We're relieved to be on the train. Birmingham train station is minging. I can still taste and feel the diesel smoke in the back of my throat. It was like standing in a cloud of exhaust fumes.
I don't really know Birmingham. We never used to come here as kids. My Mum tells me they used to deposit us at my Gran's in Cov if ever they came here, so it wasn't part of my upbringing. I always used to think of it as a bit of a dump, which paled into significance against braver cities like Leeds and Sheffield. It used to make me sad. I strongly identify as a Midlander and thought we deserved a better regional capital. I came here for the Eurovision Song Contest in 1998, and to do a production of Madam Butterfly a year later, but subsequent trips have been fly-bys to do corporate gigs, auditions and such.
Today was the first day that I've spent any time properly wandering around the city, and I've come away with an entirely different opinion of the place. It feels confident. It feels comfortable with itself. They're knocking down large sections of the place around the conservatoire, but walking from the train station through Victoria Square and down to the glorious canals is actually rather inspiring.
The day started with a trip up the M1/6 to Nuneaton where we met the parents in the curiously named "Grif," which I'm told is not short for Griffin but moreover the name of a district on the outskirts of the town.
We had lunch in Nuneaton itself, driving into the town centre via Gypsy Lane, the road where my father grew up. It runs through open fields, and my Dad pointed out a line of trees which he said disguised the "Secret Lake," an old quarry he used to visit as a kid which apparently had bright blue water which used to freak him out. We drove on and stopped outside the house his parents had lived in for over fifty years. I remember it from my childhood. It looked a bit run down today. It was spotless when my Nan and Grandad lived there. It's a 1930s house with a bay window. My brother and I used to go and watch telly in the back room, and when we emerged, we'd often find the adults chatting in the front room in complete darkness but for the electric fire and the halogen street lamps glowing the other side of the bay window.
We had lunch, panini and such (or "panini's" as they were described on the menu), in the Old Jail House, which is a rather nice spot in an otherwise rather run-down town centre. It's quite horrifying to see so many boarded-over shops, and office blocks with signs outside saying, "office space to hire: name your rent..."
We took the train to Birmingham. It's a pleasant enough journey through uninspiring farm land. Probably land that my relatives once farmed.
We met Brother Edward and Sascha in John Lewis, where I convinced my Mum to buy a beautiful skirt made from yards of lined blue floral fabric.
As we walked to the canal, we bumped into young Joe from the original cast of Brass. It was lovely to see him. Later on, as we sat in the Malt House, we were joined by Harrison, who played flugelhorn in the band, and is in the ensemble this year. We talked about Tewksbury where he's from, and the dreadful flooding there in 2007 when his house got completely cut off, effectively becoming an island, which was periodically visited by people on boats delivering milk and bread. Madness!
The main purpose of our trip was to visit Birmingham Symphony Hall to see the CBSO performing a concert of English music by Walton and Elgar. My Dad was keen for us to hear a concert in a building which he feels has a near-perfect acoustic. It was a great concert - slightly under-attended - but the winning entry was almost certainly the performance of Elgar's Symphony Number 2, which featured some of the most delicate string music I've ever heard. "The best performance of the piece I've ever heard" said my Dad. Praise indeed.
We travelled home with revellers celebrating St Paddy's Day. One chap looked extraordinarily dapper in a shamrock print suit with his beard died in strips of orange, green and white.