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.
The older I get the more I struggle to comprehend time. The weeks and months fall steadily through my fingers without me noticing them stack up, only for me to find myself acutely aware of the passing of time when I hear from an old friend or catch glimpses of Former Me on my walks around the city I call home. As I write this I have just completed thirty-three and a half rotations of the sun. I’m not yet middle-aged, but I am not young any more either.
I have just finished my first ideas or commonplace notebook. I started keeping an ideas notebook back at the start of December 2018 and so this first volume spans fifteen months. I have small writing, which is why I have managed to cram quite so much into such a tiny, passport sized notebook.
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.