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.
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