The 2013 European Capital of Culture is unlikely to be Birmingham, as far as my sources can gather - not that culture isn’t present; just that it’s not in your face. In fact, ever since Liverpool won the prize in 2008, not many British cities have had a look in, particularly the post-industrial ones. I’m here for the weekend, and I can’t help but think about what makes for an interesting city. Last night, I was having a drink with a local friend, who mentioned that he was thinking about moving to London. Though what he forgot was that taxis are cheap for him here, as are nights out. He phoned up his usual Punjabi taxi driver and acknowledged the fact that he’d developed a series of cosmopolitan connections which made city-living relatively easy for him. I remembered that Leicester also has a fair amount of Punjabi taxi drivers. In fact, so does New York. Well, it’s no secret that there’s a greater number of minorities in throbbing city centres. As such, Birmingham is a vivid and strong NRI city – and this weekend I revisited this familiar place to see what had changed.
I’m no stranger to its geography, as friends of my father have been here for more than twenty years. I remember very exciting summer holidays when we were little. Though at the time, we didn’t do a lot more than go to the park; something that Birmingham is blessed with (when you know where they are). As a former industrial capital – its history is embedded in factories and large-scale manufacture; it’s no wonder so many first generation Asian workers moved here. But after the collection of red-bricked terraces and endless warehouses, you do sometimes see something beautiful. For me, it’s the hang-over of old Victorian Gothic architecture – though everyone will notice something different.
Several years on from those summer holidays, I studied at the University of Birmingham. The city had changed considerably since then – particularly as the Bullring emerged, all shiny and plastic. Though visiting today – I feel as if the main drive of the city is now its commercial revenue and business potential. People come from the surrounding towns (which are much nicer than the city centre itself) to indulge in big name brands and their metropolitan fix. Perhaps this is usual, it’s just sad that the line for Krispy Kreme is longer than any of the nicer eateries in town. I know people are excited by the weekend novelty – but it seems like the independent older venues are overlooked. I recall the 80s/90s heyday of Birmingham when the Balti-houses were all the rage. This legacy lives on to some extent – but as happens with world homogenisation - it seems that all secondary cities blend into one grand high-street after a while.
Aside from the core, which is fairly small, a lot of Birmingham’s interesting make-up comes from the varied towns surrounding the centre. Naturally, I’m biased towards Selly-Oak and Edgbaston, but I remember having to regularly pass through Smethwick and Handsworth a fair amount. As a student, we all favoured cheaper travel – and the coach from Handsworth was a bargain at £8, admittedly you’d have to ride for 3 hours through all other NRI hot-spots on route and compete fiercely with the older ladies to bag your seat. Despite this, I also remember the infamous ‘Soho Road’ as the NRI main-street – immortalised through frequent references in Bhangra music.
Yet beyond this, a lot has changed in the last few years – but perhaps a weekend was too short to get an all encompassing impression of the city’s energy. To restore my faith, I took a trip down Broad Street. Most of the Saturday night fixtures remain the same – however, the further I went onwards, the more it seemed like restaurants had closed down in favour of gentleman’s clubs. I recalled a restaurant called Shimla Pinks, from my university days. Though I’d never visited before, this would have been a perfect time to try it.
It was 3pm in the afternoon, and they offered their Sunday Banquet Special – which is almost all you can think of, for two, for £14.95. Naturally I thought this was a steal. As I entered the restaurant, I enquired about the offer and was shown my seat. Though soon enough, it emerged that the deal would not apply to a single diner – however they were accommodating enough to allow me to partake. Still, I couldn’t help but notice the slightly baffled looks on their faces. However, as they realised that I was a serious diner, they were soon very attentive and hospitable. I then declared that I was a vegetarian – which I suspected would interfere with their plans for a set menu. Fortunately, they were able to cater for me, as most fixed menus should still be somewhat flexible. Pleasantly, enough, I was offered a crisp selection of starters with chutneys, followed by four baltis, naan and rice. The highlight, for me was the Dhaal Makhni and the creamy Paneer balti – both excellent and heavenly in texture – not as easy to knock up at home as you suspect. Naturally the banquet featured a kulfi – which was rather sophisticatedly placed on a large black plate with icing sugar. Of course I worried about eating what was essentially iced-cream off a plate – there were moments when the mango slid all over the place. Ultimately, the bill was a very nice surprise, coming in at £20 for what was a higher-end venue; this included my wine and a 10% tip. I’m used to the tip being somewhat higher in London, so this was great, particularly as the service was very much above average.
Overall, the restaurant prided itself on what it was, an independent enterprise standing nobly in amidst a wave of commerce and redevelopment. This exemplified the city’s transient nature – which makes it difficult for me to apply distinct labels. It seems instead to be a hybrid of the consumerist new and the industrious old – unfortunately this sometimes leaves little room for aesthetics – but doesn’t totally discount charm. As I left New Street Station, I could see the Birmingham twilight in the distance – and a gathering crowd of Britain’s Got Talent hopefuls – all in line at the Alexander Theatre. They weren’t of course all from Birmingham – which made me think – that the city is simply a focal point in the midlands – but relative to London, Oxford and Edinburgh – the city is still very young – and I look forward to seeing what changes are in store beyond the installation of the Bullring.