Birmingham: City of Culture?

Birmingham: it’s not a name that’s instantly synonymous with literature, culture and the arts. More often than not, on heading the word ‘Birmingham’, your listeners eyes will light up and you’ll get an earful of “Buurrmeeingham” before you know it in their best/worst Brummie accent. Yet look just a little below the surface and you’ll see an undercurrent of organisations and projects designed specifically to promote the arts in whatever form to the inhabitants of the West Midlands.
One such company, the Birmingham Book Festival, has long been seeking to bring the written word to the masses. Founded at the end of the 1990s, it is today entering its eleventh year, boasting a high profile line-up from all over the world and from a myriad of different literary backgrounds. The three-week event, the product of months of planning, unites all forms of the literary arts, chairing talks, hosting poetry readings, encouraging debate and running writing courses. They have created an event which has something for everyone with an interest in the arts.
The Book Festival, which runs each October, is just one arm of a Birmingham based company that seeks to organise literary projects throughout the West Midlands. ‘Midland Creative Projects’ seeks to organise workshops, writing programmes and events throughout the year with an aim to promoting the literary arts and specifically promoting creative writing. The company frequently arranges for writers to hold workshops in schools, encouraging schoolchildren from an early age to engage with creative writing, and displaying the various means that creative writing can take in the twenty-first century.
And it is this notion that is core to Book Festival and Midland Creative Projects’ manifestos – the idea that ‘literature’ need not be specifically traditional. The Festival’s motto: “Read. Write. Think” surmises its aims aptly – the propagation of ideas as a response to literary art is at the heart of its ethos. As such, performance poetry, discussions and short story readings make up an important aspect of the Festival’s programme, and writing groups in schools are encouraged to present their work in interesting ways using modern technology, social networking websites, podcasts and the internet.
Yet, naturally, ‘books’ do make up a large part of the Birmingham Book Festival’s programming schedule. The festival works actively to discover and promote quality local authors, with Birmingham based writers chairing many of the Festival’s workshops, and up and coming authors such as Catherine O’Flynn appearing at evening events. This year also features an event from one of the best contemporary authors to come out of the West Midlands, Jonathan Coe, who will be talking about his latest novel, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim on the 7 October.
The Festival is not exclusively about the Midlands however. Instead it seeks to display an ethos that writing is international and multi-genre. As such, over the course of three weeks, it will be showcasing events from British comedian Jenny Éclair, to Pakistani journalist Fatima Bhutto; from Scottish poet Jackie Kay, to American novelist Lionel Shriver and from German multi-media artist Jörg Albrecht, to British Ambassador to Zimbabwe Philip Barclay.
These days, many of the larger literary festivals (Cheltenham, Hay etc.) have reached a point where the sheer volume of acts that they attract lead to the festival experience becoming somewhat impersonal for writers and speakers. The Birmingham Book Festival, on the other hand, actively seeks to engage personally with all writers it books. The programme is not over full and does not contain any padding acts. Every writer that the festival showcases has been personally selected by the festival organisers, who pride themselves on offering writers a friendly, private and involved experience.
The festival is, naturally, realistic about its aims. It simultaneously does not aspire to be a festival along the same lines as Cheltenham or Hay for the reasons explained, but it also recognises that the Birmingham environment is not going to provide an overnight haven for the arts. In their own words, the Festival organisers seek to “work with, rather than against, the complex environment the city and the region presents” – seeking to carve something unique in a city which can, in places, be lacking an arts interest.
Of course, the Birmingham Book Festival isn’t the only arts organisation within the Midlands. Despite all of the stereotypes, and the undeniable fact that a portion of the area remains (and perhaps always will remain) hostile to the arts, there is an undercurrent of a vibrant arts community. Every one of these organisations has a similar goal – to bring the arts to the masses, be that literature, cinema, music, fine art, or any other manifestation of artistic expression. It will never appeal to everybody, but it is important that these organisations exist, both for the work they do within the communities, but also for their work contributing to the foundation of a sense of culture in an otherwise faceless city.
The Book Festival opens this year with a lecture entitled: “What is a City’s culture?” Yet it seems perhaps that organisations like the Book Festival have already provided an answer.


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