Civic Stuff

Last night, a book launch. The usual thing – arty middle class people milling around discussing their latest projects, the odd peal of laughter, the more ‘important’ people in the room trying to avoid being cornered by bores and no-hopers, and the writer, the poor, bloody writer, looking anxious and clutching a large glass of red. I like book launches.

So it was with the launch of Charlie Hill’s latest novella, Stuff.  His last launch, for Books, had been at the Ikon Gallery.  I’ve been to a few launches there over the last few years, before they mostly moved to the Library of Birmingham. Now it is the turn of Waterstones to host such events.  Each venue says something about the times. It was William Gallagher, blogging after the launch of the Birmingham Literature Festival programme, who put his finger on the question of the baton for literary Brum being passed from our beautiful, sad library, to the old Times Furnishing building. And it’s not about the sorry state of Austerity Britain – it’s about the re-vivication of Waterstones as a bookshop rooted in the lives of its readers and writers, and the restoration of the judgement and autonomy of its staff.

But that’s only part of the story.  It was as Charlie Hill was being interviewed that I began to see further connections between writers, readers and the real and imaginative worlds.

Charlie was asked a question about the importance of location in his work.  It was a pertinent question; he had just read a passage from Stuff featuring a walk through Kings Heath.  Locations are important in Charlie Hill’s work.  I recall finishing reading his last novel in a cafe in a converted school hall in Harborne, which was somehow appropriate. His The Space Between Things features a Moseley more like the grungy place of youthful memory, rather than today’s place of farmers’ markets and smart restaurants (he returned to the location in his short story ‘Odysseus Weeps….’, but this time the Moseley of million pound houses, not shabby flats over the shop).

Location, Charlie Hill said, could be integral to the purpose and texture of fiction, or it could be incidental.  He’s right, but he’s not right.  For the writer’s conscious purpose in choosing a location is a part of how a geography of cultural esteem is constructed.

Last night was both like, and unlike, many ‘arts’ events I attend.  Clothes, haircuts, spectacle frames, warm wine in plastic glasses, the signifiers of book launches and private views the nation over were certainly on show.  But so were the accents of the city.  That’s not been quite such a feature of many cultural events of late.  People were speaking in Birmingham accents!  ‘Nice’ Birmingham accents, David Stafford on Radio 4, but even so. It’s almost a revolutionary act.

When I got home I pulled a book from the shelf. It’s called Made In Birmingham: A Book of Verse and Prose, and was published 100 years ago, in 1916. It was published in the city by Cornish Brothers, and at the back it lists its many other publications from children’s books, to critical studies of William Morris, from play scripts, to technical accounts of the construction of the Elan Dam.  All books by the city’s authors for the city’s people.

The nation was in the middle of the First World War when the book was published.  We know how the following century transpired. But the book was a small symbol of a confident, thriving city in a confident, some might say over-confident, Imperial country.

Since that time, power and cultural legitimacy seems to have been sucked to the centre. The power brokers and the taste-makers come from a tiny caste with little ambition or imagination beyond promotion of their own. Of course, that’s an exaggeration, but it’s not an outright lie.

So last night, listening to intelligent conversation, stimulating ideas, and in the company of like-minded citizens in a pleasant environment, and knowing that it was all deeply rooted in our city was just a delight.

No, not just a delight. A skirmish in a battle; a battle to re-shape that geography of cultural esteem to better reflect who and what we are now.  This has implications for everything, from literary culture, to civic identity, to political power.

I think, like most people I know in the arts, that the recent vote to leave the European Union was a bad mistake. But it can be read in many ways, not least that a lot of things have to change, and radically. Culture is part of that, both in the making, and in the reflecting, in the empowerment of new voices, and in the resistance to the forces limiting our creativity.

So last night was the launch of a book. And a statement of confidence in a city that’s taken a battering, but still gets up and carries on making things.

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