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.

brum

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.

Canal

Wellington

Wellington

Of the all cities in New Zealand, I think Wellington is the one that has “got it together”. I’ve never been fortunate enough to live there, but every visit is enjoyable. It’s home to some great bands (not least among them OdESSA and Fat Freddy’s Drop), has public transport that actually works, and the downtown area is compact and walkable.

Lyall Bay

Indeed, the city is small enough that even visitors like me randomly bump into people that they know on the street. This time, it was outside Te Papa that I ran into Paddy, the first keyboard player in one million dollars. He seems to be doing well for himself these days.

Breakfast

You can eat very well in Wellington. There’s some great restaurants and cafes, all within walking distance. This time I only had 24 hours in town, but I managed dinner at Chow and a big cooked breakfast with Ben at Maranui Surf Club in Lyall Bay.

Luckily, the Wellingtonians don’t seem to suffer from this surfeit of super food. The city is full of hills, so everyone can keep fit. Like San Francisco or Hong Kong, some streets are so steep that they have been turned into flights of steps. Even the cats have to stop halfway up to catch their breath and admire the view.

Cat