Day 44: Birmingham to Coventry

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Today the torch sets off from Birmingham, the UK’s second largest city.  Anyone who’s read my bio lately knows that I’ve been living in the city for many years, but in spite of that I’d never used the city as a setting for any of my work.  Until now!  Because Necessity’s Door, my latest book from Riptide Publishing about an undercover cop working as a rent boy, is set around the back streets of central Birmingham, and some of the locations genuinely exist.  I thought it might be fun to describe a few of them, just in case you ever get the chance to visit.

Like many cities the gloss and glitz wears off surprisingly quickly and there are some rough, dingy and down-at-heel streets just a short distance away from the high street stores, restaurants, theatres and bars, which can make for an eclectic mix.

arcadian centreThe shopping centre where Jake plies his trade is called the Arcadian.  It was built in the early 1990s and housed the city’s first Japanese restaurant as well as a cinema, nightclubs and restaurants.  Nowadays it’s where the gay quarter and Chinatown meet, so gay bars and Chinese buffets sit cheek by jowl and both the annual Gay Pride march and the Chinese new year celebrations are held there.  The Forbidden City restaurant Mac mentions in the book was a well-known landmark and I even ate there once.  It was very, very Chinese with no English menus or English-speaking staff, but I was lucky enough to have some Chinese friends who took me and dealt with all the ordering.  The food was incredible – I’d never had chicken feet or shark’s fin before.  (Although in the case of the chicken feet I wasn’t missing much.)  Sadly, the restaurant closed down soon afterwards so I was never able to repeat the experience.

gas street basinCanals are a real feature of Birmingham and there’s a local saying that the city has more miles of canal than Venice.  In the 1980s and early 90s they were threatening, even dangerous places to stray but since then they’ve been gentrified and you can walk for miles along the tow-paths past locks and wharves, over bridges and through tunnels.  Just outside the city centre lies Gas Street Basin which has been tarted up with restaurants and waterside apartments.  It’s quite possible that Jake’s own, very swish apartment is somewhere around here, although of course as an undercover cop he’s reluctant to reveal the exact address!

selfridgesBoth Jake and lover Graham mention Selfridges and this really is an icon.  Built in 2003 as the centre-piece of the upgraded Bull Ring shopping centre, it looks like a squat blue lump covered in silver disks.  Very space age – and Microsoft have even used an image of the building in their ‘architecture’ theme pack for Windows 7.  Inside, the store is too exclusive and expensive for me (we writers don’t get paid that much, you know…) but the food hall is fascinating and I have occasionally treated myself to some choccies from there.  Not the chocolate-coated ants, though.  I draw the line at those.

necessitys door coverHere’s a brief snippet from the story that mentions one of the very locations I’ve just described above.  Hopefully it’ll whet your appetite for more – both of the city, and of my book!

“Nice place,” the bloke said ten minutes later, sprawling on the sofa and bouncing up again as the broken spring made its presence felt.

“Thanks.” Jake glanced round the dingy bedsit the squad had provided in case Frank Warren took the bait. The paint was yellowed, the wallpaper peeling, the units in the tiny kitchenette a depressing shade of beige. As bedsits went, it was okay, he supposed—in his student days he’d slept in worse—but it was just a bedsit with living, sleeping, and cooking facilities jammed into one small space and an even smaller bathroom next door. Great for sardines, perhaps, but not for an adult human male or two. “I’ve got my own place in town. I just rent this for work.”

“That makes sense. You wouldn’t want to take clients to your home, I suppose.”

“Yeah. Fancy a beer?”

“Please.”

Jake fished a couple of cans out of the microscopic fridge, popped the tabs, and handed one across.

“Cheers.”

“Cheers yourself.”

An awkward silence ensued: Jake’s brain froze, and he couldn’t think of a single intelligent thing to say. He took refuge in the beer, drinking it faster than he’d normally like, and wondered if Mac was moored up outside. It would have been tight. His partner would have had to leg it back to his car, start the engine, and drive it out of its hiding place, all in the short time between Jake crossing the road and getting into the punter’s car. Tight, but not beyond Mac’s capabilities. His partner might love his beer and fish-and-chips, but he’d won the squad’s cross country race three years on the trot, and there were no bulls in muddy fields to contend with here.

The punter drifted to the room’s only window and lifted the grubby net curtain to peer outside. Jake knew from experience there wasn’t much to see—a high brick wall, a barrage of dustbins, a graffiti-encrusted gate—but the squad hadn’t picked the place for its scenic value. Rather, it was close to where Jake plied his trade. Apartments in decent areas were a twenty-minute drive away, whereas here he could be back on duty in under half an hour.

In spite of the drab surroundings, the view seemed to fascinate his guest. He peered this way and that, then pointed to an illuminated dot in the distance. “Is that Selfridges? I’ve been getting my bearings, and you ought to be able to see it from here.”

Jake took his turn at the window, gazing where the man’s finger indicated. Sure enough, the small, metallic gleam above the rooftops could well be Selfridges’ distinctive metal discs. “You could be right. I’d never noticed before.”

“That’s because you’re looking without seeing.”

More likely it was because he’d spent a total of about two hours in the place since the department had rented it for him, and precious little of that involved staring out of windows….

If you like the sound of that, there’s another excerpt and full details at my website (www.fiona-glass.com/necessity) so feel free to click on over there and explore Jake’s world for yourselves.

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7 responses »

  1. I’ve got to know Birmingham the last few years with eldest Cochrane at Uni there. I’d never realised how lovely some parts are – that bit with all the restaurants by the canals is lovely!

  2. Yes, they worked really hard on that area, and managed to keep quite a lot of the old buildings in amongst the new which adds to the character. You’ll have to explore next time you’re visiting the ‘eldest’. 😉

  3. Hmm, I’m not sure I would say that it’s *all* improved – like all cities it has its downside and the city centre has suffered in the recession (empty shops, tumbleweed). But the canals are a real success story and very attractive. I always think Brum is one of the UK’s best-hidden secrets really – too many people think it’s a concrete sprawl with no redeeming features!

  4. I’ve been to Birmingham a lot for conferences, and I do like to get out and about while I’m there. I’ve also moored up on the canal back in the eighties, and I don’t remember it being that bad (although I was very young).

  5. How interesting! I first moved to Brum in 1985 and the canal area at the back of Broad Street was a complete ‘no go’ area by then, but perhaps you caught an earlier, less threatening phase. 😉 By the time I knew the area it was earmarked for demolition to make way for the ICC etc, so it’s possible they’d sort of given up on it…

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