Birmingham/Edited by C. D. Rose/ Dostoyevsky Wannabe/2020

Birmingham is a crater on the moon, did you know? It is also where I Almost Died (N.B. This was in my Invincible Twenties before the realisation that we are, as life forms, locked into a perpetual state of Almost Dying). Not on the moon, but with a sharp exit from the back passenger door of a stolen taxi, eventually landing on unforgiving West Midland tarmac. There was a similar incident in my Invincible Twenties in Rome. Two potentially Almost Death experiences – and Rome won on the glamour and storytelling fronts. Perhaps because I knew Birmingham in an everyday sense, perhaps because the danger in Rome was so far removed from everyday everything. Rome was the eternal city. Birmingham, for me back then, the eternal question: Why Birmingham?
We each create our own intimacies with certain places. That is, to whatever extent that we allow these intimacies. We know these places just as much as we know that crater on the moon, or just as much as we want to know that crater on the moon.
Archaeological excavation is considered destructive, to some degree. In documenting a city, the same could be said. A city contains complexities and conflicts that no one author can explore with anything like accuracy for every reader’s specific experience or preconceived suppositions of that city. An anthology format, therefore, is ideal for a city guide.
“We’ve gone on holiday by mistake.” Those famed words from Withnail & I are appropriated for the by-line of Dostoyevsky Wannabe’s Cities anthology series. No truer words could be said of our current predicament re Coronavirus. But enough of that. This is literature intended to transport; and having digested the Paris and Birmingham anthologies – both places with which I am, or have been, intimately familiar – I can confirm that no mistake has occurred. The Cities anthologies are precisely the guides needed for The Now – less like going on holiday with Withnail, more like a jaunt with an eclectic mix of extended family led by a cool, punk, Italo Calvino-adoring cousin who isn’t afraid to show you how to live, love, and lose it all in a backstreet along the way.
All aboard. Destination: Birmingham.
A piece of matronly advice. Always read the introduction. C. D. Rose’s will set you up for this ride far better than any words I can add here. An editor, who can flex their literary muscle in a way that allows their own eminent style (If you have not yet read The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, then I urge you to order it at once.) to sing and for each contribution to be elevated by those others that surround it, deserves your time and attention from the outset. Introductions. Forewords. They are the literary equivalent of a dating service. They will hook you up with your ideal reading material. Allow them to do their job.
We begin our conducted exploration of Birmingham with Meave Haughey, who presents us with blueprint versions – yes, plural – of Birmingham’s ever-shape-shifting form. What has become a continuous reconstruction in/of the city is now itself another strata of Birmingham’s identity. A gentle cipher of a story here, preoccupied with the simultaneous nature of that which is real and that which is imagined, selective memory and carefully-archived reminiscence joining the puzzle. Haughey also gifts those unfamiliar with the city with “the bewildering collision of Gothic and Brutal, the blobitecture of Selfridges engulfing the vernacular of market stalls and service buildings, commercial and ecclesiastical sitting hand in glove.”
Second stop… A raconteur’s annals of the boozers of Birmingham from Charlie Hill. No caricatures here: the punters, bar staff, and temples themselves described with the vim of a local legend looking out a treasured family photograph album. The most intoxicating bar crawl you’ve been on – (possibly) sober.
Our third stop is a further immersion into the recent past. Kashmir Tutt, in lyrical free-flow style – evokes the nostalgia of childhood, and the dangers that lurk(ed) alongside.
Fourth stop… An investigation into the ghost area of Varna Road and its infamous, yet overlooked, residents; a nod to the disappearing cityscape, and the boundaries that merge and shift around a city – whether those boundaries concern the who, the what, the where, or the why. Chris Akers opens out his approach to a personal subject with conscientious research from multimedia archives. He highlights, in particular, the photography of an American academic, Janet Mendelsohn, providing fascinating local insight from an international lens.
All too often some of the most intriguing occurrences in a city’s history – inevitably with changing generations and sentiments – become “Hidden in plain sight.” Varna Road may live once more, and be remembered for its people as much as its reputation – here in this anthology, and perhaps later in another form. Watch this space.
Next stop – more secrets of the city in King’s Heath. Nothing is what it seems in Garrie Fletcher’s writing that lacquers sinister and Gothic layers onto the seemingly mundane. Not without moments of witty respite – even the mock Tudor has “pretensions”. But it is the haunting ravens who openly and ultimately dominate in this slow-burn psychological horror that manifests in the trope of the return home. Fans of BBC2’s Inside No.9 and its somewhat darker work will relish the artfulness here.
Sixth stop. Maisie Chan’s story is a stark, powerful meditation on the transience of life and living, juxtaposed with narratives of upheaval and forced expulsion – the reader at once held in a suspension of past, present, and future. Note: the static quality of the sedentary – as opposed to migratory – birds; the fragility of their china structure; their size – of no importance to some, a great treasure to the individual; the dust that collects and is cleaned away. This is a timely fiction that brings extra comprehension to a very real and horrifying threat.
And now we alight from our carriage for three contributions that root us into the heart of the city…
Emma J. Lannie introduces a sensual, tactile relationship with the foundations of the city – laying bare the earth and bones of it. There is a lingering engrossment in the mystery of previous inhabitants that crescendos into a more intimate and immediate tenure of the land. Each artefact more contextualised – made more real – by the end of the piece.
Surrounded by seven contributions on either side, we encounter… The centre. The nucleus. The heart. The midpoint. The Midlands. We encounter Alan Mahar.
“Birmingham is central, everything outward and arterial from its pulsing centre.”
A word must be mentioned here about Mahar’s contribution to the Birmingham canon, and indeed his support of fellow authors and publishers in the region. Such enthusiasm for literature – along with others, such as Writing West Midlands, who promote diverse annual arts festivals and nurture local talent – has increased its platform from what some might perceive to be a marginal setting to a national, nay, international scene.
Here, we walk with Mahar as he ruminates on various concerns that will linger long after reading. Connections. Communications. Ways. Methods. A manifesto for literary Birmingham. A guide within a guide within a guide to something at once tangible and intangible – a legacy of literary Birmingham, a reminiscence, and also a hope for the future. All neatly packaged up in a meandering stroll along the riverbank.
Further scrutiny of the waterways in Natalie White’s astute surveillance of the ignored, the rejected, and the broken. Yet everything has its place – even a sense of familiarity and magic amidst the detritus – as we are “cleaned by waves of insight” in this still enigmatic – almost mythical – tale.
Back on board the Birmingham Express… A garden barbecue with Rob Ganley, who exudes an adept, quiet frenzy on the page during the most casual of situations that augments into the “fin” of known order rather than just “fin de siècle”. Warning: theme of bugs. Wear your mask, wash your hands. But nothing can protect you.
Next stop…The Bull Ring, accompanied by George Bastow and a sprinkling of enchantment. A jocular imagining of an outsider’s first impression of Birmingham told in an engaging style that exhibits a warm love of language and entertainment. All the fun of Pratchett and Rowling in miniature.
Our journey continues as we join Yasmin Ali on “Europe’s longest urban bus route, the No.11, Outer Circle…a feature of Birmingham since 1923.” The reader can sit back and enjoy a guide to parts of the city that, again, have become overlooked, obscured by changing boundaries, societal shifts and opinions. It is easy enough for a city-dweller to become complacent about their surroundings, to merely forget them. Ali redresses this unfortunate occurrence with the succulent detail and observational zeal of an anthropologist/archaeologist setting out on an expedition. A ride of great insight with that rarity, the home tourist – exhibiting some exquisite and poignant quotidian – or not – moments that reminded this reader of Virginia Woolf.
Following such a condensed tour of the city, the focus once more falls upon a specific setting. Excerpts from novels can have their failings in collections and anthologies, lending the reader neither satisfaction nor adequate essence of the whole. Here you will be pleased to find a generous showcase of Honor Gavin’s Midland: A Novel Out of Time (Penned in the Margins, 2014, shortlisted for the 2015 Gordon Burn Prize). Atmospheric: dripping with vernacular, industry, and gore.
As we begin to leave the city, Alex Leigh Krasner gives us pause for thought. Birmingham as a centre of art. Birmingham as a multi-media hub. Birmingham as disaster movie. Uneasy tensions from the worldwide stage surge and explode here, with a refreshing absence of the triteness an audience has come to expect from current cinematic approaches.
Now we depart the city, one final view of the panorama from Peter Haynes. But this is not a full stop. Rather, a sublime ellipsis. The conclusion to this anthology harks back not only to the cyclical nature of its own work, but also to the combined work as a whole. A regenerative quality that again mirrors the complex ever-changing city of so many face(t)s.
The journey, as editor C. D. Rose notes in his introduction, does not end here. This collection of Birmingham authors is not the first, nor will it be the last. Although, I would argue that the spirit of Birmingham will remain unchanged in those future chapters, as it has in this latest incarnation following on from its ancestors. Birmingham has a canon, its identity might be hard to define, yet its quintessential spirit is undeniably potent. Why Birmingham? Why not Birmingham. We began with a question, we arrive at a statement. A destination. A literary platform.
In a twist to your usual manner of travel, you may now purchase your ticket from Dostoyevsky Wannabe.

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