November 17th, 2006


Breakfast in Brum

Habit is a great deadener, said Sam Beckett, and it's one of the reasons I travel so much. Locked into socialization and habituation, we stop seeing what the world around us is actually like. We see the past, and we see the hype, rather than the present, and the reality. I really feel that I only grasp the gist of a place during my first 24 hours there -- hours of disorientation, perplexity, and frustration, for the most part. Residents and natives know more facts about where they live, but it's the arriving newcomer who really gets the feel of the place.

When I left Berlin for Birmingham, Hisae shouted "Iiiiiiiii naaaaaaaaa! I'm jealous! You'll be able to eat English breakfast!" It isn't a given. On the British Airways flight things aren't looking promising, foodwise. Following the model of the budget airlines, BA now charges for food. The first thing I see on the menu is Cup-A-Soup (a tangy, sweet instant soup powder). A mug costs several pounds.

Host Greg, who meets me at the airport -- and proceeds to give me, thanks to a series of unexpected roadworks, a tour of Birmingham's motorway system -- tells me that the only good food I'm likely to encounter in Brum is the bratwurst being sold at the German Christmas fair. Apparently the centre of town is full of tiny chalets selling gluhwein and sausages. On loan from Frankfurt.

When I go hunting for breakfast the next morning, I discover the truth of Greg's words. The pedestrian centre of Birmingham is full of familiar retail chains -- Boots, Habitat -- but there are no small businesses, the sort of places where cooking gets done. Everything's pre-packaged, pre-prepared, cold, slick, global. One place says "Cut sandwiches... sausage and egg?" The question mark -- and the lack of tables -- puts me off. I end up eating at a slick chain called "Eat: Real Food". They offer cold dishes in plastic boxes; sushi, feta salad, Thai noodles with cashews. I opt for the latter. It's bland beyond words. And expensive.

The lead story in The Guardian is about the government's plans to make a website listing convicted paedophiles, so that single mothers entering relationships can check whether their new partner is a Humbert Humbert. But Humbert didn't kill Lolita: the Guardian illustrates its story with a photo of a little girl murdered by a paedophile and the caption "Sarah Payne, the eight-year-old whose murder by Roy Whiting in 2000 led to demands for greater disclosure about the whereabouts of known paedophiles." The implication seems to be that paedophiles are killers. What isn't raised is the possibility that paedophiles are more likely to become killers in an moral environment where their crime is considered tantamount to -- and all of a piece with -- murder.

What's also clear is that the Guardian's agenda is being set here by the UK tabloids. "Calls" and "demands" for disclosure of information about sex offenders turn out to be down to "tabloid pressure"; the true motor of this story is clear when you look at The Sun's front page, which says: "Perv hunt dot com: website names wanted paedos -- see them here." Whatever it says about paedophilia, it says a lot about British treatment of "the other" -- and about the way the tabloids here often set the moral agenda for both the broadsheets and the government.

Birmingham is high-Gini. On the way in, we drive through Handsworth, full of Caribbean and subcontinental people, huge SIkh temples, Chinese groceries. It feels vital, poor, and slightly dangerous. Indeed, Birmingham has seen a big increase in gun crime recently; two black girls were killed in a gang shoot out, and the nephew of a colleague of Greg's was also shot on the street. Greg goes a lot to Moscow, and we agree that Britain is getting as polarized and as cowboy-like as Russia. Despite boasting street names commemorating engineers like Brunel, Birmingham doesn't have heavy industry any more -- the Byrd's Custard Factory is now a listed building housing artists' studios, the canal has been cleaned up, and yuppie condos dot the jewellery district.

This sense of wealth and poverty side-by-side lends the city an urgency of pace. It's not the kind of place where you'd dawdle over a greasy fry-up in a friendly caff. In a post-industrial city the only options are drug-related crime, some kind of service industry job, or being a loser. So Birmingham has this contrast between soft and hard, safe zones and danger zones. Soft-and-safe is shopping, marketing, luxury, self-indulgence; chatting to your friend on your mobile phone as you walk through the Mailbox, a luxury shopping centre housing the BBC headquarters. Soft is my hotel, the slick Malmaison, which is "premium marketing-designed" in that terribly British way.

By "premium marketing-designed" I mean that graphic designers and marketers have made something over to allow it to pass as a luxury product and therefore command inflated prices. It's rebranding something upmarket not based on any really expensive new contents, but on a series of luxury signifiers. It's very British, because Britain doesn't really want to put the time and love into really improving quality of life, but it does want to hoist prices. The Malmaison is staffed, like so many service industries here, by Polish desk staff; 600,000 Poles have arrived in Britain over the last couple of years. They seem motivated, their English is excellent, and they handle the brashness of complaining customers with steely firmness.

There certainly are things to grumble about. The first thing the hotel does is charge £50 to your card in case you run off without paying for the extras (like the porn that appears the moment you turn on the TV). The lack of trust isn't misplaced; despite the expensive ambience, someone seems to have peed in one of the lifts. Presumably he was caught by the all-seeing CCTV eye, but that doesn't stop the smell. The room -- tastefully decorated with low-hanging orange and brown lampshades -- is full of amusing signs. Instead of "Shampoo" and "Conditioner" and "Do Not Disturb" and "Please Make Up Room", the signs say "Soft as a feather" and "Fresh as a daisy" and "I want to be alone" and "Room upside down" (printed, cleverly, upside down).

So, a few slipping glimpses of an unfamiliar town in my motherland. Each time I come back, this country seems harder, slicker -- and softer too, if you can afford the soft bits, that is; the spa, the mortgage on the "exclusive" property. In some ways the megalithic slickness of the post-industrial capitalism here makes Britain resemble Japan -- and many Japanese, like Hisae, love Britain and feel at home here. But there are big differences. It isn't just that the mobile phones people depend on so much here are still (ten years after my web-capable Nokia) unable to offer full web access, let alone video like their Japanese counterparts. It's not just that Japan has protected its small businesses, or that it retains a sense that it's worth doing things well for their own sake (rather than just marketing things as "luxuries"). Japanese citizens also have a sense of basic kindness, respect, trust and discretion towards each other. That may, it's true, lead to Japanese paedophiles getting away with their crimes. But better that than tabloid-led witch-hunts which turn them -- in the public mind, and eventually their own -- into murderers.