When Graham Stroud retired from his high-powered job with the European Commission, the world was his oyster.
But he and his wife Alison stunned their friends by deciding to settle back in Birmingham, the city where they’d met 40 years ago.
They are delighted to have made the move from Brussels to Brum, where they have immersed themselves in the cultural life of the city. They both sing in the 80-strong Birmingham Bach Choir, while soprano Alison also sings for the University of Birmingham choir and Graham plays the horn for the South Birmingham Sinfonia.
“Choosing to retire to Birmingham was a no-brainer as far as we were concerned,” says 60-year-old tenor Graham, who was director of the largest agency in Brussels, administering a budget of more than £1 billion funding scientific research throughout the European Union.
“People’s eyes did widen when we told them where we were moving to, though. There are a lot of misconceptions about Birmingham.
“Birmingham offers the same sort of advantages as Brussels – it’s a medium-sized city with lots going on – but it’s nearer our family.
“I didn’t want to live in the country, where you have to get your car out to do anything. Our car sits in the drive most of the time because we can walk to the shops or get the bus. We have everything on our doorstep.
“I didn’t want to live in London because it’s too dirty, huge and busy, everything is such an effort.
“We’d forgotten just how friendly and nice nearly everyone is in Birmingham compared to London.
“We have the best concert hall in Europe in the Symphony Hall. My agency gave me a great pile of vouchers for CBSO concerts as a leaving present, so we’re working our way through them.
“Birmingham can be very proud of what it’s got. It’s a shame that the rest of the country doesn’t realise what’s here, but it’s their loss.
“We had both sung in the Brussels Choral Society and really enjoy our music, so we wanted somewhere with a good cultural scene. Alison spent time researching all the choir possibilities before we moved. There’s so much choice here, but we arrived just before ArtsFest in September which was very useful.
“We were able to meet a number of different choirs and we liked the look of the programme of the Bach Choir. I knew of the work of conductor Paul Spicer, he’s very well respected.
“It has fulfilled all our expectations. It’s a very high quality choir and it’s great to be a part of it.”
Graham and Alison met in their first week at Birmingham University in 1970, where she was a music student and he was studying chemical engineering.
Graham played the horn – their son Richard is now a professional horn player who often performs with Birmingham Royal Ballet – and so sought out other players in the music department, where he met Alison.
“We were warned not to hang out with the chemical engineers!” laughs Alison, a retired piano teacher.
“They were known as a bit of a rowdy bunch. They all had very long hair. I remember Graham had a tweed jacket and very large glasses, like Brains from Thunderbirds!’’
“I can’t believe how much Birmingham has changed since the 1970s,” interjects Graham.
“Gas Street Basin wasn’t a place you went if you had a choice – it was very rundown and shabby, but it’s vibrant now.”
Alison adds: “It’s such a joy to be back in Birmingham again. There’s a real community feel with our neighbours, and being able to sing in two choirs is so uplifting.
“The Birmingham University choir has about 150 members, mostly students but a few oldies like me. It’s lovely singing with young people.
“Having to audition for the Birmingham Bach Choir was nerve-racking, as we were really keen to get in, but Paul Spicer is very encouraging.
“The atmosphere in the choir is so nice and one of mutual respect. Paul gently reminds you if you hit a wrong note!”
The Strouds are in the process of renovating a large Victorian house in Moseley.
“One of the nicest and most unexpected things is that we’ve been able to keep up our French,” says Graham. “I sit next to a tenor at choir who is French, so I chat away to him.
“And we buy our daily bread from Maison Mayci in Moseley, staffed by genuine French people.
“There is so much going on at the moment that I am exhausted by retirement! I had a very busy job, but I wonder how I ever found the time to work.”