A few days away in the dark heart of the industrial midlands – it was Anne’s idea. Let’s go somewhere we have never stayed before – Birmingham! Birmingham? Birmingham? Yes – Birmingham! They are building a wonderful new library there.
And indeed they are – and in fact it’s already built, all set to open in a few weeks. A golden-capped tower of learning, which decorates the skyline in pulsing and ever-changing colours at night. Set to become the largest public library in the country. A rather impressive new feature in a fiercely ambitious programme of urban regeneration. The Big City Plan is designed to engineer Birmingham out of its post-war trauma – a programme to transform it from the “godless, concrete, urban hell” it had become at the hands of the planners into an elegant post-modern urban living space – one of the world’s top twenty most liveable cities within twenty years.
You have to applaud the ambition – and given the will and the city’s long tradition of engineering solutions, there is no overwhelming reason why not. A start has already been made in reclaiming the network of canals. From dereliction to smart life-style destination – as we discovered as we had a very pleasant supper overlooking a transformed canal basin not far from the city centre. I do have a slight fear that it is too much about life-style and not about life-substance, but I wish it all well.
Musing on style rather than substance, I obviously went in search of books and bookshops. Two immense branches of Waterstone’s within yards of our hotel, so no shortage of readers in Birmingham, but for antiquarian, rare, fine (or even just decent second-hand) the prospect was not so good. I did find one shop (aided by Mike Goodenough’s redoubtable TheBookGuide.co.uk – I should have believed the reviews), but a system apparently of sealing all hardbacks in polythene bags and then stacking them on top of each other (rather shelving them side by side) rather defeated me. Did I want to spend twenty minutes standing on a chair shuffling books around just to get at one that I probably didn’t want anyway? Probably not.
There were other shops – but yet again I should have read the reviews more carefully. I don’t want to libel anyone – so let’s leave it at that. A total of two books and a map bought for little money – but you know those purchases you make just so as to feel you haven’t wasted your time in going? All three items looked interesting, but all three problematic to catalogue, and not quite what they appeared to be.
All rather disappointing on that front. The Birmingham Big City Plan is to incorporate both the Jewellery Quarter and the historic Gun Quarter (the latter may need some rebranding). Too much to ask that if we genuinely want it to be one of the world’s most liveable cities, then we have a Book Quarter as well? No shortage of historic connections with the book-trade, of course – over 3,000 members of the book-trade listed in Birmingham prior to 1851 on the British Book Trade Index, which, as it happens, is based at the University of Birmingham. Surely a city as large and ambitious as this, as packed with academic institutions as this, as richly endowed with traditions of printing, art and design as this, can squeeze in a local equivalent of Cecil Court somewhere.