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David Kuczora: In A Sentimental Mood for all that glistens in the city

By David Kuczora on Sep 3, 13 09:31 AM in Culture

There's a certain aptness - if not little irony - that it's taken an Aussie who's spent 20 years in America to help quintessentially British silversmith Mappin & Webb tend its wares to the Chinese. But that's exactly what Aurum's CEO Justin Stead has done, he explained at the first of Birmingham Forward's new series of "Birmingham Led" talks last night held in Barclay's swanky Latitude lounge in One Snowhill.

Aurum also owns high street stores Goldsmiths and Watches of Switzerland, and the transformation has been driven by changing the culture of the company with big ideas and visions. Stead relates a literal "water cooler moment" when he played a profanity-laden clip of Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at a conference arranged for 600 store staff shortly after he started. Nothing like making an entrance. The next year he played a clip of President Kennedy's promise to get to the moon. All very stirring.

I asked my companions afterwards which business leaders in the UK would be able to pull this dream big stuff and we were all stuck for names. The success stories which immediately jump to mind (Branson, Sugar et al) are self-made entrepreneurs.

Do you reckon Michael O'Leary or Stelios could take on an ailing retailer and turn it around? Could Hilary Devey or Deborah Meaden's brassy battle-axe personas be turned to create such a touchy-feely culture? Would a clip of Margaret Thatcher reclaiming the Falklands stir the same passion on the shop floor?

There seems to be something not quite British in this approach. We've traditionally been the understated underdogs, not used to theatre in business. Stead narrates how he promoted a number of senior managers to board directors in front of the assembled masses at one of his conventions. Perhaps we Brits have something to learn from this polished showmanship as we slowly start to see economic recovery?

One nugget Stead did admit is that Aurum is eying up a "very large" unit in the redeveloped Mailbox. It's doubtful it will have the bedrooms of its planned Watches of Switzerland flagship store in Regent Street (the bottom floor, Stead casually proposes, is aimed at time-pressed Chinese tourists looking to drop £30k and hurry to a matinee of We Will Rock You). But it is another shot in the arm for Birmingham's retail future.

***

At events like this attendees would usually be desperate to bend the ear of such a senior speaker, but today was a little different given it was the glitzy launch of the Library of Birmingham. My co-conspirators at the Birmingham Forward do had wangled their way onto the guest list but I hadn't. No problem, they reckoned; one gatecrasher out of our group would be easy to blag in.

And so it proved, which made me both overjoyed and overawed. The building is simply stunning inside and out. I had my initial doubts about whether the external design will date horribly (a design which, the fantastic Urban Buildings blog points out) bears a remarkable resemblance to Mecanoo's proposed design for the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

But standing on the roof garden watching the sun set over the city is a truly stunning sight. And, considering I've heard jokes made about it looking like a posh lampshade, when it is illuminated at night it is a proud architectural statement for Birmingham.

***

Coming down the escalators as the party drew to a close, I bump into a regular lunching companion of mine. "Oh I wasn't on the list either," he quips. "I just told them I was Ian Ward, deputy leader of the council and that they had to let me in." Fearing security could descend at any moment, I decide it's the appropriate time to make a swift exit.

***

Walking down towards the old Central Library, I was boxed squarely around the ears by Count Basie. Part of my hesitation to take to the new library initially was my affection for its old Brutalist predecessor. I came to Birmingham exactly a decade ago this September to study saxophone at Birmingham Conservatoire, many of whose practice rooms are buried in the concrete bowels of Paradise Forum in a space mysteriously monikered "The Void".

The Yardbird was then and still is now the stomping ground of young jazzers from the Conservatoire, who use it as a place to try out their compositions before submitting them to their Profs. You'll hear the good, the bizarre and - inevitably - some jazz flute at some point.

Last night the Tom Dunnett/Baxter Big Band were playing, the soaring sound of 14 musicians crammed into a tiny pub spilling out onto the street; arresting my progress and drawing me in. Dunnett/Baxter is not one Tom but two, both Conservatoire trombonists who formed the band originally for a "one-off" vintage swing night at The Yardbird in 2012. It quickly transformed into a residency, with players and tunes changing to keep things fresh.

Standards like Nestico's Basie Straight Ahead are played with panache. They rub shoulders with more unusual original pieces, such a Telemann arrangement by band trumpet player Nick Dewhurst which was Souza meets Mingus. Talking of Mingus, Sam Craig and Chris Maddock battle as proficiently as the tenors on Goodbye Pork Pie Hat from Nostalgia in Times Square - staccato, punchy and powerful. Alto player Elliot Drew's improvisations are beautifully lyrical and soaring on Sean Gibb's arrangement of Give It Up. Overall, it's a strong and tight ensemble with fantastic playing and soloing all round.

The Tom Dunnett/Baxter Big Band will be back at The Yardbird next month and are also appearing at The Wondersmith Craft & Music Festival on 15th September at Bentham Old Hall in Gloucestershire, which also promises spinning, blacksmithing and even butchery displays alongside some power swing. Certainly sounds diverse.

I left The Yardbird with the vibrato-laden coda of April in Paris repeating in my head over and over on the way back to the 'burbs. In this city, both the old and the new glisten with greatness.

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Jonathan Walker

Jonathan Walker - The Birmingham Post's political editor
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David Kuczora

David Kuczora - A PR consultant working in Birmingham and living in the 'burbs
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Alister Scott

Alister Scott - Professor of Spatial Planning and Governance, Birmingham City University
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