I am Carl Chinn, chair of Community History at the University of Birmingham, feature writer on local history with the Birmingham Mail, social history author, presenter of a weekly local history and community discussion show on BBC WM, and a Brummie.
A few minutes after Mo Farah’s stirring victory in the 10,000 meters at the Olympics, he was asked by a journalist if he would have preferred to run the race as a Somali rather than as a Briton. The tone and words of Mo’s reply emphasised his surprise and disbelief that anyone could doubt who he is. As he put it simply, powerfully and persuasively: Look mate, this is my country. This is where I grew up, this is where I started life. This is my country and when I put on my Great Britain vest I’m proud. I’m very proud. There are hundreds of thousands of Brummies who would be as surprised and disbelieving to be asked whether or not they were Brummies – and if so asked they would respond as simply, powerfully and persuasively: that this their city. The hundreds of thousands of individuals who see this as ‘my city’ collectively make Birmingham our city. Our city: a city for all people. Birmingham is an exciting and fascinating medley of faiths and beliefs, ages and attitudes, ethnicities and backgrounds, abilities and aptitudes, upbringings and experiences, aspirations and achievements. We should rejoice in this our diversity but crucially we should also celebrate our unity. For whatever our differences are, we are brought together because we all share something precious in common – we are all Brummies. Just as loose pieces of coloured glass are brought together and given a variety of vivid patterns in a kaleidoscope, so too are the varieties of Brummies drawn together in one vibrant city. We are indeed many peoples but there is only one Birmingham and we all are Brummies. This is the city that we share, that we have made, that we have accepted, that we have contributed to, that we have changed, and that we shall pass on to our children and our children’s children. Unity through diversity may seem a paradox but in fact it is not – and the balance of the two is vital for social cohesion and the wellbeing of Birmingham. In my opinion, however, there are several main barriers to ensuring unity through diversity and to encouraging and enhancing cohesion.
First and Most Crucially: the exclusion of the working class from the administrative, political and economic power structures of the city.
Birmingham is a mostly working-class city yet how many senior Council offices are from a working-class Brummie background? How many senior political leaders are from a working-class Brummie background? How many senior business leaders are from a working-class Brummie background? Of course, I would not argue that all leaders should be from working-class Brummie backgrounds. There is a need for an outside view, for outside talent and for outside expertise – but there is a real problem to be faced up to when so few working-class Brummies can break through into positions of authority. That is because their exclusion leads to a wide and dangerous disconnection between the majority of Brummies and the city’s leadership. Birmingham is one of the few great European cities whose population is growing. Elsewhere great cities are declining in size and are characterised by an ageing citizenship. Birmingham’s elderly are also rising in numbers but unusually so too are the city’s under-25s. This provides Birmingham with tremendous potential to benefit from the energy, talents, optimism and hopes of the young. Yet if we do not give those young people opportunities to hope for and be optimistic about, and if we do not nurture and cherish their talents then their energy will be sucked out of them by hopelessness and will be turned into despondency or anger. Above everything else, then there is a real need to develop the talent of this city’s working-class youth and to give them the means to transform the power structures of this city. The second main barrier to ensuring unity through diversity and to encouraging and enhancing cohesion is the marginalisation of the working class from the city centre. Over the last generation there have been many well-publicised changes to the centre of Birmingham, such as the canalside developments, the emergence of many high-class restaurants, and the building of high-profile shopping centres. For all the benefits these may have brought, many Brummies feel that such developments are not for them. They feel that they are for wealthy outsiders who come to the city to shop, to eat, to enjoy themselves – and then go back to their homes outside Birmingham. There is a fear that Birmingham is becoming a clone city; that distinctive, small retailers have been pushed out, as they were from Needless Alley, to be replaced by stores that are to be found everywhere else in locations that look the same as everywhere else. It is important to have large and successful retailers but their presence should be balanced by specialist and localised stores and shops – and an example to emulate would be the independent and distinctive retailers of the Soho Road, York Road and Poplar Road in Kings Heath, the Alum Rock Road, Moseley Village, and the Ladypool Road – amongst others. Above all there is a fear amongst working-class and lower middle class Brummies that the administrative, political, and economic leadership of the City cares not for the markets of the Bull Ring. And yet the markets are the only parts of the city centre where all working-class people meet, overlap, shop, banter, interact and feel comfortable with each other, with the market traders and with the city centre. The Bull Ring markets are where unity through diversity is obvious; they are the starting point for social cohesion and they should be invested in, celebrated in and expanded. The third main barrier to ensuring unity through diversity and to encouraging and enhancing cohesion is the lack of investment in the neighbourhoods of Birmingham and their lack of connectivity to the city centre and other neighbourhoods. The fourth main barrier to ensuring unity through diversity and to encouraging and enhancing cohesion is the ethnic and class separation that characterises many parts of the city. It is natural that many people wish to live amongst others similar to themselves but unless we also encourage social, economic, educational, and cultural relationships between the young of places like Shard End and Alum Rock, Handsworth Wood and Lozells, Billesley and Sparkbrook, Kingstanding and Aston, Edgbaston and Ladywood, Harborne and Bartley Green, Sutton Coldfield and Druids Heath – then the differences of class and ethnicity will become not positive features of diversity but negative determinants of separation. How then can the main barriers to ensuring unity through diversity and to encouraging and enhancing cohesion be overcome? There is no easy and swift answer but most importantly Birmingham must grasp the opportunity presented by its young – and their tolerance, inclusiveness, and openness. There are ways in which the leadership of the City can facilitate this. First through work: Birmingham is a working city. We are all here because our ancestors near or far came here to work. We must create jobs for our young for with work comes self-respect and with self- respect comes respect for others. In particular this means: High-profile support of manufacturing Despite a generation of job losses, Birmingham remains Britain’s foremost manufacturing city. Our young people need to know that and to be aware of the importance of jobs in manufacturing and engineering. And the Council needs to campaign vigorously for manufacturing, launch a major initiative with the relevant bodies to do so, and highlight Birmingham’s success as a manufacturing centre and its importance to the national wellbeing. Initiatives to encourage young people to find meaningful work in the success story that is Birmingham’s legal, professional and service industries. Birmingham has become a most important national centre in the legal and professional services especially and has shopping centres of national repute – more must be done to encourage young Brummies into meaningful and well-paid work in these sectors. A sustained campaign to make Birmingham a media city. We have lost out to Bristol and especially London and Manchester/Salford as a television media centre. Too little too late was the reaction by the Council. Thankfully we still have the Post and Mail fighting for the City in the print media but Birmingham’s young people also deserve opportunities in television, radio, and film and on the web. Our universities provide excellent courses but we need local jobs for them to develop their talents and bring to the fore the people of Birmingham. It will be through their work that we will be able to declare What Makes a Brummie. It is vital that the Council works co-operatively with universities and media companies and bodies to ensure that Birmingham becomes a prominent media centre. A continuation of the efforts to encourage the development of High-Tech companies locally. A continuation of the efforts to develop Birmingham as an essential communications and transport hub.
The second way that the leadership of the City can facilitate this unity through diversity and encourage and enhance cohesion is through education.
There are many inspirational head teachers in the city: people like Liam Nolan of Perry Beeches in Perry Barr, Maire Symons OBE of Bishop Challoner in Kings Heath, Kamal Hanif OBE of Waverley in Small Heath and Lindsey Clark of Park View in Alum Rock – to name just four. Along with the City’s numerous committed and inspirational teachers and youth workers they need to be consulted and included in major City initiatives. Their talents need to be embraced, not least in bringing together youngsters of different ethnicities, classes and talents. Through the dynamic teaching of local history: Just as the concept of unity through diversity may at first sight seem paradoxical so too might the concept of understanding the global through the local; yet it is not. History matters. It matters because we are who we are and what we are not only because of our own personal history but also because of our familial, local, regional, national and international histories. History matters because it teaches us that life is not about me and I it is about we and us. History matters because it belongs to everyone and not one person and as such must be democratic and egalitarian. History matters because it brings to the fore continuity and links the past, the present and the future in a vital chain. How can we have a tomorrow if we never had a yesterday? How can we reach forward if we do not also reach back? An understanding of our roots, of hardships endured, of rights battled for, of hopes that were dashed, of dreams that were made real, of experiences shared, and of lessons learned or ignored, makes us more rounded, more informed and more able to engage positively with our fellow citizens. And crucially local history matters because it tells us why we are here, where we have come from and why others are here and where they have come from. Each and every person has made their mark upon history and each and every person has a story to tell – not only about themselves but also about the people who came before them. Those stories need to be told imaginatively through young people interviewing the old, through dance, through poetry, through photographs, through creative writing, through websites, through plays and much more. Local history, therefore, is not just about history it is about all subjects and it is not about the past it is about the present and the future as it brings together the peoples of Birmingham. In so doing local history has a vital role to play in celebrating diversity and unity and in enhancing social cohesion. There are a number of first-rate examples of how this can be achieved: Aftab Rahman’s book ‘Bangla Food Journeys’ and his forthcoming ‘Lozells and East Handsworth Heritage Trail’. The Shades of Black Community Family Project of Eunice McGhie-Belgrave MBE in Handsworth and Stechford. The projects led by Doug Smith MBE at Swanshurst School with regard to Second World War veterans, the Birmingham Air Raids Remembrance Association website and the Friends of Brandwood Cemetery website. The Birmingham LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) history research projects led by David Viney. The Shared Voices project into the history of people with mental health illness facilitated by Mike Crump of My Time. The multimedia and local history work of Norman Bartlam with schools and local history groups in Ladywood. The local history research, plays and intergenerational work of the Balsall Heath Local History Society. The work of bringing together young people and elders through oral history of the Kingsway Project facilitated by Annette Robinson The research of Pete Millington and the Disability Resource Centre into the history of people with physical disabilities. And More
Third through investing in the Bull Ring markets as discussed earlier. Fourth by celebrating and encouraging diversity and unity through big events
such as the Carnival, Eid Mela, the St Patrick’s Parade, Vaisakhi, the St George’s concert and others; and by encouraging and supporting smaller, grass-roots projects. It is vital that all the peoples of the City feel special. This process should also include not only high-profile events for large communities but also events for longstanding Brummie communities such as the Welsh, the Scots and the Jews and more recently-arrived Brummies from Somalia, Iran, Vietnam and elsewhere. Importantly the issue of the exclusion of the white English working class needs to be addressed positively. Too often, and with some justification, they feel that they and their history are ignored in modern Birmingham and that the history of the English in general in the city is overlooked or brushed over. Of course many peoples have contributed to the growth of Birmingham, especially from the 1820s onwards, but it should not be forgotten that this was an overwhelmingly English city until the early 1950s – and more than that this was a west midlands English city. Indeed for most of Birmingham’s history the great majority of Brummies were born in Warwickshire or else in Staffordshire and Worcestershire. The contribution of the English and especially of the Warwickshire and west midlands English needs to be celebrated as much as do the contributions of other peoples.
Fifth through creating innovative, informative and engaging local history trails and public art for the city centre and the neighbourhoods of Birmingham.
These would feature not just the rich, the powerful and the famous but the poor, the fighters for justice and equality women, children, communities such as the Italians and Yemenis and more. And they would arise from the work of schools, youth clubs, local history groups, clubs for the elderly and others with artists, sculptors, designers, manufacturers, craftsmen and women and others. This city should be proud of the achievements of its working-class whoever they are and wherever they have come from and more importantly it should show it is proud. One example would be public art to raise the awareness of the international significance as a jazz musician of the late Andy Hamilton MBE of Ladywood through public art – and thus link Jamaica, whence Andy came, to Birmingham, where he made his life. Another might be a local history trail bringing together white working-class youths from Shard End with Kashmiri-descent Brummies in Saltley to look at the link between their areas and the family of William Shakespeare’s mother the Ardens – as highlighted by Arden Road in Saltley. There are many more examples that could be provided across the city – from the lives of Kathleen Dayus, Will Thorne, Percy Shurmer to Bull Ring characters and to the connections between Joseph Sturge and Jamaica, the de Berminghams and Athenry, Sikh Brummies and Jalandhar, Bangladeshi Brummies and Syhlet amongst others.
It is vital that we bring our young people together – that we encourage worthwhile work, an awareness of the importance of the local and the global and the significance of unity through diversity. There are many peoples but there is only One Birmingham.