Stephen Pennell starts warming up for 2022.
Lady Sanity, Daniel Alexander, Amerah Saleh, Rosie Kay.
The Commonwealth Games Handover Ceremony, Sunday 15th/Saturday 21st April.
Venues: the Gold Coast, a Birmingham living room, Victoria Square and The Sunflower Lounge.
Although I was scheduled to do my normal Sunday morning overtime, I’d informed the gaffer the previous week that I’d be foregoing a few hours double time by leaving early so I could watch the Birmingham segment of the Commonwealth Games handover ceremony, to be broadcast live from Australia to a TV audience of a billion people.
I was given a bit of a fright when my cable TV went down the day before, and although I’m not going to advertise who my provider is, suffice it to say that after I posted a threatening tweet to Richard Branson it was soon up and running again in time for the big day.
For the most part, the ceremony from Australia was awful, and I was beginning to think I should have stayed at work and earned a few extra quid. A host of nondescript singers performed generic, sub-X-Factor dirges as a prelude to a seemingly endless round of speeches by dignitaries, and I was having trouble justifying my iron grip on the remote control to my kids, who would have much preferred to be watching Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom.
I’ll be honest – at that point, so would I. But then the commentator said “Come on Birmingham, wake everybody up” and it was our turn.
We opened with a short video, a light-hearted but accurate reflection of the city in its honesty, diversity and self-deprecating humour. Set to the banging beat of Lotto Boyzz’ Birmingham Anthem, we saw Spaghetti Junction, the Bull Ring markets, Grime star Jaykae dressed as a Peaky Blinder, and the film’s producer, Jewellery Quarter-based Daniel Alexander, getting vexed with one of his actors. We’re so self-effacing, we even left the bloopers in.
Then it was back to the Gold Coast for a live performance. For this, the stars aligned sometime in 2017. First, Durban’s proposed hosting of the Commonwealth Games in 2022 collapsed due to lack of finance, and Birmingham stepped into the breach by beating Liverpool in the battle to take over.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Erdington, a talented young rapper was writing a song for an EP that was to come out later that year, the lyrics intensely personal, yet also resonant for any aspiring achiever (an athlete maybe?), or a traditionally looked-down-upon city taking its long-awaited and well-deserved place on the world stage.
Like Birmingham, the rhymes were alive with creativity, skill, energy and hard work, yet simultaneously wracked with self-doubt – “Sometimes I wonder why it’s me they put their faith in.” Ultimately though, the song tells of a steely determination to achieve greatness whatever the odds, whether the necessary support is there or not.
I could be talking about the song, the city of Birmingham, or its perfect representative, the song’s writer and performer now centre-stage – Lady Sanity; all three fit the song’s narrative equally well. I’m a big fan of the Brummie MC, and I was nervous as a kitten as she began rapping, but I needn’t have worried. She was word-perfect, from the opening bars to the infectious chorus at the end, and by then the only person who was stressed out was the poor subtitles typist at the BBC, charged with the impossible task of keeping up with Sanity’s machine-gun delivery.
Both the artist and the song were inspired choices, and I’d like to congratulate whoever came up with them. Maybe someone from the council was with us last year at the Digbeth den of iniquity that is Suki10c, where Sanity performed the song live for the first time, but whoever’s idea it was to make it the centrepiece of Birmingham’s handover segment at the Gold Coast Games’ closing ceremony is a genius, and now it appears that the song’s sport-themed title – Go The Distance – might become the eloquent slogan for Brum’s Games.
Back to the live broadcast, and the location switched to our magnificent Town Hall, where Stratford Road wordsmith Amerah Saleh treated us to a stirring reading of her poem Tourist In My City. “Birmingham – you stayed back too long.” she said, before speaking passionately of our history of protest, activism, inclusivity and a warm welcome for newcomers.
As articulate as she was, there was no gloss on her words, and no sense of a city pretending to be something it’s not. Afterwards, I read The Guardian’s live blog, which said, “This is inspiring, incendiary stuff. She’s talking about Yemen, fist raised, and she means it.” I must have got something in my eye, honest.
Amerah then led us outside into Victoria Square for the big finale, a dance performed perfectly by hundreds of young Brummies and choreographed brilliantly by another one, Rosie Kay. To the backing of ELO’s Mr Blue Sky, it was a triumph of organisation and a joyful conclusion to our bit of the closing ceremony. I read later that it was the longest single-camera sequence ever broadcast live, so well done for that too, Birmingham!
I enjoyed it so much that I went to Victoria Square the following Saturday to see homecoming queen Sanity reprise her performance (marvellous again), and got the chance to congratulate in person the utterly charming Amerah Saleh on her reading of her poem.
As if to prove Amerah’s point about Birmingham’s history of activism, Sanity’s performance was almost interrupted by marchers protesting against the scandalous treatment of the Windrush generation. And more power to them – I was torn between staying near the stage and joining the protest. After that it was home to drop off six year-old Lewis who was fed up of the rain, and seven year-old Amber, who has a published poem and an ambition to be the next Lady Sanity.
Finally, it’s back out to the Sunflower Lounge to see a proper Sanity gig. She was impressive as always but with typical Brummie contrariness she didn’t do her now best known tune. I hope she’s not sick of it because I’ll wager she’ll be performing it a lot over the next four years. There will be ups and downs in that time, with lots of big projects for the Games organising committee to get to grips with, but if ever I feel it might all go wrong, I’ll just remember the closing bars of Go The Distance:
“In a world full of cannots, let me tell you that you are astounding,
And I’d rather a handful of hope than a future of doubting.”