Tag Archives: birmingham central library

Berlin Love Tour

Last Thursday night I went on a tour of Berlin…in Birmingham. Part of the fantastic Fierce Festival of live art, Berlin Love Tour was a guided tour of the German capital city through the streets of Birmingham, led by Hilary O’Shaughnessy. Hilary, as she explained at the outset, had lived (and loved) in Berlin after leaving her native Ireland. The Berlin Love Tour came from an idea by O’Shaughnessy and Tom Creed, and was first performed at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2010.

Meeting outside the Crescent Theatre (a local gem just off Brindley Place and Broad Street) were around 15 to 20 people ranging in age from early twenties to their sixties all wrapped up warm in the bitter cold. As we gathered we were accompanied by what looked like a busker with a guitar; however, his clean and smart-ish attire gave him away as part of the performance. We were then greeted by Hilary, who warned us against jaywalking (illegal in Berlin) and also that anyone expecting an erotic tour would be disappointed. She introduced us to the key themes of the performance: what’s remembered and what’s forgotten, what’s been destroyed and what remains. It was clear from the outset that the legacy of the Second World War, Nazism, and the Berlin Wall would be all pervading during the next two hours.

First stop was the Palast der Republik, a relic of the East German past which housed galleries, a theatre, restaurants, a bowling alley and a discotheque. The Birmingham backdrop for this was a piece of waste ground off Broad Street, a fitting blank canvas to get our imaginations in gear. Next up was the Mitte – the heart of Berlin, or in our case just outside the Slug next to the canal. Hilary told us how the Mitte was considered ‘poor but sexy’ and is now a victim of its reputation as the cool and hip area of the city: high rents, coffee shops and bars are the defining characteristics now (an appropriate echo of Brindley Place). The Brandenburg Gate was envisaged in place of the Regus building next to the Sealife Centre, and our guide’s moving tales of memorials to those killed in concentration camps was an interesting contrast to the suited city boys and girls hanging out and smoking outside Bank. It was at this point that the guitarist caught up with us and played Blur’s Out of Time. This brought us straight back into our modern physical surroundings and out of our journey into the past.

Our next stops were the River Spree and the Unter den Linden boulevard. At both stops we were told fragments of Hilary’s relationship with Alex, her German boyfriend, and the sinister aspects of their time together hinted at an emotionally abusive and turbulent time. The Bebelplatz was next up, projecting the site of the former royal library where Marx, Engels and Einstein had all studied on to the site of the impressive new Library of Birmingham. The Bebelplatz was also the site of the infamous Nazi book-burning ceremony of 1933. By this point Hilary’s recollections of her time with Alex were getting more intense and distressing and at the next stop at Birmingham’s Hall of Memory in Centenary Square she told of arguments through tears.

We moved on via Hitler’s bunker to the Berlin Wall, along with the climax of Hilary’s own story (all interspersed with distracting musical interludes). Stories of failed escape attempts over, under and through the wall were combined with the account of how Alex left Hilary. What was striking about Hilary and Alex’s story was the depth of her love for him, no matter how much they fought and what he did to her. The influence of the Berlin Wall was also clear; ‘it’s just a wall’ Hilary said at one point, but it is undeniably much more than a physical symbol.

Our final stop was the rooftop of the Brindley Place car park where we could look out over the city. The last account was of Stasi informants; since the wall came down and records have been released, families, friends and co-workers have tried to both forget and remember their betrayal. Hilary also explained how hard a ventricular assist device (known as a ‘Berlin Heart’) is to remove from patients, a true allegory of her time with Alex. The final scene of the performance was the guitarist accompanied by members of the Birmingham Choral Union singing Tender by Blur. His appearance brought us back to Birmingham from Berlin (and sadly in this case, to a deserted car park).

The tour was largely enjoyable and Hilary O’Shaughnessy was a brilliant guide and performer. Her skills in taking us not only to those landmarks of Berlin but also into the depths of her own relationship proved the event a true ‘love tour’. However, the regular appearances of the guitarist, Greg Milner, were at times grating and distracting. The choice of songs, mainly modern brit-pop tracks, were not in-keeping with the historic narrative and were sung in a way that they became a dirge. Considering Hilary’s story, it would be unfitting for the songs to be upbeat, but her skill in storytelling had already evoked the emotions Milner was trying to get across. The music therefore added nothing but did take something away, always bringing us back to our real surroundings. Still, it was a unique and innovative piece, truly in keeping with Fierce Festival as a whole, and I would recommend the experience to all.

Words by Andy Newnham

Time Has Fallen Asleep in the Afternoon Sunshine

Mette Edvardson’s Time Has Fallen Asleep in the Afternoon Sunshine is part of Fierce Festival taking place all this week in Birmingham. Edvardson was in part inspired by the premise of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451  in which books are burned for being deemed dangerous. The protagonists in this dystopian future consequently resort to memorising entire novels in an attempt to preserve them. Memorising a book is at once an intimidating feat of memory and an inspiring testament to a person’s love of a text. This week, Birmingham Central Library is briefly home to seven local volunteer participants or ‘living books’, people amongst the shelves who have learnt long passages of novels by heart, waiting to be ‘read’. They each tell their stories verbatim, exactly as the text is printed, to an audience of one.

I was warmly greeted at the entrance and after a short while informed, ‘your book is ready for you now’, a peculiar turn of phrase, both implying that the woman I was going to meet was in fact a book, and that the book itself (Oscar Wilde’s Short Stories) was a conscious person, waiting for me. Other living books were available, mostly modernist classics such as I am a Cat by Soseki Natsume and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. Other novels included Bartleby The Scrivener by Herman Melville, (Un)arranged Marriage by Bali Rai, The Trial by Franz Kafka, Crash by J G Ballard and Aesop’s Fables.

The Birmingham photographer Elly Clarke was my book, reciting Oscar Wilde’s short story The Happy Prince. We found a quiet corner of the vast library and sat beside a large window looking out over the town centre. Without any preamble she began with ‘The Happy Prince, a short story by Oscar Wilde, first published  in 1888. High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince…’ Her voice was soft and lilting, gently unravelling each lyrical phrase. Wilde’s story is full of rich colourful images so it seemed fitting that a photographer had memorised it. It was an incredibly intimate experience, more so than simply being read to. You are listening in on the edges of someone’s memory, each line meticulously ingrained in them, the result of long hours and a labour of love, not just from the author but the also teller. We held a eye contact for much of the performance, and I became completely absorbed in the narrative, drinking in the sounds and texture of the words, being only acutely aware that each minute equated to hours of work on her part. A man reading nearby closed his book and leaned his head back, eyes closed, listening to her. I later learnt that everyone she had performed to reacted differently. Some laughed throughout, others cried.

Wilde’s story was written for his own children as something of a moral fable, and the prose style is biblical and even archaic for the time. However in revisiting the tale through the living book, wittily subtle touches in the allegory seemed to emerge. Later, Elly told me that being absorbed in the story for so long had forced her to examine each character differently, such as the sharply satirical figures of the sycophantic counsellor characters and even the philanthropic Prince who, when closely observed, seems to be actually rather manipulative and selfish. Such insights and emotional connection to a work of art are perhaps the underlying focus of the project. In a culture of multi-platform media and constant instantly accessible culture swarming around us vying for attention, close reading is lost. Few people have time to be immersed in a book in such a way and there is something rather melancholic about that. Nevertheless, it was a privilege to listen to Elly, a rare and beautiful experience. Indeed as the event’s title suggests, it was an oasis of calm during an afternoon in Birmingham’s city centre. I left the library feeling genuinely uplifted.

Time Has Fallen Asleep in the Afternoon Sunshine concludes today, Saturday 7th of April at 5pm. There are still a few slots available though, so book in now to have the pleasure of listening to your own ‘living book’.

Words by James Grady

The Poets’ Place

As a creative writing student and writer of poetry, The Poet’s Place is an event I have been meaning to go to since it was first set up early this year. It happens twice a month on a Saturday between 2pm and4pm and is located on the lower-ground floor of Birmingham Central Library. It is hosted by West Midland’s Apples and Snakes, who also run the successful monthly spoken word event Hit the Ode and various other workshops and open-mic events around the city. You can sign up to the mailing list for more information by looking them up online.

Firstly, I will definitely be going back. The event is held in what feels like a mixture between the library’s basement and a conference room. The space is also shut off from the main library so you can get fully involved in the poetry and poets around you without feeling self-conscious. Most importantly there is plenty of tea and a fantastic selection of biscuits, which in itself is a good incentive.

There was wide a variety of people ranging from the poet laureate of Birmingham, Jan Watts, who this week was conducting interviews about people’s involvement within the Birmingham arts scene for the local radio. There was also a stand-up comedian who told the group that she had started writing poetry because her character wrote poetry. I also got chatting to the poet in residence of St. Martin’s Church (the church by the Bullring and markets) who told me about her workshops and the free art exhibitions the church regularly holds. However, most of the people there were aspiring poets and artists wishing to share work, talk about poetry and publishing routes or use the focused environment to sit quietly and write for an hour.

If you are thinking about starting to write poetry, read a lot of poetry or already write poetry this is a wonderful opportunity. Not only will you gain practical advice about writing from fellow poets, it is a place where any poetry related events around the West Midlands are advertised; I walked away with a list of four events which I would never have heard of otherwise. Birmingham has a thriving poetry scene, but it often remains unknown to people who are not a part of it already. Yet, meetings such as this contribute to the development and spreading of the genuine inspiration produced by everyone involved.

The next Poets’ Place will be held on Saturday 10th March.

Words by Alana Tomlin