For many parts of the UK, it’s been the coldest week for 30 years. In Birmingham temperatures got down to minus 9. The canals are still frozen and the geese and ducks in Cannon Hill Park are struggling to find a patch of water to swim in.

I wish I could have been in Oxford this week – Port Meadow froze and people were skating on it! Percy at Oxford Daily Photo has posted some photos and some nice images have been uploaded to Flickr by Isisbridge and robbie_shade.

The Wild West (Midlands)

I’ve been living in Birmingham for just over three months, so any sweeping generalisations I make about Birmingham and its region can be ignored or ridiculed. But sweeping generalisations are fun (if dangerous), and they assist in cultivating a superficial veneer of knowledge…

City Centre

The first rule of Birmingham: nobody lives in Birmingham. There’s a mistake that all newcomers to Birmingham make at least twice: ask a local “So, how long have you lived in Birmingham?” The answer tends to be: “I’ve never lived in Birmingham. I work in Birmingham. I’ve lived in Dudley/Sutton Coldfield/Halesowen all my life.”

This reaction seem particularly virulent among people from Solihull, who appear most unwilling to acknowledge that England’s second largest city lies just 9 miles north of them.  Solihull gives the impression it would much rather return to the bosom of mother Warwickshire.

Most English people who aren’t from Birmingham know very little about the city, except for three things:

  • New Street Station is the 2nd worst place to change trains in the country (the worst place being Crewe, a subject for another post).
  • They don’t like the Birmingham accent (which is a purely English irrational prejudice – foreigners love the Brummie accent)
  • They don’t personally know anyone from the city (which makes sense, because nobody lives in Birmingham). Although they’ve probably seen Ozzy Osbourne or Jasper Carrott on TV.


Birmingham (and the wider West Midlands) form a far more interesting conurbation than its external image gives it credit for.  Fierce local pride seems to define the various towns in the region – Dudley and Wolverhampton are right next to each other, but you’d do best never to confuse the two. And of course there are the usual football rivalries, with Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Wolves, West Brom and Coventry City all fighting it out in the top two divisions.

It’s difficult for outsiders to tell, but there are several distinct accents across the region, too: Black Country people (whose dialect preserves otherwise extinct features of Middle English) don’t sound like Brummies, who  definitely don’t sound like people from Walsall.   (Second rule of Birmingham: Walsall English is just about the most impenetrable form of English you’ll ever encounter).

It’s said that Birmingham has more miles of canal than Venice, and the canal paths form a good network of cycle routes to explore the city.  If you like old industrial architecture, it’s well worth a couple of days pedalling (take a good map). Cycle far enough and apparently you’ll reach Warwick or Stratford-upon-Avon.

If you get bored with canals, Birmingham has a vibrant creative/new media community, and they all Twitter. There’s at least a few good pubs (the Fighting Cocks in Moseley seems like a friendly place from my one visit so far) and some good music to be had (try the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath).

Third rule of Birmingham? Don’t rubbish the place until you’ve spent some time here.


Kora, Live at Barfly Birmingham


Kora are an AMAZING live act. Their gig last night last night at Barfly in Birmingham was like taking a journey home to NZ for a couple of hours, and the Kora brothers (yes, 80% of them are from the same family) were good company on that trip.

Having raved too much in the postgrad common room about New Zealand music, I had persuaded a classmate from Chile to come along to get “a taste of kiwi”.

When I last saw Kora play in New Zealand (at least 3 years ago), they were a solid reggae band from Whakatane with a few good songs. They’ve matured since then into a world-class live act. Their show is watertight, full of energy and good-natured.

Kora’s music has now pushed far beyond their easy-skanking origins. Apart from Brad behind the drums, the other 3 brothers and Dan Mcgruer swap instruments with alarming regularity (guitars/bass/Nord/sequencers/mixers), as well as sharing vocal duties.

Electronic bleeps and bloops in the mix hint at dark drum’n’bass moments (shades of another kiwi act, Shapeshifter, but with more soul). And at times the guitars march heroically towards metal.

The crowd at Barfly was small but enthusiastic – and happily it wasn’t all New Zealanders. I’d agree with Andrew (he saw them last year in Brum) who suggested that they’d work much better in a more intimate venue than Barfly like the Hare and Hounds. although the band did a fine job with the space and the crowd they were given.

A strange thing about being a New Zealander… you feel more like a kiwi when you no longer live in your home country. There’s something about roots/reggae/dub that (at least for me) speaks deeply of our landscape and people, a sense made all the more poignant 12,000 miles from home. Hearing Kora was like tapping back into those island origins.

We had a great night. Afterwards, my classmate from Chile summed it up in one word: “indescribable“.

Next time Kora is playing in your town, GO AND HEAR THEM. They are truly awesome.

November is NZ Music Month in Brum

A battalion of New Zealand musicians are invading Birmingham over the next few weeks. None of this was apparently planned, but it’ll effectively double the kiwi population of the city for a few nights anyway… here’s the (entirely coincidental) line-up:

The Black Seeds are on the road promoting their new album Solid Ground, and they’re playing the Hare & Hounds in Kings Heath tomorrow night (1st November). Unfortunately I’m out of town for the weekend…

Pianist and producer Mark de Clive-Lowe has been London-based for a while now but he’s soon to be setting up in LA. One of his last UK engagements is as musical director for 8sixteen32, a show put on at the Birmingham Rep by the Decypher Collective, a bunch of local grime MCs who come together to perform ‘grime theatre’… it sounds pretty unique.

A week later, Whakatane‘s most famous sons Kora are play Barfly in Digbeth on the 13th of November. Apparently they were awesome when they played Brum last year, so this is the gig I’m hoping to get along to.

And if all that weren’t enough, Fat Freddys Drop arrive in town the following night to play the Academy. I saw them in London back in April in front of a 95% kiwi crowd, they were awesome as usual. It was almost like being at the Grey Lynn Festival, except it was indoors, at night, and you could only get Carlsberg at the bar.

(The video above is a Fat Freddy’s performance in France on Canal+, at the start it’s funny to hear the crowd clapping on the 1 and 3 rather than the 2 and 4.)

Crossing Cultures

Small World

Is it really a small world after all?

Sometimes it feels like I’ve been living forever on a little island at the bottom of the world. Moving to Birmingham means diving headfirst into one of the most multicultural cities in the UK – the experience is confirmed in extremis by visiting the Sunday open market at the Bullring… it’s hard to believe that you are just 25 miles from Shakespeare’s birthplace when sights and smells take you straight to Baghdad, Lagos and Karachi.

Oxford was a very international city for its size, but its multiculturalism seems fairly well defined within the generally tolerant context of its educational/academic (and – let’s face it – middle class) heritage. In post-industrial Birmingham, cultures engage at all levels of city and economic life, and particularly in commerce, red in tooth and claw.

But I’m back at university. In a course that attracts students from around the world, the fascinating realities of working across cultures are making themselves apparent. In my class, there are 31 nationalities, and 95% of the students are non-native English speakers, meaning that they’re taking a masters degree taught entirely in their second/third/fourth language. (Even I’M freaked out by some of the textbook material and English is my mother tongue.)



If UN population projections are to be believed, my class is a microcosm of what the world will look like in 2050. Working bi-culturally is something I’m fairly familiar with, but it’s a privilege to have an opportunity to work in a deeply multi-cultural environment for a change.

How does a team of Nigerians, Japanese, Colombians and a New Zealander work together to solve a given problem? It’s not clear any of us know the answer yet.

With such a diverse bunch of classmates, it’s amazing how quickly you starat to question aspects of your own culture and language that you thought were “normal” become points for discussion. For example, I had to explain the British practice of “round-buying” at the pub. In other cultures, everyone buys their own drinks.

During small group discussion exercises in class, we have to first check that everyone in the group actually fully understands the question, and clarify some of the more obscure English words: among them “Quaint”, “twine” and “sans serif”.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that, for the most part, we all get along pretty well, and that the barriers that separate us are more perceived than real. Despite our obvious differences, perhaps what we’re going to learn this year is how similar we all are.


Benjamin Britten – For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry – from Rejoice in the Lamb, Op. 30
Choir of King’s College Cambridge/Britten – Choral Works [Buy]


Random play is great. Was walking up the hill today from Edgbaston to the Moseley shops, listening to the iPod, on random as usual.

During a quiet gap between streams of traffic, the iPod hits on Benjamin Britten‘s arrangement of For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey, a poem by Christopher Smart, an 18th century poet whose apparent mental illness also inspired his great Jubilate Agno series, written while he was imprisoned in an asylum in London.

For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry
Christopher Smart (1722-1771)

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.

For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthy he goes in quest of food.

For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.

For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.

For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defense is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacous of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Savior.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.

For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord’s poor, and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually–Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can sit up with gravity, which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick, which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.

For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon rat, very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the electrical fire is the spiritual substance which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.

For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.