Blending Brum’s Past and Present

Birmingham may not be the world’s prettiest city but for myself it is home and home stirs emotions and memories like nowhere else. It’s easy to criticise its peculiar skyline and how it succumbed so viciously to the concrete hysteria of the 1960’s and 70’s but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an interesting subject. On the contrary, its current melange of the modern, the classical and the brutal make it an illuminating study in the evolution of city that in 2018 is mounting a strong resistance to the unfortunate reputation that has dogged it for years.

The evolution of Britain’s Second City has been showcased in a remarkable exhibition currently on at the Library of Birmingham. The Grid Project has recovered hundreds of colour photographs of life in Birmingham taken by Phyllis Nicklin, a geography lecturer at the University of Birmingham, during the 1950’s and 60’s and presented them alongside shots taken by over 70 local photographers from the same spot in 2017.

The photos are taken across the city but are predominantly filled with shots taken in the city centre and the areas that she lived and worked in Harborne and Edgbaston between 1953 and 1969. She used a (probably very expensive) Leica camera and a colour film which brings the city to life and provides additional layers of familiarity in a way that black and white photographs can never do.

The changes in some of the scenes that Phyllis shot are sometimes astonishingly different or equally strikingly similar to their modern counterparts but, as somebody who can just about be classed as a millennial, it is the everyday life she depicts that is so arresting. Many aspects of the photos she took in suburbia seem largely unchanged over the course of 60 years, quiet streets with rows of cosy semi-detached houses with neatly parked cars dotted about under grey skies. Aside from the age and style of the cars, some of the suburban scenes could have been taken today, particularly in the more affluent areas of town.

However the levels of industry in areas in the city centre that are now taken up by pubs, bars, restaurants and coffee shops is most striking to me and signifies arguably the greatest change that is taking place here in 2018 and beyond. In the old photos the blackened soot-covered spires of St Paul’s and St Martin’s are sad sights and whilst the structures surrounding St Paul’s Square are quite handsome, it’s a murky brown and beige world there’s none of the sheen that now inhabits the area. Yet now Digbeth and the Jewellery Quarter are areas of the city centre that are now becoming rapidly gentrified with cranes hovering over myriad apartment blocks under construction, formerly crumbling Victorian brick buildings now housing tech firms and start-ups as well as new craft ale and gin bars introducing themselves to the locals on what feels like an almost weekly basis.

The below shot of Ludgate Hill is perhaps most representative of this. The bricks and the windows may still provide the skeletons of these buildings flanking Ludgate Hill but the heart and soul has undergone a total sea-change. Phillips Electric on the left now houses an advertising agency and further down, where there was once traditional industry, the decks of the Actress and Bishop, Stirlings and Cucina Rustica now spill out onto the street offering al fresco hedonism all week long.

©️ University of Birmingham
Ludgate Hill 1960 ©️ University of Birmingham

However as we head further into town it’s difficult to not be struck by the amount of intriguing independent businesses that were woven into the fabric of society that have now been replaced by the insipid chain stores that dominate our high streets today. These totems of tedium mournfully spring to mind when scanning the city centre scenes that Nicklin wonderfully captured and you are left wondering how we allowed this to happen. Of course this isn’t a problem that is exclusive to Birmingham’s thoroughfares as it’s a blight that has affected all of Britain’s larger towns and cities but Nicklin’s colour photographs really intensify what may pass through older generations’ minds when they roll their eyes walking past another Tesco Express.

Nevertheless when looking at these pictures, particularly the ones pre-1960, my general feeling is that we should be very appreciative of the time that we live in now. Some of the rhetoric that has been swirling around the country for the last couple of years has been that of nostalgia, to take Britain back to a wonderful, rose-tinted time that never really existed. Or as the late AA Gill so memorably put it – “some foggy point in the past where we achieved peak Blighty”. Nicklin’s startling photos give us a colour-drenched window into the past that will evoke wistful emotions but I also feel glad to be living now in a cleaner, brighter city and hopefully one that has now recognised the mistakes of the past without shedding too much of its character.

I could have written a lot more on this but I urge everyone to head to the third floor of the Library of Birmingham to catch this superb exhibition before it ends on September 15th.

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