B-LIT, my shorthand for the ongoing Birmingham Literary Festival (brought to you by Writing West Midlands), is a fab cornucopia of events, taking place all over the city, little and large, household names holding hands with lovable losers and so on, big dogs parachuting down into flyover town for their piece of an arts council cheque and an opportunity to talk about themselves, out loud, with someone listening. Some unfamiliar faces and some well familiar voices. Small unpacked rooms of writers listening to writers, and large rooms packed with readers listening to celebrities. BTW Caitlin Moran, sold out. Viv Albertine not so yet. Says so much about something.
Into this steaming mulch of talent I foray, by bus. I try to get on a 48. It's hopeless for me. "The 12a, mate." I'm told is "what I want." It's almost the last thing I want. The 12a, has recently, I'm told had its number changed. On there I'm joined a stop or two along by a stinking man. He sits behind me and coughs onto the back of my bald head, and maybe now I have TB too. There's some of it in the city. I can't even eat my chocolate and crisps I bought to make change for the bus because of the smell, and I press my fingers into my nose for 23 minutes. It's a feat. But I have to do it. Others are flapping the Metro in front of their faces. Rarely has the Metro been in such demand. Others, barely able to endure the stench, press their lips to the passing exhausts of the emission cheating VWs. Hoping. We're all doing our level best to signal that we are not the stinking one.
I think Bearwood is reasonably well served for public toilets if you have 20p to spare and you're by the bus depot or behind Aldi. But shitting your pants in this city is almost understandable.
Even before I exit the bus I am already showing the archetypal symptoms of TB. I have a cough that has lasted for more than three weeks, I'm coughing up blood, I have night sweats from when I dozed off waiting in traffic, weight loss from not eating my Toffee Crisp, and from reading the NHS website on my phone I see that fatigue and loss of appetite are the most common symptoms to look out for. I already have a headache and abdominal pain. Swollen glands, maybe by morning.
I get off the bus at Snow Hill and I am old and my friend can't immediately be seen and I need to pee. But there's nowhere. I look up the legislation on peeing in the street on my phone and I go into a branch of a chain coffee shop and bigger than the signs for the coffee is one that says something like no peeing allowed unless you buy a coffee first and then copy the code number for the toilet block off your receipt. I google the coffee shop name and location and the lock number code comes up straight away. That amounts to public service in this city. I just want to say, one time I was refused access to the bathroom in BHS on New Street. Look at them now Coffee Chain!
The customer is never right anymore.
After walking a mile in our shoes not best suited to walking, we finally turn and head in the right direction for the Conservatoire possibly both thinking how much better it would be to be at home listening to Cat Power.
Anyway. The newer Conservatoire is not the landmark I imagined it would be. Know this, it is no Disney Hall. It's no Gehry, Piano, Hadid (it's not even a Holt - Birmingham architectural salvager innovator - oh man he would've gotten some good wood in there). It's hard to spot from the street, Reyner Banham would've appreciated the speed required for it to be enjoyed at, 11mph or whatever passes for city speed now. Would you be so kind as to call it bland?
The staff at these events are so often so lovely and so easily startled into life. I love them for that. Once Mr. Lake was helped into Frieze by the elbow because he arrived in sunglasses. Thinking him blind. Arts people are the nicest.
Inside the hall, the sustainable source stickers haven't yet faded from the all that wood and the retrofuturistic Ecophon panels are reassuring for those with concerns about their transient noise hearing deficit, problems. It's a problem for me.
The readers are brought to the stage. The writers, that's the entire audience, only wishing they'd had the chance to regret turning down a spot on the sofa on a stage set designed like a CBBC/Playschool room that doesn't exist in real life. Or in anyone's imagination.
Khavita Bhanot edited The Book of Birmingham - A City in Short Fiction and she is totally innocent here. Clad in glam black, great slightly sci-fi ankle boots with zippers - probably required to wade through the shit she was immersed in for the four years I'd heard this project took to come to fruition - She looks like the future of the city. Everything is awesome.
Khavita is generous to the talent onstage and right on point. Exculpating excerpts from their contributions to The Book of Birmingham, she is joined on stage by authors CD Rose (New Balance), Sharon Duggal (Puma), Jendella Benson (All-Stars) and Malachi McIntosh (generic skate shoe). There are introductions, there are warnings to not expect to see Caitlin Moran this season - scalpers take note for next year, and there are softball questions for the panellists - which they hit for the fences and I felt a thrill of anticipation - I liked these guys.
Sharon Duggal read first from her story, Seep. Her story of girls doing something maybe they shouldn't, but maybe not so bad now, in 1960s Handsworth, to a soundtrack of American Soul music. Oh it just put me exactly in the room with her fish out of water protagonists, it was beautiful and stunning and intimate and beyond it foretold of the thrills and spills ahead which I can only contemplate from afar now. I was actually excitedly transported far into her world. I loved it.
Malachi McIntosh read from his, A Game of Chess and at times his lost in Birmingham drifting was so uncannily accurate I got to thinking maybe he's been staring in through my windows. High on self-analysis and writerly technique. You get a strong feeling that Malachi knows himself pretty well and could probably write a story on any subject on demand. And it would be entertaining. As Khavita noted his short excerpt ended with a cliff-hanger... That made me buy the book. With my friend’s money, admittedly, but...
CD Rose we have adored for a while at outsideleft. (just look here) His shoes are tantamount to a surreptitious northern resistance and we never believe anything happens by mere chance. We're all fans of his cerebral creativity and his story from the Book of Birmingham, Necessary Bandages, centered on the city's nascent surrealist movement of the 30s. There were names and places and well I don't know since hearing CD read for the first time was a singular lyrical experience, the lilt of his voice mesmerised me and I have to snap out of that reminiscence even now to let you know that if you do nothing else today, start googling Emmy Bridgwater and the Birmingham surrealists. Do, because something about CD's incredible wit and creativity made me doubt they exist anywhere outside of his head...
It's impossible not to love Jendella Benson. She introduced us to her unborn baby, her dhuku was just about the only vibrant item in the room and she read pitch perfect voices from her Handsworth based story, Kindling. Jendella gets how the city smells. Kindling is a nitty-gritty tale of girls not getting to the bottom of possible truths and possible falsehoods following on from a still unexplained incident in Lozells in 2005 that led to an outbreak of violence. Who knows what the cause of violence is one day and not another. After Rodney King's attackers were acquitted there was an uprising some say, or a riot, but whatever you call it, it left around 50 people dead in back alleys as some say an opportunity presented itself for old scores to be settled - I've read. And maybe a dozen more dead from law enforcement bullets. Jendella Benson's girls are survivors though and you kinda hope to meet them again and again in many more stories. Jendella, Just Do It.
Afterwards a creative writing instructor mentions the explosion of students signing up for courses. The X-Factor factor I guess. Maybe they didn't see their dad come back from the factory with his pools coupon every week. I'm forever dubious. But if a fraction of them have a fraction of the wonderful talent assembled by Comma Press for The Book of Birmingham, then this is a City of Hope. I just hope they truly dare to get the city's smells right.
Comma Press website