Birmingham: The Great Working City

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The heroine of my Victorian novel set in Birmingham has been out job-hunting recently. I have been her guide, with the help of an 1839 map, an 1839 Directory of Birmingham and Sheffield, a favourite blog:  Mapping Birmingham, a couple of back numbers of Aris’s Birmingham Gazette from the British Newspaper Archive, Edmond Chadwick’s Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Britain and Carl Chinn’s wonderful book ‘Birmingham: The Great Working City’.

My heroine is encumbered by having been involved in a scandal, and by a lack of useful experience other than as a domestic servant. She heads down from Newhall Street, past St Martin’s in the Bullring and the Court of Requests debtors’ prison, along the High Street towards Bordesley. All of this street is lined with shops and small businesses: tea dealers, basket makers, bookmakers, cheese factors, bottle merchants, hardware men, woollen drapers, printers, chemists, brewers hop merchants, seed and corn factors, hatters, confectioners, auctioneers, wine and spirit merchants, glovers, hosiers, lace manufacturers, jewellers, engravers, tobacconists. In a courtyard near Smithfield is a slaughterman’s shed with a crowd of urchins trying to peek through chinks in the wall as a bull is butchered. The 1839 Directory bears evidence to thousands of small businesses jostling for space in the streets of the town – this is the High Street:

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My heroine applies for work in a fruiterer’s, a tailor’s and a pin and needle manufactory (relocated for the purposes of my chapter from Bordesley Street) and is turned away. With a sinking heart she finds her way through a slum area to a dairy, an urban cowshed where the TB – ridden cows are fed on brewer’s grains, the atmosphere is rancid with the animals’ excrement and open milk pans are left on the dirty floor (thanks, Mr Chadwick!). It’s not her day.

Carl Chinn’s book was handy for details of factory life in Birmingham and along the way I discovered some nuggets of information that I can’t use in my novel as they happened too late:

Elkington’s – the first industrial electroplaters in the world – had a factory on Newhall Street, Birmingham, which later became the Museum of Science and Industry. One of their early employees was one Joseph Lucas (1834-1902). After leaving Elkington’s, he sold paraffin for lamps from a handcart. He then decided to manufacture oil-lamps and persuaded some of his former colleagues from Elkington’s to join him. Branching out into bicycle lamps and accessories made him successful. His company has become Lucas Aerospace.

Joseph Chamberlain (1836 -1914), MP and mayor of Birmingham, made his money in the screw-making firm of Nettlefold and Chamberlain on Broad Street which turned out 130,000 gross of screws a week. Nettlefold and Chamberlain became part of GKN (Guest, Keen and Nettlefold).

Sam Goldwyn (1879 – 1974) of MGM began life as Samuel Goldfisch, a penniless Polish-Jewish migrant who at an early age travelled from Warsaw to Birmingham. He too had a handcart, in the employment of Charles Henry Whittingham, a manufacturer of safes. He went to America and made his fortune in the Hollywood film industry. Mr Whittingham meanwhile perfected ‘steel fire proof Cinematograph Storage Film Boxes.’

Birmingham Central Library

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Josh Allen in his post on Birmingham Central Library reflects on a childhood as a library user in Birmingham and how the city’s civic architecture reflects the politics of the age.

He writes:

‘…the Conservative-LibDem Coalition, so keen to ensure that Birmingham’s Council Tax rises were “amongst the lowest in the country” during the “boom” years, borrowed off the books through a private finance initiative type arrangement to buy the Library of Birmingham. Today the repayments and interest on this deal cost the city £12million a year. Getting a building worth £190million for nearly £500million is a poor deal by any yardstick, and at a time of swingeing budget cuts it becomes unsustainable. According to The Guardian’s Jonathan Glancey refurbishing and modernising the Central Library would have cost no more than £20million. Operating today with a skeleton staff, no events budget and opening hours nearly half what they were upon opening the Library of Birmingham, like cultural provision and local public services in Birmingham more generally, is in a sorry state.’

 

Wartime Tales For National Short Story Week

short story weekToday I’m featuring wartime stories. This week is National Short Story Week (16th to 22nd November), an event I look forward to each year. I enjoy reading and writing this form of literature so I want to support this annual event by encouraging readers to dip their toes into short stories.

Several times this week, I’ve featured short stories from a variety authors and genres. Today, as I’ve said, it’s wartime stories. The First and Second World Wars immediately come to mind when anyone mentions wartime and these eras are included here. But, it seems that the world has always been at war and many tales reflect this. So I’ve also included stories from the ancient world and the English Civil War period.

‘Hush’, in the collection, Fall of Poppies – Stories of Love and the Great War, by Hazel Gaynor.

Fall of PoppiesOn the eleventh hour of the eleventh…

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The Writer’s Toolkit 2015 @writingwestmids

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A fascinating event yesterday: ‘The Writers’ Toolkit 2015′, organised by Writing West Midlands (WWM) and hosted in the beautiful Bramall music building at the University of Birmingham. I met old acquaintances and made new ones, feeling an energising sense of being part of a community of writers.

Jo Bell, poet and Canal Laureate – she lives on a narrowboat – spoke about her collective poetry project, ‘52‘, the need to ‘lose the last three lines’  – someone brought their notebook to a workshop and said they had torn a strip off the bottom – and the benefits of giving and receiving objective critique. “The only person who will like your work without reservation is your mum, and even then…”

I went to a workshop with writer William Gallagher, publisher Nadia Kingsley and Emma Boniwell from WWM about blogging – watch this space and see if it improves! William’s book ‘The Blank Screen: Blogging’ may help – and the advice was to post something no less often than every three weeks. Snippets of research connected with, but not duplicating, one’s WIP, may be the thing.

A workshop about small presses with Jo Bell, Nadia Kingsley and Simon Thirsk highlighted for me how much work publishers have to do. Design, printing, warehousing, distribution, representation in bookstores. Managing the whole time-line. An argument against self publishing: it will not get one’s books into Waterstone’s. Either way, the writer has to build the public profile of the book with talks, book signings, media interviews and social media.

‘Working with libraries and archives’, with Jefny Ashcroft, Joel Stickley and Roz Goddard highlighted the key role of libraries as egalitarian and accessible cultural spaces where arts events  – lit fests, workshops, writers in residence – bring readers closer to books: “Libraries are the lifeblood of literature”. Jefny spoke passionately about the excitement of archives and how they can give the writer access to something which has not previously been written about, offering the chance of writing something unique and original. Archivists can be tremendously helpful to the researcher who contacts the archive in advance of visiting and can offer appointments to help the researcher find what they seek. The point was made in discussion about the nationwide threats to our libraries and archives as a result of austerity, highlighted here in Birmingham with the severe cuts to our library services. They need support and they need people to go in and use them.

‘Speed pitching’, run by Olivia Chapman from WWM, was a fun and challenging session. The audience were divided into pairs and we had two minutes in turn to pitch our novels to one another. Then we regrouped and tried again. Trying frantically to remember to include genre, theme, setting, key characters and plot twists, and why anyone could possibly want to read it, in front of a complete stranger, was a challenging exercise! One writer gave me a wonderful description of her Gothic, supernatural mystery set in a remote mansion in rural Shropshire. I could almost see the dark old house under moonlight. Then her two minutes was up. ‘Oh damn, I forgot the taxidermist!’ she said. We looked at each other and burst out laughing. I really want to read this book!!

Finally, renowned literary agent Carole Blake, of Blake Friedmann, spoke about what the industry wants from writers: good stories, help with marketing, and a professional approach. Her book ‘From Pitch to Publication’ is a longstanding reference read for aspiring writers. I’ve heard agents speak about the view from their side before, and they always seem to have horror stories about crazy authors. Carole’s cautionary tale was of a writer who sent her a submission packaged up in a wastepaper basket with a letter saying ‘I might as well save you the trouble.’ She liked the submission, but left it on her desk overnight in the wastepaper basket. By the following morning the cleaner had taken it away. She never tracked the writer down…

TCWG November Short Story: ‘A Month at Bath’ #amwriting

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‘Secrets’ is the theme (set by ME!) for the Telegraph Creative Writing Group November Short Story Competition.

My story, ‘A Month at Bath’, is a Regency pastiche involving a gambler’s secret.

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It makes reference to the historical figure of John Law, a gambler and banker who caused an economic crisis in France in 1720.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose…

 

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