I'm typing this in a Starbuck's in the Bull Ring, the medieval marketplace of Birmingham that now looks anything but.
Last year I also learned that practically the only bits of Victorian Birmingham left are the bits built after my characters were here in the 1860s. Everything else was demolished or bombed. Mostly the former, during the 60s and 70s.
I’m liking being back here again, though Birmingham is still confusing. I have no sense of its actual topography downtown, as so much of it seems to consist of concrete hillocks and underpasses. In the city centre I often feel ushered inside, diverted into a giant, multi-armed shopping mall, so as not to interfere with the one-way spiraling roadways. On Monday I wandered into what I thought was New Street Station but turned out to be a dispiriting shopping mall, with no evident access to trains or even tickets; what I hoped would be a lift leading to something external, or near an exit, took me into the bowels of the discount store T. K. Maxx. (And yes, that’s what it’s called here.) From there I had to find an escalator up to escape the shop.
Staying in one of the National Trust’s restored back-to-back houses is supposed to bring me closer to the nineteenth century, and it does, in some respects – cramped, austere, etc. This is a one-down, two-up, one small room stacked three stories high. The staircase is steep and narrow, with occasional handles to prevent plummeting. My house faces the street, and there’s another identical one facing the inner courtyard. Voices outside sound as though they’re inside. I can hear someone in the next house climbing their creaky wooden stairs.
The ground floor was the all-purpose cooking and living room: there’s a small old range, and a dining room table and chairs. A modern kitchen has been secreted in a purpose-built cupboard, with a mini-fridge under the sink, and two elements which I used to cook my dinner. This is the room where people cooked and washed and sat and ate. The WCs were communal, next to the well, in the courtyard, shared by hundreds of people. Upstairs were bedrooms for families and lodgers.
There’s a cupboard door that might have led to a cellar once. I read that in the poorest areas – not just in Birmingham, but in other industrial cities – the cellar was used as a place to sleep as well. Dozens of people were crammed into these little houses. In the 1870s, Birmingham passed a law against building any more of them. Apparently, the ones like mine, that faced the street, were seen as more desirable than the ones facing the courtyard (the smell, perhaps? The foot traffic?) and rents were therefore higher.
On the first night, in my bedroom upstairs, I couldn’t sleep. It was too hot, because I hadn’t turned down the radiator. (I’m never good with radiators. When I was first living in York, I had my windows open on snowy nights, because I didn’t know how to turn down the heat. Actually, I’m not good with things that turn, generally, especially train door handles.) I lay in my brass bed, with its heavy white covers, thinking that it was very un-nineteenth century to feel warm in a bedroom on a March night.
Tour buses were parked across the way, waiting for people going to the theatre, and there’s an ad hoc taxi stand at the corner, where Hurst Street goes one-way. The drunk people of Birmingham roll up there shouting and laughing, and their voices sounded strange to me, because I couldn’t quite decipher what they were saying. Sometimes they weren’t speaking English, but sometimes they were. I thought about Paratene going from one English town to the next, breathing its fumes, feeling its damp cold, and hearing its squawking, unfamiliar accents in the streets outside the houses where he lodged. It’s more disorienting, in a way, when you know that everyone is supposed to be speaking the same language.
Here are some pictures of the place, before old newspapers, receipts, books, maps, notes, and things that fall out of magazines were strewn everywhere.