Arts Editor Terry Grimley's Birmingham Post years - Part I
Terry Grimley has been covering the arts for the Birmingham Post since 1973. As he finally steps down from the role of arts editor, he reflects on some of the highlights and changes of the past four decades, starting with the 70s and 80s.
I’ve often thought I must have the dullest CV in British journalism: “Got a job on the Birmingham Post in 1973 and stayed for 36 years”.
In an age that was supposed to have seen the death of the “job for life”, I seem to have grabbed one of the last ones going.
And yet dullness is relative. I could have been working in a bank for 36 years (nothing wrong with that, of course, if you enjoy banking) rather than writing about world-class arts companies like the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Royal Shakespeare Company and Birmingham Royal Ballet.
What’s more, it turned out that there was an extraordinary story to tell over these years, about the renaissance of a great but beleaguered industrial city, in which the arts have played a vital role.
And this story is ending on a cliff-hanger because, as I bow out, Birmingham has just declared itself as one of 14 competitors to be named the first UK City of Culture in 2013.
There is some question whether this is a competition worth winning, but it’s not a question you can afford to ask once you’ve decided to bid. The assumption has to be that this cash-free prize can somehow be exploited as an effective mechanism to raise the city’s cultural game and do something about its still-negative perception in other parts of the country.
And just in case anyone doubts that Birmingham suffers from metropolitan prejudice, here’s my favourite story on the subject.
In 1989 I interviewed Russell Johnson, the American acoustic designer of Symphony Hall, in New York after the CBSO’s sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. Some months later I bumped into him in Birmingham as he was gazing at what was still the building site of the ICC.
I asked if he’d done any other interviews recently, he said: “Well, a journalist from London flew out to Germany recently to interview me.”
Being aware of the general level of interest in Birmingham among the so-called “national” media, I did a startled double-take.
“Hang on – are you saying a London journalist flew to Germany to interview you about a hall in Birmingham?”
“No. It was about the hall in Philadelphia.”
It seems funny now to remember that when I first started on the Post on June 15, 1973, as “feature writer with special responsibility for the arts” – basically assistant to my predecessor as arts editor, Anthony Everitt – I assumed I would do it for a couple of years and then do something different.
I had stumbled into journalism more or less by accident after taking a degree in fine art at Nottingham University, where several of my contemporaries went on to become prominent curators – most notably Julian Spalding, who eventually became a well-known and controversial director of museums in Manchester and Glasgow.
I was also interested in working in museums – primarily because I liked the idea of buying paintings with other people’s money, something I still find attractive – and nearly got what would have been a very good first foot on the ladder at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull.
Unfortunately the director only discovered after he decided to offer me the job that a Catch-22 rule prevented him giving it to someone with no previous museum experience. It turned out the Birmingham Post had a much more casual approach to hiring people, and so the museum world’s gain was to become journalism’s loss.
By this time I was 25, and technically classified as an “adult entrant”. This meant I had jumped the queue, so I was packed off to Cardiff Technical College for two or three months for a crash course in the stuff I had missed through not working my way up to the Post via weekly newspapers.
By far the most important practical skill I learned in Cardiff was shorthand, taught in a classroom by a bullying woman – the only circumstances in