16th November 2007
On 4th October we attended the concert for the re-opening of Birmingham Town Hall. We were actually very lucky to get tickets for this heavily oversubscribed event – the wonders of Internet booking! The Town Hall is one of oldest purpose built Concert Halls in Europe, completed in 1834 (long before The Albert Hall) and in itself reeks of History – and the capital H is deliberate – Mendelssohn, Elgar, Grieg, Dvorák, Sibelius and Delius have all performed there. But it was also a political and cultural meeting place – in the 1830’s for pro-Reform Act meetings no doubt; but Dickens gave his first public reading of A Christmas Carol there, and many of the great Victorians spoke there – Gladstone, Joe Chamberlain and John Bright. In the 1970’s and 1980’s it fell into disrepair and was finally forced to close in 1996 as it had become unsafe. It has now been magnificently restored with the two-tiered gallery which appeared in 1927 being stripped out so that the building’s classical simplicity (it is modelled on the Temple of Castor and Pollux in Rome) is again apparent.
But as I sat there waiting for the concert I was considering not so much this History, or even the restoration, magnificent and imposing as both are, but my own relationship with the place and the way in which memory and place interact. As an adolescent I attended many rock concerts there – some almost forgotten, some – Curved Air, Dr Feelgood – which will live in the memory for ever. As an adult we saw other acts there – Nanci Griffiths and Mary Chapin Carpenter – the latter for the first time, and I recall wandering from the building high as a kite simply from the strains of hearing Come On, Come On. But I had different connections with the building too. I was the union rep for the women who worked in the box office in the early 80’s – a cramped and difficult space they occupied too, but were always welcoming. And as we held our Union meetings there I have spoken from that stage on several occasions – adding I would hope to the radical resonances of the place ; I recall a meeting to discuss a strike in particular. So all these memories, some very keen, started to chase through my head. We are tied to our experiences, small as they may be, but these are in themselves part of that we call History; we are all in our own ways part of a flowing stream of humanity, which is on the one hand firmly located in Place, here bricks and mortar (or marble in the case of the Town Hall), but are on the other quite invisible, discernible only through feeling and intellect.
The concert itself was Hallelujah! the soul reworking of Handel’s Messiah. A wonderful choice. It echoed the Town Hall’s own tradition of choral music while acknowledging Birmingham’s very different racial composition in the 21st century. The main performers were Black Voices, a Birmingham singing group, who were absolutely brilliant. The only discordant note was the fact that, despite the demand for tickets being enormous, there in fact quite a few empty seats. This was of course due to the fact that seats had been allocated to commercial sponsors who had not used them – no doubt preferring an evening at the golf club or anything which did not involve any strain on their tiny brains or even tinier emotions. But for us it was a magical night – both nostalgic and current, both historic and present. Uplifting. Humanity flows on and we play our part, however minuscule, in that story. And hopefully on the right, that is left, side.