November 18th, 2006



The Future Systems-designed Selfridges at the Birmingham Bull Ring Centre is a bit like an alien spore that's landed from space. Especially if you go there early in the morning, before it opens, revealing its true purpose -- the vending of disappointingly mundane rows of beige sweaters hanging on hangers.

Or is its futurism already retro, in a 1998 Forever sort of way? (The building was designed in 1999, and opened in 2003.) You know, blobby like my Swatch phone was that year, iconic like every Gehry building was that decade, magazine-cover photogenic in a way we've started to scoff at, especially when there's a bathetic contrast between the glam spore shell and what's inside. Here it's a pod selling tat. In Seattle, Frank Gehry's Experience Music Project puts a blob around pious exhibitions dedicated to the genius of Eric Clapton. Sheffield's National Centre for Popular Music stuck a blob around Alanis Morissette sales figures. Blob bathos, baby!

But never mind, whatever rubbish is inside, blobs are always spores from space. And when you start thinking about what's from space, you begin to realize that everything in Birmingham has descended from the sky rather than wriggling up from the grass roots. The church that stands opposite the blob, for instance, what is its spire but a long stone finger pointing out into space in the vague direction of a supernatural deity? And me, I've arrived in a plane to give a lecture here. I'm from space too.

When you think about it, even the industrial revolution which gave this town its core identity was really a series of tools falling from the sky, rather like the bone the monkeys in "2001: A Space Odyssey" threw up in the air -- and which came down as waltzing spacecraft. The spinning jenny, the steam engine, they must have seemed like spores when they arrived, changing everything.

The brands in and around the Bull Ring Centre are all international ones; they're spores that have blown in on the wind. There's the Apple Store -- that's blown in from America. There's Muji; that's from Japan. Only in the rather shabbier Pallasades Centre, above Birmingham New Street Station, do local-looking stores appear. But head out a bit further and you'll find more spores -- all the stores of Handsworth have dropped down onto this Midlands city from Amritsar, Mumbai and Delhi. Direct flights to all those cities leave from Brum daily. The poor, too, are airborne spores here.

It was in South India, in 2001, that a mysterious red rain began to fall. According to BBC reports this week, more and more scientists are convinced this rain contained spores -- the seeds of extraterrestrial life, capable of travelling through space. The belief that humans -- and all life on Earth, even in Birmingham -- began with just such a rain is called "Panspermia". So welcome to Panspermingham.