If I were in charge of such things, I would twin Birmingham and Cologne, thus bringing my past and present lives closer together.
Both cities have their own distinctive characteristics. One is in Germany, one is in England. One is on the magnificent river Rhine. One claims to have more canals than Venice, reflecting its role at the heart of the world’s first industrial revolution.
The city centres are very different, but their development has been influenced by being on different sides of the same war in which they both suffered terrible damage. My grandparents told me many stories of their lives in the war and their house was one of more than twelve thousand destroyed in Birmingham during this time. But any preconceived ideas these stories might have given me about Germany were soon brushed aside on my first ever trip to the country in 2004…
It was a gorgeous summer evening when I got out of my taxi to find Cologne full of people dressed in outrageous, colourful and sometimes revealing outfits, partying like I’ve never seen before. I wandered the streets, squares and riverside walks taking it all in. So many people having so much fun. The smell of food was everywhere. Alcohol available in abundance. The music ubiquitous – live bands, buskers, bars, clubs, all competing for your attention. I was here alone, ready for a business meeting the next day which I thought would be smart and formal. Yet here I was, in the middle of this giant party that no one had told me about – it was of course Gay Pride Cologne, a huge event that takes place every July.
When I wandered the streets the next day, I came across pictures of Cologne during the war. I don’t like to make comparisons as both cities suffered dreadfully, but the damage to Cologne was seriously shocking as too was the massive reduction in its population.
Today, each city has about one million inhabitants and both are part of much larger industrial regions. Cologne – with its many working factories and tram lines – sometimes reminds me of the Birmingham I knew as a child and the Birmingham that my parents and grandparents talked of. Birmingham was hit badly in the early 1980s by a decline in UK manufacturing and reinvented itself as the world’s meeting place. In the years that followed, it built the National Exhibition Centre, International Convention Centre, Symphony Hall and the National Indoor Arena. The city transformed its derelict canals to offer a perfect place for those wishing to escape the hustle and bustle. It went on to rebuild its main shopping centre and refurbished two of its theaters, including one that is home to the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Many new buildings were created by architects ready to make bold statements about Britain’s second largest city – this included Europe’s largest public library, which was opened by one of its famous residents, Malala Yousafzai. By the time the railway station is finished at New Street, and dare I even mention the controversial high-speed rail link to London, it will undoubtably be an awesome city in the middle of England.
But despite all this, I have the feeling Birmingham would be very envious of the way Cologne has protected its assets from the destructive forces of change – Ford employs some 18,500 people in Cologne, and whilst Birmingham still makes Jaguar and Land Rover, the huge plant at Longbridge famous for MG, Rover and Austin has sadly gone. And with just about every main road into Cologne being accompanied by a tram line or U-Bahn, it is hard to imagine that Birmingham’s transport system will ever be as efficient despite ongoing projects to bring trams back to the city after they were removed in the 1950s.
Birmingham has much to be proud of though. It can take some credit for the creation of heavy metal music, the first ever BMW car (the Dixi was made in Germany under license from the Austin Motor Company), the iconic Austin Mini, the English football league and Cadbury’s chocolate! Birmingham has recently set up its version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. This rather more modest collection on Broad Street could eventually show the West Midlands conurbation (which includes the Black Country, Wolverhampton and Solihull) to have strong connections with bands such as Duran Duran, Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), Black Sabbath, UB40, Slade, Ocean Colour Scene, Led Zeppelin, the Moody Blues, the Streets and many more. Other famous people have connections with the area too, including Dame Barbara Cartland, J.R.R. Tolkien and William Shakespeare who lived just down the road in Stratford-upon-Avon. But back to modern music, the famous Brit school in London which helped to launch the careers of many pop stars has now, together with other sponsors, opened an academy in Birmingham too – so more big names could be on their way!
Every week I take my daughter to music school in Cologne, and it was during one of these trips that I decided to write this post. As a tourist, you would probably never compare the two cities, but with lots of waiting-around-time, I often notice little things that remind me of home. I decided to ask my daughter to tell me in one paragraph about Cologne. She said, ‘I don’t need a paragraph, I just need one word. CRAZY!’ So I asked her to expand a little, and she gave me the example of a night club in an old factory warehouse. On the one floor, they play house music, on the floor above, drum and base. And outside in the courtyard is a double-decker bus where they play reggaeton music. She laughed as she told me of the people crammed into the bus, dancing in the isles and on the seats, swinging round the metal rails and poles, both upstairs and downstairs with the DJ in the driver’s seat. She said the club is full of hipsters, and out in the courtyard it is easy to get chatting to them whilst eating food at the picnic tables. No wonder she sometimes stays until it gets light!
Despite this, I also see a rather more traditional side to the city. In my opinion, there are several aspects of the culture that all link together and cement it forever into the local way of life. In no particular order, I would say beer, language, carnival, football, food and pubs.
Now, it will be years before I am able to tell you about Carnival. Perhaps it is the language barrier. Perhaps it is my rather reserved English nature. I did once buy a full Charlie Chaplin outfit, but was unable to pluck up the courage to walk out of the house, sober and in broad daylight, and walk to the carnival parade! The carnival is hugely important, spanning three months and culminating with a very long weekend just before Lent. It is sometimes called the fifth season and the department stores give up entire floors to sell the outfits worn by everyone during this fun-filled time.
The supporters at FC Köln (FC Cologne in English) are as noisy and passionate as you will find anywhere in the world. It really is an electrifying experience – and what do they sing at the start of every match? Carnival songs!
Before, during and after the match, you may like to drink the local beer, called Kölsch, which also happens to be the name of the local language or dialect. I’ve heard people joke that Kölsch is the only language in the world that you can drink! The Köbes – all the waiters are called Köbes and speak the local dialect Kölsch – keep serving you with fresh glasses of beer until you place your beer mat on top of the glass. It is very efficient and easy to end up drinking more than you intended! The walls of the kneiper or brauhaus (equivalent of a British pub) are lined with pictures of the carnival, and many carnival meetings take place in establishments that serve the kölsch.
I think that whilst Birmingham has to keep changing to secure a successful future, Cologne needs to continue doing what it already does very well. It’s economy seems solid, robust, in safe hands. Its culture and traditions keep change under control. Its unbeatable night scene and central European location attract people here in droves.
Birmingham’s leaders have been visionary, illustrated by its bids for the 1992 Olympics and to become home to England’s national football stadium. Whilst Barcelona and London were chosen ahead of Birmingham, this ambition led the city to achieve things previously unthinkable. The sight of President Bill Clinton drinking a pint in a canalside pub in 1998 was proof that this city was on the right track. And more recently, the US athletics team chose Birmingham as its base for the London 2012 Olympics – further endorsement for a city that boasts more Michelin-stared restaurants than any other English city outside of London.
Whilst the high-profile events, buildings and people mentioned throughout this post have helped Birmingham to improve its international reputation, I think its prosperity will come from its ability to manufacture goods wanted by the rest of the world. In other words, the factories and skills that led to Birmingham being called the workshop of the world and the city of a thousand trades are still essential. And Birmingham could do a lot worse than looking to Cologne for guidance in this regard. It can also take encouragement from its own recent successes, for example with Jaguar Land Rover which is about to open a massive new engine plant in nearby Wolverhampton.
So, to return to my opening statement about wishing to twin these two cities. To commemorate this event, I would arrange for FC Köln to play Aston Villa in the UEFA Champions League Final. This would be a two-leg tie to enable both sets of supporters to sample the delights of each others’ cities – what an amazing final that would be!
July 2014: since writing this post, there have been several big announcements by companies that plan to invest and create jobs in Birmingham. These are not just in manufacturing, but also banking, television, tram line extensions and the regeneration of the area that could become home to the new high speed railway link. It seems the ambition and leadership shown by the city in the 80s and 90s continues today…
© Chris Robinson 2014. All rights reserved.
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