My first job was in Birmingham and I lived there for two and a half years between 2001 and 2003. It’s a misunderstood place, not quite the shithole everyone is led to believe, but it never gave itself a chance by having its main coach station (and one of the UK’s main coach stations) not just in the worst part of town, but probably the worst part of any part of any town, ever.
Back then, and I believe some money has been thrown at it since, Digbeth was an overground sewer of a place with a stench of social depravation and crime awaiting all weary travellers as they set foot outside the bus station. It was not so much “Welcome to Birmingham, Britain’s second city” as “Welcome to end of the world, mankind’s last surviving outpost”. Having had the £11 to spend on a coach trip here seemed to make me a king amongst the locals of this part of town.
I had come here first for an interview, and as I’d just left Uni and didn’t have a job the luxuries of getting a hotel to stay in were beyond my means, so I had done something not quite condusive to a successful early morning job interview – I’d gotten the nightbus from Glasgow. Quite how this trip took 9 hours I’ll never know, I got a coach to London when I was at school in less time than that. In fact on one return trip home after I’d settled in the city they had the first Lord of the Rings film playing on a 14-inch TV at the front of the bus; I was at the back, a truly cinematic experience. The film had started it’s fourth repeated showing as we crawled into Glasgow.
On this first trip I’d gotten chatting to a couple of characters who were sat next to me and behind me. I’ll call them Larry and Spud; I can’t remember their actual names although I have a strong suspicion I never asked.
Spud was a scrawny, gangly, pock-marked pasty streak of piss who I thought at first had only bought a ticket for this nocturnal journey because it was cheaper than finding a place to sleep. He was it turned out on a trip to Birmingham for some DSS/benefits-related business, checking in with some office so his dole could continue, and he could continue taking whatever drugs it was that made blue veins throb in the whites of his eyes. Spud was not a comfortable traveller. The bus was inexplicably full and he’d sat behind me to get two whole seats for himself after the original woman behind had moved seats to join someone she’d got talking to during one of the many stops.
Between smoking breaks (at least one of which took place in the coach toilet) Spud’s only aim was to sleep, somehow, through as much of the journey as he could. And napping in a sitting position was not his thing. At various times, he kicked the back of my seat while contorting himself into a sleeping position across the two seats, and even managed to smash his wayward foot into one of the air conditioners above. When asleep he was a mess of restless limbs, arms and legs stretched out into every available space, twitching and flinching with every semi-conscious grunt as his nightmare-ridden mind tried to calm itself.
Larry had got on just after the border and was sat next to me; the kind of person who, in the north, has done well for himself. He probably had a van of his own. Perhaps a mortgage, and could afford a holiday each year. He probably ran his own small business, plumbing, electricals, gardening, something like that, and had two or three “men” working for him. Birmingham was probably about as far south as he could go before his status back home meant nothing and he would be regarded as scum.
He had also managed to afford a divorce, and was endlessly talking about how happy he was to have escaped the chains of his wife and kids. He was on his way to Birmingham for two nights to meet a woman he had contacted via the personal ads, for a bit of hanky-panky. Larry was making me quite nauseous with unremitting innuendo about what he was going to “do” to her during his dirty jaunt to the Midlands, and his endless questions about my own “sexploits” as a young student.
I’m not sure what I told him, but I was still a virgin at the time, despite having been in a relationship for nearly a year. That’s a different story…
The memory of this trip with Larry and Spud has stayed with me because both characters were so relentlessly depressing. One, a young guy whose only achievement was probably a certificate from the doctor for methodone, who was ambling from place to place like a tramp trying to eke money from the state to support his various addictions. The other, a middle-aged sad-sack whose constant protestations about how happy he was now only served to demonstrate the opposite, getting his kicks by travelling the country for a bit of cheap fun with divorcees advertising in the back of a newspaper.
I was just setting out in life and felt trapped between the two visions of hell around me. Thankful that my consciensciousness as a child, and good use of my smarts, had helped me escape the traps that had ensnared Spud – although I imagine our backgrounds were probably more similar than I’d be comfortable admitting – and also repelled by the future life embodied by Larry, determined that I never wanted to be him, no matter how things turned out.
As I hung around in the coach station, killing time and trying to avoid going outside, Larry had fallen asleep on a bench waiting for his connecting bus. I woke him up to tell him his bus was here. He got up and walked off, didn’t even say anything to me, and jumped on his bus to continue his weary quest for a consenting vagina, and therefore “happiness”.
I made the interview without collapsing in a sleep-deprived heap. It went well, apart from the phone call I received from my mum halfway through to wish me luck, and I got the job.
I spent the rest of the day milling around Birmingham City Centre, a very strange place at the time, with a giant crater separating it from the Digbeth area where I’d arrived – the new Bullring shopping centre was being built. For the entire time I was to live in Birmingham, this crater was a permanent landmark.
Still with time to kill I went to see Charlie’s Angels at the cinema in the afternoon, slept through all of it, and then got the bus home.
I came to love Birmingham, with its bizarre mix of “this is exactly how I pictured Birmingham” and “OMG, are we still in Birmingham?” Some parts are just lovely, the Canal District is very pretty and the leafy suburb of Moseley where I lived was very nice too. You don’t really associate Birmingham with green, but it’s there if you look hard enough.
Birmingham is where my accent also changed. And only those of you who have known me in my pre-Birmingham days and also now will really appreciate this. I’m told by people back home I now sound posh. It makes me laugh. I picked up my poshness from Birmingham of all places. My situation was clear. I couldn’t understand them, they couldn’t understand me. Something had to change. Ultimately it came down to the fact there were a million of them and one of me. The harsh Glaswegian my accent tamed very quickly, and whilst I never quite took on the full Brummie lilt, my accent was never the same again.
More from Birmingham in my next post, The Nudist, the Nutcase & the Earthquake…