“We’re in the heart of the West Midlands,” says the voice, its heavy New York accent reassuringly familiar. “Riding the express elevator to the top of one of the city’s highest buildings, this is the view that nearly took my breath away . . .” The camera pans across a sun-drenched 1970s cityscape. Factories, high-rise blocks and busy roads. “I found the city exciting . . . You feel as if you’ve been projected into the 21st century.” And then the clincher: “Yes, [Birmingham] is my kinda town.”
The voice belongs to the American film star Telly Savalas, and these quotes are from his commentary to the 1981 documentary Telly Savalas Looks at Birmingham. Sadly, it was all narrated in a dubbing studio somewhere in Soho; Savalas never set foot in the city. He narrated equally daft films about Aberdeen and Portsmouth — probably on the same day — but it’s his paean to the UK’s second city that stands out. This is perhaps because Brummies themselves, with their self-deprecating humour, are so keenly attuned to the discrepancy between the realities of Birmingham and Savalas’s attempt to portray the city as a cross between Detroit and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
And yet, was his comparison so far off the mark? Postwar Birmingham was always designed to function like an American motor city. The fact is impressed upon us in this absorbing book by Richard Vinen, a native of Birmingham who is now professor of history at King’s College London.
The first chapters of Second City reach back to the 11th century, but the vast majority of the book is devoted to the past 150 years of Birmingham’s history, bringing us up to the present day while stopping short of the city’s recent hosting of the Commonwealth Games. Vinen reminds us that the roll call of individuals who lie behind Birmingham’s claim to “second city” status — not just in terms of population but cultural, political and economic clout — includes Herbert Manzoni, the city’s chief engineer in the postwar years.
“Making Birmingham into a car city,” Vinen writes, “was a conscious imitation of America. In 1955 Manzoni said: ‘I see no reason why traffic in this country should not reach the proportions of traffic in America.’” Hence Birmingham’s notoriously pedestrian-unfriendly network of ring roads and dual carriageways, which reached its apotheosis in the creation of the “Spaghetti Junction” intersection in the early 1970s. The result is that today, as we finally wake up to the disastrous environmental consequences of our dependence on the car, Birmingham faces a crisis of identity and urban design uniquely acute among the major British cities.
Its fortunes have been bound up with the motor industry since Herbert Austin opened the Austin works at Longbridge, on the outskirts of the city, in the early 20th century. A factory that employed just 50 people in 1906 had by the late 1960s expanded to employ more than 25,000 workers. Yet by the 1970s it had become symbolic of the decline of British manufacturing. Vinen recounts the surge of unofficial strikes during this time, and British Leyland’s (as the now-nationalised Austin company became known) portrayal in the press as a hotbed of militant unionism — one which Margaret Thatcher was determined to rein in when she became prime minister in 1979.
This is an often-told story but Vinen uncovers new layers of nuance in his portraits of the main players — shop stewards Dick Etheridge and Derek Robinson, and Leyland chairman Michael Edwardes — where the union men have in previous accounts been too often seen merely as communist troublemakers and Edwardes as a Thatcherite stooge.
It’s revealing that Birmingham’s main opposition to Thatcherism was concentrated at the Longbridge plant, as the politics of the city as a whole have always been hard to define. In 2016 Birmingham voted to leave the EU by the slenderest of margins (50.4 per cent). Neither of the main parties has ever really predominated there, and as Vinen demonstrates, Joseph Chamberlain, the presiding spirit of Birmingham politics and the city’s shortlived mayor between 1873-76, was an ambiguous figure, completing a journey from radical Liberal to Conservative Unionist.
What can’t be denied is the extent to which Chamberlain improved life in the city during his brief tenure as mayor, bringing gas and sewerage under municipal control and transforming the central urban space. Whether Liberal or Conservative, he sustained a belief in a benign, paternalistic form of capitalism that was in keeping with the vision of another of Birmingham’s most famous families — the Cadburys — whose chocolate factory at Bournville was a practical model of this philosophy before it was taken over by Kraft Foods in 2010.
The history of Birmingham’s race relations does not always make for happy reading: Vinen describes it as “a cauldron of racial hostility” in the 1960s but ends his account on a more celebratory note, hailing it as a “city of migrants” in which relations between different ethnic groups are marked by “a deliberate and playful hybridity”. On Birmingham’s cultural life, he writes comprehensively about pop music, but otherwise his coverage is patchy. The cover promises a book “about figures everyone has heard of, from JRR Tolkien to Duran Duran”, but Tolkien is only mentioned once, and no reference is made to the work of other significant Birmingham cultural figures such as Tony Hancock, Jim Crace or David Edgar.
Maybe it is for this reason that Vinen never quite pins down the elusive character of the city. Straddling England’s north-south divide, it presents an unassuming face to the world, which belies its historical status as an industrial powerhouse and a trailblazer for multiculturalism.
Understatement is one of the city’s defining features, and in the end Vinen falls back on this himself, concluding that “Ordinariness . . . confers its own importance”. There is unlikely to be a fuller or more informative history of Birmingham than Vinen’s, but at times we are left wanting to know a little more about why, exactly, this rich, complicated, frustrating city is “his kinda town”.
Second City: Birmingham and the Forging of Modern Britain by Richard Vinen, Allen Lane £25, 592 pages
Jonathan Coe’s new novel ‘Bournville’ will be published by Viking in November
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café