Birmingham Gothic (neé Noir)

The morning fog had cleared, but now, we were shrouded in the late afternoon fug from the car exhausts. Those who were attending huddled together, chins in jackets, attempting to warm themselves against the chill air. The Colmore Business District was thriving with those escaping for the day, to get buses. As we stood under 23 Whitehall Chambers at our muster point, next to Crockett and Jones, shoemakers of Northampton, people weaved past us, impatient to get their buses back to the suburbs, to seek sanctuary away from Town.

The tour ‘Birmingham Gothic’ was led by Ben Waddington, the curator of the Still Walking festival. The ‘Noir’ angle to the festival had now been dropped, and we would be concentrating solely on the architecture, the gargoyles, the grotesques, and the strange goings on throughout history. The tour would have a linearity; we would start architecture with roots in the pre-pagan and go into modern-day Christianity. As we went to our first destination, seagulls squawked over the noise of bass bins and buses. The air was thick with the cloying smell of exhaust fumes and hastily smoked roll-ups.

Under Birmingham Cathedral, we were told that the designs that we would see would be by design, or choice. What, Ben asked, inspired these choices that we saw? Over the cathedral, we saw a Pagan symbol, that of a green man – the animal, plant and man hybrid favoured by worshippers of that faith. Could the cathedral have taken the existing masonry and used it as a way to ease the new religion in? A young man, dishevelled and withdrawn, wandered over to our gathering, and seemed to want to join in with the conversation. Ben directed our attention to what stood behind us as he attempted to remonstrate with the young man, to an obelisk. There was a story, in 2006 a lady, a librarian in Harborne, was coming through Pigeon Park on her way home. The clouds appeared, and it was beginning to rain. She put her umbrella up, and noticed that the bus stop she wanted wasn’t there. The railings, cordoning off the park from the pavement weren’t there. How selfish of the council, she thought, and blinking, they came back into view. She looked up to fix her umbrella into place. And then she realised something was up.

We were on our way to see examples of the horned god next. Later on, Ben promised, we would see Lucifer. The young man looked to try and address us again, but he was held off. As we walked away, I looked back. He seemed pre-occupied. In amidst the commuters going back and forth to their respective bus stops, he stood still, eyes pointed to the floor.

We walked behind Cherry Street and onto New Street. A pause of relief. Surely if there are Pagan entities, or grotesques or demons about we wouldn’t see them on the high street? We were now outside Waterstones on New Street, formerly a bank. Faces amongst medallions and discs. A horned God greeting you as you came to make your deposit to your bank, now, peering down daily, at those wishing to buy books, a meeting place, a gathering. Looking down at us. We walked up Corporation Street, to the City Arcade. The three double espressos I had earlier began to wear off, leaving me with a tired sense of anxiety and paranoia. The dark was setting in, cars passed with streetlights on, youths gathered on the streets, coming back from schools and colleges. “Weird ones, f***ing weird ones. A nightmare” I could hear one saying to his friend. Maybe they’d have been looking up, looking closer.

We were invited to consider the devil opposite the Gregg’s on Union Street. If you were asked to draw the devil, Ben said, you’d draw horns, pointy ears, and a beard. It was in fact this that we were now faced with. Not the description in Revelations 13, a leopard with a lions mouth, or a talking lamb, but our very image of the devil that we were so familiar with, and had learnt since we were children. The image in fact was of Pan, Ben said, which had been constructed in an attempt to demonise the old Pagan God. We’d see Lucifer again at the end of the tour, and we walked on, back up to Pigeon Park. Grotesques greeted us, crawling down the walls of the insurance company next to the Caffe Nero. The architects would have designed this, possibly as a bit of fun, preferring the world of monsters and gargoyles rather than simple foliage. Dispelling the myth that gargoyles were there to scare away the devil, in fact, the devil would probably feel right at home here, in the building where the insurers were.

Two headless birds flanked the Royal Bank of Scotland cashpoint. They had been so finely carved originally, that water had got into the building. This had obviously been a nuisance, so the birds were ordered to be decapitated, their necks now buried within the stone, with plinths now jutting out crudely above those wishing to make their instant no-fuss transactions.

And again, I was circling around the Colmore Business District. This must have been for the third or fourth time that day. Dante’s inferno, walking within gluttony and greed. Tired and weary, outside Hotel du Vin, seeing wolves (or was it Cerberus?), snarling gryphons and knotted foliage spiralling all around. A girl came up to our throng and asked us; “What you lot looking at?” “Well, look at that. There’s an owl, a face, a wolf.” “Oh my God. Oh my God. That’s freaky.” With that, she disappeared, going past the gaping fish mouths chiselled over Clarke Wilmott solicitors.

On our way to Louise Ryland House, we passed a plaque dedicated to the surrealist inventor Conroy Maddox. The inscription read:
“The work of surrealism can never be conclusive. It is more of exploration, a journey, a struggle.”

Around the council building we gathered, looking at the Edwardian architecture. Heads of lions and foliage. The council workers walked out of their doors, briefly surprised at us waiting outside (we had considerably grown in numbers) and went on their way, to the bus stops on Colmore Row. Hopefully they’d be there.

We were nearly on our meeting to see Lucifer. But before we did, we passed the dirty chest clinic building on Great Charles Street Queensway. A man with arms outstretched, one hand holding a dish, with a snake feeding from the dish, and in the other hand, a hammer. The world of the medical profession, said Ben, a world that we are only trying to understand.

Our procession went through Paradise Place, a grimy, cavernous alleyway, through Congreve Passage, and then back onto Victoria Square, where there was a demonstration occurring with people bearing candles. But we were the ones who were going to greet Lucifer. A dim light in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery window. This is where he lay. We slowly walked up the stone steps to the entrance. Shut. Ben knocked, once, twice. On the third time, a lady, her face obscured by curls, bent over with a dowager’s hump slowly opened the door. She let us in cautiously, but Ben assured us that we wouldn’t be long. Up the stairs, where Lucifer stood.

And as soon as we were on the first floor, we were greeted with his presence. The depiction of the fallen angel, the one who was too big for his status in Heaven, cast down to Hell, or perhaps even amongst us on Earth. And the artist who had created this had been told that his statue wasn’t wanted in the V&A, but sure enough, we’d have it in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. But Ben reassured us that if we believed in these demons that have been carved for us around the city, that they would manifest themselves in our daily being. As we walked down the stairs, he said that there was nothing, absolutely nothing to worry about. And for the while, we believed him. The lady with the dowager’s hump stood next to the door on our way out. She no longer had the strength to hold the door open. She had been in the museum too long with him upstairs. A spent force. And as we all said our goodbyes and thanked Ben for the trip, I made my way down to Café Blend, and on onto the Electric. Into the Abyss…

Writer James Kennedy was an embedded reporter on the Birmingham Noir tour. Look out for more of his essays throughout the festival.