Birmingham: taking its rightful place at the top table

Since the First World War almost one hundred years ago, Birmingham has generally been considered Britain’s second city, though in recent years it has looked at risk of losing the unofficial title. The childhood home of Tolkien itself took the title from Liverpool – the ‘second city of Empire’, and from Dublin.

Birmingham takes the title by having the largest population and economic output after London, though it can be difficult to tell. I’ve always found Brummies almost keen to keep their light hidden in a miasma of modesty, while more in-your-face Manchester has been desperate ever since the 2002 Commonwealth Games to take the flame of second city-hood for itself. Abroad – and probably due to the worldwide ubiquity of the city’s football clubs – it is Manchester that is spoken of in the same dream-like tones as London. You’d be lucky to find anyone who has even heard of Birmingham.

The change in Manchester from near-forgotten industrial northern town came as a response to the IRA bombing of the mid-1990s. Birmingham’s own desire to rebound came with the realisation that the city was no longer a major manufacturing base (for which either Thatcher or Blair are blamed, depending on personal politics).

Despite recent national coverage with the opening of the Library of Birmingham – modelled to my mind as a regional version of the British Library – the city’s renovation has been a long time in the process. Victoria Square, in the heart of the city centre amid the town hall, council chambers, and shopping district, (and from where road distances are measured) was officially opened by the Princess of Wales in 1993. In was first inaugurated, taking the name of Queen Victoria just 12 days before her death in 1901 – such is Birmingham’s luck.

The centre-piece of the city’s rebirth must be the Library of Birmingham. Tall, rather than wide, its shape and modernist doodle-like decoration can seem out of place next to the architecturally classic buildings around it, but up close, it works. It speaks not only of a confidence I’ve often felt the city lacked, but also of the importance of the written word – the city is, after all, custodian of one of the largest Shakespeare collections in the world.

Inside, busy escalators rise and fall eternally in various directions: to the lending library, reference books, secret garden, and several wide open verandas complete with seating and sensible-looking planting that give a whole new viewpoint of the city. It’s really rather green.

The library itself is clean and refreshing. On the weekend I visited it was frenetic and loud, which felt right. There was no sense that a library should be a place of hushed tones, which was a wonderful experience. It’s internal design – mixing cafes with book shelves and enhancing the display with contrasting furniture – points to the importance of books as an everyday commodity. They are not purely for study, or for quiet contemplation, the atmosphere seems to say. As someone with my own book coming out very shortly, it is a philosophy I wholeheartedly agree with.

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