03 December 2005

A Journey To The Provinces

This is the first thing I saw as I stepped off the train at Birmingham's Moor Street Station. I'm pretty sure it wasn't there the last time I was in Birmingham five years ago; it does seem like the sort of thing you'd notice, no matter what state of mind you were in.

"It's done by that bloke what designed the museum in Bilbao," I heard a teenager confidently explain to his little brother, and I was inclined to believe him, but no, it turns out, Frank Gehry had nothing to do with it. An outfit called Future Systems and some Czech fellow called Jan Kaplicky are apparently the responsible parties.

The new store is part of the recently rebuilt Bullring, a huge conglomeration of shops at the centre of the UK's Second City. Second by a rather large margin, Londoners might point out if they were inclined to think about the matter, which in most cases I suspect they're not.

Home to about one million people and one of the more impenetrable and least-liked accents in the UK, Birmingham until recently served as a textbook example of disastrous urban planning. The original Bullring was a claustrophobic rat run meant to isolate pedestrians from the auto traffic which had been allowed to run rampant by the "progressive" city planners who in the 60s and 70s turned the city centre into a car-choked study in concrete brutalism. About the only citizens who appreciated this design were Birmingham's mugging community, who found the dimly lit tunnels and cul-de-sacs to be a rich and happy hunting ground.

They were halfway through tearing down the old Bullring my last time in Birmingham, so many of its more dismal nooks and crannies had been opened up and uncovered (convenient for getting rained on, a near-essential part of the Brummie Experience), but it still looked a bit Mad Max. Now the new one’s all done and I must admit it looks reasonably spectacular as shopping centres go. Some of the streets around it have also been pedestrianised or given over to public transport, and viewed at a distance, the overall effect is pleasing, almost exciting. "This is a city on the move," the new image says, "a 21st century, post-industrial shoppers' and cappuccino-sippers' paradise." In other words, a lot like London, only on a more human scale.

But when you get down into the streets themselves, the reality is a bit more downmarket. After dark (about 4 pm these days), loud and chavish young people make up the dominant demographic. While they didn't appear particularly menacing, I wouldn't have liked to have been there a few hours later, once they'd got a few more pints in them. Also, once you get out of the immediate city centre, you quickly run into traffic vortexes (should be vortices, I know, but I like the look of vortexes better) and the shabby streets and disused mills and warehouse of Birmingham's dark satanic past.

I had limited time for sightseeing anyway; my purpose for being there was to watch Fulham, the football team I've supported, sometimes passionately, sometimes in sheer desperation, for nigh on a decade now. Our opponent today was West Bromwich Albion, a recently promoted side situated in one of Birmingham's less distinguished western suburbs.

It was an ugly game, as meetings with West Brom usually are. They're not a particularly good side, and like most of the lesser Northern (to a Londoner, anything beyond the Watford Gap) teams, they make up for it by throwing in a bit of rugby and American football-style physicality. They succeeded in winding up our captain Luis Boa Morte to the point where the volatile forward lost his rag and was sent off just before halftime after a second yellow card.

Down to ten men with 45 minutes to play: it didn't look promising, especially since Fulham had struggled to put two passes together for most of the first half, and only sharp defending and WBA's own incompetence had kept us from falling behind. Add to that Fulham's habit of losing on the road: we haven't won a single away game so far this season. In fact, that had figured in my decision to make the trek up to Birmingham; I figured our luck was overdue for a change.

Apparently I'd figured wrong, or so I thought, but then Fulham came charging out for the second half as though it was they rather than West Brom who had the man advantage. Most teams, when they've had someone sent off, pull back and try mainly to defend, but Fulham launched a series of attacks that, with a bit of luck, could have resulted in a goal and a victory.

As it was, the game finished 0-0, leaving the Fulham fans cheering and the West Brom fans disconsolate and cross. On the train back into town, I listened to a very grumpy man loudly dissecting his team's failings and wanted to tell him he deserved his own radio show (he was on the verge of elevating grumpiness to an art form). But I decided he might not see the humour in that, so I enjoyed his wasp-chewing commentary in silence.

Non-football supporters, and especially American non-football supporters, always claim not to understand why someone would devote the greater part of the day and considerable sums of money to following a bunch of men around the country to watch them kicking a ball around a field in pouring rain and bone-chilling temperatures to no visible effect, and then manage to cheer when it ends up in a scoreless draw. Perhaps they have a point, but conversely, it's a point that eludes me. Five hours on the train and £40 on fares and a ticket, and I came back to London positively exhilarated (N.B. this is certainly not always the case; following Fulham is often a case study in teeth-gnashing frustration). Exhilarated enough, in fact, that I'll be doing it all over again next Saturday for Birmingham City.

P.S. In anticipation of next week's dispatch, you might want to brush up on Brummie Slang. If I'm feeling ambitious, I just might translate my report into the local dialect.


Sebby said...

I like the new Bull Ring, although most people that I know don't. The It's certainly an improvement on the old one anyway. They have made an effort to make Birmingham a lot nicer than it was 5 years ago. Although visiting West Bromwich, you certainly won't have seen the best side of it...!

georgina said...

A selfish comment, but my first football match was Fulham vs (I believe) WBA as a birthday treat in January 1998. I recall it being a draw, I think goalless... I also have a photograph from that day of myself and my sister with Mohamed Al Fayed and the lollipops he gave us. No this was not through dubious family connections (of which I sadly have none)!