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AFTER THE GREAT VANDALISM

02-08-2007

In the second instalment of his reminiscences about old Birmingham Laurence Inman laments the loss of the city's nooks and crannies.

After the Great Fire in 1666 there was a feeling among some builders and architects in London that a great opportunity had fallen into their laps. Here was the perfect chance, they thought, to create a new city from scratch, with a new street layout planned along more rational lines.

Which, of course, means a geometrically perfect pattern of straight roads forming a tidy grid. Just think of Middlesbrough, Milton Keynes and most American towns.

Fortunately, human nature had the final say; the hundreds of owners of burnt-out properties couldn't come to any agreement about which bits of smoking rubble belonged to who, or even where a former house ended and the street began, and so things just stagnated and the great new metropolis never rose from the ashes of the old medieval jumble.

It is thought the present street-plan of London east of Ludgate Circus follows almost exactly that of the old city.

The most disappointed man in all this was, of course, Christopher Wren.

There was a touch of the megalomaniac about Wren, if you ask me, something of the Albert Speer about his grandiose plans. It is worth remembering that by training he was neither an architect nor an engineer; he was an astronomer.

His appointment to survey the post-fire London came about as a rather odd stroke of luck, whether good or bad depends on your view of his buildings.

I quite like his smaller churches, but I've never really seen much to shout about with St Paul's. If you have a good look at it, inside and round the back, it's a bit of a hotch-potch.

Anyway, my main point in all this is to continue my paeon to old Brum and old cities in general.

Vast squares, wide streets, ugly Soviet-style public buildings have a hidden agenda. They are intended to make the individual feel like a worm. This is probably why East Anglia is so depressing. If you live on a housing estate where the roads disappear off into the microscopic distance, it makes you aware that there are thousands of strangers around you'll never know.

But a close, a courtyard, a road where the vision is cut off by rises in the ground or bends every hundred yards - all these encourage familiarity with our fellow city-dwellers.

People naturally react against uniformity. Middlesbrough and Milton Keynes are never bothered by hordes of tourists. You'll never see an open-topped bus on the Redditch or Swindon ring roads.

Paris, Rome, Prague and all the other unbombed capitals of Europe, on the other hand, are inundated. Try getting a cup of tea in any of our cathedral cities (except perhaps Coventry) in July.

There used to be plenty of cobbled, higgledy-piggedly nooks and crannies in Birmingham. Most were swept aside in the Great Vandalism of the sixties.

Does anyone remember the little forked alleyway off Broad Street ? It was called St Martin's Place. There's a drinking-barn there now. Health and Safety have decreed that cobbles, when smeared with vomit, are likely to cause injury to drunks.

Needless Alley, off New Street, even though it survives, has been kind of ‘smoothed over' in some annoying way.

Now that our so-called ‘love-affair' with the car may be coming to a juddering halt we could possibly be spared any future kow-towing to its demands. But of course there is another modern phenomenon which welcomes straight roads and vast open squares: the CCTV camera.

To see Part One, A Life of Grime, click here

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