IATEFL 2016: Birmingham Part 1

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The last time I travelled to Birmingham, as we approached the station I heard the train driver say on the intercom

Next stop Birmingham; abandon hope all you here alight here.

The driver sped off before the locals could lynch him, out of the Midlands and on towards the North, where things actually get steadily worse until you reach the civilised haven of Scotland. Mind you, if you go South from Birmingham things get steadily worse till you reach the coast, where, if you take my advice, you’ll get the first ferry out and go to France.

It’s a dreary place, Birmingham. It was bombed very heavily in the second world war, they did a truly dire job of re-building it, and it’s now making desperate attempts to re-invent itself as a “service centre”. Part of the re-invention is the new Bullring (formerly the Bull Ring), a horrendous, massive, ugly shopping mall built in the early 60s. Ill-informed Spanish tourists used to flock there hoping to see some hapless local would-be matador get gored to death in the ring by a brave, Andaluz bull, only to find endless shops selling tatty clothes made in Spain by Zara. One up-beat note is that Burne-Jones was born here and the Birmingham Museum has a really excellent collect of Pre-Raphaelite art. The gallery itself is very well-restored, the optimistic glass roof now supplemented with clever artificial lighting, and certainly worth a visit. Make sure you see Ford Maddox Brown’s The Last of England, a splendidly disturbing work which will reinforce your instinct to flee England as soon as you can.

You detect an anti-English sentiment? Well. yes, you’re right: I’m not a big fan of England. In many ways I hate it. Which reminds me of the time I was in a pub in London, standing at the bar, and this big bloke walked in.

Un pint of bitter  he said to the landlord with a thick, what I took to be a German, accent.

Had this happened more recently, no doubt he would have followed Dellar’s example and said Can I get un pint of bitter, but, mercifully, English hadn’t yet sunk so low.

Where are you from? I asked him.

I am from Svizzzitzzzerland he replied.

Ah, yes, Switzerland  said I, craftily recasting.

You like Svizzzitzzzerland ? he asked.

To tell you truth, I find it a bit dull – the people are very law abiding, I explained.

Ya! I hate Svizzzitzzerland also! he said.

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I don’t actually hate England, but outside London it’s a hard place to like, in my opinion. The weather’s the worst of it, but there’s also a deeply engrained, smug, anti-intellectualism which doesn’t suit my sensitive, bookish soul. Not that this anti-intellectualism is confined to the lower orders in England. The ruling classes have always been deeply suspicious of intellectuals, as illustrated by the expression “too clever by half” used in the upper echelons of the civil service, the judiciary, etc. to refer to anyone who reads without moving their lips or does mental arithmetic.

Anyway, Birmingham is the venue of the 2016 IATEFL jamboree and if you’ve already bought your tickets, well jolly good luck to you. My advice is: get off the train, find a taxi and go straight to your hotel. I’m not saying it’s dangerous to dawdle, just that there isn’t any point in dawdling, unless you really can’t wait to have your first chili flavoured bit of low grade meat and sawdust sarni, or you want to do a bit of bowling.

Once in your hotel, unless you’re not paying the bill, unless, that is, you’re a star of the event, or a commercial rep. of certain standing, you’ll probably notice the smell of damp carpets and overcooked cabbage. The damp carpet smell is a feature of English life; wall to wall carpeting used to be a sign that you’d dragged yourself out of poverty, now it’s a sure sign that you’re falling back down into it, unable to aspire to the stripped woodwork floors thrown with kilims that the more affluent homes display. As for the cabbage stink, it’s how the English cook. And if it’s not cabbage, well, it’s probably curry. Either way, your hotel will make matters worse by having air fresheners everywhere, just to make sure you can’t breathe properly.

So now it’s Registration Day. There you are, after a bad night’s sleep, waiting in line already suffering from the effects of a full English breakfast. Please, listen. Do NOT eat a hotel “Full English Breakfast”, or any part of it. It’s bad food, believe me: seriously, it’s very bad food. Do yourself a favour: don’t eat any of it. Really, eat the tablecloth before you eat the sausage or the bacon or the beans or the tinned tomatoes or any of it. You’ve got enough to cope with without eating that crap.

You get your plastic ID badge and your bag of shoddy conference goodies, and in you go. As the train driver said: Abandon hope!

To be Continued

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12 thoughts on “IATEFL 2016: Birmingham Part 1

  1. I do hope you’re back to SLA in your next post because you clearly have little knowledge about the places you are writing about.

    The only reason the areas outside London lack its cachet is that they’ve been ignored and disdained by the chattering bourgeoisie for so long. Thank goodness people in Sunderland, Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Coventry, Northampton and Birmingham do not wait

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    • I’m sorry you don’t like my attempts at satire, Marc. I wasn’t being entirely serious you know: some of my best friends live as far North as Finchley.:-)

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      • Satire’s funny, Geoff. Taking the piss out of poor people isn’t, especially when you’re sitting pretty in a higher social strata. Spirit of 68, though, eh?

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    • No one likes to hear their home town disparaged. It’s depressing. Still, we can’t let this consideration prevent us from discussing honestly the disastrously high-handed and condescending decisions made by architects and town-planners. You ackowledged, Geoff, the value of Birmingham’s artistic heritage. Its symphony orchestra and the work done by Stuart Hall and others in the cultural studies department of its university are also worth drawing attention to. Surely, though, Marc, there is nothing necessarily snobbish or ‘sneering’ about recording one’s reactions to a place, or in doing so in an exaggerated, comical register. Geoff, we can surely agree, is always on the side of community and of individual and collective emancipation as against the interests of entrenched power and the accumulation of capital.

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    • Just in case it’s not clear, I’m serious when I say that I wasn’t taking the piss out of poor people. Hundreds of thousands of people living off unemployment benefits do have to queue up at ironically named Job Centres, they do live in cold rented flats and they do eat badly. I feel solidarity with these people, I’ve worked with them in London, and in Wolverhampton, helped them fight various arms of the state, and often joined in protests of different sorts. I was satirising English culture, Birmingham and conference goers, not the poor.

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  2. Insufferable priggishness of the highest order. And, after all your disparaging of IATEFL in the past, you have the gall to apply to be a registered blogger for IATEFL Online, so we can all enjoy your sneering from a distance – or, as I suspect you consider it, undermining the system from within. It’s not clever, it just comes across as bitter, mean-spirited and pathetic.

    Can’t wait for your first withering post on one of the plenaries or recorded sessions….

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