Danny Smith: Requiem for a piss stained short cut

It was a shocking moment when after nineteen years of living in Birmingham I realised it will never be finished. The building work will never be done, some part will always be being demolished for another part to be built fresh: no one will ever take a step back, with their hands on their hips, and turn around with a ‘TA-DAA’. The ubiquitous cranes will always be part of the skyline, they’re not visitors they’re residents.

Cities are the bodies of our collective souls, and like bodies they change, regenerate, and can be easily marred. Ever see Ground Zero from up high? It looks like a fuck-awful scar across the face of pretty girl.

The Queens Drive staircase is an access staircase that travels from the bottom of Station Street up to the passageway that connects the Pallasades to the Bull Ring, with an exit to New Street station halfway up. And it’s to be closed soon.

This staircase is one of my favourite little short cuts from New St. You have to duck up the tramp ramp (named ages ago because of the amount of beggers that used to line it, they’ve all been moved on now but the name stuck). It’s sad that the homeless are considered a nuisance and unsightly when chuggers still get to ply their loathsome trade, especially considering most of New Street has become an obstacle course of eye contact and cheery student types waving their golf brollies at you. Also nothing will weary you of giving to charity than this recent phenomenon, by the sixth or seventh ‘can you spare a minute for abused pandas?’ you’re ready to knee them in the bollocks and never give to charity again.

I’ve never seen pavement markings that guide the direction of foot traffic like the ones found on the tramp ramp before and as much as the rebel in my head wants to shout and kick, they make sense and actually work, turning a clusterfuck of people milling and bumping into a smooth flow of pedestrians.

Now you have two choices, I always head towards the New Street Station escalators: this allows me to use the mirrors that face you as you descend to people watch. You can, for example, tell the people that have just come from London—they’re the ones that automatically stand to the right to allow people in a hurry to pass them, not yet realising that saving that extra ten seconds on a escalator trip is something only an idiot Londoner would do and everyone else in the country doesn’t really give two shits or a fuck.

Now if you head out the doors on the left and bear left, you come to the staircase. I used to head towards it because I loved the sculptures that adorned the windows of the Electric Cinema. Called ‘Thatchers Children’, they showed various mannequins in an assortment of grotesque and tortuous poses, set in black windows and highlighted by the red tile of the building. As much as I love the Electric Cinema and wish it all the support a man can give, especially in the chain-dominated city we live in, there will always be a part of me that will never forgive them for painting the whole thing unassuming coffee house beige.

The stairwell itself is grubby, and stays that way even after several coats of paint. It’s grubby because of its ghosts. It has been used as a heroin shooting gallery, its architecture and lack of lighting and, until recently, cameras has made it a prime spot for god knows. Most obviously it’s a pissoir, ammonia hangs heavy in the air, and the latest coat of paint was only painted over the old stuff so new graffiti joins the shadows of graffiti past.

But to me it’s a short cut, a cheat code to the city. Gateway of my youth from the mainstream of New Street to the best shop in the world Nostalgia & Comics, awesome to my young eyes in the traditional sense as its huge indoor posters and connection to a world of other people into the same things as me would leave me slackjawwed awestruck. Now as an adult I still visit Nostalgia & Comics as well as spend time in the Vic.

Years ago there used to be an escalator that travelled from Station Street straight up to the Pallasades, it was just a little further than the staircase and connected what used to be the Midland Red bus station to the shopping area at the top. I still associate that escalator with the worst migraine I ever had bought on by some coconut ice cream bought in the Bull Ring, the migraine hitting me like a speeding stag as I made my way to the bus station with my nan. I still can’t stand the smell of coconut.

I’ll miss the stairs, but by writing this I hope I’ll never forget them. Like a scar made smooth by a plastic surgeon I’ll still see it even if my others do not.

  • Clare

    Doors on the left and bear *right* surely/

  • I worked part-time at the Electric when those statues were in place. To add to the joy of the piss-stained stairwell, there was always a really filthy tramp in there busking badly with a cheap casio keytar.

    One day, he wasn’t there any more. I can only assume he died :( 

  • Missing from your memories (because he may well have been ‘before your time’, as patronising growed-ups like to say) was the busker who used to be a permanent feature in that staircase playing what now would be seen as a rudimentary toy synthesiser guitar, but at the time was the dog’s danglies of high tech guitar technology. It made a god-awful noise, but fair play to him for having the guts to stand there in amongst the constant smell of piss being an obvious target for a mugging victim during a bygone recession.

  • Simon

    you beat my to that memory by two minutes!

  • Out of the ticket barrier, doors on the right and bear right?

  • It occurs to me that I haven’t used that staircase in a very long time yet once I always had reason to. What’s happened to me? Where is it I’m not going anymore? I was more of a regular at the Old Electric in those days (and its incarnation prior to that when it was soft-porn downstairs and arthouse indie upstairs) but I don’t use the new version much and I don’t go to the Vic anymore (I’m too old, too uncool).

    Am gutted by the closure of the staircase though. We’re losing all our dingy spaces, shame on us.

  • Just making sure that what I’ve tried to work out contextually is true – do I take it that “chugger” refers to one of those clipboard-wielding folks who are supposedly soliciting charity donations?

    Meanwhile, I love the Londonese stand-on-the-right-on-an-escalator thing and I would like to see it adopted everywhere.  It’s one of the best things about London if you ask me.  I’m not trying to save time (my time is not at all precious), I just always feel like such a dickhead being carried up the stairs as though I’m pretending that my legs don’t work.

    I’ve only ever been up the staircase in question once (far as I recall), so I wouldn’t know about that.

  • @Sarah – Correct

  • guest

    I only discovered these stairs relatively recently – made me think of the 1980’s, Thatcherism, glue sniffers and a the The song “…the piss stinking shopping centre on the new side of town”

  • Kate

    I fucking hate those chuggers, they completely mar what would be an otherwise pleasant trip to the markets. No ‘mate’ I’m not your ‘love’ so do one.  Those stairs will be missed along with a lot of Birminghams other dark, dingy but much loved and fondly remembered landmarks.

  • This is what I love about Brum, even a ‘piss stained short cut’ conjures up happy memories. You do realise  I have to print this out and actually walk this path now?

  • i have fond memories of that awfull busker, and the smell of piss in the stairwell.
    always good to see the look of horror on out-of-towners, who somehow found themselves descending this portal from one zone to another….

  • Can’t let the subject pass without mentioning that ancient spiral staircase that goes from outside the Central Library theatre down into the ‘garden’ by Subside. Dark, forboding, cold and dingy even on a midsummers day and always smelling of piss that someone has tried to disguise with cheap perfumed talc.
    mmm fruity
    Midge x

  • I liked the curly concrete walkway on Stephenson Street/Navigation Street that led down from the Army Recruitment place in the Pallasades. I used to work in Ladywood House, the office block above the Pallasades, so used to pass it regularly. Alas it is no more :(

  • Mick

    Dave, you owning up to frequenting the soft porn cinema?

  • yep I did. In my defence I am an actual dyslexic so have massive problems mixing up my left and right.

    But lesson learnt, when i get people to check my speeling I will make sure they give my directions a once over too.

  • or got signed to a major label?

  • yep see above

  • It is sad, the cycle of refurbishment is speeding up. But there are still the secret places, the crannys and nooks just off the beaten track known by the few.

  • ‘chugger’ is a portmanteau word from ‘charity’ and ‘mugger’, but as Sean Lock points out ‘Chunt’ would probably be more fitting.

  • Please do but hurry, its says it was supposed to be closed on the 2nd, it was still open yesterday but who knows how much longer.

    plus not on your own at night please, it can get a little sketchy.

  • Hate those stairs, its where a good friend of mine went to get strung out on smack when he fell in with the punk junkies. horrible place because of its associations makes me feel sick to go near.

  • there used to be a big curly walkway just outside St Martins Church, no ever used it but it was so delightfully odd and out of place in the quite functional surroundings of the old Bull Ring.

  • Robertday154

    I used to fight back with “Oh, I concentrate all my charitable giving on our workplace charity, WaterAid. Are you familiar with their work?” The best I ever did  was ten minutes of wasting their time and saving God knows how many victims they missed who might have been stopped had I just given the chugger a body swerve.

  • Robertday154

    In any case, Danny, that’s the point about Birmingham. I wasn’t born a Brummie, but when I first moved here in 1984, I used to say “It’ll be very nice when it’s finished”, and it’s still true today. And that’s the great thing! There’s energy and life and activity and always something happening in Birmingham. It comes as a shock when I go to other cities and don’t see a skyline full of cranes, because it says to me “Oooh, city on the downturn”.

  • Kate

    Erm no Robert that’s because they probably got it right first time and have therefore finished.

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