Bull, Birmingham
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Reflections: Visiting Birmingham

Jim and I travelled in May and June (for nearly seven weeks) to the UK, Greece and Ireland. We are now back in Portugal. This latest post is some reflections on Birmingham, UK, our first stop. I may share more from my journal about Bloomsbury and then Ireland in other posts.

The last time we lived in the UK was 15 years ago. We have not visited for the last five.

On Tuesday, 7 May, we landed in Birmingham and stayed a few nights in this modern changing City. I was born and grew up in South Brum, so I know it well. Some of my memories could be clearer, but I am happy I could make new memories by visiting the Rep, the Library of Birmingham, Brindley Place and The Ivy.

The Metro is a joy as it moves around a pedestrianised landscape. Walking around the old but surprisingly safe haunts of New St, Corporation St, and the back of Rackhams by the Cathedral was a delight. It never used to be. People lay in the sun on the lawn eating lunch.

One evening, we went to the Rep to see Withnail and I.
We took the Metro from Corporation St for a couple of stops. A girl alighted in roller skates. She joined at least 30 young people roller skating on the vast expanse in front of the Library. They were not hanging around but using their energies to have fun as they jumped, rolled and rocked the space. Birmingham feels like it is on its way to becoming a modern European city with all that it entails regarding respect for the walker, the cyclist, and the shopper. The car driver is not the determinator of how the City is navigated. It felt easy and healthier. On the first day, I was surprised that I had completed over 17,000 steps.

Roller skaters in Birmingham
Roller skaters in Birmingham

When I was growing up, Birmingham seemed to me a damp squib of a place with little to feel nostalgic about. My mother was born in 1924 in Digbeth near the abattoir. I worked at a cash and carry in Digbeth at 16. The smell in Rea St used to make my stomach retch. Birds Custard factory was close by, and a flyover, which always looked unsafe, took up the middle expanse of the road towards Small Heath. The old coach station was near an Irish pub. It all felt a little seedy.

As a child on Saturday mornings, we would catch the crowded number 48 or 50 bus from Kings Heath to St. Martin’s Church, having probably had to get off at Moseley as I was travel sick. Mom was happy if we made it to the top of Bradford St without getting off the bus. We sometimes walked from Bradford St, so we didn’t have to get back on a bus and pay again. Money was tight, but a journey into town to the outdoor market for fresh vegetables and cheap meat was a kind of ritual. My Dad had a stall in the rag market, and we occasionally had a treat of whelks, mussels or cockles from the fish stalls. I shed a tear in the fish market as feelings and memories of my father came up. An Asian fish seller wanted to give me a hug as I explained what I remembered

The outdoor market and the rag market no longer shine in terms of what is available, but maybe I am seeing what was on offer through the lens of the abundant fresh market produce we grow and buy locally in Portugal.

Tesco Express seems to be the favoured emporium, but there were no cucumbers. That seemed a little strange. But it reminded me that in the 60’s it was common not to see cucumbers.

It was comforting to see the age old statues in the City centre. The floozie in the jacuzzi outside the Council House reminded me of days when I grabbed a sandwich and sat near her watching folk speed by.

Floozie in the Jacuzzi - Birmingham
Floozie in the Jacuzzi – Birmingham
Watt, Boulton, Murdoch - Statue
Watt, Boulton, Murdoch – Statue

Near the library, the gilded bronze statue, known as the ‘Golden Boys’ honours Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch. They are shown studying steam engine plans. These men revolutionised the steam engine – the technology that drove the industrial revolution.

The Bull inside New St station amused me as it turned its head with penetrative eyes. It felt cheeky, solid and industrious. I had forgotten this symbol of the City.

There are so many examples of how the industrial revolution enabled Birmingham to show up and become prosperous. Not least in arts and crafts.

I was sad that the main museum was closed but grateful for the vibrant paintings and crafts on show in a bit of space around the corner. We visited the small exhibition called Radical Victorians. The website says the exhibion is, “From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts and Crafts Movement.”

“Fresh from an award-winning tour of the US, Victorian Radicals is the first comprehensive showing of the city’s Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts collections in Birmingham for over five years.” Paintings by artists included Kate Bunce, Joseph Southall and Arthur Gaskin.

We found the exhibition by accident. At 11 UKP a ticket, it seemed expensive for two pensioners. It was inspiring to see the conjunction of art and industry in necklaces, fine handbags, paintings, tiles and tapestries.

Victorian Radicals Poster
Victorian Radicals Poster
Necklace - Radical Victorians
Necklace – Radical Victorians
Handbags - Radical Victorians
Handbags – Radical Victorians
Victorian Radicals  - Colourful Tile
Victorian Radicals – Colourful Tile

There were moments of reflection of what has changed beyond the infrastructure. On the Metro, I noticed children sitting in seats reserved for the elderly or infirm with their parents. They seemed oblivious to the pensioners standing up, hanging on to the overhead straps as the tram swung around corners. The conductors ignored the disparity. The situation reminded me of the many times, as a child, I sat on an adult’s lap on a bus so an elderly man or woman could sit down.

Wandering around the streets, it amused me that on one side of the High St, Allah was being praised, and you could purchase the Koran. Nearly opposite Jehovah’s Witnesses pedalled their offering of the end of the world. Young people took no notice of either of them as they walked, listened and chatted on their phones, intent on meeting friends or adding to the contents of their shopping bags.

Around New St station, there were a few people who were homeless. They asked politely for money, but that is the world over. When I was growing up, they had help from Carrs Lane Centre and other options from community-based charities. I am not sure if there is much help for the homeless and those failing through the cracks of what used to be a caring society with free education and a decent health service.

I spent a few hours in the Library of Birmingham looking up ancestral links. I used to have access to have a library card and e-books, but now the Council have stopped that option for people not living locally.

I love the outside and inside of the Library. Sadly, the Shakespeare room on the 9th floor is now closed, but I remember taking my mum up there when the Library opened its doors around 2013, and we could see Digbeth and even further afield from the top.

Going back to Birmingham made me realise how grateful I am that, as a working-class girl from a single-parent family, I eventually went to University for free and was not saddled with debt.

Overall, Birmingham is much better than I remember as a child. I hope Brummies start to appreciate what they have and leave some of the negativity in the past, with the slum clearance, back-to-back houses, and dirty, old, smelly streets.

Leaving Brum, we took an Uber to pick up a car. The driver from Afghanistan explained that he had been born in Germany and worked two jobs, one full-time and the other part-time. We learned his father had four wives, but this was not something he would be repeating. Does that mean cultural exchange and practicality combine as immigrants and locals rub up against each other? He said he was happier to be in the UK even with all the extra work.

I guess that is what Birmingham is, a City that works.

The Cube - Birmingham
The Cube – Birmingham
Canal Basin - Birmingham
Canal Basin – Birmingham
The Ivy Birmingham
The Ivy Birmingham

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