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THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE...

24-11-2006

...and as one of life's consummate blaggers, Dave Woodhall should know. Here's his five minute guide to the best "complimentaries" in town.

Rather than rail against the ills and injustices of the world, I thought I'd start looking at a few of its pleasures, and there aren't many things that can beat getting something for free.

If you know where to look there are a lot of things that cost nothing - trawling the stalls of a farmers market for samples, for example, or the Belgian chocolate counter in Selfridge's. If you're lucky you can get four lots of freebies at a time before they call security, although a certain Stirrer occasional columnist swears that the Marks & Spencer food hall offers even better pickings. But I digress.

One of the best free times in the city centre is the central library's newspaper archives. They've got music papers, nationals, but the best of the lot are the locals on the sixth floor.

I've used the local paper archives so many times for writing books and articles that I really should pay them royalties. They've saved me countless hours of research, provided a mine of information and most of the staff bend over backwards to be helpful.

Whether it's the Evening Mail, Birmingham Post, the Argus or a myriad of long-forgotten neighbourhood titles, everything is catalogued and displayed in order. I've never in all the years I've been using the library found so much as a spool of film in the wrong box.

Although I say I use the place for work, it's really more a case of mixing business with pleasure, as it's so easy to get sidetracked in some major news story that was running parallel with what I really wanted, or just looking at the gig listings and realising that there never was a golden age of live music in the city. A ten minute job can often stretch into an afternoon's visit.

Or you can just go there and spend a few hours looking through the major news and sporting stories of the Midlands' history. Everything from the Handsworth riots and the pub bombings to the Eurovision Song Contest and Villa winning the European Cup is covered in fascinating depth.

Then there's the regular customers to observe. An oldish bloke with a thick Middle European accent who's been doing research for at least five years that I know to. The younger man who's the dead spit of my mate Martin and is in there every afternoon, walking around but never looking at anything. Or there was the time when some ne'erdowell wanted a specific copy of the Mail, and needed it photocopied. It turned out that he was looking for a momento of the day he got three years for robbery.

The newspaper archives are definitely worth visiting, unless you're a pigeon who happens to fly in through the open window on the top floor. On my last visit we were distracted by one of these winged rats flying around the floor above, until being temporarily evacuated until hearing the shots from a exterminator's rifle that told us some visits to the central library are better than others.

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