Monday starts as every day has started for the past month or so at somewhere around 4.30am. A shrill, repeated two-note alarm call begins and is followed by a long groan from either my husband or me – I can’t tell which. The call and the groan mean the same thing: the bird.
This is not the delicate twittering of the dawn chorus, this is the klaxon car alarm of the coal tit. I hope it shows the extent of my obsession that I have worked my way through every bird song on the RSPB website until I was able to identify my nemesis (previously known to us only as “technobird”). Sadly, this knowledge has done us no good. We’ve tried all the usual solutions – earplugs, changing rooms, consoling ourselves with increasingly bloodthirsty Wile E Coyote fantasies of how to stop the bird – but none of it works.
Now there’s a few of them. Like bikers, they seem to find a spot they like and congregate. It seems that last week, at evil bird team briefing, they came up with a new strategy. After the initial hour-long alarm call ended, they instigated a snooze facility, allowing us 15-minute spells of silence between jagged bursts of song – or as the entry on Wikipedia, written surely by a fellow victim, says: “If song it can be called.”
Throughout the week, there is an exchange of mails with my editor and agent batting back and forth ideas for a title for my new novel. In the end, I manage to find one we all seem happy with, but despite this I am left with the feeling that I’m just not very good at coming up with titles. This is odd as I’m a self-acknowledged genius at coming up with names for bands. Every week, at least one or two surefire classics will pop into my head. I think this must date to the time I spent working for a listings magazine and used to invent gigs and venues. I charted the rise and fall of seminal space jazz combo Vincent and their regular gigs at the Wet Dog pub in Darley Dale …
Wednesday requires a trip to Ikea to return some shelving. Most of my visits to Ikea seem to be to return things. Sometimes, on opening a drawer at home I will find a length of curtain pole still sealed in its pack that I have no recollection of purchasing. Maybe the flat packs are just reproducing in my house like the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Maybe one day I’ll wake up to find myself encased in a Billy bookcase, screaming behind the Morebo glass door.
As I’m attempting to keep upright, carrying the shelving across the car park, I notice two minibuses parked near the entrance. Groups of adults are accompanied off the buses by their carers into the store. It’s a day trip. My first reaction is the kneejerk despair at which I seem expert. This takes the form of a whingeing inner voice always tediously pointing out the essential bleakness and vacuity of everyday life. “What kind of day trip is a retail unit?” it says. “What’s the world coming to?”
Later on, trapped in the endless roomscapes, trying to find the shortcut to the shelving section, I’m reminded of something. I eventually put my finger on it. Something about the set reminds me of similar recreated environments in National Trust properties. After that, I find I’m viewing each room through the eyes of a National Trust visitor. I try and imagine the lives lived in these staged spaces. They begin to appear as exotic and mysterious as Jacobean interiors. By the time I see the group again sitting at a long table in the cafe, enjoying tea, it no longer seems an odd choice for a day out; it seems, in fact, highly traditional.
Driving home, I’m further cheered to hear Anthony Cartwright’s new novel Heartland being reviewed on Simon Mayo’s book panel, to be greeted with the unanimous love and admiration it deserves. The happiness is short-lived as the news begins. Each of the 50 or so times a day that I hear the word “pandemic”, my brain elects to substitute this for “Penriffic”, the adjective used to describe Hong Kong Phooey in that show’s opening titles.
This inevitably casts a jauntier angle on the week’s affairs. During the week, I find myself wondering if Hong Kong Phooey wouldn’t manage to give a more sober account of the spread of the H1N1 virus. I see a special science correspondent on ITN telling us to make sure we wash our hands for at least 20 seconds: “That’s as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice,” he adds helpfully for their target demographic of six-year-olds.
The next day, I visit Birmingam’s Central Library to do some research. I have a great fondness for John Madin’s inverted ziggurat, or hideous concrete carbuncle, depending on your point of view. I spent many hours there as a teenager floating up and down the strangely narrow escalators, padding about the thick, orange carpets and finding rare and deleted vinyl in the music library.
Madin has lived to see most of his landmark buildings demolished, including the Pebble Mill Studios and the Birmingham Post and Mail building. His brand of 60s brutalism is as reviled now as once was the city’s Victorian architecture that was bulldozed to make room for it. Plans have recently been unveiled for the new Library of Birmingham and it looks as if another of Madin’s civic landmarks is for the chop.
On the top floor of the library, I discover two foundation plaques. One commemorates the opening in 1866 of the city’s late Victorian library. Next to it a plaque commemorates the opening in 1974 by Harold Wilson of the current library. I imagine them sitting side by side next to a third plaque in the new Library of Birmingham. I wonder how many more may accumulate in my lifetime. Above the plaques is Birmingham’s motto “Forward” and the top of its coat of arms: an arm swinging a hammer.
Originally published in The Observer, May 2009