Mr Birmingham

As a health warning, most of this post was written sitting in a Euston station café after I found out that my train ticket to Birmingham New Street was for off peak travel only. That left me with nearly three hours (!) to spare, so I have probably gone overboard here.

I was in London because I had a meeting with Michael Wolff. I have blogged about him before (here, here and here) after his visit to Birmingham as part of the Plus International Design Festival. The interview I did with him also provoked quite a big reaction from the city’s great and good.

The meeting was more of a chat over lunch than anything formal (I am on holiday after all!). We talked about the process of branding businesses and about how the process might apply to a city.

He had some interesting points to make. One was about the importance of understanding what you want your city to be about, before you start reflecting that through design.

If Birmingham was a person, or a family, what would it be like? If it was a verb, what would happen if you Birmingham-ed?

It’s an interesting exercise and I didn’t have an immediate answer. However, I think it that says a lot in itself.

Some people might say you can’t simplify a city down to just a few key features but, in fact, we do it all the time. Manchester isn’t just about its football and its music, but there is no denying that it has benefited from those associations and, I bet, most Manchester residents are pretty proud of that.

So, being stranded in Euston station for two-and-a-half hours gave me ample opportunity to mull it over! If Birmingham was a person, what would they be about?

I got rather carried away and it ended up quite detailed covering home life, leisure, family, work, education and more!

I imagine a lot of people will disagree with what I’ve written. I hope they do. I’m more than aware this image says as much about me as it does about Birmingham. I only hope it is not as soaked in middle class stereotypes as I fear it may be.

However, the point still stands: the more people that undertake the exercise there is more of a likelihood that common themes will emerge.

This could then be used to develop perhaps five key areas that could be developed to help define the city, Michael suggests.

Maybe it is committing to developing the best care homes in the UK, or perhaps there is something else that Birmingham is good at that can be built upon, boosted and made part of the city’s image.

I’m not sure. But below is my “Mr Birmingham”. See what you think:

Birmingham is a warm, welcoming and outgoing person.

He has lived his life in the city of his birth and has a strong identity with its traditions and heritage. He is proud of what it has achieved and likes to be associated with the great innovators of the past.

But, along with this sense of place, he has a strong cultural connection to one or more other countries/cultures. His parents/grandparents/ great grandparents arrived in this city and made their home here. He likes to share this cultural background with his friends and to hear about their cultures and traditions. As a result, his musical, artistic and culinary tastes are eclectic and diverse.

His home is a popular destination for parties and events, as he has the knack of making everyone feel at home, no matter who they are and where they come from.

He has a great sense of humour and can laugh at himself. That doesn’t mean, however, that he isn’t proud of who he is.

His house is not showy, pretentious or egocentric. It is comfortable, clean, welcoming but also well designed and stylish. Its innovative and environmental features often impress guests.

But, despite this, he is, generally, modest and is not a man that indulges in crude status symbols. He is no yuppy. Making people feel comfortable is more important than showing them how successful he is.

That is not to say, however, that he is unsuccessful. His creativity and education combine to make him refreshing and inspiring in his work. He is very good at what he does and embraces new developments in his industry as opportunities, not threats. He is often at the forefront of these developments.

When it comes to clothes and fashion, he is confident and innovative enough to have developed his own sense of style. But he remains constantly open to, surprised and delighted by new ideas.

His car looks good, but it is more likely to have been chosen because of its clever use of design. This is a trait that he is very proud of. After all, doesn’t he deserve something that is more than just adequate?

He loves playing and watching sport and is a great supporter of his local teams, especially football and cricket.

Family is important to him. He recognises the sacrifices made by generations before him and wants to provide them the best possible care for them as they get older.

For his children, he wants them to have an education that opens doors and provides opportunities. Although he’d love them to stay in the city to develop their careers, he is happy that if they have to move on, they will be proud to say where they have come from.

He is also passionate about instilling an attitude of creativity and invention – it’s ok to fail if it is part of how you improve and develop.


10 thoughts on “Mr Birmingham

  1. I like the idea of picking out some key features to really go at, and the personification is an interesting exercise in finding out what those are/should be – not sure about this particular Mr Birmingham tho’.

    The problem with this Mr Brum is that most of his traits are laudable things that most cities would claim for themselves – there’s not really much that makes it Birmingham – I’m sure Mr Nottingham or Mr London or Mr Sheffield would say pretty much the same thing about himself.

    These things are more of a given, inherrent in any image Birmingham should have – but not what we’d promote (except perhaps the design aspect…?).

  2. somewhat along the lines of john’s comment, I’d look for multiple personalities to emerge: who is Mr Brummagem? Mr Digbeth? Ms. Brum? After all the discussion about Brummmie of the Year, and about the vital qualities that represent what people love about the city, I expect to hear something more contentious, more proud to be difficult or at least an acquired taste. So I’d recommend taking the questions in the way you have, then reversing them by asking which local personality best represents particular qualities. Who represents the best of design? Who represents unpretentious success? Who is the cultural icon? Gather your Brummies together in an imaginary dinner party and guess who they would elect as their ambassador.

  3. Thanks guys – I think you confirmed the feeling I was having about my own description.

    Jon: I think the design aspect is important. I love the stories of the Luna Society and the great bets that were taken around designing weird and wonderful machines. Most failed, but the culture and attitude that went with it helped to make the city a success. It would be nice to shout about that a bit more and show that it’s still going on today.

    Dp: I agree. Perhaps I should add another post about that. Out of interest are there any names that spring to mind for you?

  4. That’s an interesting one. What would John Baskerville be demanding from Birmingham? I suspect he would want the city to lead the world in its approach to typography.

    So as a target would that translate to a drive to improve the quality and appearance of city council documentation and signage?

  5. Ooh, y’r just trying to be provocative now! Baskerville would have to stand for symmetry and grace in all things rather than the craft of signmaking. I’d put him in charge of Eastside.

    I had thought of some people who have the qualities listed, but they’re all dead, and I thought that wouldn’t be nice to say, nor appropriate.

    But then Bounder has gone and done it hisself. So I’ll add one, the man who walked the length of Hadrian’s Wall, to London and back, and who knows how many other treks: William Hutton. His quality? We’d probably call it confidence.

  6. Pingback: Created in Birmingham » Mr Birmingham

  7. I don’t think provocative in the way you might think!

    There’s nothing wrong with listing dead people associated with Birmingham. The trick is, I guess, to turn their admirable qualities in key features that the city can try to build a reputation on (or enhance one that already exists).

    So if we say Baskerville’s quality is symmetry and grace, then how does that translate to a target for the development of Eastside, or in fact, any part of the city?

    I like William Hutton, I think I would say his qualities were independence and enterprise – perhaps that would translate into some sort of commitment to support more independent retailers?

    I’ve always thought we need more household names to be born in and tied to the city centre – a bit like The Body Shop and Brighton.

  8. I wouldn’t go down that route. Instead, let’s say that you identify the people who run the Custard Factory and who produce things there as innovators. How does what they do translate into targets?

  9. (realising i’m coming along a little late here…)

    one of the things which has always impressed me about birmingham since i first came here is the way the city has a habit of bidding for grand projects – such as the capital of culture that that river-based city got, & not getting them. that’s not the bit that impresses me. the bit that impressed me is when it doesn’t get the project, rather than moping around feeling sorry for itself (like said river-based city tends to), it just turns around, & all the things it said it would do as part of its bid, says “pah – we’ll do them all anyway”.

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