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Alan Mahar
Alan Mahar

Alan Mahar founded TSFG in 1983, clocking up twenty years before becoming an honorary member. He was from 1998 until 2012 Publishing Director of Tindal Street Press, Birmingham’s fiction publisher, which boasted prize-listings for the Man Booker, Costa, Orange and Commonwealth Writers Prizes. He is the author of two novels, Flight Patterns (Golla ncz, 1999) and After the Man Before (Methuen , 2002). Other publications include short stories, reviews and articles for Critical Quarterly, Literary Review, London Magazine, Warwick Review and the Observer. He is now a freelance consultant editor, writer and creative writing lecturer.


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(http://tindalstreetfictio ngroup.com)
The Sea in Birmingham: Foreword


To most of us landlocked here in Birmingham the distance from the sea doesn’t seem to be much of a problem. It isn’t such a long drive to Barmouth, west Wales nor to Weston (-super- Mare). Brummies can manage without the ozone, and don’t feel sentimentally attached to the seagulls that pummel the parkland grass or scavenge the chapatti and roti breads kindly left out for the pigeons. They can smell the country air beyond the city limits, only a short hop and it’s Salop, Staffs, Warks and Worcs: Long Mynd, Cannock Chase, the old Forest of Arden, Malvern; and the rivers that flow: the Severn, the Stour, the Avon, the kind of country streams Brummie anglers a generation ago used to head for in their thousands at weekends, rods strapped to roof racks. Incomers like me might occasionally miss the orientation that a coastline provides, but Birmingham is central, everything outward and arterial from its pulsing centre.

Outsiders might think a city has to have a big river to be a proper city, to be able to boast of a Tyne or a Mersey. But as this city’s greatest poet Roy Fisher – author of Birmingham River – has reminded us, it has two: the Rea and the Cole. Not big rivers, admittedly: unobtrusive; walled up, culverted in places; hidden, unshowy, hardly noticed; Brummies don’t boast. You might need a birder’s eye to see the kingfishers on the Cole, which is the stream that goes through Tolkien’s Sarehole Mill. The same Roy Fisher fashioned the line ‘Birmingham is what I think with’; and Midlands writers today have been inspired by that unusual thought.

Two and three-quarter million souls live hereabouts across the urban West Midlands. Red, silver and blue West Midlands Travel buses reach as far as Coventry (Cov with its auto-industry connection; its two-tone; its rebirth as a new city); stylish Leamington, next door to Tudor Warwick; and all the glorious old-fashioned yam-yam hill towns of Dudley, Stourbridge, Walsall, Brierley Hill, Wolverhampton, all abutted in a modge next to each other. This is a world in miniature, a place in its own right, like Frankfurt or Chicago, Birmingham’s twins overseas, not just somewhere to move on from. And as this anthology of twenty-two urban pieces demonstrates, this heart of England has stories to be told.

So what is it with Birmingham and its image problem beyond the Midlands? Why should it be the butt of cheap jibes from stand-ups, tin-eared approximations of an accent no more dumb-sounding than Cockney? Nationally, the city can still seem beyond the pale of possible interest. It could be Birmingham suffers, like most regional cities, from not being London. And yet its very difference must define its curious downbeat charm, so well hidden from outsiders. In any case, writers want to tell stories about complex people in complex places, not write tourist copy for city breaks. And short story specialists must take heart from the example of international Man Booker winner Alice Munro, and her beloved North Western Ontario, whose ‘provincial’ work is quite capable of representing the world.

I know from book launches for regional writers published up and down the country that ‘not-London’ has been a burden that writers in other English cities labour under. A chuckle of recognition always greeted the regional city appeal I was keen to champion when speaking of Tindal Street Press authors such as Anthony Cartwright or Catherine O’Flynn. Incurious Granta often seems to think the only writing worth reading is American or metropolitan, whereas regional writers applaud Milan Kundera’s claim that ‘Life is Elsewhere’. The likes of Liverpool and Newcastle are openly proud, couldn’t care that London can only condescend, but Brummies tend to keep their heads down, understanding implicitly how their city works, taking for granted its tolerance and pragmatism, its unpretentious realism, its hardworking mix of peoples, without feeling the need to convert the sceptical. As the stories in this anthology attest, droll understatement and unsettling irony, as well as realism, are not unexpected.

Maybe you have to live here to understand the appeal. Most writers have little choice but to write from the place in which they find themselves. And in a city this size there’s more than enough ‘material’. Birmingham may be a challenge to a writer’s aesthetic principles, but the short story form accommodates the city’s stories in a variety of genre and theme: a hint of crime or horror haunts the streets; or a memory bites, a childhood rears up into the day; love, mistaken; complicated family tensions; confrontations: every story packs its own surprise.

When Tindal Street Press was started up by a handful of writers from Tindal Street Fiction Group (those keen enough and armed with what would become proper publishing skills), we harboured an indignation that London publishers weren’t interested in Birmingham as a setting for fiction, vowing to set the record straight for the city and its writers. We’d begun by publishing a stunning collection of stories by Alan Beard, half of them already accepted for magazine publication, but unaccountably rejected by all the mainstream publishers. Taking Doreen out of the Sky, greeted by glowing national newspaper reviews, became the prototype for a hallmark list of regional literary fiction.

The origins of the Tindal Street project go back to 1982/83 when I was a writer-in-the-community at an organisation called TASC (Tindal Association for School and Community), based in the primary school on Tindal Street, Balsall Heath. I worked with children, pensioners and local writers; and I’m proud to say that’s where the writers’ group Tindal Street Fiction Group was formed in 1983. The model in mind was inspired by what I’d heard of the Glasgow group of Alasdair Gray and James Kelman. Their ruse was to ignore London if it insisted on ignoring Glasgow and to find readers internationally for work conceived within their city, without concessions to RP English. The classic Lanark (1981) and Kelman’s 1994 Man Booker victory were ample vindication of their stance. The most helpful insight of the Glasgow perspective was, for me, the imaginative mapping of a city, unapologetic about place names and dialect, which enabled citizens to identify more closely and more confidently with their own city through literature, but also created a useful mind-map for outsiders, too. Such a model could equally be applied to Birmingham; and indeed to the writers in this anthology exploring the inner geography of their surroundings.

And so, our group of writers focused on developing their urban fiction. During that time we convened in the community rooms fortnightly, read and critiqued a story each session, taking turns, questioning the work intensively, but constructively, before repairing to the Old Moseley Arms for book chat deep into the night. It’s what writers do everywhere. The seminar style is widespread in writing groups all over, especially now at university courses in creative writing. The Tindal Street ground rules haven’t much changed: fiction only; equal number of men and women at any one time; whole story read out loud. Though the membership has waxed and waned, the constant flux has flowed around a high- quality core of commitment. As an honorary member for the last decade, I have witnessed the vitality and productivity of the latest formation of writers; I have to say that their work seems stronger, more varied and vibrant now than in all its thirty years.

When we looked down into town from Tindal Street at night the spangling lights used to be the onion globe of the Central Mosque and the upright cylinder that is forever the Rotunda. Nowadays the most iconic skyline sights are the spire of St Martin’s in the Bull Ring next to the bluish illuminated armadillo of Selfridges. The cityscape has changed considerably, but the commitment to city-focused fiction lives on at a new address, in Moseley. ‘The Fiction Group’ still thrives after thirty years. Such fine writers as Alan Beard, Joel Lane and Gaynor Arnold are its officers. Among other published novelists are Amanda Smyth, Mez Packer, Annie Murray, Jackie Gay, Mick Scully, Luke Brown and Julia Bell. The twenty-two writers represented here have borne in mind the changes in the population of this cosmopolitan city, now more than half non-white, and appreciated its fascinating and rich mix of peoples: African Caribbean, Punjabi, Pakistani and many more, from the Soho Road to the Stratford Road, not forgetting the long- established Polish, Chinese and Irish communities. The antennae of short story writers are always finely attuned to cultural, political and historical change in their city.

It’s not possible to maintain for long the pretence that this city’s miles of canals make it the equal of Amsterdam or la Serenissima. And yet the canals are wildlife corridors just as they were night markers for the Luftwaffe bombing the BSA munitions factory in Small Heath. Writers, as well as ramblers, runners, dog walkers and cyclists, are drawn to such places. I fancy the great Italo Calvino would have had a wry smile for Gas Street Basin next to Symphony Hall: Birmingham at its most Venetian, with its bankside tables and its tourist barges; and in Brindley Place there’s a postmodern campanile and piazza. Invisible city indeed.

The palimpsest of this city would show that the first city library was a neo-gothic pile, where scholars and dreamers stared through church-style windows, destroyed for a sixties ring road. That was swept away by an eight-storey concrete Brutalist block (loved by its millions of readers, if not by the Prince of Wales who thought it looked ‘more like a place where books are incinerated, not kept’), the Central Library, a nonetheless welcoming place inside for students, refugees, office workers, readers every one. But now joined at the hip to the Repertory Theatre is a giant cardboard box covered with chicken wire topped by a golden fez, which is the brand-new Library of Birmingham. And what a brave new shape the Dutch architects have constructed, to address an uncertain future, as we engage quite differently these days with literature, information and music. If this is the city’s gesture of literary solidarity then it is a welcome one for its writers and readers now, whose reading habits have been utterly transformed by Amazon, Kindle, iPad and iPhone, but who still and will always need to read in and about their city. The newly opened Library of Birmingham should be a much-needed site of hope, a gathering place, an arena for diverse voices, for sympathetic polyphony; something to match, we hope, the perfect acoustic of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall – and not unlike this richly textured anthology of stirring urban fictions.

 

 

The Sea in Birmingham: Celebrating 30 Years of Tindal Street Fiction Group will be published on the 12th of October.


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