Book review – Stephen Pennell – “King City: Adventures into Birmingham’s Diverse Music Culture”


This book just fell into Novellas in November at 189 pages of text (it’s a B size paperback, so quite a lot of text) and it just fell into my TBR Challenge as it arrived on the same day as the Dave Grohl book that started off the challenge. It’s one of the books I’ve subscribed to via Unbound – always exciting, as you never quite know when the book is going to come to fruition – though this time officially published by The History Press.

Stephen Pennell – “King City: Adventures into Birmingham’s Diverse Music Scene”

(05 October 2021 – Unbound) I couldn’t resist a book about my home city and music, even if my gig-going has dried up a bit recently and seems to be composed solely of seeing Attila the Stockbroker, The Men They Couldn’t Hang and members of The Mens’ side-projects. I was hoping this would give me some impetus to try some new local bands once the pandemic is properly over, and I did indeed get some ideas.

Pennell has written these pieces for local newspapers and music sites/papers, and they’re all competently done and well-written. He does revisit the same performers and bands quite a few times, all locals such as Lady Sanity and The Clause, with regular trips to see Paul Weller (he’s a mod, though he’s wider in his music tastes than that would suggest), but it’s fresh and enthusiastic writing and, being in a smallish scene, he knows the musicians and gets access to do interviews with them, too. There’s amusement, too, with his regular sideways glancing descriptions of the area of the city he comes from (there’s also an unreconstructed element to him: this is a working man who’s steeped in the working class of the city: he calls his wife “Wifey” and he has to Google neurodiversity, but he doesn’t display any prejudice and is happy with all slices of the city’s population so that’s a very minor point.

Of course, being Birmingham, everything’s down to earth, from Tommy Iommi’s solution to cutting off the tips of his fingers just before going full-time with Black Sabbath in the introduction that runs through Birmingham’s musical history, to the performers who happily hang around after their gigs to chat to fans. I also loved how Pennell displayed the Brummie trait of comparing everywhere else we go to our home city (I was caught telling my husband how like Birmingham Monpellier was once, fairly spuriously), so he’s not impressed by a bicycle taxi driver’s stats on Hyde Park, knowing we have the largest urban park in Europe (Sutton Park, where I recently almost broke my hand during a race), and managing to extend this to New York.

Most of the pieces were written before the pandemic but it does intervene near the end, shutting down gigs, then making gigs weird when they do come back, and almost felling one of the major figures in the Birmingham music scene. Perhaps one to dip into rather than read cover to cover in one go (my fault) and a good snapshot of venues and performers, with some nostalgia for older, lost venues, too. I’m not sure how much anyone outside Birmingham will get out of it, though decent music writing is decent music writing wherever it’s based, but there’s a good slice of backers in the list at the end, and there are over a million of us here, so I hope it does well.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 16/85 – 69 to go – it’s a Novella in November (number 9) and it’s one of my Nonfiction November reads.

The Birmingham Jewellery Quarter Pavement Trails 2 – The Charm Bracelet Trail


Jewellery quarter pavement trail charm braceletIn my first post, I talked about the basics of the Jewellery Quarter Pavement Trails and shared photos of all (but one! Noooo) of the Findings Trail. That made for a long old article, so I decided to pop this one into another post. So, here we have the Charm Bracelet Trail. My best friend Emma and I decided to walk both Jewellery Quarter trails, clutching a camera (Emma) and a damp leaflet (me) in the drizzle – a perfect British Day Out as I’m sure you’ll agree. It was great fun being tourists in my city, and doing something you wouldn’t necessarily do (I have been to the Pen Museum, and that’s very good, too).

We actually did half of the Findings Trail, then up and down the Charm Bracelet trail in the wrong order, then the rest of the Findings Trail. I’ve posted these in the order in which they appear in the leaflet, starting at the bottom of Newhall Hill, intersecting with the other trail at the junction with Graham Street, but then continuing up Frederick Street into the heart of the Jewellery Quarter.

The Charm Bracelet Trail

This trail was designed by artists Mick Thacker and Mark Renn. Where the Findings Trail has squares let into the square-paved pavement, this one has a rather charming (aha) brick shape which fits in with these pavements. The designs are flatter and they all feature some chain links at the top that would form a chain joining all of the charms.

You start this one at the bottom of Newhall Hill and it takes you all the way to the top of Frederick Street on the right-hand side as you walk up. The pieces aren’t numbered or lettered but they are quite easy to spot.

The key, is, of course, the start of the trail, and this one also includes the thanks to the funders.


Then we have the Silent Boot, which refers to an 1890s design of police boot designed to help catch wrongdoers. In the photo at the start of this article, you’ll witness our delight at my Doc Marten’s shoe fitting into the design: here’s the unadorned version:


Did you know that Washington Irving, who wrote Rip Van Winkle, stayed in the Jewellery Quarter and wrote his book there in 1818? I will admit that I didn’t know this.


Hooray for the reforming Chartists – a huge crowd gathered here working towards reform in 1832 and this one celebrates them:


I also didn’t know that the FA Cup was made here but it was, and here it is, looking a little damp.


The whistles for the Titanic were made by J. Hudson Limited – they still make the same whistles and they’re called Acme Whistles, which is pleasing (they also make the Acme Thunderer, which is a football thing). We loved the little whistles on the chain.


Matthew Boulton, our famous industrialist, is commemorated next. That’s a file profile, isn’t it.


As well as a pen nib manufacturer, there was a Turkish Steam Bath near to the Argent Centre.


This anchor commemorates the Assay Office, the anchor being the hallmark symbol for Birmingham. This is commemorated in the beer bottle plaque in the Findings Trail, too.


I love these nib displays – they have ones like this in the Pen Museum, which is fab and well worth a visit. You can make a nib from scratch and play around with quill and dip pens. This commemorates Joseph Gillot, another overlap with the Findings Trail, but it’s lovely to have these names mentioned and remembered.


The Hockley Flyer is the quarter’s trade magazine and is still going strong and making interesting reading:


We get into World War Two and the Jewellery Quarter now, with this piece commemorating a badge-making firm targeted by bombers during the war …


… and this absolutely lovely Bits For Spitfires piece, celebrating the fact that both commemorative medals and parts for the planes were made here. Emma and I liked the way it looks like an Airfix model.


The famous School of Jewellery is celebrated on Frederick Street:


We also really liked this piece commemorating the Vittoria Restaurant, which apparently featured “peas like emeralds” – as we’d just had our lunch when Emma photographed this one, we decided to feature our toes (and Emma’s skirt) in the photo.


The last piece in this trail is the Chamberlain Clock, the famous landmark celebrating Joseph Chamberlain which was erected in 1903. Not sure why we added ourselves into this one, too, but it was a lovely ending, within sight of the clock itself.


We managed not to photograph the clock or the rest of the JQ, marching back down Frederick Street with a plan to get round the rest of it before tea time. A quick mention should be made of The Button Factory, which is a great pub on Frederick Street, in an old button factory and keeping a lot of its detailing. We had a lovely lunch there, and they do all their frying in rapeseed oil, which is brilliant for any of us on low-cholesterol diets. I do like chips. It was really quiet on a December Monday but friendly and warm.

The Button Factory Birmingham Jewellery Quarter

Do pop and read all about the rest of our exploits that day taking in the Findings Trail as well!

All photos taken by Emma Volante, all food and drink paid for ourselves. More info about the Pavement Trails and a link to the leaflet can be found here.

The Birmingham Jewellery Quarter Pavement Trails 1 The Findings Trail


Jewellery Quarter pavement trailWorking from home, which some of this blog is still about, can mean flexibility, and that flexibility can mean taking random best-friend-days off work – hooray! Last Monday, Emma, who I’ve known for over half my life, came up from London for the day. She’s been part of the Project 365 photography group I’m in this year, and has been busily photographing the Spitalfields Roundels for that, so suggested we had a go at the Jewellery Quarter Pavement Trails on our day together. I’d seen a few of these in the pavement and I’m always up for a slightly geeky challenge, so off we went.

In true British Days Out fashion, we did this in a light drizzle, clutching a damp leaflet! Hooray! Emma Volante took all the photos and agreed to me sharing them in this post. I was in charge of damp leaflet holding and peering at blurring print.

Having posted all the photos of the Findings Trail, I’m going to split this into two posts. Read about the Charm Bracelet Trail here.

What are the Jewellery Quarter Pavement Trails?

The Pavement Trails are two sets of artwork, set into the city streets; the Charm Bracelet ones are brick shaped (see above photo) and the Findings ones are metal in stone set in a square. They were commissioned by the City Council and various funds and organisations and give an insight into the history of the Jewellery Quarter, which is all about pen nibs and other steel stuff as well as jewellery, and has had some very interesting inhabitants.  You can find more information and a link to the PDF listing them all here.

Note: we did the trails in a funny order: we started off  doing half of the Findings Trail on Newhall Street and Graham Street, then went down and back up Newhall Hill and up Frederick Street (to do the Charm Bracelet Trail), then back down to Graham Street and down the other side of Graham Street and Newhall Street to finish the Findings Trail.

The Findings Trail – Newhall Street and Graham Street

The Findings Trail runs up Newhall Street (from further up than you think – you need to get across Great Charles Street Queensway before you start finding them. The first Heart and then A are on the right-hand side of the road as you walk towards the Jewellery Quarter and the trail runs up Newhall Street and along Graham Street, turns at the junction with Frederick Street/Newhall Hill and runs back down the other side of the road.

The plates are all designed by Laura Potter, a graduate of the School of Jewellery.

It all starts with a heart – you’ll see this one a few times …


A – the tunnel, refers to the network of tunnels to support the telecommunications network


Note that these are handily labelled with their letter, which is very helpful. B shows hallmarks for precious metal symbols:


We liked the beer bottle tops for C – this is to commemorate a pub where, apparently, Birmingham and Sheffield chose their respective hallmark signs:


D is the symbol for a church, and we dutifully popped down a side road and walked around St Paul’s Square.


We were a little confused by the slippery road sign on E which commemorates a roller coaster which used to be on the site (??)


Moving on, these empty paint tubes at F caused us a little consternation when we saw them from the side and below, but they were, in fact, empty paint tubes.


And then G got all odd, too, with some rubber teats to commemorate the fact that nannies walked their charges down Brook St to St Paul’s Square … (this one was squashed into a corner so a bit hard to see)


H is back to normality with an inkwell celebrating the steel pen nib making of the area:


And we learned about borax at I (it’s used as a base for soldering). Sorry about the cigarette butts in that pic, it was again in a corner and we weren’t going to go grubbing around cleaning it out!


J is a casting tree, which was used by jewellers when they were working on multiple objects at the same time. I think this might be the one we had to ask someone to move away from as they were (innocently) standing on it (at a bus stop). What we do for art / photography / weird projects, eh!


We liked the bricks on K, on the corner of Vittoria Street, where the School of Jewellery can be found, and took a photo of our feet for little reason (we both tend to stand pigeon-toed in photographs and we were conscious of getting our photo-of-the-day while doing this).


L commemorates Flag House, another pen nib factory:


M was a good one – the signature of Joseph Gillot, who owned the Victoria Works, one of the major steel pen nib factories.


This is the last one on the right-hand side of the road. We then encountered an X to mark the place where the two trails meet …


… and then crossed the road over to the left-hand pavement, turned round, and started off again with … another heart:


So, off we go again with … where were we? Ah yes, N – the running man, representing the errand boys who took things around the Quarter:


I loved the notes about O, as I hadn’t realised any of this. We knew there was a Sikh Gurdwara on Graham Street as it’s quite a noticeable landmark with its orange flags and square, blue building. I had wondered if it had had a previous use, and yes, apparently the building has previously been used by the Congregationalists, the Methodists and the Elim Tabernacle. Not quite as varied as the place on Brick Lane that has been a Chapel, Synagogue and Mosque, but reminiscent of it. The O design is the steel bangle sacred to the Sikh religion:


On down the road to P and we find farthings to commemorate the mint (there are also Farthing House and Sovereign House blocks of flats nearby!).


I like buses, so I liked Q, celebrating the fact that the West Midland Transport head office was once here:


R is a curb chain, commemorating the chain-making done in the area. We’re working our way down the hill of Newhall Street again now.


T is … yes. T. There is no S. THERE IS NO S. S is supposed to be a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate. The street was long and empty of too much street furniture. We looked under cars and behind bicycles. We avoided a somewhat inebriated gentleman SEVERAL TIMES as we marched up and down getting cross. There is no S. I even asked a Birmingham Guide and he thought it should be there … but it is not. Anyone with any info on this, please let me know. This upset us.

T, we found rather sadly, is some taps to mark it being near Severn Trent’s offices. Actually the taps were quite sweet and restored us a little.


U, and we’re getting close to a cuppa and a sit-down now (we did this section last) is a bench peg used by jewellers.


Electroplating was invented around here, and so V celebrates this with a plated sample which looks a bit like the new library building.


Celluloid was also invented in Birmingham (who knew?) and so here’s a film projector to celebrate that at W.


This is a great trail and very varied but I think the artist might have been casting around for inspiration here, because here’s the heart again, this time representing the network of canals, the heart of the city, I suppose, and used for transportation in and out of the area, at X:


Y is a stamped letter, because we’re on Newhall Street, the hub of telecommunications (the PO Tower has been decommissioned but I think the Peregrine Falcons still nest there).


and to carry on the theme, Z is an Actual Telephone!


Ah – we’re done, we sighed. Em put her camera away and I stowed the damp paper … but no, there’s one more, just past the telephone hub box.


This one thanks all the funders – a nice touch. So that’s the Findings Trail done … the Charm Bracelet one is shorter, but perhaps best left for another post.

Oh, we did get a cuppa and a sit down back at Grand Central …