Saturday, 3 November 2012

Radar Magazine

During 2010-11, I used to write semi-regularly for Radar, a Birmingham based arts and culture magazine, which sadly closed at the beginning of this year.

The editors' open-minded approach enabled me to write about subjects I had never previously covered, and I've therefore decided to put some of my old articles up on here. The preceding five posts are all reproduced from various issues of the magazine.

I wish Pete and Paul all the best for future projects.

The Art of the Possible

This article first appeared in Radar magazine, Issue 12, September 2011. The original version also contained additional photographs by Fiona Cullinan

On the 29th of July a new art exhibition, Preclusion, opened in Stirchley. This is an unusual enough occurrence in itself for this part of Birmingham, but the venue makes it more unusual still. Preclusion is housed in the Whit Marley building - a disused factory taken over by squatters and now being used as a makeshift Social Centre.

The exhibition is just one of several projects being undertaken or planned at the Centre, although it is perhaps the most ambitious so far, with work on display from over twenty artists, some local, others from further afield.

There is no admission fee, and on the opening night the Whit Marley’s big wooden shutter is opened to reveal a path formed of two parallel lines of candles leading through a dark area to the old factory floor, where the various paintings, photos, illustrations, montages and models are spread along the walls, and occasionally the floor itself.

There is a conspicuous sense of fun running through many of the pieces here, such as Felipe Molina’s painting of a brightly coloured, smiling butterfly in whose patterned wings are hidden several other happy creatures.

Other works deal with more down-to-earth, local subjects. Martin Pickard’s photos show a Highgate tower block in the process of being torn down, its grey outer walls stripped away to reveal the range of different coloured interiors of the former homes.

The organiser of the exhibition, Harry Starling, has some of his own pieces on display, including my ten-year-old son’s favourite object in the room - the Necronograph – a clock in which the numbers are replaced by a variety of animal skulls painted in silver and gold

Preclusion is due to last for only a week, which seems a shame given it’s uniqueness, although some of the pieces, such as those by Gintarė Inokaitytė, will undoubtedly be around for longer as they have been spray-painted directly onto the walls.

On a second visit to the Social Centre a few days later I talk to a couple of the activists, Hannah and Josh, in the ‘tea room', a small, cheerfully redecorated area which was once presumably one of the factory’s offices.

The tea room is run as an anti-capitalist project – you pay what you can afford, or what you think it is worth. I paid nothing for my coffee, not because I had no money or because they had run out of milk, but because I completely forgot.

Amongst the other activities currently underway at the Whit Marley building are a guerrilla gardening project, which aims to transform the factory's disused car park, and a Free School where the intention is to provide free, quality education in a variety of subjects to anyone who is interested. A couple of qualified lecturers have already volunteered their time.

Josh offers to teach my son guitar, providing we can come up with a guitar between us which is small enough for him to comfortably get his arms around.

The centre holds regular meetings which anyone can come along to, either with ideas about how the space could be used, or just to see what is going on.

Hannah tells me that rather than encountering any opposition from suspicious local residents, many are genuinely pleased that the building is now being occupied as it had been used in the past by burglars as a means of gaining access to the backs of local houses.

The squatters hope to be able to remain in the Whit Marley building for up to twelve months before it is finally demolished. The site is then expected to have some role in the new Asda store which is controversially due to open up nearby.

When they eventually have to leave, the group intend to set up something similar in another empty building elsewhere in the city. There is certainly no shortage of candidates. Common sense suggests that a great many of Birmingham's disused industrial buildings could be reclaimed as community resources of one kind or another.

Maybe this is the fundamental point about the Social Centre - beyond providing living space for the activists, and space for individual projects, it also provides a sense of possibility - a tangible example of what can be done with a little imagination and an empty building.

Anyone interested in getting involved can contact the Centre via their website ( or just pop along to the Whit Marley building itself on Ivy Road

Friday, 2 November 2012

Fearful Pleasures

This article originally appeared in Radar magazine, Issue 15, October 2011

Is there are a part of you that enjoys being scared, enjoys that nervy, edgy feeling that perhaps someone, somewhere might be out to get you?

For most people this indulgence in fear might involve nothing more than watching the occasional horror movie or reading True Crime books about the lives of serial killers. But for a few it goes much further, taking them into a strange world where coercion and consent can appear to be indistinguishable.

Did you know that there are people out there who will, at your request and for a fee, 'kidnap' you and then subject you to mental or physical torture?

Today I'm meeting one such professional, fantasy kidnapper - a Birmingham-based dominatrix who has agreed to be interviewed, but asked that her name not be used in this article. The Kidnap Zone section of her website begins with the following passage -

'YOU have made the arrangements, You have paid the deposit. You know the outline of what will happen, but the menacing laugh of the women you have been talking to for the last week echoes in your mind. She has assured you that you will be returned in good order, and has reminded you that this is YOUR fantasy, something you have been dreaming of for years. But your heart is still beating fast, and you keep wiping your moist palms on your jacket.'

So who does this appeal to and how exactly do you go about abducting someone, even consensually, from a public area?

I meet the dominatrix at her chambers close to the city centre, where she has at her disposal several fully equipped dungeon rooms, a bare cellar, and a prison cell. There are no clients present this morning, and so she is casually dressed, but still speaks with the deliberate, authoritative voice of someone who expects to be listened to.

She runs through the preliminaries that must take place before the actual scenario can begin. The client must initially send an email detailing the exact nature of their fantasy. They also need to provide a phone number, proof that they are over 25, and details of any relevant health problems. Most importantly, they need to provide an email confirming that they have consented to the abduction. This email will be printed out and kept close to hand at all times.

The exact nature of the scenario varies from person to person. Some clients will come along voluntarily to the chambers under a fantasy pretext, such as arriving for a business meeting. They can then easily be detained and the chosen punishments can begin.

It is only when someone wants to be taken off the street in broad daylight that the logistics become more complicated, as she explains -

'I'm very lucky. My past employment was in security. We always survey the area first, and if there are any cameras then I'll go to the local police station. I'll tell them I'm doing a fantasy kidnapping. I give them my car registration number and basic details of the person, and I always have the email ready. I have to be careful – I don't want a squad of police cars outside with guns!'

The risk of any passing member of the public getting the wrong idea is often reduced by the fact that the clients can be so eager for their fantasy to begin that very little in the way of manhandling is required to get them into the waiting vehicle.

'Some of them even put on their seatbelts!' she smiles. I ask her what happens if the client becomes overwhelmed by the whole thing and starts to panic, and whether she employs safewords.

'People want to panic. They want it to be as realistic as safely possible. But if someone's in danger of hyperventilation or some other health problem then I'll back off. I'm not here to permanently damage anyone.'

So what does she think the appeal of it is?

'It's about an adrenaline rush, that is why people want it. The human body has its own powerful drugs. Why do people need social drugs when they can use this underrated resource that everyone has? And it is natural.

'Most of these people are also in high-powered positions. For once they want someone else to control them. They want to be taken and not have control over what happens to them.'

She has a client booked in for next week. He will arrive at the chambers, pretending to believe that he is here for an interview, before being held in one of the dungeon rooms where he will endure eight hours of dominatrix's skilful attentions. He will receive all of the extreme punishments he has requested, but due to the experience of his captor he will leave without any marks on his body. She is keen to emphasise that there is nothing sexual about the abductions –

'It's all about mind control. It's not only about the body, it's about the mind. It's not only about pain, it's about sensation. It is sensual not sexual.'

These fake kidnappings are just one of several fetishes where the perception of danger is an intrinsic part of the appeal.

Knifeplay, for instance, involves running blades or razors across the skin, either to create the fear of harm, or sometimes in order to actually make superficial cuts. Again, mind control plays a large part. Subjects are often blindfolded so that they cannot see, for instance, that the razor-sharp knife they were originally shown has now been replaced, and it is only a butter knife that is being pressed hard against their skin.

There are even dominatrixes who will, on request, blackmail their clients into parting with regular chunks of cash. This is not an activity which the domme I'm interviewing undertakes as she believes the legality of it to be questionable, even if the individual signs a contract agreeing to the whole thing.

Maybe the rise in interest in these kinds of fear-based fantasies is due to the fact that, for most of us, our day-to-day lives contain an almost negligible amount of genuine risk. While this means that we are likely to have a longer average life expectancy than any previous generation, the problem is that many people need the occasional burst of fear-induced adrenaline in order to remind themselves that they are actually alive.

Undoubtedly it is only a tiny minority who would ever want to combine this fear with fetish and end up being bundled into the back of a van with a bag over their head. But for everyone else there is always bungee-jumping.

Radar Issue 15, October 2011

Strange Taboo

This article originally appeared in Radar magazine, Issue 12, July 2011

Not long ago I happened to be standing around at Moor Street Station, waiting for a train out to Tysley. From the back of the platform it's possible to look down across some of the old side streets leading off from Digbeth. Most of this side of the city centre has been heavily redeveloped over recent years and even now the skyline bristles with cranes. Just ahead, at the end of Park Street, is the Hive, a new block of cream and brown apartments, now complete enough to be touting for occupants. Then there is Millennium Point with its gleaming glass and strange, orange slats, while behind me are the silver saucers of Selfridges.

However, one of the first things I can see, almost immediately below me, is the Taboo adult cinema club – a windowless brick building, painted in brown and black, from which emanates an aura of dismal seediness.

Taboo stands hemmed in by modernity and yet unchanged and overlooked, seemingly a throwback to grubbier times when pornography was seen to be the preserve of lonely men. Today there is pornography being made by and for women, although people will obviously have differing opinions on whether this represents progress or not.

Just a few hundred yards away, in the heart of the Bull Ring shopping centre, there is another indisputable sign of changing times - an Ann Summers store, which is generally busy with women, men and couples browsing through the merchandise as unselfconsciously as if they were shopping for breakfast cereals.

So who in the world still feels the need to go to an adult cinema in 2011?

Later, sitting on the train, I google the place on my iPhone and find the address of a website for the cinema, although it seems to be down at the moment. There is also a rumour on a forum, from last year, that Taboo is about to close. There were no For Sale or To Let signs on it, but otherwise it's hard to see how the exterior would look noticeably different even if it had long since gone out of business.

Other than that the cinema is mainly mentioned in various forums as a place where gay men, transsexuals and cross-dressers can go to indulge in some anonymous intimacy, which at least provides a plausible explanation for why the place could still be open.

The search also turns up a phone number for the cinema. It sits on my iPhone screen, as oddly tempting as a button saying 'Don't Press.'

It rings just once before a male voice with a softy Brummie twang answers –

'Hello, Taboo cinema Birmingham.'

'Erm.. what time are you still open today 'til?' I ask rather incomprehensibly.

'We're open 'til eleven today.'

'Ok. Thanks.'

'Thank you.'

He hangs up. Not the greatest piece of investigative journalism, but at least I've established that the place hasn't closed down.

Maybe the seediness and secrecy is all part of the appeal for today's clientele, regardless of how it might appear to passers by.

But if you agree that consenting adults ought to be able to do what they like to and with each other, then it follows that people have to be free to pretend they are not free, to pretend that there really is something forbidden, 'dirty' or wrong about what they are doing. Maybe it is this strange part of our psyche that explains why Taboo is still in business, just as it explains why Ann Summers sells handcuffs.

Radar Issue 12, July 2011

Beyond Bizarre

Kinky Sex in the Second City

This article originally appeared in Radar magazine, Issue 6, December 2010

A few feet in front of me, on the floor of the nightclub, stands a young guy, perhaps in his early twenties, wearing only white underpants, a studded belt, and a collar. His female companion, wearing stockings, black stilettos and a fur coat, is stroking the top of his head. He closes his eyes and tilts his head back slightly, with the quietly ecstatic expression of a dog being fussed over by its beloved owner.

Just behind them, a scantily clad woman is strapped to a rack, and is being whipped by a guy dressed in a sharp business suit, with a respectable haircut, looking for all the world like some sadistic manager dishing out his favourite punishment to a wayward employee.

I'm at the Beyond Bizarre fetish club. This is held on the third Sunday of each month at the top floor of Nightingales, on Kent Street. The club takes its name not from the activities which go on here but from the fact that it is the official afterparty for the Birmingham Bizarre Bazaar, a fetish market which takes place at the same venue earlier in the day.

The market itself is a bigger affair, occupying all three floors of the club, and attracting visitors and vendors from all over the country. Among the wide variety of stalls it is possible to buy clothing and equipment to facilitate just about any sexual fantasy or practice which consenting adults might wish to engage in.

The market is open until 5pm, and Beyond Bizarre starts immediately afterwards. This means that unlike most nightclubs it is actually busier early in the evening as stallholders and shoppers stay and play for a while before heading for home.

My girlfriend and I have been to the market a couple of times in the past but have never stayed for the afterparty. Today we've missed the market and have arrived at the club just after nine. There are perhaps fifty people here now, with more leaving than arriving, although the girl on the door tells me they've had one hundred and fifty in today.

There is a 'fetish' dress code, which seems rather vague, but I get the impression that as long as you look like you have made an effort, and have some idea of what the club is about, then you will be let in.

I'm dressed entirely in black, but most of the men here have been a bit bolder and more imaginative. One guy is wearing a surgeon's outfit, another head-to-foot pvc, still another only a pair of pink panties. The women are similarly adventurous with lots of fishnets, corsets and skimpy underwear to be seen.

A man walks past us dressed in an almost non existent garment consisting of only a leather pouch and a couple of studded straps which reach up and around his shoulders. My girlfriend watches him go by and then suggests this might be a good outfit for me to try next time. I don't reply.

There are about half a dozen pieces of equipment dotted around - racks, benches and a cage, which anyone is free to make use of, although you are expected to bring your own floggers, paddles or other implements of choice. There is a house rule of no genital nudity and no sex acts, not due to any prudishness on the part of the organisers, but owing to licencing requirements.

The age range of the people here is from early twenties up to sixties at least, and there are all kinds of body shapes and sizes. There is no drunken stupidity going on, and everyone seems relaxed and unselfconscious.

Given how fascinated we are as a society with sex and sexuality, and how enamoured we are of diversity, it seems surprising that there is only one such club in the city, operating just once a month on one floor of a nightclub.

Even though 'coming out' about having a non-vanilla side is likely to be a daunting prospect for almost anyone, it still hard not to think that it ought to be possible for events like this to nudge their way nearer to mainstream recognition.

So, if you think you have a kink or two inside you but have never been sure what to do about it then maybe a visit to the market, or even Beyond, could be the place to start.

Radar Issue 6, December 2010

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Hidden Histories

This article originally appeared in Radar magazine, Issue 7, February 2011

Forgotten Stories from the Fight Against Fascism

75 years ago this year, in Spain, a group of right-wing generals, led by Franco, launched an offensive against the democratically elected Republican government. They were aided in this by the Fascist regimes of Italy and Germany. The civil war that ensued lasted until 1939 and ended with the defeat of the Republicans, and a period of Fascist dictatorship that lasted until 1978.

One might not imagine that there was any direct connection between this traumatic period in Spanish history and Birmingham. But just a ten minute walk from New Street Station, in a quiet corner of the St Thomas Peace Garden on Bath Row, there is a plaque commemorating the volunteers from the city who joined the International Brigade, an ad hoc army of anti-fascists who converged upon Spain during those years, after Western democracies such as Britain and France refused to intervene, still clinging to the hope that appeasement might prevent a wider European conflict.

It is estimated that over 30,000 volunteers from over fifty countries fought in the Brigade. Of the 2,000 that came from the UK and Ireland over 500 lost their lives.

The inscription on the plaque reads –

‘In honour of the volunteers who left Birmingham to fight in the International Brigade, Spain 1936-1939.
They fought alongside the Spanish people to stop Fascism and save liberty and peace for all.
They went because their open eyes could see no other way.
No pasaran!’

These days the story of the International Brigade has largely slipped from popular consciousness. Anti-fascist history has a habit of doing this.

In the post-war period in Britain, the 43 Group, composed mainly of Jewish ex-servicemen were so successful in disrupting the activities of Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists that they were a significant factor in the BUF’s eventual decline and disappearance.

In the eighties and early nineties, Anti-fascist Action provided such an effective physical opposition to the BNP that the party gave up trying to hold public marches or rallies. (An authorised history of Anti-fascist Action, Beating The Fascists, was published recently. It contains a section detailing the group's activities in the West Midlands and is well worth seeking out.)

But, however successful such groups are, they tend to remain almost unknown outside of left wing circles.

About twenty years ago, some friends and myself were involved in any number of left wing or anarchist projects, usually short-lived and usually centred around Zebedee’s vegetarian cafe in Saltley. A group of us would occasionally go out to leaflet some of the estates around Birmingham where the NF were still active. We would often be joined by one of the café’s regulars, an old guy called Ernie, and sometimes a mate of his, who had both actually been volunteers in the International Brigade. They were both affable, friendly guys who were happy to get involved with whatever was going on, but they never spoke in detail about that part of their lives and, as is the way with young, know-it-all idealists, it never occurred to us to ask.

Over time the café closed, the NF dwindled, and Ernie and his mate disappeared back to wherever they had come from, taking their untold stories with them.

It’s hard not to wonder what advice they might have had for anti-fascists today, when the far-right has arguably been more successful at reinventing itself than the left.

The BNP may still be small, but they have been growing steadily for over a decade, and if you believe their leader Nick Griffin, they are looking forward to the next general election when the credibility of all the mainstream parties is likely to be utterly threadbare.

So if you are ever in town with time on your hands then you could do worse than take a stroll up to the Peace Garden, have a look at the plaque, and remember that old saying about those who don’t know their history…

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Free Rides

My first ever book, Free Rides, is out now. The book is a collection of short stories about my hitch-hiking experiences and is available in Kindle format and in paperback. The Kindle version will be free to download until July 30th, after which it will cost 77p. The paperback version costs £4.

I was able to finish the book thanks to a grant from Arts Council West Midlands.

The first chapter is reproduced below.

Not A Job?

It's the summer of 1996 and I’m about to start work as a trade plate driver. This occupation is distinguished from most others by the fact that some amount of hitch-hiking is necessary. There’s a good chance that you’ve seen ‘platers’ standing by the roadside, although you may not know exactly what the job entails.

‘Plating’ involves the collection and delivery of company cars, hire cars and other miscellaneous vehicles from anywhere in the country to anywhere else.

Once a plater has delivered a vehicle it is up to them to make their way to the next collection address under their own steam. This address could be a hundred yards down the road or hundreds of miles away. It could be in the middle of a city or in an obscure village that only its inhabitants have heard of. Any money spent on public transport usually comes out of the plater’s own pocket so the object of the exercise is to cover the distance as quickly and cheaply as possible.

I spent some of my younger days hitch-hiking, mainly to music festivals, so in this respect I know the ropes already. I’m also expecting that the trade plates will make the task easier. These are the size of ordinary car registration plates and show a red identification number on a white background. Their official purpose is to act as temporary tax cover when moving vehicles which have no tax of their own. Their other, unofficial, purpose is to act as a badge of respectability when hitching – a sign that you are in gainful employment and are therefore unlikely to murder anyone who stops to pick you up.

For the last few years I’ve been spending my time idealistically involved with a workers’ co-operative who own a vegetarian café in East Birmingham. We describe ourselves as anarchists, and occasionally appear in local news reports through our involvement in a variety of left-wing protests and demonstrations. But generally the wider world is proving stubbornly indifferent to our utopian schemes, and I’ve decided that I need to hedge my bets and get a regular job as well, saving the overthrow of capitalism for my spare time.

So far I’ve tried warehouse work, catering and industrial cleaning, but have fled from them all, becoming sadly convinced that I’ll never hold down any job where I have to go to the same place every day and do the same things with the same people - I spend too little time bonding with my workmates and too much time absorbed in daydreams.

Plating appeals to me as there will be no-one looking over my shoulder, and I have romantic notions about travelling around the country in fast cars, and surely finding the time to detour to any picturesque location that takes my fancy.

The job interview mainly involves confirming that I have a valid driving licence and somewhere safe to park vehicles overnight. After this there is an induction which consists of a five minute demonstration of how to inspect vehicles for damage, and a fifteen minute film about how to hitch-hike. This stars an unconvincing actor playing the role of a plater who clearly knows his place and who will occasionally turn to the camera and offer such uninspiring pieces of advice as –

‘Sometimes you’ll have to walk a few miles in a day, and you can get a bit whiffy, so I always carry some spray-on deodorant with me, just in case.’

Once this training is complete I’m given a set of trade plates and a fuel card and am now officially ready to start.

The first job I’m given is to finish off a delivery started by another driver, whose fate is unknown. The vehicle in question, a yellow Honda Accord, should have been taken to a leasing company in Trafford Park - an enormous industrial estate on the outskirts of Manchester. Instead it has ended up at the plating company’s office in Birmingham. It is driven to my house in the late afternoon by Bill, who will be my controller and is a mountain of a man. He wears a pinstriped shirt, with bright red braces stretched over a torso that could belong to an American wrestler. He will be virtually my only point of contact with the company, supplying me, over the phone, with job details and meeting any problems with gentle words of advice, or unhelpful sarcasm depending on how the mood takes him. He views my embarking on this new career with a degree of good-natured humour -

‘You didn’t hear it from me but fifty percent of the drivers who start here don’t last a week.’

He’ll tell me at a later date that he fully expected me to be one of the dropouts. But the company also has a high turnover of controllers and I’ll eventually outlast him, and several of his successors.

I arrive in Trafford Park early the next morning, locate the leasing company’s compound, and obtain a signature for the car. Bill informed me the previous day that my next collection will be from Bradford, and so I now set off to try and get my first lift.

During this first day I’ll perform two experiments, both of which I’ll subsequently avoid repeating. The first of these is that I decide to hitch-hike in a busy urban area - the middle of the industrial estate to be precise.

I walk the short distance back to the nearest roundabout, where there is an eastbound exit heading in the direction of the motorway. All around are warehouses and office blocks, and workers making their ways towards morning shifts. I stand incongruously in the middle of this scene, with my plate and a cardboard sign saying ‘M62.’

In the past I’ve done most of my hitching at motorway junctions and at the exits of service stations where there is only the traffic and myself. I rarely wonder about the opinions of passing motorists - they are separated from me by glass and metal, and will be gone in a moment anyway. If the weather is good then I can stand there for as long as it takes, as contented as a fisherman on a river bank.

But I soon realise that it’s a different matter to have a steady stream of pedestrians plodding by, studiously ignoring me, just as they would ignore any other lunatic.

There are some seasoned platers who begrudge seeing a single penny escaping from their pockets and will stand on the busiest of streets, defiantly holding their plates out, rather than buy a bus ticket to get them to somewhere more suitable. But it takes me less than a minute to realise that such methods are not for me. Fortunately in less than another minute an old tipper truck pulls over for me. It is driven by a stocky young guy with close-cropped hair.

‘Where you off to?’ he shouts through the open window.

‘I’m trying to get to the ’62.’

‘Jump in!’

I do, and we set off. He’s going over to Leeds and will drop me at the main Bradford junction. I tell him I’ve just started the job and we talk about the everyday details of it for the first few minutes as we chug out of Manchester. This leads to my second, impromptu experiment, which is to say the word ‘cunt’ to another person. This is a word I use with great regularity when I’m alone behind the wheel and am affronted by someone else’s driving, but I’ve never before said it in the presence of anyone else.

I’m complaining to the truck driver about the company’s dress code, which requires me to wear a jacket and tie at all times, which I have no intention of doing. It’s clear from the nature of job that you are not at the top of the food chain, and wearing smart clothes would only emphasise this fact because it would be obvious that you had not chosen to wear them. I’m in jeans and an old leather jacket, which seems at least to suggest a degree of autonomy. But I express this in a more straightforward way to the driver –

‘I’d feel like a cunt dressing up like that to do this.’

I’m caught up in the feeling of embarking upon a new life of sorts, meeting people I know I’ll never see again, and having the opportunity to try on new personalities for size - although this one doesn’t quite seem to fit.

‘You look smart enough anyway, don’t you?’ says the driver with a shrug.

There is nothing in his reaction to put me off saying the word again, and I think my delivery is good enough for a beginner, but somehow I’ve never ended up using it since. Perhaps I’m too old to acquire such habits, and would surprise too many of my friends if I tried.

We reach the M62 and then climb up through empty moorland towards the top of the Pennines.

‘You got any plans for the weekend?’ the driver asks after a while.

‘I’ll probably just go down to my local.’

‘I’ll be off to the Mardi Gras festival in town this Saturday with my mates. It’s a great laugh - you get all the processions there, and everyone’s just getting pissed, you know. It’s a good atmosphere.’

This is an annual event organised by Manchester’s gay community. As an afterthought he tells me that he isn’t gay himself, although it seems of little concern to him one way or the other - an easygoing indifference in which it’s hard to imagine any prejudice being able to take root.

It starts to feel good to be hitching again – to be meeting such people and seeing unfamiliar places. I’m used to the flatness and close horizons of Birmingham, and as we descend into Yorkshire the wide views of the grey mill towns of Halifax and Huddersfield, nestled among the hills, seem tremendously beautiful in the morning light.

I get the precise details of my Bradford job from Bill, and find that I’m in luck - the tipper driver knows the location of the industrial estate that I need and is happy to go five minutes out of his way to take me there.

He drops me at the entrance to the estate and we say our farewells before he turns around and heads back to the motorway, and I set off into the estate.

I find the collection address, get the car keys from the receptionist, carry out an inspection of the vehicle, fill out the paperwork, obtain a signature for it, and then depart without anyone realising that I don’t really know what I’m doing.

The car needs to be delivered to an auction in Netherfield, Nottingham, and so I hurtle down the M1 for an hour and then crawl and curse my way through the city for another hour until I locate the auction at the back of a business park.

While I’m getting a signature for the car I bump into another plater who apparently works for the same firm. He’s a small wiry man with long hair, thinning on top, and he greets me with the stern question –

‘Where’s your tie?’

I’m taken aback by this for a moment, until an obvious answer occurs to me –

‘I don’t know. Where’s yours?’

He just laughs. He is an old hand at this job and is trying to get home to Birmingham. After a quick call to Bill I find out that this is now my mission as well. The auctions are on the opposite side of the city to the motorway so this is not a promising situation, but my beginner’s luck continues to hold and we bump into a third plater who is picking up a car from here. He’ll be heading down to Bristol and can drop us both on the outskirts of Birmingham.

The auction is a bustling place with cars coming in and out all the time, and hard-nosed, bargain-seeking men walking around with an air of quiet criminality about them. The prospect of a free lift causes yet more platers to crystallise out of this crowd, and the man with the car quickly finds that it is full of strangers.

I’m squashed in next to an amiable old guy by the name of Tommy, who also knows the ropes, and whose expression defaults to a contented smile whenever he is not speaking.

‘How long have you been doing this then?’ I ask.

He pauses for a moment to remember the answer - ‘Six years now.’

‘You must like it then?’

‘Well, it beats getting a job,’ he laughs. This reply sounds well-rehearsed, but genuine nonetheless and I make a mental note of it.

Tommy already has a pension coming in from a previous occupation, and in another couple of years he will be able to add a state pension to this as well and will be retiring. Until then he is happy to potter around the country, no longer scared by long distances and lonely slip roads.

‘You always get home in the end,’ he says with an encouraging degree of certainty in his voice.

We drive out of Nottingham, passing signs for a place called Gotham whose residents, unlike me, are probably too familiar with the name to smile and think of Batman when they see it.

Soon we are on the motorway, and the Old Hand takes over the conversation. He is feeling the weight of his years of experience and dishes out several pieces of advice which are intended not only for myself, but for the benefit of everyone present. One of these pearls will stand out long after other memories of this day have become murky, simply because of its absurdity -

‘When you want to find an address in a city, what you have to think about is whether it’s a road or a street. Streets are usually in the centre but roads will be further out.’

None of us question his sagacity, at least not out loud.

In less than an hour we have reached the outskirts of Birmingham, and I get the driver to drop me at the NEC where I can catch a fast bus into the city. It’s only two o’clock and for all the money I’ve earned today I might as well have stayed on the dole. But as the bus rattles through the warm afternoon I feel happy nonetheless. I’ve found a job that might not to be a job after all, and I have a whole country ahead of me to get lost in.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Riots and Royalty

On the edge of Kings Norton Park, at the opposite end to the church, is a big old pub called The Camp. I have driven past there any number of times, but only recently found out that it takes its name from the fact that there was a Royalist army encampment here in 1643, during the Civil War, when Queen Henrietta Maria and over five thousand troops passed through the area on their way south to meet up with the king.

The circumstances of the visit make an odd contrast to the most recent appearance of royalty in Birmingham, when newly-weds Kate and William came to Winson Green last summer as part of their tour of areas affected by the riots.

When Queen Henrietta Maria arrived, the town had also recently suffered from looting and worse, but on that occasion it was at the hands of Royalist soldiers.

Despite the fact that Britain’s past is peppered with periods of bloodshed and brutality, the Civil War still stands out as a truly jaw-dropping episode. At its most basic it was a conflict between the Royalist ‘Cavaliers’, who believed that King Charles had a divine right to impose his will on Parliament, and the Parliamentarian ‘Roundheads’ who thought otherwise.

In reality this conflict was overlaid with a myriad of others - Protestant against Catholic, Puritan Protestant against moderate, Scots against English, Highland Scots against Lowlanders, one Highland clan against another.

It was as if every grievance that had been grumbling along in the background of life erupted all at once, and all against a backdrop of famine and plague.

Birmingham at the time was only a small town, but one which was developing a reputation both as a hotbed of Puritanism and as a manufacturer of weapons, which were being supplied to the Parliamentarians.

The town was duly identified as a target by the Royalists, and one that would have to be dealt with in order to clear a path for the Queen on her journey down from York. In April 1643, Birmingham was attacked by a Royalist force of almost two thousand, led by Prince Rupert, the Laughing Cavalier himself. Despite being outnumbered ten to one, the Parliamentarians put up strong resistance behind makeshift defences at Camp Hill, before eventually being overrun. The Royalists went on to burn and plunder the town at will.

There are no landmarks or memorials to remind us of any of this today, and in fact why should there be?

When the royals go on an offensive today it is of the charm variety, and the belief that they were appointed by God himself has long since disappeared.

But even in twenty first century Britain, vestiges of the sovereign’s ‘divine’ powers still remain. Any MP who refuses to take an oath of allegiance to our unelected monarch will find themselves barred from entering the House of Commons. And surely royal visits, such as that by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridgeshire, are meaningless unless there is still some background level of belief that the royal family are, for whatever reason, simply better than the rest of us?

With the Queen's diamond jubilee due to be celebrated later this year, maybe it is not too curmudgeonly after all to suggest that we ought to remember that the fledgling Birmingham was once torn apart by marauding soldiers trying to instil exactly this belief in blue-blooded superiority into the local population.