In September 2013, the new Library of Birmingham will open to the public, and the old site is now scheduled for demolition, despite hopes to keep it open for other uses. At the time of writing, the current site is operating on a skeleton service on Floor 1, however, last year, on December 21st 2012, Floor 3 would be shut off from the public for good. Floor 3 housed a study area, a music library and books on subjects such as arts and literature and architecture. For a long time, Floor 3 would be a place that I held dear – the gateway to the floors above, for me, where the real library started, with its desks complete with their own lighting, mottled carpets and plastic chairs. On November 28th 2012 I went onto Floor 3 for what would be the final time. The following piece of writing is my eulogy for the library, using elements and excerpts from my three current works in progress – an examination on Birmingham’s changing cityscape (The Wind) using tangents of talking about music (The Prodigal Songs) and the ways in which broadcast nostalgia and corporate identities affect my thought processes and alters my memories (Pamphleteering for Ceefax.)
NB – I have decided in this piece to make Birmingham Central Library masculine. My apologies for any offence this may cause.
Unfortunately I rushed taking the pictures on the day, but for far better photos – go to The Reference Works website, a project undertaken by four leading photographers in response to the old and new sites.
A Eulogy for the Birmingham Central Library
I got the boot from my job on Thursday 29th November. The world didn’t come crashing down as expected, neither I did I throw myself off the top of The Cube into the murky shallows of Gas Street Basin. Instead, an obsequious chat with my line manager, and a slinking out of the back door, handing in my pass at reception. I had a few hours to spare before I was due home, but I wouldn’t spend it in the usual way, holing myself up in The Wellington browsing through Out Inn Brum. Deciding not to drink, not even to go for a coffee, I decided to walk to my spiritual home, Birmingham Central Library. The Library with the brutalist architecture, a much loved friend of mine, like an embarrassing but favourite uncle, with a smell of digestive biscuits, tobacco pipes and freshly cut wood.
On entering the library I read something that disturbed me. Even though the library had been running a limited service during the Autumn and Winter seasons and stopping a part of its lending service, I thought that those wanting to use the library to study and research would have access to Floor 3 with its strip-lit tables and carpets the colour of tomato soup with black gum flecks. Not so. The sign said that on the 22nd of December 2012, Floor 3 would be closed off to the public, and, as with HMV in the Pavilions which shut without fanfare in August, both carried a good part of my childhood memories. I walked past the security gates, making sure to hold the barrier open for anybody close behind me and travelled up the escalator and turned facing away from the lending section. There were still many people using the seating area that used to be the café, and I was surprised my mate who I’ve been on nodding terms with since my schooldays when he used to wait at the 11 stop in Cotteridge wasn’t about. Past the display systems to my left, posters laminated and staple-gunned to the scuffed display brackets. The escalator up to Floor 2 wasn’t working, and hadn’t been since the Autumn, the thinking behind that possibly that because the upper levels were closing, there possibly wasn’t any need to call maintenance in and get it fixed. I heaved myself up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
My bladder was full so I went to the Gents, not something I’ve always liked in my trips to this library, but this time, my last, would be a cause for celebration. Pushing the door with my shoulder, edging into the cramped space, I went in and drank in the atmosphere – the faded flooring and the brown and yellow cracks in the floor. The cubicles as always were shut, their inhabitants skinning up, minding their own business whilst on the job, taking a leisurely time, or perhaps adding to the requests for gay sex scrawling hastily but with hope and desire. “Please do not dispose of paper towels in the urinals.” The man next to me breathed and moaned as he strained, eyes closed in divine ecstasy. This, like mine, may be his final piss in the toilets of Birmingham Central Library, and I guessed that he was revelling in this moment, privately praying to his god before he made his final journey. I left him there and went over to the washbasin. A squeeze from the murky soap dispenser, a pink goo which filled my nostrils with its sickly perfume, and I spread it all over my hands. Next, I pressed the tap which sent out a desultory jet of water and stopped again as soon as I released it. Being an old hand at this I caught enough to wet my hands and rubbed them until the soap and the water dried into my hands. “Please do not wash your feet in the sink.” I wondered for a moment why some people would do that, and then I thought that today of all days would be the ideal time to anoint the feet and walk barefoot up to Floor 3. I would make the final pilgrimage, feeling the black bobbled lino squelching up and down between my toes, onto the escalator to Floor 3, which wasn’t working, nor likely to ever work again, so I would tread on the cold metal, creating trenches on the soles and scuffing the heels, but then achieving nirvana when they felt another covering of black lino, and then relaxing and flexing on the carpets of Floor 3, the colour of cream of tomato soup with black gum flecks. My sanctuary. Lost in my reverie, I noticed that the fellow pilgrim was standing in a disgruntled fashion behind me, as I was taking up too much room next to the hand-drier, and he was too unsure to ask me to move out the way, instead, just standing behind me in a slightly peevish manner. I apologised and walked out to Floor 2, wiping my hands on the arse of my jeans
I walked out into the Phone Zone, its hip mural, all spray paint and circular writing was a vain attempt to entice its target demographic to use their phones in that area and that area only. In fact, it was only me who diligently left his area of study and used it these days. Any caller to me when I was working would have to wait the requisite twenty seconds whilst I left my desk with a whispered apology, walked through the floor and down the escalator to continue the conversation. Things like that were important. Floor 3 was sacrosanct. And on that day, the 29th of November 2012, I would make my final pilgrimage. Walking up the escalator again as before, there was no point in calling maintenance out due to the imminent closure, I entered my space for the final time, breathing in the sweet air as I got to the top.
This was the place. The music library, the study area, the books on drama, theatre, video art and literature; the scuffed off-white plastic carousels with photocopies of lists of local arts development groups and the impressive collection of magazines for reference only. The smell of Floor 3 wrapped its way into my senses and I smiled, an unctuous smell of baking, sweet but not sickly wrapped its way with its stink lines up my nostrils. I never understood this smell, coming perhaps from the multitude of books and archives, or the decades old floor and collective body odour, but it was a smell I loved, and always felt like I was at home. The music library was there on my right. Trying vainly to remember when I was first in the music library – I was possibly 16 or 17, in 1996 or 1997, going to a record sale, flicking through shelves of vinyl which were being sold off to make room for CDs. I still had two of the records in my collection, This Nation’s Saving Grace by The Fall and The Snake by Shane MacGowan and the Popes. The latter boasting a superb painting of the weatherbeaten singer smoking a cigarette nearly down the filter. Across the singer’s forehead ‘Discard’ has been stamped by a librarian with superb wit. But there was no way I was going to ‘discard’ this album. When I was getting back into buying vinyl in 1994, I had bought the That Woman’s Got Me Drinking 12” in the Virgin Megastore on Corporation Street after seeing an exciting performance of it on Top of the Pops. The following year, I had secured a copy of The Snake on CD when I got given it whilst on work placement at BBC Pebble Mill on Pebble Mill Road. A great album, favourites being Donegal Express with its ribald lyrics; “A shit, a shave, a shower, and half a pint of Powers’, The Song with No Name and the beautiful cover of Gerry Rafferty’s Her Father Didn’t Like Me Anyway. As good as it was, it sadly didn’t survive one of the many culls of my record collection in early 1996, and the treasured promotional CD went in another job lot to be stuffed in my schoolbag and traded in at The Swinging Pig on Addison Street in King’s Heath sometime in 1996. A stupid habit of mine, to trade in record collections for the price of a few pints, cigarettes or other fads, but at that sale I was glad that Shane’s debut was now being presented to me for the humble price of £1, located on Floor 3 in Birmingham Central Library.
As I stood idly next to the archive section of the music library, muttering to myself like so many men did there, clutching at scraps of paper and shuffling about, I looked around for what could be the last time. My eyes wincing through the dim strip lighting, I could see the old books, spines cracked, plastic covers battered and out-of-shape. Opening the books to the stamp cards, some of these were still from decades past, transporting me back to the sitting rooms where they were pored over, to terraces in suburbia and high-rise blocks of flats. In the background I could hear the fizzing of electricity from the strip lights, mixed with noises from computer terminals and my own tinnitus and the dull rhythmical thudding of the headphoned piano player in the dark corner next to the fire exit. I wouldn’t get any CDs out. With Christmas looming I would need all the money I could cling on to. For the while, I found solace in the CD section, leafing through the tracks I connected memories to the many albums I had taken out over the years, where I’d listened to them and what with. Borrowing CDs from here started in earnest around the time of the vinyl sale, having graduated from the cassettes from King’s Norton and Northfield library, to the impressive CD collections of Druid’s Heath, and at that time, the trips into Town to go to Tempest and Swordfish Records, to stock up on the new releases that I’d heard on the Evening Session or Mark Radcliffe and John Peel. Peel of course would champion the local underground music scenes, and it would be there that I’d hear local artists such as Broadcast, Pram and L’Augmentation being played, and I’d go out and buy the records when I could.
I had seen Broadcast at the Flapper and Firkin in 1996, playing support to the excellent Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, who were still in their more psychedelic rock/folk phase. Broadcast were a revelation that night, and to the young listener, with an interest in library music and Delia Derbyshire, and an early fascination with test cards and Ceefax, this was the band that encapsulated my fascination with nostalgic perceptions of the future, as heard in the soundtracks of John Barry and Ron Grainger, and images of the swinging 60s which the Britpop boom tried to emulate. Pre-teen years wearing out my tape of Steptoe and Son Rides Again and conceiving suburbia through my Auntie’s and Uncle’s and Grandma’s and Nanny’s Max Bygraves and Bobby Crush LPs. And Broadcast was all this. And Floor 3 of Birmingham Central Library was this. For me, a vision of the future with its roots in the past. And from Floor 3 I could go upstairs to Floors 4,5,6, and 7, back to the future, into the videos and archives collection. I had spent mornings and afternoons up there going through their collections of VHS’s depicting Birmingham from the 60s onwards, trying to place myself where the camera would rest. Trying to imagine my old journeys through the old Bull Ring in the 90s. But it was the videos themselves, big and chunky cases and what the spools looked like that really made my brain whirr. Watching the videos, I’d smile at the corporate ident, the copyright messages at the start. Getting excited at the lettering and typefaces used and how they signified the period in which they were created. I only had to think of Shaw Taylor’s Police 5 and the sort of corporate videos I had seen with library music from Chappell, all beige holding slides and synthesised dynamic music. The city council’s logo was still gloriously stuck in this 80s/90s typeface, and it was one I held dear and smirked at whenever I saw it on a letter or bit of promotional marketing. But again, it would change, and the hoarder inside me would be kicking myself that I hadn’t taken a picture or put it in a scrapbook. Upstairs, indeed was another archive. Another part of the brain. The books and cds all around me boasted this diversity of ephemera, posters on the walls for folk clubs, reading groups, dance classes. All typography had its own imagery, and everything breathed its own colours. When the flickering strip lighting went off, the archives would find a new home, from one controversial building to another controversial building, leaving the visitors to make up their own minds and impinge their own separate identities on it.
But for now, the sticky carpets, the cream of tomato soup carpets with the black gum flecks. Leaving the music section for the last time, I pushed through the black plastic barrier, and surveyed Floor 3 in its majesty. In front of me, the white table with the multi-lingual papers strewn across it, bursting with intricate calligraphy, colour and lurid headlines. And in front, what I was going to say a final goodbye to. Floor 3 and its study area. Those tables. Those beautiful tables with their own lights. I walked solemnly over to where I would usually sit; the second from last table at the back of the floor, facing out so I could see people coming and going over my laptop, notepads and pens. I wouldn’t be able to sit and write that day, all the seats were taken with other disciples and devotees. I walked over to my usual seat, remembering the last time I had been there, when there had been a bit of an altercation. Two students had been discussing their work quite loudly for a good twenty minutes and a gruff pensioner who looked as though he was a fisherman had gone over and gave them a bollocking. He demanded to know why they were talking in the quiet zone, and that they were causing a nuisance, and it was distracting for others. The lads meekly apologised. But this wasn’t good enough for the gruff pensioner, his face reddening. “Selfish!” he mithered, looking at me for agreement, and continued his diatribe, of course now in direct contravention of the laws of the library. However, he was now so angry that I decided it would be better not to point this out and I continued at staring at my laptop with my mouth hanging open. Today, all was quiet, and the students were hunched eagerly over their studies, laptop screens reflecting in their spectacles. I considered briefly going over and asking one of them if I could play with the light switches on the desks just for one beautiful last time. I would be like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty when Mena Suvari confesses she’s a virgin, and a flash of beatific ecstasy would cross my face as I would flick the switch on and off. The tables in the library, now scuffed and scarred with love notes and tagging, had a faded grandeur to them, that made me think of the pickled and preserved Radio 4 announcers in dinner jackets and M’s leather door in the Bond films, which I believed were subconscious attempts to gain access to my memories of my early years and past lives. These tables, with their stuttering overhead strip lights, were the gateway to another dimension that I had yet to untap. And above me, the strange ceiling, parallel raised squares, alternately dark and severely lit, led me over to the books on arts and literature, where I had to sit and contemplate these perfect last moments.
I walked over to the books on arts and literature and sat on a black plastic chair and breathed in deeply. This would be my final moments with my old friend. This embarrassing but beloved old uncle with his old, comforting smells, that soon would be consigned to fond memories. I thought at that point, that it had been him who released me from my employment, praying to the Gods for my release, so I could spend some time with him before he went. It wouldn’t be like HMV in the Pavilions when I would go and he was no longer there, and I would be banging on the windows in despair at the empty shelves and the dangling light cords. No. My beloved old friend wanted me to sit awhile and stay with him. There wasn’t silence, a man behind the Literature of the 1800s was rapt in an intriguing conversation; “Did you get their lot? Safe. Hello?” Getting up to stretch my legs, I looked down at Paradise Forum, resplendent in the Christmas lights they’d borrowed from the Pallasades. The Pallasades had no use for their dangly lights over their entrance/exit anymore, now an exposed ceiling with dangling wires and scaffolding, due to their own forthcoming reconstruction. A shame, as I equated Christmas with those dangling lights, much as with the ones in Rackhams/House of Fraser, which seemed to still be doing quite well in the face of the recession, and proudly displayed their dangling lights down each and every one of their six floor, in the fashion that they had done for as long as I could remember. I looked down from this vantage point, and imagined floating in the air, looking down on what would be the walkway between Chamberlin Square and Victoria Square, possibly from the trinity of Nando’s, McDonalds and Greggs. I thought of what had been before, when a Hooters was in the place of what was now the Wetherspoons – in fact, the Wetherspoons (if it was a Wetherspoons back then) used to be on the left, and the Hooters on the right, with all manner of pubs (The Stage, Bread and Circuses) behind it before The Yardbird started its reign. What would happen when the mildewed concrete went? I hadn’t seen any utopian artists impressions. I wondered if the McDonald’s would go, the perfect place to cram down a double cheeseburger whilst looking at Victoria Square and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, sitting on the plastic seats and gawping out the window? Hardly the poster-children for the new walkway that would link the two squares together, a McDonalds and a Greggs.
No silence in the library. Again, the whirring from the striplighting, my tinnitus and mobile conversations punctuated my feeble attempts at reverence. It was time to go. Slowly, I got up from the plastic chair and did the sympathetic mouth thing to my old friend. I headed for the escalator, taking one last look at the tables with their own lighting, a sideways glance at the magazine rack and the music library. I felt the bobbled lino under my boots, pressing it in and out with my movements, pressing its texture into my memory.
Touching the sticky escalator rail for the very last time, and propelling myself onto the other escalator, rubbing my hands on the red carpet the colour of cream of tomato soup on the right hand side. What colour schemes would the new library have? What smells and what intrigue? Time would tell of course, yet, as I walked away from Birmingham Central Library and into McDonalds for a consolatory double cheeseburger,and a quick glance at the Moe Szyslak t-shirt I held dear in the shop opposite to stop me from blubbing and falling over, my mind was firmly on the good times that me and my wonderful eccentric old friend had shared. Soon, he’d be wrapped up like Stephenson Tower that stood near New Street next to the Crown and the Electric, and slowly put to sleep, floor by floor, with any dignity he had left after the mockery and abuse suffered over the years still intact. Committed fondly to memory by those who loved him for his old ways and values. Farewell, old friend.