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.


Brian said...

WBA wear BLUE and white stripes!!

Scott Willison said...

And this is why I never write about football. I've corrected it and I'm hoping nobody reads the comments!

Anonymous said...

Great to include a photo of the William Mitchell murals at Hockley Flyover: the "Brutalist Climbing Wall".