Friday, October 22, 2004

The Closest Thing To Crace-y That I've Ever Been

A busy day at work means that I take my unread NME to browse on the train journey to Birmingham. The unfortunate result of this decision is that on disembarking from the train at New Street I am accosted by a young lady convinced that I am her blind date. Despite my protestations to the contrary she continues to walk after me, and given that she looks young and credulous enough to be a Libertines fan I break into a canter while she is heard loudly proclaiming to all who will listen that she is now swearing off men altogether. Not quite sure whether she is travelling on less than the full ticket, or if she makes a habit of hanging round train stations hassling gentlemen carrying newspapers. Very disconcerting, all the same.

My peacock feathers suitably ruffled, I move swiftly outside through the wind and rain, turn off New Street passing some giggling Japanese girls into Cannon Street where I furtively enter the bright studios of a mobile phone shop. There's no recharging going on here though, as up two flights of stairs I'm allowed entry on production of my previously purchased ticket. This is no den of iniquity that I'm entering, however, although a selection of alcoholic refreshments are available at the bar alongside a selection of books. Ah yes, books. Because this is one of the final legs of the Birmingham Book Festival, in which the novelist Jim Crace, non-fiction writer John Reader and Birmingham Post Arts Editor Terry Grimley discuss the subject of Cities. Meet up with Ben shortly before the whole shebang kicks off, and you can tell this is a more civilised event than I'm used to by my consternation at having some coatstands on which to hang my jacket up for the duration of proceedings.

The presenter guy (can't remember his name, looks a bit like Mr Derek from Basil Brush) does the usual introductory drivel thanking the various sponsors, before passing to Jim Crace who reads an extract from his book Arcadia. Crace has lived in Birmingham for thirty years, but hasn't lost his Enfield accent, and he struggles a little to bring his text to life. But then I always feel uncomfortable listening to people reading from text (goes back to the scriptures at school, I reckon) as I feel like going up to them, grabbing the book and telling them I'm perfectly capable of reading things for myself, thank you very much. John Reader then comes up to the microphone, every inch the academic with his grey swept-over hair, and reads from his acclaimed non-fiction analysis of Cities. Reader's voice is richer than Crace's but I find myself drifting a little towards the end to the point where I begin admiring the drapes behind the stage.

Things then start to get interesting with the general discussion which follows. Crace, who looks a little like magician Paul Daniels as drawn by the Doonesbury guy, in particular comes to life with an almost evangelical zeal for his adoptive home. Birmingham is unusual amongst big cities, we learn, in that unlike London or Sheffield, for example, there are no specific geological factors making its genesis inevitable. There is a brief debate on literature inspired by Birmingham, Grimley wondering aloud whether the constant reinvention of the city makes it difficult to provide inspirational landmarks (cf. the Brooklyn Bridge in New York) for writers, while Crace argues the second city is more than adequately represented by the likes of David Lodge, Jonathan Coe et al.

People on the whole seem excited by all the redevelopment that has been going on in Brum over the last ten years, although there are some concerns that local flavours and interests are being lost to bland retail giants and 'high art' spaces like the Symphony Hall. Crace, although on balance in favour of the changing environment, notes with wry cynicism that a Labour authority had sanctioned money intended for Birmingham's badly-needed educational funds to build this much-celebrated hall. Someone at the back of the audience bemoans the fact that people are now able to zoom in and out of the centre of Brum without ever getting the full experience that the whole city has to offer. Crace agrees that the drive for greater private space and security while going about our lives risks losing sight of the fact that the very things that are dangerous about inner cities are the things that make them such exciting and diverse places to live.

Pretty much the final thought, though, goes to John Reader (who in contrast to Crace seems less lucid when not reading from prepared text) who quotes the example of Venice as a city where the increase in tourists has contrasted with a sharp decline in residents, leaving visitors to explore in effect a 'living museum'. For a city to remain vibrant it needs to cater to the needs of its own citizens every bit as much as it needs to attract visiting shoppers and culture vultures.

A stimulating evening then, topped off by a swift visit to The Joint Stock with Ben and Jenni to sample some of the beers on offer at their mini real ale fest. And I need all the Dutch courage I can get for the train ride home where at Wolverhampton my carriage is descended upon by marauding sour-faced hordes of rockers. Him/Cathedral fans to the left of me, Rooney fans to the right of me: and I'm stuck in the middle, needing the loo. Vacuum-sealed city travel has never seemed more attractive than at this point: beam me up, Scotty (all cities need a little 'enterprise', after all).


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