A dark force is at work in industrial Birmingham. The evidence is there before us in our streets, in our museums, in the halls of power, our entertainment venues, our dark mills. Yes the devil himself pervades the fabric of Birmingham culture.
Nowhere is this presence felt more than in the imposing effigy in the main atrium to the Museum & Art Gallery in Chamberlain Square – the Civic focus of art and tradition in Birmingham. It is the first ambassador to welcome the casual visitor or tourist to the culture of Birmingham.
How hungry can one town be? How much lunch can one town eat?
But here they are and here they eat. Here where the echo of a phone shop rings. Here, where the escalators drew you up into the Aladdin’s Cave of Sports Direct. Now: above us only sky; domes and light — but in the light the spectre.
This space is still anchored in its past. I can see it as through Google Glass: ghosts of shops — shops we never loved, not really. Enough remains (the ramp, Tesco, the Bullring link) to place me in space/time. For now though there is lunch.
I am not hungry. Why am I not hungry? Because the shops are not the ghosts. I am the ghost. I am the past. This map is only mine. At Foot Locker, turn left. Vision Express where I first became blind (or rather, had my failing eye sight certified). And on. Nickelby’s. As a Birmingham ingénue, an England ingénue in fact, I bought some terrible clothes there. Just beyond, they had Internet once. An internet café where (I think) my wife sent a reply to the email that sparked our marriage, sparked my life.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before: I’m not from Birmingham, though I’ve lived here for some time and I’ve learned to pass myself off.
Over the years I’ve developed a fair sense of Birmingham’s official and folk history and I’ve picked up a Brummie twang and an authentic sense of loss and frustration about my (affected and now apostate) fandom for Aston Villa. No matter what I do though I can never acquire a lived experience and innate sense of Birmingham. Cultural osmosis cannot equip me with a deep down connection to this place in bone and blood, a fact of which I’ve now decided that I’m glad.
You see I’ve been home for a few days, back to Guernsey. I’ve reconnected with my childhood haunts and found them… haunted. Everywhere I go there are ghosts. Continue reading “Ghosts”
Shops used to be different back then, from now and from each other. Each one had its own smell and atmosphere. Visits to Witton Road were infrequent, as the concrete shopping centre at Perry Barr was the preferred destination, but when we did go it was usually for something exciting and interesting. Turning right rather than left at the bottom of our street was quite a treat.
Each block on the Witton Road started with a larger shop, and the sides of the buildings were painted with signs. ‘Leslie Smith for Television’ read one. I never went in as we had a TV and no need for another, but it was a special shop as I’d been told Leslie Smith used to play for Aston Villa whose ground was on the next main road over. On the next corner was Dick Taylor’s sports shop. Everyone called him ‘Discount Dick’, despite the name over the door saying ‘R. Taylor’, and he too had once been a Villan. I got my first pair of football boots there, a reward for making the school team, and the place had a beautiful dark smell of rough cloth. My dad wouldn’t have taken me anywhere else as he would get a good deal there. He often bought whole kits for the football team he helped to run, and a good customer would be remembered.
The shops nearer to our house were also interesting. The greengrocer was known as ‘Dick Turpin’, which gave him an air of untrustworthiness. As well as an apron, my image of him has a black fedora which I very much doubt a greengrocer wore in the late seventies in Aston, Birmingham. But my favourite shops were just along from the highway-robbing fruit and vegetable man, a chemist and a newsagent next to each other. Continue reading “Local shops”
The locations and dwarf holes mentioned in this tale are based on fact. The people and all the rest are not.
I walk along the canal and look above wondering how much concrete is necessary to prevent the entire elaborate junction from collapsing. The pillars holding up metal and flesh appear to be the legs of giants while the traffic travels along their spines. The graffiti at the bottom gives it the look of elaborately painted nails. Or like a tattoo that marks the owner’s individuality.
I look at my right hand and frown at what I’m holding. Have I been drinking? Focusing on the bottle of vodka it suddenly occurs to me that my mind is in the process of being drowned by a tsunami of ethanol. I look at the water rippling on the breeze. My attention is drawn to the sound of a bell from a cyclist. I move out of the way. The cyclist nods at me. The universal body language of greetings, acknowledgement and thanks. A small attempt to make a connection with a human being that you would in all probability never see again. I walk towards the darkness created by the cavernous arch of a large bridge.
It had always felt like huge cave when we used to play as kids. Billy used to call it the Bat Cave. He was Robin to my Batman and the adventure was always the trek to get here. Granny’s house was on the corner of Wheelwright Road and Gravelly Hill so it wasn’t far. Our parents didn’t mind as when I reached thirteen, I was considered capable and mature enough to look after myself and a ten year old. A different time that seems an aeon away. I smash the bottle against the wall of the bridge. I’m in the dark. I have been for days.
I think about granny and her stories about the building of Spaghetti Junction. Me and Billy always thought the Giant’s Junction was a better name as we never liked spaghetti. Unless it was in tomato sauce that we both did like and that granny always had tins of when we visited. It was during such a meal that we both heard about the dwarf holes. We splashed sauce while eating as we were told about where Copeley Hill is now, there were caves dotted around the landscape. People used to live in them and the caves were there for centuries. Then they built the motorway and were not seen again. Granny kept saying that they were now gone forever but children always have the impression that adults say such things to stop them from exploring. We had already made up our minds that we were going to find them.
It was a shocking moment when after nineteen years of living in Birmingham I realised it will never be finished. The building work will never be done, some part will always be being demolished for another part to be built fresh: no one will ever take a step back, with their hands on their hips, and turn around with a ‘TA-DAA’. The ubiquitous cranes will always be part of the skyline, they’re not visitors they’re residents.
Cities are the bodies of our collective souls, and like bodies they change, regenerate, and can be easily marred. Ever see Ground Zero from up high? It looks like a fuck-awful scar across the face of pretty girl.
The Queens Drive staircase is an access staircase that travels from the bottom of Station Street up to the passageway that connects the Pallasades to the Bull Ring, with an exit to New Street station halfway up. And it’s to be closed soon.