Richard Vinen

Second City
  • Second City

  • For over a century, Birmingham has been the second largest town in England, and at the heart of British history. In his enjoyable and thoughtful new book, Richard Vinen captures the drama of a small village that grew to become the quintessential city of the twentieth century: a place once synonymous with mass production, full employment and prosperity but which came to a cataclysmic halt in the 1980s. For much of its existence, Birmingham has been a great magnet for migration, drawing in a significant proportion of South Wales as well as people from India, Pakistan and the Caribbean. Indeed, much of British history - the passage of the first reform bill, the rise and fall of the Chamberlain dynasty, racial tension - only makes sense when Birmingham is brought into the picture.

    Vinen roots his sweeping story in the experience of individuals. This is a book about figures everyone has heard of, from J. R. R. Tolkien to Duran Duran, and those that everyone ought to have heard of, such as the Communist convenor at the Longbridge factory or the remarkable West Indians interviewed for the 1960s documentary The Colony. It also captures the ways in which hundreds of thousands of people - from the Welsh miners who poured into the car factories to a young woman dancing to reggae in the basement of Rebecca's nightclub - were caught up in the convulsions of social change.

    Birmingham is not a pretty place, and its history does not always make for comfortable reading. But modern Britain does not make sense without it.

Richard Vinen is Professor of History at King's College, London and the author of a number of major books. He won the Wolfson Prize for History for National Service (2014).

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