If anyone asks I tell ‘em I’m hunting for guitar strings but really I need much more than that. Anything at all in fact.
This ain’t the my first trip to Brum. The first time I came here was about eight years ago. Back then, it was on a clubbing campaign. My partner in crime shot town convinced that his dick was disappearing and I ended up terrified that Andy Pandy and a violent houseplant were out to kill us.
None of that was directly Birmingham’s fault but the experience was enough to keep me away for another seven and a half years.
My second Birmingham ‘trip’, about three months ago, was less deranged but revealed a similar to the city’s psyche.
Once again, I’m ostensibly looking for guitar strings. Some students in a second hand book shop had directed me to Professional Music Services on Curzon circular. It’s a great firm and one of Birmingham’s only redeeming features. I make myself known, buy the most expensive but beautiful-sounding guitar strings and leave. There’s a busy road outside so I stand at the side and wait for a gap in the traffic. No gap presents itself but an old Asian lady slows down and signals at me to cross the road so I cross. Pleasant enough, I thought, until the motorist behind Granny Singh stops, gets out and screams blue murder at me.
Perhaps, thinks I, he’s just venting his frustration at the broader socio-economic conditions that have shat his little corner of urban England spiralling into post-Thatcherite meltdown. Right in front of him, I reason, his neighbourhood has nosedived from a regional hub of home-grown industrial might to a piss-pocket characterised by nothing more than a good music shop, dual carriageways and courteous Pakistani grannies.
Whatever. While I’m mulling over this chap’s quandary he comes at me so I do the manly thing and run.
Surely, downtown’s gotta be better. Surely Major and Blair and Brown and countless Government agencies have devoted the same endless time and resources to stopping the rot and rust. I think of Manchester, Glasgow, Newcastle and Liverpool. Great British powerhouses hammered in the ‘80’s but reincarnated as vibrant regional destinations.
I pass a bar I remember from the Andy Pandy expedition. It’s burnt out and shows no sign of being rebuilt.
Closer to town I witness a grown man attack a ten-year-old girl. I don’t know if it was a racist attack but the girl and her father are clearly traditional Muslim Asians and the attacker is a white thug in his late teens or early twenties.
The two parties are walking towards each other when the Scally runs at a bin using it as a springboard from which to fly through the air and body slam the father and daughter, mainly the daughter, who falls down and starts crying. The father can’t do anything. He has to attend to his daughter but is helpless anyway faced with a gang of laughing lads who run off.
That was my second trip.
Three months later and I need new strings.
In Glasgow or London or any other British town, you expect to see policemen on the beat and Birmingham’s no different but you immediately notice that all the cops are busy.
A market trader tries to convince two officers that he’s selling genuine Versace. Round the corner a homeless man is having his bag rifled through by a WPC. Someone gets dragged out of McDonald’s for reason’s best known to him. All the cops seem too busy to do anything about two gangs of teenage girls fighting in, and possibly over, a bus stop.
These crazy fools are losing it. I dive into a record store for cover and make a few selections. The girl behind the counter is pretty and smiles as she scans The Killers. Kings of Leon. Still smiling. The Enemy. Still smiling. The Smiths. Smile turns to smirk. Deacon Blue. Lost her. Gotta go.
Back on the street another pretty girl stops me. I’m pretty hot at avoiding charity Chuggers having lived for a year on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow but this one’s incognito. She isn’t wearing a uniform or a badge and I hope for a moment that she may just want to introduce herself or complement my sartorial taste.
‘Have you ever had a stress test Sir.’
‘I tend to find visiting Birmingham to be a stressful test. Does that count?’
‘No. I mean a test to see how stressed you are.’
I’m intrigued. ‘I don’t think I have as it happens. Are you about to offer me one.’
‘Yes I am. We’re offering free stress tests today.’
She seems nice so I bite. Curiously, she leads me down a dark alley.
This is kind of weird. We enter an anonymous doorway an my eye catches a large blue sandwich board sign propped in the corridor.
‘Welcome to L Hubbard’s Church of Scientology.’
‘Shit. This actually is holy shit,’ I think.
‘Is this about scientology.’
‘Well yes it is but don’t worry. I’m not going to try and convert you. I just want to give you a stress test’
Holy shit. So this is how they do it. They kidnap people off the streets. I’ve heard about their weird machines. That must be how they got Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Just caught ‘em on their way out of Primark or Woolworths or something.
‘Honestly, I think that’s a lie and also, I’m already a monk so my spiritual needs are well and truly satisfied. I have to go.’
I half jog out the door and round the corner then pause and start kicking myself. Attempts to convert me to Scientology would have made great material for this blog.
I mentally prepare an apology for my rude behaviour then about turn and look for the girl. I wait for ages but it’s too late. She’s gone. Scientology will have to wait for now.
Two hundred yards down the road I’m stopped by a big black guy with a woolly hat who asks me if I want to support charity work in India. I’ve heard this one before and recognise him straightaway as a Hare Krishna monk. All the niche religions round here must carve up the streets like Big Issue sellers.
‘Are you Hare Krishna? ‘Coz if you are you should just come right out and say it’
‘I am my friend. Let me ask you. Are you stressed?’
‘Not in the slightest. To be honest, I‘m a bit of a monk myself. I’ve actually already got quite a lot of your books and tapes. Indeed, may I say just how much I enjoyed Gouranga Mosh Vol III.’
‘That’s good to hear brother.’
‘In fact, I’ve even spent a night at your headquarters. That farm down near Watford.’
‘Really. Brilliant. What were you doing there.
‘Well, I was on my travels, spreading the word, like you. It was late one night and I had nowhere to stay so I drove a little way down a track, pulled over and slept in my car. When I woke I was surrounded by rabbits, cows and bald people.’
‘Brother! You should have gone in for breakfast.’
‘They do breakfasts?’
‘I wish I’d known. Lord knows you guys owe me enough breakfasts.’
My friend doubles over laughing and I leave him like that; unable to talk.
If there were more like him then maybe there would be more hope for Birmingham.
In the future, I decide, I'll get my guitar strings in Coventry.