Monday, 12 December 2011

An Early Resolution

A few days ago I took my eleven-year-old son along to the Stirchley Community Market, at the United Working Men’s Club on Hazelwell Street. The market is held there every month, but we had never quite gotten around to going until now.

There were about a dozen stalls packed into the main room in the club, plus one or two more outside in the car park.

We had mainly gone along out of curiosity rather than with the idea of buying very much, but I still came away bearing some interesting Christmas gifts for my girlfriend.

We also bought a few things for our own immediate gratification. My son got a 'friendly' Christmas hand grenade made from soft felt. We got his sister a couple of badges from illustrator Liz Lunney's stall, which both featured cartoon rabbits. One bears the slogan 'sour rabbit cares about you,' which seems encouraging.

We also bought some cup cakes from the Cupcake Bistro, chatted to a guy from the Friends of Hazelwell Park, mooched around the rest of the stalls, which sold everything from jewellery to tea towels to second hand records, listened to medieval Carols sung live, and generally had a good time of it.

There was a cosy, relaxed atmosphere - a sense of  a small community of local artists and businesses coming together to support one another.

We've lived in Stirchley for over five years but I've only recently become aware of the place as having its own cultural scene, independent of the nearby, well-established vibrancy of Moseley and Kings Heath.

For anyone who wants to keep up to date with local goings-on, the tweets emanating from @stirchleyhaps, and their accompanying website, are good places to start. They provide regular details of upcoming events, and also the kind of trivia about the everyday lives of Stirchley-ites which helps to flesh out the place and bring it to life.

Earlier this year Stirchley briefly had its own squatted social centre at the Whit Marley building, which held a couple of art exhibitions and an open mic night, amongst other things. This has now closed, but there are still regular comedy nights at the British Oak, a traveling cinema, and gigs at the Roadhouse.

There are co-operatively run businesses such as the Bike Foundry, Loaf online, and the South Birmingham Food Co-op, all of which sound very useful, but not one of which I really know much about yet.

When I first came to Birmingham, about twenty years ago, I was involved in a couple of workers co-operatives - a vegetarian cafe over in Saltley, and a small housing co-op, both of which long ago bit the dust. These days, when it can sometimes seem as if we are all capitalists by default, its nice to know that those alternative ideas are still around and being put into practice.

I write a lot about places outside of Birmingham where I happen to end up through work. Maybe I should make it a New Years Resolution to find out more about the stuff that's going on on my doorstep.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Nighttime in Highbury Park

When we first got our dog, Charlie, from the Dogs Home in Digbeth, he had not yet been neutered. This meant that we got into the habit of walking him late in the evening when there were fewer other dogs around for him to force his attentions upon.

However, even though he has now been 'snipped', the late night habit has continued. If anything his walks have become later still, and the average number of family members coming along has decreased. Most nights it is just the dog and me in the darkness of Highbury park.

As soon as we arrive I let him off his lead, at which point he usually disappears to do his own thing. Sometimes I can see him as the faintest of shadows against other shadows. Sometimes he will hurtle past me on a mad dash to nowhere in particular. But most of the time all I have is the vague idea that he is around somewhere.

Highbury park is a big old place, big enough to get away from the sound of traffic and light of street lamps.

Occasionally, for no clear reason, the darkness will spook me and for a minute or two I will find myself constantly resisting the temptation to look around me for the approach of unknown assailants. But mostly it is a relaxing emptiness, free from other people, or the expectation of them, and free from the plethora of sights and sounds that fill almost every part of the city in the daytime.

I am using these walks to learn about the stars. I have an app. on my phone which provides me with a 3D view of the night sky from my current location, with all the planets and constellations labelled. I have started from the Great Bear ( the one that looks like a saucepan, and the only one I already recognised ) and worked outwards.

On cloudy nights I  just stroll along. With so little sensory input, small changes become instantly noticeable. Now that Autumn is underway, the leaves on one particular tree have become dry enough to rattle softly in the breeze as I walk past.

Once in a while there are other people. One night I passed a trio of silhouettes on a bench by the river. Low muttering tones and the hiss of an opening can suggested street drinkers who had nowhere better to be.

Once I heard, but didn't see, younger drunken people in the distance, at least one man and one woman. At one point the woman's voice rose in screaming fear while the man shouted his hatred back at her. A few moments later they were united again in harsh raucous laughter, receding away into the night.

A couple of days ago the police were searching the park in pairs, their white torch beams bobbing up and down as they looked for a couple of guys whose appearance they were unable to describe to me other than that they were carrying JD Sports bags. For a few minutes the park seemed transformed into a vast dark arena where some primeval hunting game was being played out.

But these nights are the rare exceptions. Almost always it is just the dog and me, which, I think, suits both of us fine.

Monday, 12 September 2011

The Art of the Possible

An article I wrote for the September issue of Radar magazine about a squatted social centre in Birmingham, and the recent art exhibition that was held there, is now available online at

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

When Apps Attack

It's a clear, bright afternoon and I'm on a train heading out of Birmingham, on my way to collect a leased car from a business in Lichfield. Except that I'm not, quite. The address certainly contains the word ‘Lichfield’, but the business is actually in Fradley Park, a large industrial area a couple of miles outside of the city.

The ‘Nr’ abbreviation seems to be slipping from popular usage in addresses today, which is a shame as it can be an important little word if you are making your way to an address on foot or via public transport. Maybe it isn’t seen to matter so much now that we have sat-navs and mobile phone apps which only require a postcode to pinpoint an address.

But even postcodes can be deceptive if you take them at face value. Fradley Park has a Walsall postcode, although Walsall is even further away than Lichfield. And even when you have cut through the misleading parts of an address and found where it really is, there is still the capacity for further deceptions when you rely on mobile phone apps to tell you the best way to get there.

I originally set off from Warwick, having delivered a car there earlier in the day. My Trainline app told me, correctly, to catch a train to Moor Street and then walk over to New Street station for the Lichfield service. However, when calculating the earliest Lichfield train I would be able to catch, the app decided to allow forty-three whole minutes for me to walk between the stations. It did not mention that if I could cover the five hundred yards in less than twelve minutes I could catch an earlier service.

I am on the earlier service now.

Trent Valley station is on the right side of Lichfield for Fradley Park so I know I will be only about a couple of miles from the address. I put the postcode into my Google Maps app, which correctly locates the address, but labels the area as Alrewas, not Lichfield or Fradley. I then get it to work out the quickest walking route from the station. It comes up with a circuitous squiggle, almost four miles long. The A38 runs in a straight line out to Fradley Park, but the app has assumed that pedestrians cannot go that way. This would be a reasonable guess for most dual carriageways, but apps never tell you when they are just guessing. I know there is a pavement along one side of the A38 because I walked along it once, some years ago, to collect another vehicle from somewhere else on the industrial estate. The walk won’t be as pleasant as the stroll along country lanes that Google Maps had planned for me, but it won’t be half as long either.

Sometimes, if you are a long way from home and in an unfamiliar corner of the country then relying on these over-confident little chunks of software can seriously mess up your day. But today I don’t mind – I was only looking for confirmation of things I knew already. Nor do I mind that the address isn’t really in Lichfield, or Walsall, or Alrewas. I know exactly where it is, and it is a nice afternoon for a walk.