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Monday, April 6, 2009


I left my flat and walked towards town, leaving the towers of my university behind. What a strange city this was. If it was deserted, it would look like any other city - concrete and glass and the occasional, refreshing, old English style building with gargoyles. But no, when the soul of a city, it's people are taken into account, it becomes a very strange and unique city indeed. Growing up, I've lived in and visited many cities around the world, but none with an identity as confused as Birmingham.

I was in England but it did not feel that way. At the street crossing next to Tesco, I saw one of the few white people I'd see on this mundane trek to Tesco. There were two adolescents, adorned in gloriously cheap, grey tacksuits wearing baseball caps and shiny white trainers. The boy had more gel on his scalp than hair. His short, wispy brown hair was slicked forward, over his forehead. The girl was blond and chubby and carried herself in a most lethargic manner. She was sucking on a lollipop, fiddling with the 'gold' chain around the boy's acne ridden neck. Young love. Their expressions were bored, their faces almost lifeless. I walked on.

I passed the bus-stop and saw a large group of brown teenage boys, all dressed the same. All with the same hair style. All talking in the same manner. All being loud, obnoxious and boisterous. All laughing and swearing without a care in the world for the nearby families, the children eyeing them nervously from behind their parent's legs, the disapproving old couples and me. I walked on.

I saw a black lady, struggling to manage her three curious and energetic children. The blustery spring afternoon made it all the more difficult for her to navigate the streets, steering her pram clear of on-coming traffic and trying desperately to get her children to stay in the same place. Her sigh spoke a thousand words and revealed emotions that perhaps cannot be emptied through the literary sieve and into this blog. She was a young woman, she must have been in her twenties; she looked far too young for this job. She looked out of ideas. She needed a hug. I walked on.

Two young Chinese women passed me. Eyes down, mouths shut, holding hands and walking at a furious pace. They were probably university students. Boy, were they far from home! The Chinese.....they seldom speak. This is my observation. I walked on.

I saw two, large, fat, black women ambling along in their elaborate African dresses and head-gear. They spoke in a tongue that was easy on the ear, in an accent that felt on the ears like blissfully relaxing shampoo on one's scalp at the hair-dressers before the cut itself. They walked slowly and labouriously but they were smiling and laughing all the way. The first happy people I'd seen. I walked on.

As I continued to walk down Corporation street towards Tesco, I realised just how varied the population of this city was. What was the spirit of this place? What people characterised this city? When I think of Birmingham, what face will pop into my mind? I cannot put my finger on it. It is a city of immigrants. I had never seen this many Pakistanis in the same place! I was dressed differently to most people. My suit jacket and sunglasses contrasted sharply with the hooded jackets, nylon raincoats and cotton tracksuits of most people. I must have passed 500 people on the way to the supermarket that afternoon - no more than 20 of them were white. This was the reality.

I saw a brown family walking in the same direction, just ahead of me. The high pitch voices of the children brought laughter to the faces of the parents, which brought a smile to mine. The children were as inquisitive as any, firing one question after the other at their father, while the mother rocked and sweet-talked the little bundle in her arms. They stopped so that the father could tie his son's shoe laces. I walked on.

Two construction workers were enjoying some gourmet English food outside a chip shop in the mid-April sunshine. Their reflective flourescent green jackets made me squint at one point. One was bald, fat and white. The other was thin and brown, mouse-faced with that same 'crown' hairstyle that most brown men here sported. They were exchanging stories, their laughter filled the air.

I had reached Tesco. It was 6pm. It was Sunday. It was closed.