Why do they call Birmingham the Second City?

Well, yes because it is the UK’s second city after London but nobody wants to come second.

All that effort, all that work, all that planning and you come second.

It’s about time we took a more positive slant on what Birmingham has to offer as psychologically coming second may as well be 102nd. Just ask Liverpool FC or any number of football teams who all at some time will have come second. As former manager Bill Shankley said, “If you are first you are first. If you are second you are nothing.”

John Regis lost by a metre to Frankie Fredericks in the 200m final at the World Championships in 1993. He set a British record, beating the eminent runner Carl Lewis and got a silver medal but that wasn’t enough. “Second is first loser. You always want to win and you train to win. No-one trains to come second’.

So yes Birmingham is on the podium but not at the top. The world is not looking at who’s second and third, just who’s wearing the gleaming gold medal. I was in New York for six months last year and upon hearing my English accent, not one person asked where in England are you from? Instead what they asked was ‘how does this compare to London?’ or ‘when are you going back to London?’

I had friends from Milton Keynes, a town that calls itself a city, visit for the first time and I was determined to show them that Birmingham is a fantastic (real) city full of culture, history, some great architecture, a commercial buzz, entrepreneurship and fabulous, friendly people.

I took them to the farmers market at the Jewellery Quarter, through St Pauls Square and the commercial district towards the shopping areas rounded off by Selfridges in Bull Ring to step out from under the rain. We then enjoyed a drink or two in welcoming bars before ending the day at the German market which was extremely busy even in the drizzle.

On another day we would have experienced the quaintness of Moseley or Harborne and the immensity of the Birmingham Museum and Gallery and any number of places of historic interest, not to mention a fantastic array of restaurants encompassing every cuisine imaginable or an excursion on the canal rounded off by a visit to the theatre or Symphony Hall.

The spiritual home of the motor car, the area gave birth to the Mini but has also spawned some uber-successful people including Lenny Henry, Julie Walters, Frank Skinner, Jasper Carrot, JR Tolkien, Cat Deeley, Nigel Mansell, and Bill Oddie. Also a whole host of musicians; Duran Duran, UB40, ELO, Judas Priest, Ozzy Osborne/Black Sabbath, Noddy Holder/Slade, Traffic and Ocean Colour Scene not to mention some of the country’s foremost industrialists and entrepreneurs; James Watts, Thomas Telford, Mathew Boulton and James Brindley before we even get to Cadbury’s chocolate.

Journalists, PR and marketing people, all this is something to be proud and that’s me talking as a non-Brummie who chooses to live here. All we need is to brand it with a different name. What happened to the heart of England?


8 thoughts on “Why do they call Birmingham the Second City?

  1. Hi Rickie…you have echoed my words..words I have been banging on & on & on & on about for the last 30 years…Thanks for speaking up….I think the 2nd place tag has tarnished our wonderful city, its incredible people and our combined achievements.
    Brian Travers UB40

    ps..I think we should have our own Embassy in Whitehall with the sole aim of marketing our City to our elected representative who seem to conveniently forget about us whilst climbing the ladder to the smokers bar in Parliament..the only legal smoking bar in the UK…funny old world eh ? Im a non smoker btw BUT I know there are millions who would frequent a bar where they could indulge in their habit..us non smokers wouldn’t have to go there would we…..

    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting, I feel honoured.
      I like the idea of the Embassy – if only! We’ve had a mini debate on Twitter this morning so hope you don’t mind me adding your weight to the discussion. I’m trying to get editors and marketing people to stop using that phrase!

  2. Hi Rickie…use and abuse me in anyway that helps your argument, I’m always on the side of the little guy and Birmingham doesn’t get the respect or the input from Whitehall thats so desperately needed for any city to thrive…An example of what I mean springs to mind when not so long ago under Sir Albert Bores Council there was a plan financed by with outside/independent investment, no government money involved to build the UK’s tallest building in Colmore Row, something for the city to cling to and attract more investment,something to sell our city to the world. John Prescott, Tony Blairs bruiser said without a trace of Irony..IF theres going to be a tallest anything in the UK its going to be London…NOT Birmingham and with that demolished a 100 million £ plan for the regeneration and marketing of Birmingham…

  3. I remember someone once saying if you ask most people what England’s second city is, they’ll say Birmingham. Unless you ask a Mancunian, who will say Manchester.
    Or a Liverpudlian, who will say London.

    The person was making a point about local pride and how Scousers are loud and proud about their city. As are Mancunians. It’s a confident swagger which Birmingham doesn’t have.

    However, I don’t have a problem with it. I’ve lived in Birmingham for 10 years and I like it’s not-wanting-to-make-a-fuss attitude.

    When put-upon cities and towns with less-than rosy reputations try to shout “Hey, it’s great here now! You should come and see how brilliant it is!” – all it does is encourage further mickey-taking.

    Remember the reaction when Liverpool won the City of Culture? It was like “Culture? In Liverpool?”.

    I don’t recall a campaign (of such) to tell everyone how fantastic Leeds, Newcastle and Nottingham are. They have good reputations though.

    My preference is to take the approach you took with your friend from MK.
    If the city provides an enjoyable experience, just allow visitors to enjoy it. They will tell other people.
    Sure, it’s a slow process, but gradually the message will subconsciously get through, without the need to shout “Look at me, look at me!”

    It worked for me – I didn’t have a good impression of Brum before I came here.
    My mum who visits occasionally loves the diversity here.

    So, I don’t mind being the Second City. It isn’t a race or a competition. The nation’s capital is the nation’s capital. It’s always number one. Being Second City means you are the most important outside the nation’s capital – and that carries some weight. In the USA there are always claims from NY, Chicago, LA etc to be the Second City. In Australia, Sydney and Melbourne both claim to be the 2nd City.

    I was talking to an American journalist last year and he said he loved Birmingham. Ironically, most foreign tourists will stumble upon Brum through their visits to Stratford-upon-Avon (which, along with London and Liverpool, are pretty much the only English places Americans are interested in). The journalist mentioned Symphony Hall, Cadbury’s and the Industrial Revolution – none of which he was particularly aware of before he came to the UK.
    It must be so much more rewarding for visitors to come away thinking “I never expected it to be that good”, rather than being primed on how fantastic a place is before their arrival. That kind of asks for disappointment.

  4. Thank you so much for your input.
    I agree that the last thing Birmingham needs is anyone shouting and raving about it but just a gentle move away from calling it ‘2nd’ without any fanfare from PR people will be fantastic. Just call it Birmingham. As you say, there’s no getting away from the city being 2nd but I don’t feel there is no need to mention it every time. We already know that as does the rest of the UK.

    It’s interesting that Brummies don’t shout about it like their northern near neighbours – that’s something I have never understood, being an outsider as I shout out about my home town any chance I get.

    I too had a visit from an American journalist a few weeks ago (my boyfriend from NYC) who quite frankly didn’t see much difference between London & Birmingham although yes of course, he would never have come here if I wasn’t based here. And yes I did take him to Warwick Castle etc and he loved it so much he wrote a great piece about it.

  5. I agree with your points about not calling Birmingham the Second City. However, finding what we could call ourselves is quite a thing. I’m not fond of Heart of England myself. It sounds too warm and pretty and Home Counties. I’d rather we had a strap line that was more gritty and thrusting. If I could think what, I would be demanding a very large sum of money.

  6. Hi Rickie, I came here via PRG – you commented on my HTML WTF post. Thanks. I love this post. My husband’s a brummie and he’s always banging on about it being the second city. He’s very proud of it actually, but clearly thinks it should be first. My engagement ring came from the Jewellery Quarter and I have spent many many hours walking around the BullRing and also Sutton park (he’s from Sutton Coldfield). I love it a little bit too.

  7. Thanks Holly,
    I’m not from around these parts but it’s my 3rd stint living in Brum, came here a year ago and live in JQT!

    I’ve just commented on a blog post on Bham Post & yet again they call it ‘second city’ – drives me crazy! Did you see the 50 things that make me smile in Brum post too?

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