Now the dust’s settled, Richard Nevin looks back on a triumph.
It wasn’t just raining, it was howling down and coupled with a gale force wind, August Bank Holiday Monday in Birmingham was as miserable as one can imagine. I know because I was stood in it, in front of a Marlborough cigarettes promotional vehicle, a sort of tobacco themed version of the Radio One Roadshow pumping out Robert Palmer’s I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On, to a thin band of onlookers including me and my sister, who had hopped on the bus Up Town to revel in the carnival atmosphere created by the first ever Birmingham Super Prix. We soon departed this grim tableau, played out between the entrance to the Bull Ring shopping centre and St Martin’s and made our way home. We were soaked, but more than that, disappointed.
That memory has always haunted me, and rears its head whenever Birmingham gets an all too rare share of the spotlight. Something will conspire to rain on our parade as it did on that Monday in 1986, the doom mongers and critics will be proved correct and we’ll go back to knowing our place and stare in wonder and envy at the Capital City. I needn’t have worried in 1996, we hosted the Dutch and Scottish football fans who created a carnival atmosphere in the city centre during that year’s European Championships, and when the world’s leaders came to town in 1998 for the G8 summit it was looked upon as a great success. The encore of the Eurovision Song Contest just afterwards was equally well received. We were the first to host a large scale Christmas Market, much copied around the UK, and facsimiles of Symphony Hall still can’t overshadow the finest provincial concert hall on these shores.
So we can and have done it, but my natural misanthropic Brummie tendency couldn’t be suppressed as I watched Victoria Square being transformed for the upcoming Commonwealth Games. I hoped the people of Birmingham would respond, in terms of the festival sites as well as the games venues and that my mind wouldn’t be dragged back to 1986….
Looking back now, it almost seems incongruous that I could have such thoughts, such was the success of the Games but let’s be honest, did anyone other than the most optimistic Brummie really think it would turn out as well as it did? Just a week or so prior to the, now iconic, opening ceremony I found myself in Centenary Square hovering outside the Official Merchandise Store. This temporary behemoth was all but deserted and I was fearful of going in, lest I get hassled by the underemployed but enthusiastic member of staff.
My coffee date arrived and saved me the stress of having to choose between being uncomfortable and supporting the Games but that doubt nagged away at me right up until I arrived at the Alexander Stadium. My employed role, indirectly linked to the Games didn’t really allow me the time to actually attend the sporting events but I did acquire tickets for the first rehearsal of the Opening Ceremony. And that’s where it all started to go right. From the excellently organised transport shuttle to fabulously refurbished athletics venue, from the stunning retelling of Birmingham and Midlands history to the first glimpse of that giant mechanical bull it dawned on me that the next two weeks was going to be something very special for our city.
It poured with rain that evening and I got soaked but from then on the sun shone, and shone some more. People flocked into the city centre. The Bull become a sensation, a genuine tourist attraction. I crossed through town every day, to and from work and it just got busier and busier. Victoria Square glowed with life-affirming positivity and fun. On one occasion I noticed people sat on the brilliantly painted floor, such was the lack of seating. 24 hours later dozens of deckchairs had appeared, making a mockery of how difficult it always seems to get the simple things right round here. It became difficult to get from one side of the square to the other; it approached almost German Market level of crowds.
Everyone was gushing, previously sceptical sports stars, presenters and journalists appeared wide eyed as they surveyed and praised this wonderland of good weather, good ill and good times. Everyone I encountered couldn’t have been more complimentary and Birmingham was a jewel in the sun. And then, when a 73 year old from Lodge Road Aston, perched upon an elevated platform and wearing heavy eyeliner raised his arms and shouted “Birmingham Forever!” it was all over.
I feared a sense of loss, a come down, a light dimming in our lives but for me it still hasn’t arrived. The glow remains despite the city turning to business as usual, the Bull stands resolutely outside the library as the people continue to come and worship but he will eventually go. Some signage remains but much has gone. Those familiar colours of the volunteer uniform or the giant lanyards that immediately identified those involved with the games are no longer around.
But what won’t go is the lasting impression the Commonwealth Games 2022 left with everyone. We knew Birmingham was a wonderful city, we knew the people were friendly, open and welcoming to all, that we had the skill, talent and technique to fulfil the promise made when the games were belated awarded to us. But now everyone knows, we received praise, even if it was grudging from some quarters and for many of us who have grown up with bitter jibes, ridicule and prejudice, Birmingham 2022 was a triumph.
We told you we could, and we did.