Robert J. Gallagher, himself a Birmingham boy, reviews I Don’t Want To Go To The Taj Mahal: Stories of a Birmingham Boy, by Charlie Hill, available here
Oh Birmingham, Birmingham, Birmingham. No river really worth the name, no cathedral to make the jaw drop as much as a millimetre, no natural or man-made asset to stir feelings of inferiority in any of Britain’s other big cities. Not a chance either of ever being mistaken for somewhere responsible for a front-rank contribution to a nation’s cultural identity.
Oh the currents of modern history have tried to help of course. A bit of a Blitz in the Second World War, a profound shift in demographics thanks to fifties and sixties migrants, plenty of imagination and ambition shown by the Council House to fight back against industrial decline. At hand have been some of the ingredients required to imbue a city with a definable tang. And yet, despite the Balti Triangle and Symphony Hall, despite the deft manipulation of heritage shown in the Jewellery Quarter and the restored back-to-backs hard by the Gay Village, Birmingham seems to remain Work City.
Or, more accurately, Work and Shop City, a place where the bulk of the population focus on doing one or the other or recovering from doing one or the other. Somehow today’s Birmingham still feels not quite right, not quite authentic, as the background for tales from a freewheeling, essentially maverick life underpinned by literary yearnings.
All credit then to librarian and part-time novelist Charlie Hill for not allowing himself to be put off by the thought Manchester, Newcastle or Glasgow might have been a spicier backdrop for his jaunty memoir.
Through a long string of concentrated tableaux and anecdotes I Don’t Want To Go To The Taj Mahal describes Hill’s implicit rebellion against materialism, dullness and predictability in the closing decades of the twentieth century. You’ve got it. What we have here is a sheaf of tales about the developing sexual career, the series of crap jobs providing tasty experience as well an income, the gallery of dodgy characters encountered and survived. Pubs feature prominently, especially the defiantly characterful drinkers of Moseley, Birmingham’s bid to possess a small-scale hybrid of Hampstead and Camden Town. Drugs pop up too, especially the stimulant some poor souls find most luscious, the notion that writing can supply both cash and self-realisation.
The book ironically reveals Hill as a true Brummie. He works hard at what he has to do, soaking his cuts of memory in colour and resonance. He not only likes other people, he finds them interesting too. Perhaps. above all, he talks straight with a quote from Samuel Beckett at the start and with the very strong suggestion at the end that death is a bit of a bastard.
If I walked into the Fighting Cocks tomorrow and found Hill claiming he had written a minor classic I’d be very surprised indeed. But I would expect to see him bought a pint or two, on the strength of having made a very decent addition to the literature of a city that is apparently still trying to shake off some sort of curse by Oscar Wilde.
Robert Gallagher is a radio playwright and former soul music journalist for Melody Maker and Black Music magazine.