The Tet Offensive. The Prague Spring. The assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The Black Power salutes at the Mexico Olympics. ‘The White Album’ by the Beatles.
1968 was a wild and epic year. Two years later, The International Times reported:
“Essentially, Birmingham is a drag. Avoid it if possible.”
This ill-considered judgment is re-presented by Ian Francis, Director of Flatpack Festival, in ‘This Way to the Revolution: Art, activism and upheaval in Birmingham 1968’.
The 2018 Flatpack Festival dedicated a weekend to exploring Birmingham as it was fifty years before. With additional text by Edward Jackson and beautiful design by Justin Hallström, which atmospherically revisits that seminal year, Francis unpacks that weekend and subsequent research.
There is much to refute The International Times: “clashes between Asian workers and white fascists, two weeks after Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech; a mass eight-day student occupation of university buildings; and a heavy blues band who would go on to invent a whole new genre and conquer the globe.”
As well as uprisings, occupations and countercultural youth movements taking Brummie form, the city was also, “experiencing its own dual revolution. Firstly, a radical, decade-long reshaping of core areas which displaced whole communities and saw the creation of a new ring road. Secondly, a growth in the migrant population as workers from across the world arrived to take up less popular jobs in industry, health and construction.”
“I became convinced that this turbulent period played a big part in shaping the Birmingham that we know today.”
If today’s Birmingham was formed in 1968, contemporary Liverpool was shaped by the 1980s, according to Simon Hughes in ‘There She Goes – Liverpool, A City on its Own, the Long Decade: 1979-1993’. “This is the untold story of what it was like for Liverpool’s people in the 1980s and how the period defines who they are.”
“From the Venerable Bede and the prince bishops of Durham to Viz and Geordie Shore,” Dan Jackson in ‘The Northumbrians – North-East England and Its People, A New History’ sees a distinctive people stretching far back into history and into the present. “A part of England with an uncertain future, but whose people remain as remarkable as ever.”
As much as these books reveal what makes these places unique, they all have a sense that this specialness is underappreciated. Even by their residents, who are failing to imbibe the succour and belonging that comes from knowing from what you are hewn.
This would be incomprehensible to Herbert Manzoni, architect of Birmingham’s ring road. “I have never been very certain as to the value of tangible links with the past,” Francis quotes him. “As for future generations, I think they will be better occupied in applying their thoughts and energies to forging ahead, rather than looking backward.”
It does not seem to have occurred to Manzoni that looking backward can help with forging ahead.
What, then, of Birmingham’s dual revolution?
Jon Bloomfield wrote a book about how migration made contemporary Birmingham – we were lucky to have him come to 1000 Trades to talk to us about it.
This city has thrived despite Manzoni’s concrete collar – which we would love to cut to open-up the Jewellery Quarter and let the city breath more easily.
This is not the only misfiring revolution of 1968. Where that year had Black Power salutes, we have American footballers ‘taking a knee’; they had Enoch Powell, we have a “pound shop version” in Nigel Farage – as Russell Brand put it; they had student protests, we have Greta Thunberg.
“What trees do they plant?” mockingly asked Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley when tree hugging hippies protested the Vietnam war at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in his city.
Amid our climate crisis, divisive politics and culture wars, the fevered hopes of that year seem to have planted fewer trees than anticipated. At least not trees sufficiently mature to bequeath social harmony, enlightened politics and wide opportunity for all young people. The revolutions of that year are unfinished.
We will – pace Manzoni – move forward by knowing where we have come from. Avoiding the mistakes of the past. Knowing what makes us distinctive. Finding pride and inspiration.
Ian Francis – like Simon Hughes and Dan Jackson – has made a valuable and evocative contribution to this understanding. When Covid-19 is also behind us, we would love to have them in for a drink and chat about finishing the revolution.