Books make ideal low-impact presents, they’re easy to wrap, they pretty much always describe their contents so you can be roughly sure that you’ve got something acceptable, and they are so portable that unthankful recipients can pop them down to the British Heart Foundation shop and say “yes, it was so good I’ve been lending it to people” to explain its absence from their bookshelves.
Publishers know this and will knock out any old tat around Christmas, books aimed at becoming presents for people you know or care very little about. Why else would Jeremy Clarkson be a published author, why else would tedious collections of Shakespeare’s unfunniest jokes clog the tills at WH Smiths (when all you really want is to pay for your fountain pen cartridges and get out of there, and no I don’t want a slab of Dairy Milk the size of Belgium for 5p thanks)?
But every so often there’s a book which, despite having the a title starting “The Little Book of…”, you can safely read without bemoaning the crass commercialisation of the spectacle. Such a book is my, as yet unpublished, Little Book of Cliff Richards’s Girlfriends, but another one is Norman Bartlam’s The Little Book of Birmingham.
It’s not that little, for a start, 200 odd full pages of normal book size facts and fun about England’s second city. Admittedly the back blurb won’t win any prizes for mentioning new things about Brum: Bill Oddie, motorways and Crossroad’s Amy Turtle all feature. Inside it’s not all lower-division culture, there are facts new and new to me.
Did you know that American novelist Washington Irvine wrote Rip Van Winkle while staying with his sister in Lee Bank? I did, but it’s nice to have it confirmed.
Could you list all seven of Birmingham’s official city organists? No, I couldn’t. I could have made a stab at a bunch of onanists though.
Did you know that Nick Owen and Bob Warman went to school together? I did, but being reminded of it made me think again just how much of a good ‘Alan Partridge’s School Days’-type sitcom it would make.
And that’s the joy of such a niche book, even the bits you know already will spark off interesting thoughts, memories and ideas. Some of the connections to Birmingham are a touch tenuous—a page on Dixon of Dock Green, as the character is named after its author’s school—but what is a city if it isn’t a collection of obscure links and bizarre thought-paths?
The Little Book of Birmingham is out now and would make a decent present…