In Symphony Hall at ten minutes to six I trade places with the office workers making their way home from the city, using the ICC as a thoroughfare to avoid construction work on Broad Street. For once, the random bag inspection stations at both entrances remain unstaffed. In place of the spot checks for knives and explosives we’ve come to accept as a normal part of everyday life in the city, a single bottle of hand sanitiser sits on the inspection table, a defence against another hidden threat to our everyday lives and freedoms.
In the Birmingham and Midland Institute on Margaret Street I stand at the back of the meeting room, filming a set of academic talks on women in theatre. A member of the audience descends into a fit of coughing mid-event and gets up from their seat to pour themself a glass of water. My eyes scan the water jug, which I have just used to pour myself a drink. Whilst checking audio levels on my camera as a video starts to play, I plot the path between the room in which I stand and the street outside, picturing all of the door handles, knobs and buttons I need to interact with before I leave. All contaminated with whatever form of cold, flu, or twenty-first century plague the delegate has contracted. If they have come down with COVID-19, we all have. I resign myself to the inevitable and try not to touch my face until I get home and can wash my hands.
On silent side streets, a cloud of marijuana hangs in the air. It is the first still night after a week of storms. Alone under a cloudless sky, I look up at the flats to see if there’s someone smoking high up on a balcony, but my eyes fall upon a lone resident on a stairwell, his face illuminated by his phone rather than a roll-up. In a car a little further down two people sit in the front seats sharing a joint, windows cracked, engine idling, radio down low. I hope they’re just using the car as an extension of their living room away from the prying eyes of family members, but this is Birmingham, so I doubt it.
Headbutt the cat sees me coming and races across the front gardens to greet me in her namesake fashion, though tonight she spares me the little thumb nip she administered out of excitement the last time I saw her. Pausing in her display of affection to listen for approaching traffic, she dances in tight circles around my legs and tries to follow me to the corner shop before I shoo her back to the safety of home, away from the main road.
Back within the middle ring road of Motor City, the diesel fumes are unbearable. Heavy, acrid, inescapable. I love this city, but I hate the way it smells.
In the same week that we looked back on the liberation of Auschwitz seventy-five years ago, the UK turned its back on the European Project and all it stands for. At 11pm on ‘Brexit Day’ fireworks and jubilant voices carried across the city through the drizzle, yet all I felt was sadness and fear. I cannot believe it has come to this, that racism and bigotry carry more weight in 21st century Britain than multiculturalism and the power of collaboration, that history has taught us nothing.
Born in France to British parents of Italian and Polish heritage, I spent my early childhood in Germany and I identify more as European than anything else. I have always felt uneasy calling myself ‘English’, yet as a result of Vote Leave and the Tories I now also struggle with calling myself ‘British’. I may not be a citizen of the European Union any more, but I will always be European.
Monday morning and as the sun rises over ice covered streets, rush hour traffic builds on the Middleway. The city council has just announced plans to ban through traffic into and out of the city centre, and for a moment I dream about what weekday mornings could look, sound and smell like before the real world pulls me back to earth with a jolt. A car jumps the lights at the junction just as I move to cross on a pedestrian green and a commuter on the opposite side of the road to me smiles and shakes his head in solidarity. Covering my mouth and nose with one hand I power walk past a stationary bus in a queue of traffic and turn on to a side street.
On the quiet streets of Edgbaston, little children in old fashioned school uniforms climb down from their wheeled fortresses and walk in to school, book bags swinging at their sides, heads held high. In the midst of a global climate crisis, it’s business as usual this morning.
On the way to town to buy birthday cards on Sunday afternoon, a man stopped us to ask if we were local and if so, where he could go for some lunch. Reliant on a walking frame he explained that he couldn’t go very far and that he wasn’t familiar with Birmingham, but that he happened to end up here as a result of a mix up with the trains. The question, it turns out, wasn’t really about lunch, but rather an excuse to start up a conversation. Step by painful step we continued in the same direction as him for some twenty minutes, covering just twenty metres in that time, but also more than twenty years of his memories. Love, loss, disability, loneliness, despair and the cost of living, but also his love of classics, philosophy and memories of all the places he has called home over the fifty seasons he’s seen come and go.