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.

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