Thursday 25 January 2024

All I Need To Please Me

"How far does your expertise extend into the field of diamonds?"

"Well... Hardest substance found in nature.  They cut glass, suggest marriage - I suppose they replaced a dog as a girl's best friend.  And that's about it."

Not every station has to have a unique USP, but it's nice when they do.  The Hawthorns has two.  The first is that it is a train and a tram stop.  The Hawthorns is the point where the line to Smethwick and the tram line diverge, and a station was built to take advantage of this.  This means that - for the first time in the history of this blog - there's a station sign with both the West Midlands Railway and Midland Metro logos on it.

OK, I was excited.

The Hawthorns' other selling point is that it's a stadium station.  There was a halt here for a while for football specials, but only in the 90s did a proper station arrive giving access to the West Bromwich Albion ground round the corner.  As you'd expect, the station puts this right up front on the station signs:

It's the West Brom stadium that gives the station its somewhat delicate and countryfied name; if you didn't know better, you'd think it served an elegant cul-de-sac of semis.  As it is the station is wedged behind factories and a Park and Ride car park.  I came out of the wrong entrance, and realised I was walking away from the actual football ground, so I took a side alley to get back on track.  It was named Roger Horton Way, after a former local councillor - a slightly ostentatious name for what's basically a cut through between back gardens and the railway tracks.

Long term readers (hello you!) will know that I love a good sports stadium.  I'll go out of my way to have a look at one.  And West Brom's ground is... not a good sports stadium.  It gets the job done, don't get me wrong.  But while other grounds feel like modern, futuristic venues, gleaming with money and entertainment options, West Brom harks back to the days of football hooligans and kettling.

Walking round The Hawthorns was like walking around a fortress.  Hard brick walls butted right up against the pavement, with gate after gate ready to eject unruly patrons.  This was a tough, working class football ground, not a fancy pants all purpose stadia.  (Obviously, as someone who grew up with Kenilworth Road as their local ground, I have absolutely no legs to stand on and criticise).  All of Birmingham's football teams have this slightly chippy, unglamorous air to them, ducking in and out of the top flight, mainly arguing with their local rivals.  As I write this, Aston Villa are fourth in the Premier League, and yet nobody's really taking them seriously as a threat; they're getting a pat on the head for doing well and then the Liverpool and Manchester and London clubs are turning away to have a chat among themselves over who's actually going to win this thing.

I will say, of the four big West Midlands clubs, West Brom is my favourite.  First, it's got the best name - West Bromwich Albion.  What an interesting confluence of words.  That it shortens to West Brom is a bonus.  It has a stylish kit, with blue and white stripes.  And it has the best famous followers.  Aston Villa claims Prince William and David Cameron, so they can sod right off; West Brom on the other hand has Sir Frank Skinner and King of the Random Aside, Adrian Chiles.  You can't compete with that, sorry.

A man passed me clutching a WBA calendar, presumably having waited until 2024 to start before he bought it from the club shop - a loyal fan, but also thrifty.  I followed the long, wide road towards Birmingham city centre, past large vacant factories and the inevitable McDonalds Drive Thru.  A massive branch of The Range appeared, and I wondered yet again where the hell The Range came from.  I swear it didn't exist a decade ago and now it's got bigger shops than Tesco.  

I declined the offer of a free sofa and continued down the Holyhead Road.  I didn't realise it, but I was slipping away from everyday West Midlands and into something very different.  It was the Royal Oak pub that was the big signal.  The minute I write "Royal Oak pub", you've got a picture in your mind.  Staid.  Traditional.  Perhaps some exposed beams and a nice picture of a crown and tree on the sign.

Instead, I give you a tractor with a dummy on it while someone pumps out Indian music.

This Royal Oak has gone full Desi, and it made me laugh out loud.  I'm not sure if that was their intent but it certainly made my day.  From here on in, I was plunged into a very different world to the white bread one I occupy.

I'm not entirely culturally unaware.  I grew up in Luton.  My class at school contained a David and a Sarah, but also a Qaisar and a Hema and a Hina and a Farwaj.  I knew when it was Diwali, and what that meant.  I saw Asian shops and mosques all the time; admittedly, mainly from the car window as we passed through Bury Park into town, but I wasn't entirely ignorant of cultures other than mine.

Then I moved to Merseyside, and I've lived here for nearly thirty years.  And Merseyside is incredibly, overwhelmingly, white.  There are pockets of areas for other communities - Chinatown and Toxteth being the most obvious - but the vast majority of faces and histories you'll encounter there are white.  So being in this district of Birmingham and being plunged into a Little India was fascinating and thrilling.

Every shop front was somehow different.  The wares were unfamiliar.  Faces on posters, on the moving screens in the windows of opticians and beauticians, were brown, not white.  Takeaways and restaurants offered food I'd never heard of at prices that seemed too good to be true.  (Homemade filled naan for 75p?  What's the catch?)  Seeing an "English Nashta" on the menu at Karak Chaii (2 Chicken Sausages, 2 Lamb Rashers , 2 Aloo Tikki, 1 Toast, a side of Masala Beans, 1 Masala Omelette) made me grin, stupidly.

So much food; you could go to a different eatery every week for a year.  Not just Indian, but also Polish, Jamaican, all sorts of cuisines.  Sweet shops that presented neon coloured bites that you knew would give you a dozen cavities from three feet away. In between were the jewellers, glittering with too much gold; your eyes took in nothing but gleaming yellow and sparkling gems.  Were they real?  Costume?  I couldn't tell; all I could see was the shine.  Then the wedding shops, with the tedious white of the English bride replaced by a riot of colour and glinting sequins.  Dresses in the window to tempt you in then, behind, acres of fabric for you to choose from and make your own, personal, dream gown.   Sometimes a familiar name would pop up - a Nationwide building society, an Iceland, a Paddy Power - and it would look incongruous among the foreign names and unique storefronts.  And yet, there was something so incredibly British about the dome of a Gurdwara rising up over the roof of Farmfoods.  A mix of worlds that didn't clash but instead intermingled.

It wasn't perfect.  Litter was a real problem; I was constantly kicking chip papers and crisp bags and discarded carriers out the way.  Parking was a nightmare, with cars seemingly stopping at random, their horns adding to the streetscape.  And a little reading around on the net reveals that it's maybe not the nicest spot to be in after dark, when prostitutes and the drug users mix with the all night stores and the chicken shops.  But there, on that Tuesday afternoon, I was entranced.  I felt like I'd really travelled to a different world.

The commercial side of Soho Road slowly faded away, replaced by large historic mansions turned into offices and the occasional large factory, its single owner long abandoned for smaller units.  It was that strange, liminal space of a city, the demilitarised zone that exists between the bustle of the city centre and the point where people start to live.  

A flyover erupted out of the centre of the road, a conspicuously unpopular flyover; as I approached it the traffic all seemed to turn away, leaving the odd single vehicle to carry on into town.  Giant slip roads and concrete pillars divided communities and diverted walkers for one or two vans to carve a few seconds off their journey.

Getting across the roundabout, as a pedestrian, meant sinking even further below the surface of the street into underpasses.  Dark, forbidden alleyways that most people avoided.  I headed down the ramp, then turned into the cold, graffiti coated corridor to the centre of the roundabout.

The other side was an island.  As at Five Ways, the space in the middle of the roundabout had been carved out as a public area, but while that had been green and welcoming, this was stark and concrete.  The pillars of the flyover burst out of the ground and the sky was covered by the concrete.

I loved it.  It felt like a secret world.  I was the only person in this wide expanse of city, away from the cars, away from the people, hidden.  It was an island that for a small period of time belonged to me.

I'll always be drawn to the underground, the concealed, the tucked away.  Tunnels and burrows, bunkers and cellars.  Disappearing beneath the world.  Hockley Circus was that kind of place - buried from public view.

I re-emerged on the other side and trekked back up to street level, where a three metre high beaming Tess Daly tried to sell me vitamins, and Jamie Theakston and Amanda Holden promised me a breakfast show like no other.  It was a boring, mainline world.

Crossing the ring road by a high bridge, however, reintroduced the city to me.  The End Time Ministries Seminary and an Indian fashion store (TRADE ONLY!) were replaced by large, brick buildings, warehouses and workshops.  I'd reached the Jewellery Quarter.

I will admit to a certain amount of cynicism when it comes to branding areas of a city.  Liverpool has about fourteen different "quarters" now, each with its own promotional team and coloured streets on the city map.  Every new development signals the beginning of a new "neighbourhood" ("we're the Fabric District, because, erm, there's a hat factory and a couple of seamstresses here!").  It's a way to market post-industrial spaces and try to create a buzz that'll sell apartments and hey, if it works it's great - nobody called Rope Walks anything other than "those streets behind Bold Street" until the PR men got their hands on it.

The Jewellery Quarter, however, is still a living, working district for the manufacture of precious items, and has been for centuries.  What is now the world's largest Assay Office attracted silver and goldsmiths to the area in the 18th century, and they stayed throughout the centuries and World War II bombing to form a district that still produces a huge proportion of Britain's jewellery.

I'd prepared myself to be a little disappointed.  As a teenager - and in particular, a James Bond-obsessed teenager - I'd developed a keen interest in diamonds.  Ian Fleming's two books, Diamonds are Forever and The Diamond Smugglers presented a glamorous world of excitement and intrigue where people would go to any length to acquire these tiny glittering rocks.  I don't have any interest in jewellery - I don't own a necklace or a ring or even a watch - but I've always fancied owning a diamond.  Just to hold one.  It's the Liz Taylor in me.

As such, on a trip up to London aged 16, I headed to Hatton Gardens.  I was disappointed.  I'd imagined it would be nothing but shining, glistening sparkles, a constant stream of white light bouncing off facets.  Instead it was all quite boring. The shops were unappealing - the proper jewellers are over in Mayfair - and it felt rough and downmarket.  That was when I learned that industrial districts are pretty much the same wherever they are, whether they're producing spray painted car parts or high end necklaces.

I was ready, then, for the Jewellery Quarter's unglamorous side.  It was charming, with some beautiful old buildings and narrow twisting streets, but it wasn't the constant bling-fest its name implied.  It was a living, working industrial space.  I passed the School of Jewellery, still a centre for teaching gold and silversmithing, and walked towards the huge white expanse at the end of the road.

The Big Peg, formerly known as Hockley House, was built by the City Council to try and keep jewellery making in the district after the war.  Many of the factories had been bombed by the Nazis (in fairness to the Germans, most of them had switched from making rings to armaments) and then rents began to rise steeply.  Birmingham constructed Hockley House and its adjacent units as a place for them to continue to operate in the area.  (They also chucked in a multi-storey car park, because Birmingham has to Birmingham at all times).  

This was where I finally got to see my diamonds, in the windows of the jewellery shops around the Big Peg.  They only really appeared in the last few decades, as shopping became more and more of a feature of people's lives, and the idea of buying a ring or a pendant became more accessible to everyday Brummies.  

After all that walking, I felt like I deserved a treat, and where would be better than a pub called the Jeweller's Arms?  I took a pint and found a seat right underneath the heater to warm myself back up again.  It was a proper boozer, friendly and open, its rooms filled with gruff faced men eating pies and young students playing darts.  

I let it all cascade over me.  Sebastian the barman was giving out tourist tips to an American woman, and a couple of the patrons joined in to help.  A tatty mongrel poked his head round the corner to stare at me; infuriatingly, he was just that little bit too far to stroke.  A couple left together then, twenty minutes after, the husband returned for another.  I had a second pint.  On a visit to the toilet, I spotted a sign advertising the pub's cheese nights - "we'll supply crackers and butter, you bring the cheese!"  I wondered if they'd mind opening a Merseyside branch.

By the time I made it out to the station, twilight was descending.  The Jewellery Quarter station opened in 1995 and is exactly what you'd expect from a station of that era - clean, functional, efficient.  On a cold January night it was a beacon, the high window lighting up the pavement and drawing in the workers headed for home.  Outside are two features of interest.  First is one of those pieces of art that Centro chucked up all over the place and then absolutely refused to provide any information about; however, in a rare turn of events, I can actually tell you that this one is called Clockwork and is by the artist Mark Renn.  

More interesting for those of us with a lower sense of humour, though, is a genuine Victorian urinal.  You can't use it any more - a shame for those of us with two pints of beer swilling around inside us - but it's a proper piece of cast iron loveliness.  Isn't it great that human beings have evolved beyond the need to urinate, and so councils don't need to provide public toilets any more?  What a boon.

Oh, the things that pissoir has no doubt seen.

I am going to register a complaint.  Back at the start of this blog post, roughly eight million words ago, I registered my excitement at getting a station sign that incorporated both the train and tram logos.  Jewellery Quarter station, despite also featuring both forms of transport, has only the orange West Midlands Railway logo.  What's that about, eh?

I headed down the stairs, past the sign telling me the station was part funded by the European Regional Development Fund, and onto a platform.  It was chocka, not only with passengers waiting for the train south (which was late of course), but also because the railway platform was the only point of access for the tram stop.  This seems like a very large design flaw.

I waited for my train, filled with beer, a podcast in my ears, a smile on my face.  I felt... oh what's that word?  Oh yeah.

And Bond suddenly remembered the eyes of the corpse which had once had a Blood Group F.  They had been wrong.  Death is forever.  But so are diamonds.
This trip was entirely paid for by donations to my Ko-fi.  Thank you folks.  You're absolute stars.

Wednesday 24 January 2024

God Botherer


When I did the obligatory blog recap of 2023, I was surprised by how rural it had been.  My year in the West Midlands seemed to mainly be running around country lanes and towpaths.  I resolved that my first trip of 2024 would be as urban as possible.

Five Ways station is in a cutting beneath the city's inner ring road; the only way it could be more urban would be if you got mugged on the platform.  The awning is the same curved metal I've seen across Birmingham, a sort of tin roof that doesn't inspire any love.  I walked past a screened off section of embankment where they'd discovered a dangerous weed and went up the steps to the wood-effect ticket hall.  The ticket barriers were in operation, with a woman from WMR asking us to get our passes ready, which confused the student I'd got off the train with. 

I'll apologise for my appearance right up front.  That morning I'd awoken to a text from United Utilities, cheerily informing me there'd been a water leak a couple of streets away and so my supply was off.  I ran a tap and thick black muck splattered out of it into the bowl.  As a consequence I couldn't shower or brush my teeth before leaving the house.  Ok, I never look like Brad Pitt, but at least this time I have an excuse.

Islington Row is a charming name for what is, in reality, six lanes of fast moving traffic that pedestrians are funnelled alongside.  For once, I didn't mind, because it allowed me to get a good look at Five Ways House. 

Birmingham, more than any city in Britain, embraced the white heat of post-war progress.  It spent the best part of three decades rebuilding its centre to be modern and forward thinking, a metropolis of the 20th Century.  Five Ways House was part of this; a government building constructed in the very latest style.

It lasted sixty years.  Now it's set to be redeveloped, part of the Five Ways Complex, a mainly residential project.  In a delightful twist, however, the building will be restored.  Normally you'd expect this kind of 1950s office block to be swept away for something new, but instead, it'll be the heart of the new district.  It gives me hope that we've turned the corner on modernism, that maybe people look at these buildings now and appreciate them.

Its neighbour, the Five Ways Tower, is less lucky.  Opened in 1979, it suffered from "sick building syndrome" throughout its life, closed in 2005, and is now set to be demolished.  I looked up at the graffiti on its tower and wondered exactly what it would take for me to clamber up there and spray paint my initials.  Even Russell Tovey winking provocatively from the 23rd floor wouldn't be enough.

To get to the far side of the Hagley Road from where I was, I descended underneath the Five Ways roundabout itself.  It's so vast and open, the centre of it is effectively a park, complete with snack bars.  For a few moments I felt separate from the traffic and, indeed, from the hubbub of the city itself.  You can see why urban planners thought this would be the future.  Get the people away from the cars, into grassy, tree lined spaces where they could relax.  It's unfortunate that humans looked at these spaces and decided they were exactly the right spot to carry out any number of shady events, ruining the pedestrianised utopia.

I re-emerged from under the roundabout, past a building that had an elaborate entrance constructed purely for those arriving via the pedestrian path - an entrance that was now very much closed - and up and into the outskirts of Edgbaston.  

From ground level, Hagley Road felt very "big city".  Huge Brutalist office blocks towered over streams of traffic on a wide avenue.  Look closer though, and it fell down.  Behind the towers you could see plenty of blue sky: the blocks existed only on the main road, with nothing behind them to form a massing.  It was a bit like me when I play Cities Skylines and put the big commercial blocks on the wide roads with tiny suburban houses behind.  (Incidentally Cities Skylines 2 is very good, so long as you're running it on an IBM supercomputer, or perhaps the skull of Data from Star Trek.  I don't have a computer that's that good so as a consequence every city I make basically grinds to a halt at 100,000 residents.  It's very pretty, though).  

At the foot of one of the office towers was the Edgbaston Village terminus of the Midland Metro.  Birmingham has a very British attitude to extending its tram network, by which I mean it does it piecemeal, causing as much expense and inconvenience as possible.  The line used to terminate at Snow Hill; it got an extension to New Street (sorry, Grand Central) in 2017, then they scraped together some pennies to get it to the Library a year later, then someone reached down the back of the sofa and got some small change to make the terminus Edgbaston.  At least this means trams aren't turning back in the city centre any more, but it's still way too close for the end of the line.  Possibly, maybe, if you cross your fingers, they might one day get this line right along the road as far as Quinton, but they'll probably build that a stop at a time so you won't get there until 2158.  (Of course, a city as large and car dependent as Birmingham should really be investing in a metro, or at the very least, an S-Bahn style tunnel so that local services don't have to cross all the long distance trains at New Street, but that's crazy talk).  

There were more blocks, most with signs outside telling me how many floors were still available, and a single detached house which had somehow survived and was now a Spearmint Rhino.  A new block was being constructed, but this was apartments, not offices.  The units were all for rent, because it seems the idea of selling flats to young professionals is now so ridiculous they don't even try.  You can't have a foot on the property ladder, but on the plus side, your apartment building has a private dining room and a cinema and a 24/7 concierge, so you're winning (please don't look at the service charges).  Then I reached something I'm pretty sure I've never encountered before on this blog: a shrine to an actual saint.

Cardinal John Newman was an important Catholic theologian during the 19th Century.  He started out as Church of England, then drifted through High Anglicanism to Catholicism, and that's where I'm going to stop talking about his religious views because to be honest they baffle me.  I'm a dyed in the wool atheist, and have been since I was young, and so the various different factions and differentiations between different strains of Christianity are baffling to me.  I tried reading Cardinal Newman's Wikipedia page but there were so many diversions down the different sects and opinions and Papal Edicts that I'm not going to even slightly delve into it because there's a very real danger I'll end up getting condemned by a Bishop somewhere.

Cardinal Newman was eventually canonised in 2019, after two miracles were attributed to him.  Learning that the Catholic Church still insists on miracles before someone can be canonised, even though it's the twenty first century, is astonishing.  It's like learning that Ian McKellen's knighthood was conditional on him actually slaying a dragon.  It would also be remiss of me to not observe that the Cardinal's Wikipedia page has a very large section entitled "discussion about potential homosexuality" that covers his extremely close friendship with Ambrose St John; the two of them "shared communitarian life" for thirty two years and Newman asked for his body to be placed in Ambrose's coffin after his death.  Feel free to picture me pursing my lips and raising my eyebrow as I type this.

I turned off the main road at the Strathallen Hotel.  Nothing sums up 1970s Birmingham's love affair with the motor car more than this drum of a hotel, with four floors of rooms on top of as many floors of car parking spaces.  Opposite, a pub had been converted into the Rainbow Casino, a large white building that I can absolutely guarantee has never hosted a suave British spy effortlessly emasculating a sweaty European ne'er do well.  I walked up Portland Road, a long straight route between big Victorian villas that had been converted into bedsits and large detached homes with paved over front lawns for parking.

If I'd been doing the West Midlands Railway map in the 1920s, there would have been an extra four stations to visit.  The Harborne Railway was a small branch line that went from New Street to the suburb of the same name with a few stops on route.  A circuitous line like that couldn't compete with direct motor buses into the city centre, so the whole route was closed to passengers in the 1930s.  I passed over the remains of it as I walked; it's now, inevitably, a country walk and cycle route, a green vein sliding between the houses.

I crossed a junction at the traffic lights, passing a banner that advised me that Powercity International meets here for the Revelation of Jesus.  It used a font that was way too fun and funky for a religious meet, in my opinion; it looked like it was advertising Jesus Christ: International Man of Mystery.  As I entered Bearwood, the houses became smaller and more tightly packed, and the road rose up a steep hill.  There was a takeaway called Kebabish and, I'm sorry, but the one food I definitely don't want the word "ish" to be involved in is a kebab.  I'm already taking too much of the contents of that meal on trust.

Cape Hill meant a glut of shops, small Asian grocers with fruit and vegetables spilling out onto the street, sari stores, delivery vans double parked while they unloaded box after box.  The largely Muslim population left its pubs empty and boarded up, while a bank on the corner had become De Vibez Lounge, a name at complete odds with its Victorian frippery.  Meanwhile, a giant Asda hid off the main road, concealed by a Costa in a fancy pod.

The road opened up on one side to reveal Victoria Park; one thing you can say about that sour faced old trout is she gave her name to a good number of nice open spaces in our cities.  I'd later see a plaque informing me that to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of her descendent, Elizabeth II, they'd planted five oak trees in the park, which seems like a slap in the face for QEII really.  The grass and trees swept off into the distance; I could see mums with pushchairs enjoying a bit of air.  By this point I was walking behind a young couple, with the most adorable toddler hanging over his dad's shoulder.  I caught the boy's eye and smiled and he giggled and it was immensely cheering.

I was now in Smethwick (I took two small suitcases and a jigsaw) and cutting past small sweet shops and continental markets and then, in the middle, an enormous red cow on a pedestal to announce the pub of the same name.  Low council houses amongst acres of communal green space occupied corner plots, and I saw my first Palestinian flag of the day flying outside the Abrahamic Foundation.  A mess of repair works at a traffic island saw the pavement suddenly disappear, so I found myself darting across the busy road and ended up in front of a proud Indian warrior.

The Lions of the Great War, sculpted by Luke Perry (not that one), is a memorial to the millions of Sikh volunteers dragged into a war that had nothing to do with them on the other side of the planet by Mother England.  It was unveiled in 2018, at the centenary of the ending of the First World War, and it's an impressive plaza right outside Smethwick's main Gurdwara.

I'd seen the Gurdwara many times from the train of course - you can't exactly miss it - and it always made me smile.  After miles of back gardens and industrial units and scabby wasteland, a gigantic gold dome with flags and marble can't help but raise the spirits.  And while it is a triumph of architecture and quite beautiful, I have one complaint.

It doesn't show up on the photo, unfortunately, but right in the centre of the building, underneath that dome, is a digital clock.  It cycled between the time and the temperature, like a sign outside a European pharmacist, and it looked incredibly out of place to me.  I know a digital clock is far more efficient and maintenance free, and hey, who wouldn't want to know when it was 8 degrees, but come on.  A nice analogue clock would look so much better there.  Sort it out, Smethwick.

I negotiated the wide pedestrian crossings necessary to get across the massive A-road, and ended up at the Victorian entrance to Smethwick Rolfe Street station.  There's been a station here since 1852, and the building (though from a little later than that) has the stoic bluntness of a halt built for ruddy faced factory workers and people in stovepipe hats.

It does have one unique feature: its platforms are second only to the Amundsen-Scott base at the South Pole as the coldest human construction on earth.  Yes, it was January, but it was one of those bright clear days where the sun felt like it was with you everywhere.  Platform 2 at Smethwick Rolfe Street has, however, been constructed in such a way that it deliberately shuns any light whatsoever and remains in permafrost.  I stood there for what seemed like forever, my toes and fingers freezing, while those bastards on platform 1 larked about in the sunshine like it was a Barbadian holiday.

Still, that's Smethwick's second station crossed off the list, almost five years after I visited the first.  You can't say that's not progress.

This trip was entirely paid for by donations to my Ko-fi.  Thank you folks.  You're gems.