Book Review: Second City

Book two of 2023 is Second City by Richard Vinen.

Second City

I picked it up on a whim from The Heath bookshop in Kings Heath (which is lovely).

It’s an incredibly in-depth history of Birmingham from its geography & mythic Anglo Saxon origins, through The Enlightenment, its rise as an industrial city, the role it played in the British Empire, then onto the Second World War, its transition into the car centre of Britain (and decline there of), finally the 21st century.

Vinen is painting Birmingham’s history with both broad strokes and incredible detail. There’s a large focus in the last third of the book on local and national elections which were frankly too much for me. The rest of the book was much more to my taste. Being able to understand why Joseph Chamberlain has his name on everything. How Birmingham became a car centred hellscape. Why estates were built without amenities. The history of immigration to Birmingham and what the immigrants experienced upon arrival. Labour unions are also discussed in depth.

Vinen takes time to bust a few myths about Birmingham. Principally that during it’s industrial revolution, due to the nature of small workshops, workers were much closer to their bosses and how that built a more equal society. Basically if you were a man that might be true but it ignores the labour of women and children who were hidden from such accounts and had a less nice time.

I enjoyed tales of workers who knew they were skilled and irreplaceable pushing the boundaries and being fired only to be rehired the next week.

I’ve lived in Birmingham since 2015 and have spent essentially no time learning about the place. This book has been a crash course in how and why Birmingham is the way it is.

There’s a lot here. It’s definitely an academic work. With appendices and references aplenty. I think it’s a tough sell to anyone without a connection to the city but if you have one you should definitely pick it up.