I’m writing this in Devon. I left Birmingham about a week ago, and I’m going to be leaving the UK in another week. Now seems like a good time to write down some thoughts about those places so I can see if my attitude has changed when I come back.
Birmingham is my hometown and I have mixed feelings about it. I grew up just down the road in Solihull and spent longer living in south Birmingham than I have anywhere else, so it has the benefit of familiarity. I also have plenty of friends there and one positive consequence of the city’s shameful segregation is that they all live within a few miles of each other so it’s easy to actually see them.
People everywhere deride Birmingham, and I can see what they’re on about. For the supposed ‘second city’ it feels a long (long) way behind London and less culturally vibrant than a bunch of smaller cities. Sometimes it feels like Birmingham is filled with narrow-minded dumbasses and it can’t possibly adapt and move forward as a modern city. My work trying to promote ‘sustainable travel’ has only hardened these views. It’s the kind of place where you get used to friends moving away.
But in certain areas it feels like that is changing. Birmingham has belatedly joined the ‘artisanal-everything’ bandwagon and in recent years it has felt like younger people are recreating the city from the ground up despite (not because of) the expensive architectural and infrastructural follies the Council insists upon. And the upside of being so frowned-upon by basically everybody else in the UK is that it’s a pretty cheap city to live in. I could (with my ex-) afford to buy a 2-bed semi-detached house in a reasonable area only four miles from the town centre on significantly less than median salary and still have the mortgage approvals person remark that ‘oh, you’ll have plenty of money left then’!
It has (population) density on its side too. I read once that the UK has half of the twenty most densely-populated cities in Europe and I can believe it. The benefit of this is that the countryside is near by. Within 10-20 minutes of south Birmingham suburbs you can be out in rural Worcestershire and Warwickshire. And the lanes are quiet because all the cars and lorries are on the motorways or a-roads.
Devon by contrast is fairly brimming with wealth and desirability. It’s the kind of place wealthy liberals retire to (or holiday in) despite professing to ‘really love the city’. (I listened to a podcast with Billy Bragg recently where he went on about growing up in vibrant multi-cultural London, but even he chooses to live down here with all the old white Tories). It’s opposite to Birmingham in that it’s hard to find a restaurant that doesn’t have a 5-star hygiene rating.
I do love it as a place to visit, but I don’t think I could live here until I’m much older. The scenery is fantastic and there is a genuine sense of place utterly lacking in Birmingham but there’s no work outside trades and tourism and it’s too damned hilly to enjoy cycling unless you get up at 6am on a Sunday and stick to A-roads. The lanes are all vertiginous and slurry-covered and bordered by hedgerows so high that you can’t distract yourself from the scenery.
England is always going to be home, even if I manage to make a go of living abroad. My brief stints living in Japan and Canada only served to highlight how stereotypically English I am. Up-tight, cynical, beer-swilling, piss-taking, arrogant but also (I hope) even-handed, polite and socially liberal.
The UK feels totally liveable. The weather is not extreme, there seems to be enough work for white, middle-class males (even those with rubbish degrees and patchy work histories) and you’re pretty much left to your own devices. But it sometimes feels a bit plain. That might be because of over-familiarity, or it could just be a bit boring in places… Boring is preferable to corrupt though. And volcanoes.
If nothing else, home is where you understand everything. Or at least the day-do-day things. And if you don’t know, you know how to find out. Away from home it can be a struggle to complete even simple tasks because of the language barrier. Cultural differences can lead to cringing faux pas with embarrassing frequency even when you have a common language. This blog will probably feature many examples!