The last time Birmingham hosted a major international event – Bill Clinton’s visit to Eurovision and the G8 summit, both in May 1998 – the rough grass-lined roads from the airport were painted a bright green. The powers For the 2022 Commonwealth Games, a similar sweeping has been done under the municipal carpet: unaffected buildings with mascots (Peri, a patchwork bull) and huge colorful graphics featuring a desperate crowd to get the trams running again. But this time around, it looks like the city is getting something really solid, as well as an expectation that the US president will be caring for longer than it takes to drink light.
In addition to some transportation infrastructure and locations, the culture that covers the city has exploded. In some respects it’s literal: Guyana-British artist Hugh Locke’s forex takes liberties with a statue of Queen Victoria in his namesake square. She, of course, will not be amazed that she is crated and placed in a boat containing five little clones. Locke says that he presented the emperor “as if sent to him, like many of these Victoria statues sent around the world”.
The Birmingham 2022 festival has created, co-opted and reimagined a huge variety of what Broome has to offer culturally this summer. One such exhibition is In the Q (Gas Hall, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, every day until 30 October, free). Described as “a sensory celebration of one of the UK’s greatest music venues”, the exhibition is a heartfelt tribute to a distinctly Brummie nightlife legend. With its home being the Gothic Grade II-listed Methodist Central Hall for many years, the Cue Club was a live music venue, hosting acts such as Pulp and Primal Scream. Perhaps more importantly, it was home to rave and dance culture, along with club nights such as the House of God. Birmingham, this exhibition says, is more than UB40 and heavy metal.
To capture the vibe in the city center, visit Commonwealth Games Festival Park in the nearby Jewelery Quarter (Great Hampton Row, free). King Kong Park will bring back a long-lost King Kong statue (last seen in Stewart Lee’s recent hit documentary King Rocker about local lad Robert Lloyd and his band The Nightingales). If you rely on online chatter there’s nothing Bramy gets more excited about. The plan is for the giant apes (a replica of Nicholas Monroe’s 1970s original) to remain in town after the Games go ahead, and an exhibit about them has opened at the new Great Hampton Street art space.
Often called “Brum Banksy,” but faster and more direct, Foca Wolf will no doubt have something planned for the summer. It was he who eventually branded Birmingham’s flagship Primark store (the world’s largest) on billboards as “Europe’s biggest jumble sale” as it was being built. He is notorious for taking aim at politicians and corporations, so it would be a surprise if he doesn’t strike again somewhere. He is already part of the “Don’t forget the real people” project and says: “We wanted to highlight the rich talent north of Birmingham and how much of it was overlooked by the 2022 Commonwealth Games”.
In North Birmingham (where the athletics events will take place), ex-KLF hitmaker and artist Bill Drummond frequently refreshes his artwork by the canal below Spaghetti Junction. Visitors will need to step out of the center to find places that the alternative culture hasn’t covered, as well as some of the sports that are pervasive in the area. The best finds are mostly outside the inner ring road in Digbeth, or a little further in suburbs like King’s Heath or the new trendy Sturchley.
The Night Owl, Digbeth
Styled as a soul music venue, Night Owls is bright and friendly with a wide variety of people and types to choose from. The music policy maintains that welcoming and upbeat atmosphere. You can brush up with expert Northern soul dancers in their flares, as well as the geysers in their Adidas Gazelles playing it well. It also attracted a decent selection of more unusual touring bands – Tarantino-famed Japanese girl rockers 184.108.40.206 played recently, though it also features the weird Oasis tribute act. Kaleidoscope (Thursday, Monthly) is a live music night with a laid-back atmosphere and artists showcasing their work.
Hare and Hound, King’s Heath
It is one of the few preserved examples of the architectural style that flourished in Birmingham long before the acquisition of concrete in the 1950s and 60s. Downstairs there are hip decor and Art Nouveau tiles, while upstairs are two venues that host the best of alternative local and international acts. Local “doom-pah” folk-punk legends in Nights may include American gothic country duo The Destroyers with the Beautiful Family.
dead wax digbeth
The concept of this strange, dark, but cool space revolves around a love of vinyl: retro TVs on the walls, pizza in the oven (also round), and a 4,000-strong collection of records. You can dig through boxes or even bring your own vinyl and super craft beer. Upstairs is one place in which you never know what you’re going to get, although it will usually be loud and dirty.
Red Brick Market, Digbeth
Tucked away in one of the many Digbeth buildings that were once home to heavy industry, “from sustainable fashion and homeware to antiques, rare finds and original pieces” is a marketplace for small independent creatives. Birmingham lacks cheap shopping space in a center dominated by two large malls and sprawling High Street units, so Red Brick Market is a welcome addition and may be a cooler version of Manchester’s efflux.
As Birmingham’s stock grows, the creative scene finds new places to flourish. Sturchley, a suburb about five miles south of the city, is growing, under way and even about to receive a new (reopened) train station. Artefact is one reason this is the place to be now. It is an artist-led gallery, workspace and bar with an influx of interesting free exhibitions, events and talks. There is music, poetry and even a group reading Karl Marx – which may need to resist the inevitable commercialization of their home.
Hawkley Social Club, Jewelery Quarter
This is another former factory – an ex-printworks – which is now a bar, street food venue and record store. Founded by the team behind the exemplary Digbeth Dining Club, it is decidedly eclectic, with comedy and Afrobeat nights with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, as well as a wide selection of food and cocktails inside and out.
Tilt, City Center
Tucked away in the city center is a tight spot. It offers a rotating craft beer range (and a huge selection to take away), specialty coffee and the best thing: pinball. Paradise Circus editor John Hickman says, “The Tilt houses a series of modern pinball tables on the ground floor, but upstairs and in the basement are real gems: a treasure trove of ’90s tables, including my personal favorite, The Addams Family.” A website that has described and satirized the city for 10 years. You can also bring your own food.
Warehouse Cafe, City Center
Warehouse Cafe is a worker-run cooperative cafe and bar in a back alley near Bullring. Ethical but never too faced with it, it offers vegetarian food and music, poetry, parties, DJs, talks, workshops and art sessions. It’s, naturally, completely wheelchair-accessible and kid- and dog-friendly—that’s great.
Spice Merchant, King’s Heath
One way to get the real Birmingham dining experience is to ask a local where “their” curry home is: not the best or closest, but the one they think is theirs. Spice Merchant is a restaurant that would be recommended by many residents of Kings Heath and beyond. Abid and his team make you feel completely at home with a Kashmiri-based menu and selection of wines and beers. But there are equally good ones around town: Ask a Brammy.
John Bounds is the co-author of Birmingham: It’s Not Shit: 50 Things That Delight About Broom