Re/Degeneration

culture

Dancing manWe went to Birmingham this weekend (Mr. Bsag's home city) to visit family and friends. On Saturday, we went into the city to see what new changes the continuing regeneration of the city had brought.

Everything seemed to be in flux. Mr. Bsag had visited quite recently, but felt disorientated by all the changes that had happened — even since his last visit. It isn't just a case of a few new buildings going up: whole areas are being radically restructured. The idea behind all this upheaval is a very laudable one. Birmingham has been dominated by the car for decades (as anyone looking at spaghetti junction would be able to guess). Most people live outside the city and commute in, and large areas of the inner city have become derelict as heavy industry declined. So developments such as Mailbox have tried to integrate retail, residential and office space. The problem is that the whole thing depends on pushing a 'lifestyle' (and not — you note — a life). Billboards around Mailbox feature happy, trendy, smiling young people drinking Costa coffee or red wine, and carrying bags of expensive designer clothes. Everything celebrates consumption (in every sense). But some of the businesses fuelling these 'lifestyles' have already gone bust, just over two years after the new development opened. So now a beautifully designed but totally empty fish restaurant sits alongside an derelict industrial building which never even made it to the latest round of renovation. In the huge main hall of the shopping arcade, our voices echoed as if we were in a cathedral.

Birmingham is no stranger to change, destruction and rebuilding. Just a short walk from Mailbox is the Peace Garden: a memorial garden built from the ruins of St. Thomas' church which was bombed in World War II, leaving only the tower standing, memorial itself commerates the destruction of lives. The difference is that this latest round of development has a feel of impermanence to it from the very start. It's a city built on a mirage of the perfect lifestyle that will disappear as soon as anyone tries to get near it.

It all left us feeling rather depressed and unsettled, until we got proof of the Brummies' talent for having fun in rather trying circumstances. In the main shopping street, a steel band was busking out a loud and sunny tune. In front of them was an elderly chap (the white-haired gentleman in the picture above) who was grooving away energetically to the Caribbean sounds. It was impossible to see him and not smile. He saw that I took a picture and came over to chat.

"You may think that I'm too old for this kind of thing, but I love this music, I do. I love dancing to it, and singing too!"

Long may you dance on, young man.

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