The Great Toyshop of Europe: Sadie Plant Makes the Case for Birmingham as Judges Consider Its Bid to Become a Capital of Culture

By Plant, Sadie | New Statesman (1996), June 2, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Great Toyshop of Europe: Sadie Plant Makes the Case for Birmingham as Judges Consider Its Bid to Become a Capital of Culture


Plant, Sadie, New Statesman (1996)


It lies on a plateau in the Midlands, a vast, flat stretch of urban sprawl with a high-rise heartbeat in a long skyline. It is home to millions of people, and millions more pass through it every day.

For all its size and centrality, though, few people outside Birmingham know the city well. With none of the glamour of the capital, or even the romance of the industrial north, it is often seen as no more than an interchange, a spaghetti junction of tangled highways, subways and flyovers, its character subsumed by its traffic flows.

Birmingham has never been an easy city to define: even in its medieval past, it had none of the outstanding features of the other nascent cities of the day--no fine castle, no ancient seat of learning, no great sights. Its rivers were not big enough to navigate, leaving it as far away from the sea as it is possible, in England, to be.

So the city had to invent itself. With no means of gaining access to the ports, and so the world, it built an extensive network of canals. By the late 18th century, its ability to improvise and innovate had turned the city into the "great toyshop of Europe", in the words of Edmund Burke. It produced small metal goods of every kind: buckles and buttons, toothpicks, snuffboxes, sugar tongs, tweezers, corkscrews, bells, coins, hairgrips, inkstands, watch chains, paper clips: toys and tools for workers and machines.

Much of this work was highly specialised, often conducted by individuals or small associations of men too loose to be called either companies or firms. Ideologues decried the city's unique, almost declasse mixture of individualism and co-operation; experts despaired at its lack of economic coherence, the duplicated, fragmented, small-scale and short-term nature of its work.

But these peculiarities were often the key to its success. Many of its best inventions involved small but crucial modifications of existing techniques and materials: the steel pen nibs that revolutionised writing in the 19th century; the electroplating of fancy goods, which made it possible to spread precious metals thinly enough for all to afford.

Birmingham is still a city in which goods, activities and people are always being mixed and remixed, processed and reprocessed, built, knocked down and built again. It has had dominant industries -- as when it armed colonial Britain, or produced the nation's cars -- but its economic life continues to be varied and inventive: today, more new patents issue from the city than from the rest of the country combined.

This is a city of a thousand cultures, with a wealth of peoples, values, tastes and styles drawn from every corner of the world. The city handles its scale and diversity so well because it has never known life any other way. Even its most long-standing families haven't been rooted here for long: every newcomer is the latest in a line of immigrants reaching back to the city's earliest days, when it exploded into life with the industrial revolution, leaping from a village to a vast conurbation in a few generations. …

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