By Bill Drummond
The serious crush I developed for the city of Birmingham first started to evolve when I was 19, in the autumn of 1972.
My teenage years were spent living in Corby, in the east Midlands. But in September 1972 I started a three-year painting course at the Liverpool School of Art. Every month or so I would hitchhike up and down the country between Liverpool to Corby for a weekend at home. Most of the journey was done on the M6.
In those days hitching was commonplace. And you never had to wait too long for a lift. My favourite part of the journey was on the elevated stretch of the M6 that cuts through the north and east of Birmingham.
It was while sitting up in the cab of an articulated lorry, staring out across the city I felt the first stirrings of this crush. From this position the city I could see looked like a city of the future or at least from the TV programme Tomorrow’s World. It even had a skyline like American cities had.
The sun would glint off a space age building I later learnt was called the Rotunda.
The highlight of this part of the journey was always speeding over Spaghetti Junction.
It was for those few seconds as I stared down at all of the twisting and turning highways beneath us that I knew I was experiencing something that rightfully only should be experienced by my future great, great grandchildren.
So where did this crush take me? I never once plucked up courage to make a break in the journey and venture into this city I only glimpsed. There was a girl that I had a crush on at the time in Corby.
I would only ever see her across the back room bar of The Nag’s Head on Friday nights. She was always with this bloke. He was the face. He had a haircut like Rod Stewart.
When a haircut like Rod Stewart was the ultimate achievement in male hair. I didn’t even know her name. But strangely a couple of years later I got a letter from her, it seemed the crush was reciprocated. Nothing came of it. Not even a snog. Life moves on.
Anyway back to me and Birmingham. One night in late 1973 I was hitching from Liverpool to Corby and I got a lift that dropped me off at Spaghetti Junction.
This was a first time I was actually in Spaghetti Junction. After I got over the thrill I realised there seemed to be no way out. Or no way out that took me back onto the M6 heading south.
The more I tried, the deeper I got into this labyrinth. Hours were spent down there. It got dark. Above me cars sped by. There was even a rail line through it, every few minutes trains rushed passed with brightly lit carriages full of people heading home.
Then right at the bottom I came across a canal. It was as if it was left over from another age. On it a narrow boat chugged by. By about midnight I gave up, there seemed no escape. I pulled the sleeping bag from my rucksack, climbed in and was soon asleep there on the canal tow path.
That night I dreamt that here right at the bottom of Spaghetti Junction, was the entrance to the Underworld. The soundtrack to this dream was the opening track of the 1970 debut album by Birmingham’s favourite sons Black Sabbath.
“What is this I see before me
Figure in black which points at me
Turn around quick, and start to run,
Find out I’m the chosen one
The dawn chorus saved me. With the first light I was up and the sleeping bag rolled up. Within 10 minutes I’d found the exit to the M6, and stuck my thumb out. The second car to pass pulled up and I got a lift all the way back to Corby.
Over the decades, the crush has continued. I still love driving that elevated section of the M6 while taking a longing glance across at the nation’s second city still glinting in the sunlight.
The Rotunda may look dwarfed by newer buildings, but she still looks fine to me. But in all these years I have never ventured in. Never wanted to have the reality destroy the fantasy.
Then a year or so ago, I got a letter from an art gallery in the city – Eastside Projects. They were inviting me to do an exhibition. Would this amount to nothing? Like the other letter I got many years ago. I accepted the offer. A bit of a blind date.
Over the next three months I’m going to be based in Birmingham. The exhibition is called The 25 Paintings.
The 25 paintings in question are all very simple and all the same size, roughly two metres by 1.5 metres each – they are big.
On them there is nothing more than a few words painted in big bold letters.
But each of these 25 paintings acts as a signpost or signal or even an advert for an aspect of the work that I have been doing over the past 14 and counting years and plan to be doing in Birmingham.
One of the paintings just has the two words BAKE CAKE on it, no further explanation. But what I will be doing is baking 40 cakes at Eastside Projects (Victoria sponge or chocolate).
I will then draw a large circle on a map of Birmingham that is pinned to the gallery wall. The centre of the circle is the gallery where I have baked the cakes.
Then I will drive out to the edge of the circle with a cake, knock on a random front door. If anyone answers I will say, ‘I have baked you a cake, here it is.’
If they don’t want it for whatever reason, I will go next door and do the same. I will repeat this process 40 times until all the cakes have been delivered to and received by complete strangers who had no idea what this was about or the fact that their home was on the Birmingham Cake Circle.
The 25 Paintings were too large to all be hung on the walls of Eastside Projects, so I took the risk of building a house of cards with them. This we built yesterday, as of now it is still standing.
I love the fact that it could collapse at any time. Even though I say it myself, once we had it built I was very impressed. It seemed so much more interesting than just hanging paintings on a wall.
I’ve got plenty of other things planned for these three months. I don’t know if snogging is on the list. But what I do know is that Birmingham is the first date on my 12-year world tour.
Over these three months I look forward to keeping you abreast with what I am getting up to.
The first thing I’m planning is entering this metropolis on the Grand Union Canal under Spaghetti Junction on a raft made from my own bed with 440 bunches of daffodils.
I will also be working on my stuff in Eastside Projects every Friday and Saturday between noon and 5pm. Don’t hesitate to drop by to ask me how come your home was not on the Birmingham Cake Circle.
• Bill Drummond’s The 25 Paintings is at Eastside Projects, Digbeth, from March 15 until June 14. www.eastsideprojects.org . He will be writing about his projects each week in The Birmingham Post.