Tuesday, 19 January 2010


A couple of years back I took a taxi ride in Birmingham; the driver was an Asian Brummy, fiercely proud of his city's retail and leisure facilities.

They is even 'avin' a Bentleys, man, for Bentley cars, know what I'm saying, Bentleys in Brummagem, what a great place, I come from Pakistan but Birmingham is me 'ome. He meant it, too, there are lots like him, more than we often think.

He was a lovely guy and stuck in an expensive traffic jam we or rather I got talking. I told him about how, once, this place was the Workshop of the World, about how his city was once a hotbed of trades and skills, of heavy and light industry of electronics of tyres, of beers and ketchups, of clocks and jewellery, of guns and motorcycles, of how the surrounding towns and cities had shared this idustrial bonanza, chains and needles and springs, nuts and bolts, gadgets and gizmos, handles and knobs and saddles and cars, cars, cars and I told him of George Cadbury, a teetotal Quaker industrialist, shocked at the squalor and consequent inebriation of his workers' inner-city living conditions, built a model village, in which no home might occupy more than a quarter of its plot and so its inhabitants had room to garden, how the houses were light and airy, the streets wide and the whole place, in perpetuity, was to be devoid of licensed premises. If I lived in a two-up and down slum in Small Heath and went home to cramped-up, dirty, screaming children, I'd be on the gin, too, said George, at the turn of the nineteenth century and he built the Bournville Village Trust, for his workers, and in the factory grounds he laid out playing fields and bowling greens and down the road he built a lido with diving boards: Cadburys flower beds, laid by a large team of Cadbury gardeners, beautified the surrounding areas, many were visible from the Bournville/Cross City line.

Other industrialists from all over the world visited Bournville and copied it, Lever built Port Sunlight and local authorities encouraged the development of Garden Cities across the UK.

The Bournville Village Trust still exists today, flanked by less salubrious Birmingham suburbs, Cotteridge, Selly Oak and to the South West the open prison that is Northfield. Today, oddly, many of the Trust's houses are occupied not by fourth or fifth generation Cadburys workers but by precious American academics and media luvvies but overall it offers a way of living - clean, healthy, spacious and uplifting - which generations of professional planners have failed to replicate.

And then there's the work, of course, the employment that so many have taken for granted, one man's sweet tooth another man's honest day's work.

Yeah, man, CadburyWorld, I love it, my kids love it. An' how comes, anyway, that you, down from Scotland, knows so much about Birmingham? A long story, my man, pity the poor immigrant, fresh from Belfast, No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish, a popular 1950s Birmingham street sign. Wow, you is kiddin', innit, really? No, Man, really. But never mind that, get yourself down the Art Gallery, look at the Pre-Raphaelites. what's the damage?

And many of Ahmed's generation will be mystified at the fuss over Cadburys, what-the-fuck, the city still has Selfridges and Centenary Square, innit, it's canal basin lined with high-security whores' and gangsters' apartments. And then there's the Bull Ring shopping and New Street shopping and just down the road is Merry Hill Shopping. Ahmed's German-owned Bentleys are retailed close to what was Fort Dunlop but is now another retail mall, Heartlands Shop Til You Drop or some such.

In the commons this afternoon a gang of the oiliest wankers I have ever seen, the Select Committee on Business, indulged in an orgy of mutual admiration with His Grace, The Lord Mandelstein, born, as he modestly says, to govern.
Just a poor gay blackmailer, me;
can't even fill-in a mortgage form

Nothing he could do about the Kraft takeover - and just as well considering the cack-handedness over Rover, of his predecessor, the blundering Blairite, Byers. Not my job, he oozed, although we would prefer it if companies and shareholders took a longer view. But in every other respect, as everybody knows, I am wonderful. Did I mention that a finger of fudge is just enough..?

Mandelstein didn't say that NewLabour was still intensely relaxed about people being filthy rich but we can judge that one for ourselves.

South West Birmingham recently lost The Ostin - Austin, Morris, BMC, BLMC, Leyland and fuck knows how many other names - as well as all the suppliers of that once-mighty manufacturer. Cadburys is, really, small beer in comparison and we shouldn't cry into our Milk Tray, except that if all the traditional industries and employers fall victim - as most of them have - just what on Earth will people do ?


Agatha said...

Oh, good, chocolate-covered cheese slices...mmm, yummy

Anonymous said...

You forgot BSA (Birmingham Small Arms). I had a BSA bike when I was a kid (what a memory) made from melted down manhole covers no one would steal it unless they has a Hiab handy it was that heavy. Sir Bernard Docker and his Lady Norah when they were not on their yacht in the south of France used BSA's money as their own. When he got booted out for being excessive with his spending he sent out 10,000 telgrams at BSA'a expense saying he wasn't.So saying BSA was like the rest of British industry first to industrialise last to modernise. I used to move machines around older than me "war finish" on the Ward lathes and such. From workshop of the world to what? In 30 years or so the clowns who rule us have let this happen. I now live in the far east no clapped out machines or working practices here or factories older than the people working in them. They have done what it took the UK 300 years to do in about 40 years, skipped all that factory chimney stuff, headscarves for women and demarcation for men.8am clocking in for the peasants 9am signing in for the office staff and sick pay.
Sorry to go on about it but last time I was back in the UK all I saw was a very bleak future for young people with the lack of decent jobs I know being banged up in a factory for 8 hours a day no matter how skilled you are is not one of the worlds most exciting activities but it beats the shit out of who can get drunk out of their skull quickest at night. Who would want to be an engineer doing something worthwhile and having a bit of pride in what you make when you could be a "ta da" a fucking hedgefund manager?

call me ishmael said...

Thanks, mr anonymous, it is terribly depressing. You're right, I walked through Fort Dunlop once and although it was factory Hell, it was real, and the people there were real people with real lives, not consumer Zombies.

I was mindful of the huge output of BSA, in weapons and motor cycles but I just said guns - where would you stop, with naming firms, Smiths, Lucases, Dunlop, Standard-Triumph, Rootes, Ansells, HP Sauce - but I had quite forgotten, a little before my time, Lord and Lady Docker, your comment resurrected my father's voice, ranting about them.

It is the loss of "a bit of pride in what you make" which underscores Ruin and which, never having made anything themselves, our rulers so fundamentally underalue. It's what I was trying to tell Ahmed - We used to make things here, not just sell trash imported from China.

mongoose said...

When I was little, Mr Ishmael, that was my world. We in Concrete Coventry were more or less metal-bashing-into-cars one-trick ponies but Birmingham was still a vast industrial powerhouse. My brother worked there for IMI (metals, for the benefit of the rest of you) but ran almost immediately to the North Sea oil business.

I was transfixed by the mad self-destruction of the 70s. Off to College I went. Came home the next year and voted for Maggie. Graduated, as only a son of Cov can, wanting to be a manufacturing engineer - design stuff, make stuff, leave something. And found what? A fucking wasteland of closing factories and horror.

I am not averse to foreigners investing their capital in the UK and owning manufacturing businesses. We shouldn't care about that; they after all pay their taxes in the normal way. The sorrow lies in the failure of wanting to lead, to do it, to make it here, to create the real wealth here and now. Poverty of aspiration. Making money in the City from other people creating wealth somewhere else. Making food - which chocolate is - still requires a degree or localness but the thousands of the Cadbury's jobs could be in Poland by Thursday and certainly will be by a year hence.

call me ishmael said...

Thanks, mr mongoose, I think Coventry has, if anything, a longer tradition of doing things, so to speak, mediaeval Guilds of Dyers and Mercers and Weavers and so on, whereas Birmingham wasn't even a city proper until the late nineteenth century but Yes, much more diverse, not just cars.

The journey with Ahmed was as real as pain, it happened just like that, I was amazed at this boy's enthusiasm for what I saw as decline and Ruin; he was a little freaked that there was actually something other than the present, and that people knew about it. I guess, though, that much of that knowledge, awareness, will die with me and those like me - it'll be digitised somewhere, of course, but that's not the same, and I'm not that old, really, that I should feel anachronistic knowing this stuff.

Industrial changes are often for the better, I hated Thatcher's approach to the miners but I'm glad that people don't have to do that shit any more but, as with Rover and Cadburys it isn't just about change, it is about a change to nothingness, intangibility, often, people's working hours meaningless; the miners did have a community; there is a tradition of family employment in patriarchal Cadburys which will now cease just so that Power may extend itself yet further. It's a bad day for the Midlands, a bad day for us all.

mongoose said...

Indeed, we had all sorts - Courtaulds, Herberts - but cars ruled the roost. Alfred Herberts btw was the finest machine tool company in the Northern Hemisphere when those fuckers killed it.

And I have been down a dozen coalmines, Mr Ishmael, not a one of them still open. There is a horror - a ruin, even - in the cold bargain of commercial life. I went around those places trying to save them, to make them more cost-effective. If you think about it, to close their brothers' pits faster. Idiot boy, Pike. Maggie had however won her victory and something inside of us died. I was the only one who didn't know that they were fucked. Wonderful men btw.

I think that you begin to touch ever closer to the truth. The ruin is the loss of honour and community.

Anonymous said...

Sorry its me again its morning here 7 hours ahead of GMT. I have to disagree with"We used to make things here, not just sell trash imported from China" well Ok some of it is but with computers controlling most of the manufactred products these days the stuf turned out here in the far east isn't trash. So it really doesn't make a lot of difference as to where it is actually made Selly Oak or Shanghai. What we seem to forget is that once we had a monopoly om technology from Ironbridge to battleships the quote was we have always done it like this what could possibly go wrong? Well try Honda. Suzuki, Yamaha and so on. My last motorbike in the the UK was a Matchless and like everyone else had to work on it over the weekend so with any luck it wouldn't break down the next week. So the Japanese wiped out the British motorbike industry more or less overnight then they turned their attentions to the car industry. Now I speak from experience here When Mr. Robinson (no not that one the cuckolded hubby of Iris) the Red Robbo was in charge it was a nightmare.You had to show you upto date union card to a union official before you got in the place and as I say to work on clapped out machinery once we got inside the place.
As you can probably guess I am getting on in my afternoons now but when I make things here and do a bit of welding the people here are surprised that we actually do work at making things (well we did).
I used to do contract work at GEC in Trafford Park Manchester at one time the biggest industrial park in Europe they employed 26,000 there making turbines, electrical generating equipment now the site is a wharehouse distribution centre.
I am not sure where to park the blame for all this but I am sure you will agree it is a very sad state of affairs to be in.
I was talking to a Comissioning engineer a while ago he had just come back from S Korea he is the creme de la creme of his trade yeah well,when he got there he found that the guys he was in charge of were on more money than him.
I really don't think it has sunk in yet in the UK as to just how serious thsi lack of a manufacturing base is. Here in Thailand not far from Pattaya all the pick-up trucks are made Toyota, Mitsubishi, Ford,Nissan the lot,are made BMW'S and Mercedes Benz are whats called CKU completely knocked units are assembled and to add insult to injury even London taxis are made here.
So to all the slags and bags out there who collect their beer tokens from the post office on a monday morning providing you can find one that is still open be afraid be very afraid as you don't know whats going to hit you in the very near future.
Of course you could always go to the local uni and get a degree in media studies that will be a great help.

call me ishmael said...

Thanks, mr anonymous, I must mind my words, I didn't mean trash in the sense of being useless, unfit for purpose but, I dunno, I guess, lacking any organic quality in their assembly or in the materials they are made from, especially the materials. I know nothing about metallurgy but I guess those so skilled would know the difference between good iron or steel and bad and would understand processes and possible flaws; certainly, I understand the contrariness of timber and that there are processes which simply cannot be completed with "computers controlling most of it," that are a matter of skill and intuition and experience, yes and luck and that those employed in manufacturing where such decisions are made by computers are deprived of something and the end product, even if flawless and uber-reliable, is lacking something of value. something human, organic. I can add nothing of value to this laptop by using it and i will throw it away and replace it in due course, it is very efficient but cold and dead, despite its formidable powers of information retrieval and storage, of communication, here, with you, half a world away; my Yamaha guitar, however, made of wood and assembled with differences and unpredictabilities will only get better the more I use it, the more familiar I become with it, the more it is worn-out, the greater it is worn-in, my very ownership of it adds value to it, so much of the stuff which we consume, despite its quality of performance, lacks anything within it to cherish, that's what I meant by trash - it won't hurt to get rid of it - dishwasher,television, microwave, almost any modern car.

As to your latter point about the absence of a manufacturing base, it is at the human level and not in terms of the strength or otherwise of the national economy that I am most troubled; a people who cannot come together, be organised and make things which work is ruined, we have always taken from the trees and the rocks and the earth and banged things together with tools, always, it is what we do before art and literature, if we can no longer do those things we are good for fuck all. We will deserve our colonisation and subjection by those who work harder,

Verge said...

Dear Mr Ish, that stuff about your guitar reminds me of the story of King Tubby, the great Jamaican sound engineer: his technical background (used to have a repair shop in Kingston) enabled him to customise the equipment every time it broke down, resulting in more & more curious refinements of echo and bass. By today's standards his mixing desk was like a bit of Fisher Price but people are still not entirely sure how he did what he did ("Dub Echoes", dvd documentary, very good source for all this.)

Not a bad paradigm of Ruin, in a way, is reggae - from the sublime soundscapes of the Dub masters to the hideous rat-a-tat-tat of Dancehall.

mongoose said...

Mr Anonymous, it wasn't just the quality/reliability angle which killed the motorcycle industry (and others). It was also the cost. The madness of all the Red Robbos' chasing of the wages tail of 1970's inflation killed the last vestige of competitiveness just as much as quality did. (Have you noticed BTW how reliable all vehicles now are compared to then?) Pattaya, eh? How long ago it seems...

Mr Ishmael, my dead father made the cherry fender around my fireplace so that his baby grandchildren would be safe. I made the beds they sleep in. I made the oak table at which they eat and when I am dead, I hope their children will eat at it. It is little enough. And yet a friend thinks that I am a genius because I can transplant the innards of a broken Nintendo DS into a new housing. Assembly being the reverse of disassembly, this is something any of our grandfathers' generation would have taken on without qualm. The skill and the wit to try has fled the country. Telly on and a pizza in the microwave, oblivion, here we come.

Anonymous said...

I blame it all on the demise of Meccano and Hornby double o.

call me ishmael said...

Yes, everything put together comes apart. I made lots of the stuff here, and restored and renovated much else and me a grammar school boy, most of my life ham-fisted, cack-handed and all thumbs, it is just having the will to try; fuck me, if a young polish plumber can do it, I can do it, innit.

I know a retired airline pilot who buys in to the Zen of Meccano and, in his sixties, he seems to learn a new trade or skill every month. There's nothing you can do that can't be done.

Reggae passed me by, mr verge, but for the only things I know, Redemption Song and No Woman, No Cry, - and only one of them is reggae - I have a very soft spot.

Verge said...

Dear Mr Ish, you could do worse than to try a little Misty in Roots. A YouTube selection of links to paste into your browser: