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Birmingham August 10, 2007

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

One of my aunts has died. An OK death, as deaths go, because she was 150 and in pain. So breast-beating and the throwing of selves onto funeral pyres has been kept to a minimum. Still, an excellent chance for a bit of a gossipy reminisce with my mother.

My mother has cottoned on to 2007 and globalisation and has started asking me to replenish her wardrobe thinking, probably rightly, that what I can buy here will be a lot cheaper than the same item she can buy in London. On one of her recent calls, when I assumed she was ringing to find out if the Russian had a visa – no – or if we’d decided to extend our summer stay exponentially and would in fact not bother with coming home in between and just stay on till Christmas, there was a hint of being-willing-to-make-a-demand in her voice. Being a mother of at least three hundred children – I’ve given up trying to keep up with how many siblings I have. Yes, god was involved – and of a certain age, the brashest thing she’s probably ever done is ask someone to put the kettle on for her. (Mind you, she’s also cottoned on galore to the Russian being able to cook. While my siblings sat around waiting for Sunday lunch on one of our visits – the Royal Albert Hall has to be hired out for such occasions, natch – the Russian only just managed to keep his polite-guest face on as he found himself peeling carrots (while the men checked Ceefax for football scores and the women talked curtains) (we like to obey tradition in my family. You can’t believe how pleased everyone is to have a poof on board).)

“Y’know them shoes Birkenstocks (B-I-R-K…)? I’ve had a pair but they’re after breakin’. And they’re fierce comfortable and I asked your sister to get me a new pair but you can only do it on the computer and then what if they deliver while I’m out? And they’re German and I think they’re cheaper in Germany. I’ve had gold ones but I don’t want gold. I want beige. Size 40. (I was deeply impressed at this point that she knew her Euro-size. The Russian was deeply impressed that any woman had such big feet. I explained it was our good peasanty stock. Probably cover ground more quickly in times of hunger or something.) I’ll give you the money when you come for that wedding. Youse’ll stay for a few months, won’t youse?”

The Russian and I found ourselves in the environs of the Birkenstock-trading establishment this afternoon. Found the sandals. Beige. Size 40. Ludicrously cheap. Oh, but, bugger, a buckle. “I think she wanted just a plain strap. She didn’t mention a buckle. I’ll text her and then she’ll ring tonight.”

We left the shop. “Fffffff,” vibrated my phone. A text. From my mother. Who has been asking me to teach her to text for ever. “With,” said her message, with professional texting brevity. And this from a woman who, last time I witnessed, would hold her mobile at arm’s length in case it gave her a disease and pressed the buttons to make a call with the dexterity of a two-year-old at a piano.

“Bought,” I texted back, seeing if it was a fluke and I’d got the number wrong by a digit and a wrong-number person was playing along.

“Thank you,” my phone fffffffed back.

The Russian and I decided beer was in order to cope with the rigours of the day. The Russian dashed off to wash away the dirt of the city. I texted my mother again. “You’ve learnt to text, or do you have an assistant?” “It’s me,” replied sister number 312, who I’d actually forgotten existed. “We’re just back from Auntie’s funeral in Birmingham.”

Deciding, rightly, that texting is an unsatisfactory channel of communication, my mother rang this evening. I could hardly hear her for the first twenty seconds as she guffawed about the excitement of our texting sagas. “And then the phone went off again – hysterical laughter – when I was only after putting it away. And we were on the train. I got the train from Euston and changed at Willesden Junction and then got the train to Richmond and then the bus came just as I was coming out of Richmond.” If there’s one thing my mother loves more than funerals, where she can have the satisfaction of having outlived some other dead loser, it’s buses. “And I got a seat. And then I was just after getting in and your sister (no. 903) rang. She changed at Reading and…”

“So how was the funeral?”

“It’s a lovely church. And there were bagpipes. And then there was a lovely spread after at the club. Tea and coffee. (Coffee means posh.) And cold meats.”

“And did you see Birmingham?”

“‘s awful grotty.”

“I thought they’d done it up. Does the Bullring still exist?”

“Oh, sure, it’s still grotty.”

“And was this cousin there?

“He was, and his wife. She’s lookin’ awful old.”

“How many children have they got? Were they there? What are their names?”

“And what would the children be goin’ to a funeral for? They don’t go to the funerals. Sure I can’t be rememberin’ their names. They’re very nice. Fierce good-lookin’ altogether.”

I drifted back to the early 1990s. One of the last times I’d been to Birmingham, where all of my father’s family lives and who, them being our exotic relatives, with a different accent and all, kept me and my 1033 siblings amused in our misspent London youths, between bouts of taking drugs and skateboarding, by talking like Pig from Pipkins. This trip involved my ex. His family is a tad different from mine. His father is a pianist. His mother a shrink. My father was not a pianist (by a long chalk). My mother is not a shrink (regardless of the insightfulness you may have gleaned from this post). We ended up in the same school by my parents trading up and his mother slumming it. The ex’s father was performing at Birmingham’s posh new concert hall (which my mother probably found grotty). We drove up to Birmingham with my mother. She dashed into a grotty provincial taxi, no doubt, and headed to my aunt and uncle’s place for saveloys, pickled onions and pop, and we dashed on to some Beethoven concert or other. We popped backstage afterwards to see the ex’s father, who greeted us queenily. His girlfriend, who played some blowy instrument or other, was too socially inept to say hello. We were introduced to Simon Rattle. “‘ere, Si, ‘s a fuckin’ funny surname, innit?” I hollered, before we dashed off to rejoin my mother and aunt and uncle to wallow in vinegar.

“Yow all riiiiight, nephew BiB?” inquired my aunt at the door, shuffling her decorative Zimmer frame out of the way. (We never gave her displays of illness any credence.) “Oh, and is this yer frieeeeeeeend? You’re very welcome. Have a saveloy.”

My ex did his best to look at home in his surroundings. He burped and smashed a few windows to be like other working-class people before smiling politely and looking around for approbation.

“Would yow like a noice cup of teeeeeea, BiB’s friend?” the stone-cold, snow-white, saccharine liquid being dutifully provided with a side order of pickled onions by my angelic but getting-on-for-senile uncle. “So, was yow concert noooice?”

“Oh yes, my father was playing The Emperor. We’d never heard it played quite so fast before. Sir Simon must have been in quite a hurry. Ah ha ha. Ha ha ha,” my ex said urbanely to an arena of blank looks. He burped.

“Birmingham’s grotty but a lovely place for a day out, isn’t it?” my mother commented in the car on the way home.



1. bowleserised - August 10, 2007

I may come round and wave my size 43 feet at the Russian.

Sorry about your aunty, but you’ve made her death very very funny ;)

2. Tim Footman - August 10, 2007

I’ve never been able to work out how to type ‘Pig’ exactly as Pipkins Pig pronounced it. Is it ‘Peeuuggh’ or what?

3. pleite - August 10, 2007

Tim, actually, the whole Brummy accent was annoyingly unwilling to bend to my demands as far as trying to parody it in writing goes. ‘Yow’ is probably an exaggeration, and isn’t that actually from Dudley or Wolverhampton or somewhere? ‘Noice’ is all right. But otherwise, there’d be no way of writing Brum, that I could think of, at least, without resorting to annoying phonetic little symbols, which would have been much too arcane. But I think Pipkins Pig would call himself ‘Peeeeeeeeeg’, wouldn’t he?

B., fucking hell. 43. Ten out of ten to you. I’ll dash and tell the Russian (when I can next bear to be in the same room as him). Oh dear, I am naughty, remembering my Brum relatives without much respect and one of them hardly cold. She was the last of that generation. Just cousins left now whom I fully expect never to see again. (Right, grammar. That’s twice I’ve had this now. In the post, I wrote, “…who I’d actually forgotten existed.” I wrote ‘whom’ at first, thinking I’d forgotten her, so she was the object. But then she was doing the existing, so I went for who. But I don’t know which is right.)

4. MountPenguin - August 11, 2007

B., a tip: never, ever, live in Japan. You will never, ever, be able to buy shoes there. (I’m a whole 45 and that’s pushing the top of the men’s size range to the point you have to trail halfway around the country to find the one store that has some of that size in stock).

The new Bullring grotty? I’ve only been in it once – from the outside it looks like the old Centrum Kaufhaus in Leipzig, from the inside just like any other shopping centre the world over, except with a higher proportion of people from Birmingham (and no doubt they run coach trips from places like Stoke-on-Trent and Telford as well). Though that was a couple years ago, the grottiness may have worked its way in by now.

One advantage of having spent some of my formative years directly exposed to Birmingham and its vibrant cultural scene is the ability to do passable imitations of Ozzy Osbourne.

5. pleite - August 11, 2007

Penguin, of course my siblings and I probably all thought we could do brilliant Brummy accents when we would impersonate our relatives after one of their phone-calls. We didn’t get out enough. The word ‘poorly’ gave us especial glee as it lasted for half an hour when said in authentic Brum and we don’t use it darn sarf (or is it dairn sairf? Can never remember).

As for the city itself, I don’t know it AT ALL, which is a shame, especially as I’ve been 800 times. But all the time was spent in this suburb or that suburb. But this was at least compensated for by the potential for war breaking out between my different sets of cousins, some of whom supported City and others The Villa. (Fuck. I haven’t heard the words Aston Villa for 35 years. Do they still exist?)

And I love the idea of Japan. I’m sure there is very little likelihood of me ever living there. I probably won’t ever even go as a tourist. So I’ll just keep that nicely polished fake image in my head. A (sort of) Russian I knew in London tried to tell me it was hell on earth but I chose not to believe him.

6. MountPenguin - August 11, 2007

Well, given the choice between Birmingham and Japan, I would choose Japan every time, although it’s certainly not to everyone’s taste and could really, really do with a few slaps around the head and rebuilding from the ground up, this time remembering to bury the utility cables beneath the street. It helps if you treat it as a never-ending source of wierdness. Not a place to spend too long though if you’re fond of large open spaces without too many people. Or really, really like bread.

7. pleite - August 11, 2007

Apart from that (sort of) Russian and my mother, who was too scared to leave the hotel, everyone I know who’s been says good things about it. I’m sure I’ve told you this ‘live’, but one friend, who’s been everywhere, including Birmingham – he once rang me drunkenly depressed from a hotel-room there – did say Japan is the foreignest place he’s been by far. And a Slovak woman I once worked with who had a different story for why she hated every nation on earth had only fine words for Japan and the Japanese (and Chile and the Chileans).

I could cope without bread. On the few occasions I’ve been to a Japanese restaurant, I always feel so bloody healthy afterwards. Drag Mrs. Penguin along to the next Stammtisch – think it should be this week. Bugger, I’ll probably be in England – so we can grill her for hours about Shinto, sushi and Endurance.

8. MountPenguin - August 11, 2007

I think anyone who’s exposed to Japan for a short time, leaves with their head spinning saying “wow”. The longer you’re there though, the more you start asking questions like “why are corrugated iron and plywood such popular building materials”, “have they ever heard of city planning”, and “why on earth is each individual biscuit wrapped in plastic”.

From experience, after a few months without proper bread (i.e. anything with a crust), you start to develop a hankering for it, enough to send you half way across Tokyo to find one of the “German” bakeries.

9. Karl-Marx-Straße - August 12, 2007

““why on earth is each individual biscuit wrapped in plastic””

But surely that’s the kind of question you ask when being in England, having lived in Germany for a while (replace ‘individual biscuit’ with ‘herbal tea bag’, ‘cucumber’, ‘two large-ish potatoes’, ‘almost anything inside a branch of Asda’)?

10. Ed Ward - August 12, 2007

Japan was like being on Mars except with humanoid residents with whom you could communicate with using grunts and pointing. You, of course, are the alien, and a source of much amusement. And, occasionally, deep interest, ie when you express interest in their food, because, it being part of their superior culture, it means that you, the amusing alien, have aspirations towards superiority. Three weeks was more than enough, though. I’d go back, but now I know what to expect.

11. bowleserised - August 12, 2007

MP – Angela Carter was in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s (running away from her first husband) and she wrote of seeing racks of shoes labelled: “For young and cute women only”. I think she described herself as “Glumdalclitch”. Being very tall and having henna’d hair didn’t help, but she clearly enjoyed the effect, and being an alien in general.

12. pleite - August 12, 2007

B., I think it can be fun being an alien, as long as it’s not scary. Occasionally in Russia I’d be an alien, and it was fun when it was friendly, like on trains, where’d you’d have a gaggle of people coming to talk to you and, as many Russians still haven’t travelled abroad, asking you a gazillion questions about the UK and comparing various aspects of the two countries.

Ed, when my friend-who’s-been-everywhere was there, he did say that once the foreignness got so exhausting that he ate in a fast-food place where he could just point. But he loved it (Japan, not fast food) and said the only disgusting thing he imbibed was when he once tried some Japanese coke-type drink (in terms of popularity). Transparent and sickly-sweet. Don’t know if he got it from a high-tech vending machine also dispensing tickets for pod hotel-rooms and worn knickers.

Karl, has England gone plastic crazy? I shall check out the packaging if I make it to the kingdom later this week. What I do catch myself germanly doing when I’m there is shuddering in horror at my mother’s recycling habits. “What should I do with this item of waste, mother?” I might say, for example, in a natural exchange, and she’ll say, “Feck it into the bin,” perhaps, and then I reshudder, doubly germanly, upon realising that she means the SINGLE bin in the kitchen. The horror!

Penguin, were you at the window of Balzac on Schönhauser yesterday with your trusty computer? If we’d been in Japan, I presume I’d have already had some friend-detector implant installed and there’d have been no confusion. “Beep, beep, beep,” it would have gone, and once I’d fiddled with the setting so that it beeped at me in English rather than Japanese, because I wouldn’t be proficient in Japanese yet (mind you, it’d probably know that, wouldn’t it?), it’d beep, “Eyes right, Penguin in café.” It would have to be very fine-tuned, though, wouldn’t it? I walk within beeping-distance of your house about eighty times a day. Or have good batteries.

13. MountPenguin - August 12, 2007

BiB, that might well have been me, if it was a white Apple. I suffer from a weird condition which means I’m most productive in that kind of place. There’s a service called “Imahima” in Japan which offers an acquaintance-location service, but I presume it would only work on Japanese phones, which are a system unto themselves, and wouldn’t pick up a signal this far west.

B., Angela Carter failed to ring any sort of bell in the PenguinBrain, but I’ve looked her up and she certainly sounds interesting, especially if there’s science fiction involved.

KMS, is it really that bad now? I must make a trip over there one of these days. But wasn’t ASDA absorbed by WAL*MART or something?

14. pleite - August 12, 2007

Penguin, the computer was gleaming white, with, I think, that vaio-word written on it in that quite pleasing swirl. You seem to have grown, but you were on quite a high stool, potentially.

15. MountPenguin - August 13, 2007

If it was me, then I would have been sitting on one of the stools, but the logo would definitely have been an Apple. A Vaio it is not. However, there are one or two other “regulars” also there with their (non-Apple) laptops.

PS am now on RFM’s mailing list, have the latest mailing.

16. pleite - August 13, 2007

Excellent… but I doubt I’ll be able to make it this time. Still don’t know when I’ll go to England, but I’ll probably be gone by then. I’ll keep you posted.

17. Cu chulainn - August 28, 2007


Just found your blog.

I laughed so much at this entry …not so much a capital “O” laugh as people tend to use in text messages, because it actually involved my nose and some hot snot being rapidly expelled therof. So it would be more like “J…”

Anyhow, can I ask is your mother Irish? She certainly fits the description.

18. pleite - August 29, 2007

Cu chulainn, hello and thank you. I’m sorry about the snot, but, from a health point of view, it’s better out than in, so hurrah after all.

Yup, mumsy is indeed from the Emerald Isle. She’s been in England for ever though where she has successfully managed to avoid the local population (apart from within her own family). She could quite easily delete all the pages bar the M and O ones from her address book.

19. Cu chulainn - August 29, 2007

BiB/pleite, more about your mum then please, whenever you get the chance.
Being an emerald islander myself I would love to compare your mum’s behaviour with my own mam’s, and moreover with my mad uncle who has been living near london for over 40 years now, and is still keeping it real, Irish style. Plastic Paddys are his new bete noire.

BTW, new to all this blogging but why does my message have a place for my email address. Won’t I be spammed to kingdom come if I do post it there?

20. pleite - August 29, 2007

Cu, I’m not sure why wordpress gives you that option. I suppose it’s for my benefit, really, so that I can, if the mood takes me, e-mail/stalk anyone who leaves a comment. I’m not sure of the spam-danger element. If you were to leave your address, I think only I could see it, which should mean you’re safe from spam (as long as I don’t sell yours and a million other addresses for 2p, which I promise I wouldn’t do).

21. narrowback - August 31, 2007

for you and Cu Chulainn

22. pleite - September 2, 2007

Narrowback, I hardly understood a word. Is the song joking or serious? I’m wondering if it’s not a very different experience being the descendant of immigrants in the UK and the US. OK, it’s bound to be, because the majority of Americans are descendants of immigrants (whereas Britons could only be considered that if you go back 1000 years or so). I think there’s less tendency in the UK (though maybe this is on the up. I don’t think the terms Black British or British Muslim existed when I was a nipper) to do the roots-thang. Which is perhaps mad. Dunno. I went to a Catholic secondary school so of course met oodles of boys of Irish/Polish/Spanish origin. I’ve got a feeling their fervour for their roots dwindled as time went by, though perhaps it returns in a wave again later. I suppose now that I’m away from home, the disconnection from ancestral roots seems even more total.

23. narrowback - September 4, 2007

ah, chris – the singer – has one of the thickest brooklyn accents I’ve ever encountered and I lived in the nyc area for over 35 years (albeit only 10 years within the city limits)…I don’t have the lyrics right in front of me but it is tongue in cheek…

i shouldn’t have been suprised that it didn’t translate on a cultural as well as a linguistic level….

i think we discussed the assimilation issue previously…despite the whole “melting pot: ideal of the states it can be pretty balkanized on some levels… My family came over in the 1840’s (dad’s side) and 1900’s (mom’s side)…both irish. both sides lived in “irish” neighborhoods and – outside of work – interacted little with other ethnic groups,,,by the time I was born mom and dad had taken the daring step of moving to a “mixed” neighborhood – german and irish…I may had elected to be more cosmopolitan but a large number of my cohorts elected to continue to stick to what was familiar… on the other hand despite the fact that I chose not to become a cop or fireman, that I don’t live in beverly, sauganash, woodside, south boston or any of the other irish “ghettoes” of this country many time I introduce myself or sign a document i hear in reply “oh,you must be irish”

on the other hand knowledge of the ethnic map of cities like chicago…and it is like the Balkans…can be of use. At a work conference I spied an attractive man who pinged on my gaydar. His name tag read something along the lines of “Patrick Bazeleskas”… I chatted him up with “oh, you must be from the southwest side of chicago”…He replied “Yeah, yes. How did you know?” “there’s only one neighborhood in the world that weould produce that name combination = McKinley Park on the southwest side of chicago”

24. pleite - September 5, 2007

You cunning trickster, you! Mind you, if I remember rightly from my trip to Lithuania, Lithuanian men (or their descendants) should be well worth chatting up. A very handsome nation. They also seemed to have a rather attractive gloom-gene, which I found very compelling. I’ve studied on two language courses with Lithuanian ladies. They were all beautiful and miserably inscrutable.

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