‘It’s alright, they’re not children'”
“He is genuine ********* face” (Borat quote in response to very Borat-sounding coach driver)
“If nothing else my kids’ll have good manners.” – “J****’s kids’ll probably have ***** ********”
“Who’s that dude staggering across the street down there? Oh, it’s D***. D***! We’re here!”
“When I was 27, it was a very good year…” I got back to the UK last night after 13 months in New York.
This is the last year condensed, hopefully to reduce the possibility of boring people witless. Not all, just good bits, silly bits and bits that won’t offend my mother.
What was fun:
Obama 1 and actual Obama in a police cortege past Bloomingdales. Debating speeding fines with intellectually-challenged cops in Tennessee. Debating found subway-signs with emotionally-challenged cops in the West Village. Two-stepping with cowboys in an Austin Honkey Tonk. “You’re British? Hey, do you know Derek?” The back of Tom Jones’ head as he sang in the Good Morning America studio. The back of Reeba Macintyre’s head. The front of Pharrel Williams’ head winking at my friend’s head. Playing piano in the Peabody in Memphis. The Halloween Parade up 6th. Nerdy pointing at the Ghostbusters Fire Station. Rum in handbags to ‘beat the system’. Independence Day airborne explosives. The Rivington roof. The Empire roof. Friends’ roofs, strangers’ roofs. Glamming it up at Gansevoort and the Ritz Carlton Penthouse. Rooftop films.
Punk moshers restrained by security in a circus tent. Comedy shows good and bad. Couples storming out of comedy shows. The Daily Show studio & resulting crush on Jon Stewart. Subway crazies doing press-ups to didgeridoos. The Knicks and Amir Khan at MSG. The Mets. 20,000 yoga fans in Central Park before thunderous rain stole everyone’s Chi (videos 1 and 2 – the second one is amusing). Lady comics discussing beef curtains. Drawing on walls of the Rivington Hotel. Scribbling on tables of the Ear Inn. Drawing on peoples’ faces. Sweaty, brilliant rockabilly clubs in Ashville. Rapping on a Lower East rooftop.
What was seen:
The daily view from floor 44; Midtown to Staten and past, (slightly dull video here). Jersey 8th floor over Target and Modells. From the stage in Nashville. The Adirondacks. The Q train over the bridge. (another exceptionally-dull video here) The Shenandoah driveway. Swamps with Cajuns asking “How y’all are!” (less dull video here) Lake Placid. The Combahee and Cuckold’s Creek. West Virginia dirt roads. Philly Phountains. Washington esplanades. Madam’s Organ in Adam’s Morgan. East to the three bridges from Floor 24 in Tribeca.
What was strange:
Oyster stuffing. The US synchronized swim team in a tank outside my office (a better video here). A soprano-opera-singing Harlem shuffler. Wiping off a friend’s puke at the Brooklyn bowl. Rollerblading with lovers of neon-lycra in the park. Seeing the man with the parrot on his head and rainbow beard 12 times. Marching school bands alongside IRA sympathizers at the Saint Paddy’s parade. A glum Alan Rickman not enjoying Jamaican food at Miss Lily’s, in the same room as a glum Michael Stipe. Hooters, Memphis. The life-size blue whale in the Natural History Museum and hungover siestas under its belly. The Dakota and peoples’ fascination with the death spot of an extraordinary man who lives on.
Zombies in Times Square (the best video here). Flash-mob Santas. Harrah’s frantic batchelor-fest pool party in Atlantic City (less amazing video). The not-very-dangerous Brooklyn ‘Danger Party’. The Russell-Brand/Jamie-Lee-Curtis table dancer with a megaphone in Hogs & Heffers. Meatpacking. Red Rush Zack and ‘promoters’ herding young female out-of-towners to Amnesia, the Green Room or the Hamptons for free booze and the charms of men who should know better.
Who was seen: Celebs:
Discussing volcanic ash with a stranded Chris Moyles. A giggling Kiefer Sutherland in the West Village. An in-depth discussion about stealing chairs from hotels with the Kings of Leon and Ashley Greene in a tiny bar. Talking baseball, Led Zepellin & Birmingham with Bill Murray in Charleston Airport after he’d signed my passport. A fiercely-beautiful Diane Kruger in crimson, and shiny-orange Clare Danes on Fashion’s Night Out. A befuddled Julian Lennon and illusive Jack White at the self-conscious Kenmare. Russell Brand filming Arthur everywhere. Lou Reed at the Mermade Parade and in Central Park. Chasing Jonah Hill across the lobby once he spotted he’d been spotted. A friendly, chatty David Byrne in the queue for Joan as Police Woman. A smoky, boozy Don Hill at smoky-boozy Don Hills.
Who became friends:
The yellow afro with huge heart and huge spirit. The baptist-brick-shithouse journalist with a giant brain. A jewish Ming-Dynasty descendant and panda enthusiast. A quadruplet House DJ. The happiest, brightest couple in the world without making you feel sick. The Armenian tech-fiend with a 100 faces and voices. The Tazmanian-Devil Russian who can sniff out a party miles away. The chatty PA from Queens who smiles through tough times. The soft-spoken surfer figuring himself out. His viking friend, the poet behind the lens. The loveable curmudeon with questionable hygiene. The MC with a fancy toothbrush collection and penchant for shoe-theft. A lebanese diplomat with a crown of curls and dynamite smile. The platinum man-eater pleasure-seeker. The owl-like creative who sees all. The jack-the-lad with secrets. The Glaswegian who loves Marc Jacobs and Vodka. My Greek Pocahontas in neon and lipstick. The dapper neuroscientists who understand mice. The jewelry designer with Mesmer-eyes and squidgy toe. Serbian and Croatian tablestompers in the Poconose and Astoria. The uncertain mastermind with a bow and a bike. A Memphis Cowboy with handwritten business cards. The future of the Tanzanian economy and African Girl-Power. The Polish whirlwind. An Australian popstar. The Norwegian-Imelda Marcos with a pharmacy in her work-drawer. The lobbyist. The bright-eyed jewish grandma with kindness for all. The blue-eyed painter that gets under your skin after five minutes. The never-a-victim BMXer with big hugs. The cherubic Aussie with a vicious tongue. The thoughtful singer full of regret. The Kung-Fu-professor with a fridge full of film and mad-tasty cooking. Cricket-Commentator Action Man.
What was free:
Free mischief & swimming in Asheville Jewish Community center at 4 am. Free handouts in Times Sq and Rockefeller: flip flops, mustard, Shredded Wheat, Mickey Mouse hats. Ketchup and sugar sachets stuffed into empty Mountbatten pockets. Free hugs from strangers. Plants from Corporate flowerbed clearouts. Free Naughty by Nature, Slick Rick, Ohio Players, Salt n Pepa, George Clinton and Busta at Wingate field. Free fear facing the fierce crowds at a Barney’s sample sale. Free Mustang ride to Montauk. Free songs on the subway. Free NERD in Times sq. Free Janelle Monae in Bryant Park. Free praise at a Baptist Church in Bedsty. Boots, perfume and shampoo from a kind colleague. Free night out in Atlantic City courtesy of Perez Hilton and a press pass to see Kelis, La Roux and Natasha Beddingfield camp it up. Free eavesdropping everywhere.
What was heard:
Gospel in Austin. Cajun and Hillbilly in New Orleans. My favourite street-music (and favourite video here). Dub-Reggae at the Blue Nile. Hucklebuck in Charlottesville. Dizzy Gillespie’s band at the Blue Note (great secret video here). Powerballads on the Interstate. En Vogue at BB King’s.
The Black Keys, Hot Chip & a Lennon Tribute in Central Park. The Philarmonic in the park. The Whose-Line-is-it-anyway folks at Webster Hall. Elton at MSG. Very decent Jazz at Lincoln Center. A flawless Aloe Blacc at Poisson Rouge. Lee Fields, Noah & the Whale, the Budos Band & Tom Green at Bowery. Joan As Policewoman at Mercury Lounge. Snoop, Tribe, KRS1 & a terrible Lauryn Hill on Governor’s Island. The Heartbreaking Apollo Talent showcase. Filming of ‘America’s Got Talent’ (ironic title).
What was eaten:
Grits in Harlem. Devilled eggs at the Spotted Pig. Family Thanksgiving in Houston. Pho noodles in Korea town. Many chicken wings. Many energy drinks. Tourist-schnitzels at Katz’s. Ravioli in Piccolinos with a former chairman of the NYSE. Cakes with a CNBC presenter. South African stew in Fort Greene. Sonic Cherry-Lime-ade. Bloody Marys & Oysters at City Lobster. Soho meatballs at 3am. Tuna-steak burgers in Bloomingdales. The best fillet EVER at Ted’s Montana Grill. Rabbit at brasserie Ruhlmann. Not-that-bad free hotdogs in Rudy’s. Venezuelan, Argentinian, Armenian, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Iranian. Corn Dogs on Coney. A Diner in Montauk. And in Amityville. And in Franklin West Virginia. Sugary buns in New Orleans. Southern Breakfast in Beaufort. Mamoun’s Falafels. Chipotle. Red Lobster. Popeye’s. Applejack’s.
What was a little hormonal:
An unnecessary six-month crush. A slow sweet-eyed sailor who understood ‘Two thirds” of what I said. Cartoon-sundays with pasta and Marlboros from a Tribeca balcony. An Indianan techno DJ who left my coat & bag at the table and followed me to the bathroom queue to land on my face (not seen again). A Bostonian Ego doubling as a 41 year old gallery owner and throwback civil war soldier. Two dates that turned out to be gay. The nice-but-dull designer from Minnesota. Don’t tell the man buying you dinner that he’s ‘predatory’. Don’t turn up with an unexplained lovebite (curling tongs!). Don’t agree to date a man because he has a cool dog. Don’t accept offers of marriage that would upset your mother. Don’t play with peoples’ hearts.
I can be sad it’s over, or grateful I made the most of it. Whether I end up in Dubai or London, the last 13 months means New York will have my heart, for the people in it, and the feeling of always travelling without moving.
The challenge was to pick an American Business Model and apply it to a market outside the states where it’s not already. A friend suggested “bringing culture to Birmingham”, an easy jibe at my hometown, not often regarded as an inspirational hotspot.
Brooklyn Museum and the Queens Museum of Art are two dynamic, accessable ‘institutions’ that showcase plenty without intimidation. Both have a bit of everything, with enough to satiate and fascinate without brain implosion. My home town (or ‘Brum’) has a traditional art museum, but nothing so far that shouts about the wealth of groundbreaking culture 9and yes – I said ‘groundbreaking’, because it is) that comes from our ridiculed doorstep.
While researching this project I found a property magnate called ‘Mr Gray’ who owns a substantial part of the Victorian Industrial landscape of the city called Digbeth –old red-brick factories and warehouses, and many buildings I know and love.
The plan, depending on reception of this post, is to turn this into a concerted pitch to Mr Gray and his family, the city council, and the many artists who are or have been part of this city, to carve out a Birmingham Institute of Popular Culture in Digbeth. Bipco is the working title.
A few reasons why:
(If you don’t know them already, click on them – it won’t hurt)
- Led Zeppelin
- J R Tolkien Hobbit? Never heard of it.
- WH Auden Stop all the clocks
- Black Sabbath and Ozzy of course
- ELO It’s a living thing
- Duran Duran Rather wealthy now aren’t they
- Edward Elgar Composer from Worcester
- The Streets
- Tony Hancock Legend.
- UB40 Went to school with their kids and had barbeques in their backgardens. True brummies
- Fine Young Cannibals
- Joan Armatrading Love and affection
- Ruby Turner Belter
- Julie Walters impeccable comic timing and powerful poignancy
- The Moody Blues Still going. More hits than I thought
- Nick Mason Staying power
- Barbara Cartland You don’t have to write well to be an amazingly successful author
- Mr Hudson went to my school, regarded by most as a bit of a div
- Roy Wood Great website
- Jonathan Coe The Rotter’s Club & the Closed Circle
- Dexys Midnight Runners Too-ra, Loo-ra, too-ra..
- Edward Burne Jones Liked Red-heads
- Steve Winwood It’ll be in your head all day..
- Clint Mansell composer of Requiem for a Dream & Black Swan soundtracks
- Slade “Feel the noise” and the sideburns
- Neville Chamberlain thought Hitler was manageable. Hmm
- Charles Dance Archetypal villain
- Beverley Knight Talented songwriter
- Apache Indian This one’s important
- Ocean Colour Scene used to live in my Uncle Ken’s flat in Moseley til they painted the bathroom purple
- Fairport Convention talented hippies
- Frank Skinner yeah that one
- Lord Salisbury Victorian Libertarian Priminister
- Jamelia hard-working, bright singer
- Judas Priest R O C K
- The Beat Also important
And more why:
Seen as a huge, decaying industrial city separated into racial segments, Birmingham shares a lot of negatives with NYC, and not many of the positives. It gave birth to much of 70s and 80s Trojan Ska, was home to significant stages of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, 70s and 80s Glam Rock and Orchestral Folk, 90s Dance music, Middle Earth, a smattering of major Feminist novels of the 80s and the IRA pub bombings.
Birthplace and home of many of much-loved car-makes of the UK auto industry, Brum hosted the ideological fighting ground between Trade Unions and Thatcher’s Government. It’s home to Cadbury’s chocolate, more canals than venice, and a gentle, self depricating humour that belies an extroardinary resilience, kindness and friendliness. This last element is probably why it has attracted so many international communities who are happy to call the Second City second home.
I hoped time in NewYork City would increase my understanding and respect for the celebration of competing ideas, cultures and movements in one place. It has, and now I know it can be done, and well, and we have lots to celebrate.
If Birmingham is a melting pot suffering record unemployment which now drives mounting racial tensions, Arts and Media can address this locally and globally, by directing positive co-operation across groups and regions. NYC is a city that has engendered a colossal and admirable sense of identity despite many turbulent historical events and periods. So too can Brum.
New York in the 80s and 90s and Berlin in the late 70s suffered record crime stats and widespread civil unrest, thanks to crack and amphetamines, and ultimately, unemployment. Despite this, both established or maintained a rep as avante-garde destinations; pioneering a myriad of styles that are loyally iconic, despite imitations.
It’s not hard for a city that has magnetized artists for nearly two hundred years, but in Berlin’s case, it was a concerted effort by its council after reunification, to allow areas in or around previous ‘No-mans’-land’ to be taken over by artists collectives, while the council invested in brand new institutions that now form an ensemble known as ‘Museum Land’, a UNESCO world heritage site.
I was given a book called “The Rotters Club” about 70s Brum, when the auto industry was collapsing under the weight of the unions versus bureaucrats lining their pockets. In a time of widening unrest, factious groups reinforced division and hostility. Sound familiar?
Today local industries continue to be pummeled while bankers’ bonuses remain undimmed in the mighty cash-now pay-later culture riding high both in Wall Street and the City of London. Now is a good time to stem the exodus of industry and intelligent folks, and provide an asserted reason to be proud & part of a region hitherto uncelebrated.
Birmingham versus New York.
Ouch. In an area the size of Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Staten island, the Birmingham Metropolitan area (or West Midlands Conurbation) has a population of 3,683,000, (encompassing Wolverhampton, Walsall, Dudley, West Bromwich and Solihull),  compared to New york’s 8.3 million.
3.6 million is not small fry. It means for every 8 New Yorkers there are nearly 4 brummies. But you won’t find New Yorkers taking a tour of Walsall canals, the forlorn 1758 Perrott’s Folly or a bus tour of the Black Country.
In the 2001 Census the Birmingham area was the second largest UK conurbation outside London, hence the name Second City. But you won’t find the strength of identity and sense of place that Manchester, Liverpool or Glasgow have. And if the NY population is 2.27 times the size of Brum, shouldn’t Arts facilities and cultural resources be similar in ratio? This bit hurts:
- New York’s Broadway district (8 streets less than half a mile long) is home to forty theatres with 500 seats or more. Greater Birmingham’s got four.
- The Big Apple has atleast 40 major arts organizations. Birmingham has the acclaimed Birmingham Royal Ballet and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. So that’s two.
- Two major public art collections and two contemporary art spaces in Brum, compared to New York’s over five hundred.
The funding’s not there, but the people are. 81% of graduates of Birmingham’s Bournville Art College who end up working in arts-related roles leave the area to do so.
Birmingham can’t compete in media either. UK media is unashamedly Londoncentric, with a few regional think-tanks holding their chins, (a few very good ones, a few you never hear about) and some token gestures from the big corporations. ‘The regions’ get an hour’s daily local news split over the day, three soap operas, a few crime dramas and the odd short film at 3am. This wouold be the equivalent to Washington being the setting for Madmen, Dexter, the Sopranos, the Wire, the Daily Show, SNL, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Letterman, GLEE and the entire Hollywood Film industry, while other USA cities get CSI offshoots.
Bipco: the foundation of a permanent popular-culture centre that celebrates Birmingham’s past, present and future through its contributions to the arts and media in the last 200 years.
A start-up, Bipco (definitely a working title) would be a cultural establishment that occupies a gaping chasm in a market of 3.68 million. It will generate self-sustaining-income through venue events, merchandise and of course, the café. It will increase investment in the local economy by a) helping to attract and keep local talent through provision of another major venue and activity base, b) improving perceptions of the city as a local and national tourist attraction.
If you’re still with me please click on a few more of the links in bullets at the top.
Bipco would be a non-profit, long-term addition to the city’s landscape, supporting communities through events, workshops, outreach projects and city-wide activities.
Birmingham has traditional and modern art galleries and plenty of very decent music venues, so this will be a centre that houses a large permanent exhibition space covering a cross-section of the arts, in five main categories:
- Music and radio,
- Art and Design
- Moving image
The premises would encompass at least two spaces for performances, (with required specialist facilities) and at least one for temporary exhibitions, plus revenue generation of the shop, café and ticket-sales for selected events. “Exit through the gift shop” and all that.
Putting it in practice.
The Brooklyn Museum reflects the diversity of its neighbourhoods both in permanent and temporary collections. Collections from Africa and the Americas are a permanent resource, while the contemporary American and Feminist art sections feature local artists. Its impressive building was purpose-built, and supports a grand permanent exhibition.
The Brooklyn Museum represents the spirit of its region through a digestable, manageable selection that shows diversity and vibrance, rather than high-end specialization, and covers a broad range of topics manageably.
The Queens Art Museum’s mission statement reads; “dedicated to presenting the highest quality visual arts and educational programming […] for the residents of Queens, a uniquely diverse ethnic, cultural and international community.
The Museum does this through rotating exhibitions, community projects and engagement activities such as weekend projects with local teenagers and school children from different ethnic groups.
These projects in Queens aim to relate “to the contemporary urban life of its constituents”.
A challenge: the mindset.
The Brummy sensibility is both a strength and a weakness. Brummies are a no-nonsense, get-on-with-it, pull-yourself-together lot, and their humour is very self deprecating. We know our accent creates derision nationwide. We know Ozzy Osborne and Noddy Holder would not make respected statesmen. We can laugh at ourselves thankyouverymuch. And this is why the city produces plenty of comedians; Tony Hancock. Frank Skinner, Lenny Henry, Victoria Wood, Jasper Carrot and many others doing just that.
Unless a football derby is involved, Brummies are not likely to militantly instill pride in their kin, unlike Mancs or Glaswegians who have many more establishments and institutions to show for themselves.
An example of what we’re contending with here is the hugely popular website: Birmingham: it’s not shit www.birminghamitsnotshit.com which describes itself as “mildly sarcastic since 2002”. It’s a popular forum with a name that’s accepted with a shrug and a grin, and 9,472 fans on Facebook (at time of writing).
Successful artists tend to leave the city to establish themselves, and rarely come back. If Brummies are more likely to mock themselves than proclaim their talents (elsewhere), this could imply Bipco may not be taken seriously on home turf. We can meet that head on by not doing that through broad subject matter – easily done with a splash of colour, plenty of interactive sections, and a big fat focus on comedy, Bangra, Ska, varied events and an engaging community programme.
Bipco’s content can address ‘Brummy Cultural export’ by recognising that nothing exists in a vacuum. Bipco would need to showcase elements of popular culture in general, and with the varying ethnicities of the city, there is a wealth of this. One example would be Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian cultures, which would form part of all five categories of the museum
3 regional newspapers compare to 270 NY publications for ethnic press alone. The Midlands has the lowest UK proportion of people identifying themselves as white, with above-average Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Caribbean populations. Media specific to these groups is often not widely publicized outside of them in proportion to their sizes.
Bipco can draw on this, in the home city of much of the BBC’s Asian Network. You won’t find an Asian-centric talkshow on mainstream television, despite Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis being 1 in 20 of the UK population and 1 in 5 in Birmingham.
Nearly but not quite.
Walsall Contemporary Art gallery is a respected attraction that hosts impressive names in contemporary art, but doesn’t chiefly reflect local artists.80% of visitors (excluding school groups) are not from the surrounding area. It does however, draw income from out-of-towners effectively, and suggests there’s a danger of restricting our market if we solely promote locals, rather than looking at the wider spectrum.
The Drum: http://www.the-drum.org.uk/about-us/ is the brilliant centre for West Indian and Caribbean culture in the UK. Arguably this too doesn’t focus solely on the Midlands, but is a buzzing venue for nationwide contemporary projects. The MAC, or Midlands Arts Centre is also a respected contemporary arts venue across the board, that again, doesn’t reflect the local region’s past or present through a permanent resource.
I shouldn’t be talking about the building until we’ve discussed where the cash will come from, but the building itself will be a major part of the identity of the institution; marketability, sense of place and selling power.
The area of Digbeth is a central region regenerated 15 years ago by the development of the Custard Factory, an arts centre in the site of the former Birds Custard manufacturing premises. A large, multi-purpose space, it provided venues for nightlife, exhibitions and design & media studios. As a venue for community activities not only has it remained successful and consistently evolving, but while continuining to be home to a number of marketing agencies, it has succeeded in regenerating the area and a sense of pride.
As a result, the Old Crown, (est 1368) a nearby pub, was renovated, along with the 19th century Digbeth Institute, now a popular music venue. Modern apartment blocks were built, and Digbeth transformed from a slightly shabby area of dereliction, to the place I bring out-of-towners to to show my city off.
The area has taken a slight dip in recent years, now that suburbs like Moseley and King Heath have upped their game, but Digbeth is still brimming with historic architecture that maintains its character and says much for the city’s past. It’s ideal. both in history and proximity to the two busiest train stations and bus routes, within walking distance of the landmark Selfridges building.
Collections and Subjects in Bipco.
The fun bit. In the five main categories, each would require a permanent space, with permanent exhibition boards. Collating information and images from archives, pleas in Social Media forums, and through contacts throughout the area, it would be a labour of love to develop a collection of artifacts that would form the basis of the museum.
- 70s Glam Rock Platform platforms
- A set of 70s SKA Doc Martens
- Roy Wood’s beard
- The formaldehided headless corpse of a bat bitten by Ozzy Osborne
- A Pre-Raphaelite allegoryby Edward Burne Jones
- Dave Mason’s drumsticks
- A 1930s Rover
- Some victorian custard
- Tony Hancock’s Trilby
- Historic Cadbury wrappers
- Iconic Cadbury ads
- A Jaguar S Type
- A sculpture made of Dunlop Tyres
A Social Media (and general media) campaign could encourage requests for items, while a private bidding war went on behind closed doors, with a budget of at least 2.5 million pounds to establish a long-term collection and assets in earnest.
A simultaneous project would encourage collaboration with the three local universities, Aston, Birmingham and Birmingham City and specialist Media and Arts colleges to gather info on sections. Here an employee would establish institutional ties in collating the history of each section with experts, as well as encouraging opportunities to enlist help of students at each of the three major local universities.
Employees for this immediate stage would be: an Artifacts and Collections manager, a chief specialist in each section to liaise with educational institutions and get the facts straight, a marketing manager and copywriter who would draft the first exhibitions, press and publicity, a curatorial team, plus a team of assistants and interns to help with the sheer volume of the task.
This is where I throw a load of numbers out there and see what happens. A bit like a wet paper towel on the ceiling of the ladies’ loos.
Boom: a total of 7.7 million british pounds for initial investment. The refurbishment and renovation of a 12,000 sq metre building (the minimum space for a project this size – roughly half that of the Brooklyn museum) would cost between 3 and 4 million pounds, while 0.7 million would be required for staffing, a minimum of 0.7 million for publicity, and 2.4 million for acquisition of a permanent collection.
The building, while not being purpose- built, would require extensive renovation to house the varying specialist activities effectively and securely, from a well lit spacious gallery space to an insulated and well-powered live-music venue
Potential avenues that this would have been: the UK Arts Council, the Lottery Fund, Government grants and Advantage West Midlands. Local Corporate sponsorship would be encouraged through the naming of specific wings (in particular the café/bar area or live venue spaces) alongside a range of corporate commissioned semi-permanent or permanent pieces that reflect companies that make up the landscape of Birmingham: Cadbury’s, Land Rover, JCB, Marmite, Wing Yip..
And there’s a fly-or-fail factor with Digbeth. This part of town is owned by the Gray family. The patriarch, Bennie, is described as having ‘dynastic’ ambitions for the quarter. Commenting on a proposed $10 million expansion to the Custard Factory, the project was described as “only a fraction of Mr Gray’s ambitions for Digbeth – where he and his family own “acres and acres” of property, which one day he hopes will provide accommodation for more than 5,000 people working in the creative industries.”
“The Custard Factory is enormous,” Bennie says, “We’ve got many acres of Digbeth, and we’ve only scratched the surface of the potential for developing a place for creative enterprise.”
The family have successfully attracted big investors, so much so that at present Digbeth seems to be the only viable location for Bipco, so there’s no question they will need to be on side or a major part of the process. They’ve garnered sponsorship from Advantage West Midlands, one of the key bodies to approach for this project. If this is to be built, it needs to be either in league with the Grays, or some place else.
I going to start by pitching Bipco to government groups and corporate investors, but first and foremost, to get Bennie Gray on side, and failing that, to collate a list of Birmingham’s most affluent and/or influential residents and corporations, and set up a ‘Friends Of Bipco’ trust that would encourage initial investment, and hope the Grays would be happy as landlords.
Hopefully the end result would be something that could stem the exodus of talent to London by helping to regenerate not just the immediate area, but a sense of pride in a region with plenty to be proud about.
If you’ve read this all the way through, please, tell me your thoughts or ideas, (and definitely better names) whether I’m being realistic, idealistic, opportunistic or sadistic, and help me get this on its way.
 British urban pattern: population data” (PDF). ESPON project 1.4.3 Study on Urban Functions. European Union – European Spatial Planning Observation Network. March 2007. pp. 119–120. http://www.espon.eu/export/sites/default/Documents/Projects/ESPON2006Projects/StudiesScientificSupportProjects/UrbanFunctions/fr-1.4.3_April2007-final.pdf.