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Ah, Birmingham. Birmingham Birmingham. You want a story about Birmingham? I can do better than that. I can tell you the story of the city itself.
It begins a long time past the obvious first lines. Not for me the narrative of the river Rea – oh Rea, Father Rea, to whom all Brummies pray! – nor of the settlement that emerged from its banks of Keuper sandstone some ten thousand years ago; not the market charter, nor Boulton nor Beatrice Cadbury nor the digging of canals. Rather I shall begin on 20 November 1940, on a night of earthly terror and cosmic alchemy, when Birmingham was in mortal danger and hundreds of bombs fell from the sky above the city. Many people were atomised that night, by the terrible autumnal storm. They were lovers and foundry workers and men and women of god, but they were rascals and thieves and miscreants too for they were Brummies and this is no fairy story but a story of human beings.
Earlier that evening a seventeen year old boy called Malcolm Smith and his next-door neighbour Mary O’Malley had spent two hours walking around town. Malcolm had worn his hair slicked with the last finger scrapings of a jar of Bryllcream, to The Right Side, just like the fella in the latest Picture Post; Mary, who was a year older, had modelled her favourite lemon yellow halter-neck dress. They’d had a cup of tea in Rackhams just before the iron shutters of the paternoster came down and then they’d walked around the flagstones of St Philip’s. Along the length of New Street they’d talked about the comings and goings of the world and where they might lead – “some days you hear about the Russians coming to help,” said Malcolm, “sometimes it’s the Yanks”– and about the history of the city in which they lived – “my great grandfather came here a hundred years ago,” said Mary, “he laid the first stone of the free library, or so my dad says.” Mention of the past made them feel secure at first, but then a sense of uncertainty re-entered the conversation and the pace of their walking increased. They were at the markets by St Martins when the bombs began to fall.
At once, the sky above their heads was lit up and the ground began to tremble beneath their feet. Their conversation was jolted out of diverting musings and turned to how best to get home in one piece. The two of them lived on Garrison Lane, in Small Heath. The boy was in favour of the most obvious route, along Digbeth, under the railway bridge and along the Coventry Road to Watery Lane, but his elder companion was mindful of the burning of the market hall earlier that summer and suggested they leave the main roads for the safety of less travelled streets. “I know a better way home,” she said. She led them to the library and they set off for the comparative darkness of the backstreets of Deritend. Malcolm and Mary were passing the Fountain pub when it was hit with a high explosive bomb. Inside, eight people died; on the pavement Malcolm and Mary were caught in the blast and blown into smithereens. And that was nearly the end of this story of Birmingham before it had properly begun. But a strange thing happened on that night in 1940…
When the bomb exploded, a cloud of dust was sucked up into the incendiary-lit night. It mushroomed like a cataclysm above the blackened Brummie brick and earth. Malcolm and Mary were in the cloud of course. They were there in atoms and motes of matter, but there was something else of them in the mushroom too, in Malcolm’s last words – “it’s scary isn’t it?” – and Mary’s reply – “it’ll be ok, just you see” – something intangible, transcendent, their essence perhaps, or even – and whisper this, for this is no fairy tale – their souls. And that was only the start of it. For above the city, over the days and weeks that followed, a unique event unfolded, a confluence of fate and meteorology the like of which had never been seen.
The fleets of aeroplanes that had crossed sea and land to bring destruction to Birmingham had stirred the sky itself. They’d created wakes and drafts and currents that flowed into streams and rivers of air and these had carried to the city the matter and souls of people from places faraway. One such trail came from a town in India, in the province of Kashmir. As the bombers took off, fourteen year-old Rauf Rashid Raza was stripping the engine from a BSA Sloper; cutting his thumb on a circlip, he began to swear. Another came from Krakow in Poland, where Zofia Dornbaum was being given her first taste of solid food. She choked on a cake of buckwheat groats and when her young mother panicked and bashed her heavily on her back, Zofia cried out in alarm. Yet another came from Jamaica and from Worthy Park Estate. There, Charles Maclaren sat in his office on the day before his last as an employee of the sugar factory. It was hot that afternoon, on the edge of the jungle, sweatily, tropically hot, and the humidity was high. Sitting at his desk, the old accountant reached out and touched the photograph of his wife that watched him work; closing his eyes he shook his head and sang a song from their childhood together:
“Mongoose go down Missa Beckford kitchen,
Tek out one a ‘im ritious chicken,
Put im inna ‘im wasicoat pocket.
And so a drop of blood and a truncated oath from Mirpur, a speck of saliva and a bawl from Podgordze, a flick of sweat and a song from the parish of St Anne were borne to Birmingham by a freakish fate. And there they commingled in the great cloud that formed above the ruins of Deritend.
Days passed. Weeks, months. The cloud lingered in the air, in molecules, the cloud diffused. It was blown by gusts and breezes. It fell to ground, as dew. It rained into the River Rea. It soaked into the earth, into parks and gardens all across the city. In the years that followed the war, Birmingham was rebuilt. Out of bomb pecks grew roads and shops and houses, and their concrete and tarmac and mortar contained the matter and souls of Mary O’Malley and Malcolm Smith, of Rauf Rashid Raja, Zofia Dornbaum and Charles Maclaren. And then, in time, the cousins of Mary, the neighbours of Rauf, the sons and daughters of Zofia and the grandchildren of Charles came to live in this new Birmingham. They were industrious and generous and kind-hearted people, but they were feckless and criminal and dishonest too for this is no fairy tale but a story of human beings (it had been said, by-the-by, that Mary was wilful and Malcolm was sly, that Rauf was a burden, Zofia a trial; and Charles, well, Charles was a loner, prone to extremes of mood, not quite right in the head.) And they found in Birmingham a city not just of a secure and diverting past but a city of a human and uncertain future, a city that was ugly, glorious, troubled, beautiful, a city that was of this earth and of this world, a city that was home…
This story was commissioned by the West Midlands Readers’ Network for an anthology titled Seven Minute Stories featuring regional writers Yasmin Ali, Liam Brown, William Gallagher, Charlie Hill, Catherine O’Flynn and Kate Long. The book will be launched at an event on the 26th of November at the Library of Birmingham. Click here for more details.