Sunday, 5 April 2009

Handsworth and Democracy Street

Two Korakianers knew each other as children of the village and met again in Athens. Sofia and Nico are slowly making a home from an already lovely building that sits, sited like a perfectly fitting jigsaw piece, near where Democracy Street turns upwards towards the bandstand. On Friday we’d been invited inside its spacious rooms. A swallow flew in through the front door, perched chattering in a bar of sun on a wood beam and flew out again, permitting me to praise without tempting fate. Because the house is about 50 metres east of us, you can, from its second floor, see Kerkyra’s signature silhouette, like the back and front of a pack-saddle. That phrase ‘the devil is in the detail’ – the small moral blemish, the tiny ill-considered remark that starts a war. Here, as we gazed happily around, we saw angels in the detail – traditional doors recovered and returned to their hinges, surfaced with graining done two generations ago by a Serbian craftsman, painstakingly repeated on other wood surfaces by Nico; another craftsman found in Corfu Town has crafted stucco to suit the high ceilings – not over-elaborate, just so. Outside the eaves, tiles, edges, curves and surfaces celebrate what makes this island’s finest architecture - confident and simple, no unnecessary grace notes - not easy to achieve. The wood – cypress now rare from the yard by Kalafationi south of the city (where you rightly show your tax number on purchase), long seasoned knotted pitch pine almost gold in the Ionian light – given the attention of joinery including discrete florets to cover the ends of holding bolts, with curves in small places that match the curve of the iron balcony above Democracy Street. I checked my conscience for envy and found none. This happens when you see something truthful. All benefit. My cyberfriend Graham and I have been reflecting on this delightfully positive bent in human nature. * * ** * * On Tuesday – round noon as we were packing for Greece – I cycled a few hundred yards into the unfinished streets among the new houses off Hamstead Road, built on the eastern border of the Victoria Jubilee Allotments, to check the progress reported at the last Ward Committee on the new playing fields and allotments. Builder’s barriers sealed access. I didn’t feel like calling on an unknown householder to let me up into their upstairs rooms to take a photo – a likely story. New residents are wary enough about the allotments, playground and playing fields negotiated into the S106A after an original application to build on the whole site. Their residents' association seem adamant about having no direct gate into the Park, something we’d regard as a pleasing extra. I cycled back to Hamstead Road and into the park. Near the rail bridge I peered through the railings. Though it was a weekday the diggers in the distance stood idle, not a yellow tabard or hard hat in sight - how it is on many building sites in Birmingham. But something’s happening. You can see the outline of plots and paths. I phoned Birmingham City Council enquiry line (0121 303 3038 allotments@birmingham.gov.uk), busy at first as I’d expect and then got Adrian Stagg, long time allotments officer, who reassured me I was on a general waiting list; that when the plots were ready he’d notify us and fix a time for a selection visit. Feeling a tingle of excitement, I e-mailed a photo to Rachel, suggesting while we were away, she also look through the railings and think of a choice of a plot to share. I also completed the on-line application form mentioning the VJA and phoned Basil Hylton, who’s concerned about the new cricket pitch – out of my vision from the railings. He’ll again try phoning the Education Department to speak to the officer there overseeing the commissioning of the new sports fields - also part of the S106A.From Rachel to Simon 1 April 2009:
I'll take the kids over some time this weekend and have a look. Rachel
From Rachel to allotments@birmingham.gov.uk
Subject: New Allotment? Submission Date: 1/4/2009 Contact details: Rachel etc – name. address, email and phone Name of site: Victoria Jubilee Allotments Comments: I would be interested in joining the waiting list for when they become available. I would like to share with Simon Baddeley who I believe has been in contact already. Forwarded to Adrian Stagg by Nicola Bradley/LeisureServices/BCC on 1/4/2009 15:54
From Adrian.Stagg@birmingham.gov.uk April 01, 2009, 4.18pm Subject: New Allotment?
Rachel, thank you for your enquiry, I have added you to the waiting list. Adrian Stagg, Allotments Finance & Records Officer 303 3038
* * * I'm not quite sure about the headline in Athens News. Capitalism has always entailed a pool of unemployed people with governments sometimes cushioning its worst effects. Emails over a few days:
This dreadful state of world affairs has resulted in some redundancies at work…I can't help wondering where it will all end up. A colleague now 61 who has given over 20 years of his life just tossed aside for the new kid on the block. Simon. I’ve just heard my post is deemed surplus to requirements… At supper with friends the other day. “We were looking forward to coming to Corfu then M…assured his job was secure, was made redundant.”
In the Mafia – at least in the films – the hitman says “Sorry. It’s just business” but in taking away someone’s living, I detest the absence of agency in messages, often written, announcing 'It’s been decided…' The Israeli writer Amoz Oz complained of the eroded responsibility of the intransitive - the journalist who wrote ‘The gun went off. A man was shot. ‘ Conversely I dislike the way rail companies at New Street delegate unwelcome news to computers, programming them to announce in the first person - “I’m sorry for the inconvenience this will cause to your journey” - as though digits impart contrition. Friends and friends of friends are losing their jobs, businesses I know go into administration, shops I use hold closing sales. Until events have compacted there’s no history – no line of events through which a critical path with starts and finishes, peaks and troughs can be traced - so I’m left with the messy plotless present, covered better by fiction’s inflections than the hot fog of the internet and TV. Alan Furst writing now is superlative in providing people and stories to colour what I’m learning from Mark Mazower about the unstable geography of Eastern Europe in the 1930s. For me at least Greece never lost her plot. Hellenic narratives - much contorted even today - were never as blighted as her neighbours’. I recall first beginning to uncover their strange and different worlds in a novel about Austro-Hungary - Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. “Bereft” was how Lin described Sofia when I was trying to describe a place where, for several 20th century generations, intellectuals, liberals, aristocrats, bourgeoisie were surplus to need - harried, murdered, exiled, displaced, almost written out of history. Mazower and Furst, like long delayed rain, are among those writing it back. * * * Over Tuesday-Wednesday night we travelled by coach and train via Coventry, where amid a waft of pot, a security guard politely evicted a black and white trio of skank high youngsters full of cursing good cheer, to London Victoria and Gatwick North Terminal; nursed coffee and crisps in the neon concourse, the quarters marked by tannoy warnings about the destruction of abandoned bags, queued serpentine for the first EasyJet flight of the year, remonstrated amiably about being refused the same cabin baggage the company has allowed by on previous journeys, left it at the desk after decanting contents into a swiftly bought M & S carrier bag, took off belt and shoes to pass security, then up and away to land at Kapodistria at 1125 to find our carefully sought car hire waiting with our name held up on a card at arrivals, so home to Ano Korakiana where the three cats were already anticipating an extra source of food, but first a wave from upstairs next door from Mrs Leftheris, a greeting and embrace from younger Mrs L and then a call as she strolled down Democracy Street from Katherina and another set of kisses, then small Leftheri running up “hullo, hullo” and little K ran her broad grin into my solar plexus. How are you? Cala. Poli cala. Very well and from the garden next-door from somewhere amid budding greenery and plastic sheets – "the rain we have" – Mr L calling “hullo mister!” I bought a crusty loaf from the shop – 90 cents – and we drank tea coffee and pottered, then strolled through the lower village to have tea with Fran and Dave where sitting in the unfamiliar warmth I started to nod between sentences until Lin said “come on let’s get this old man home” and so around 5.30 I went to bed, read awhile then slept until morning when waking, I glimpsed a swallow as it swept by the balcony window – a soundless spitfire saluting spring in the wondrous land.While Lin worked in the garden I cycled the five kilometres down to Ipsos, the repaired foresail on my rack, to get Summer Song ready. I strolled in quiet pleasure along the mole. Faiakon Demos have really worked on cleaning up the shores since February. I boarded the boat. Removed her ragged sagging cover, a pocket of rainwater pouring away down the cockpit drains. Inside she was dry as a bone. Raised the foresail Mark had had repaired, Trish turning up to help feed the luff into its groove. I let it flap in zephyrs, before furling it inside its new sacrificial strip. The problem is the engine. Dave had said no water was coming out of the exhaust. Turning up now he gave me a checklist. I looked at the flow from the input seacock. It’s not the problem but it won’t close. Glad I found that. I followed the rubber cooling pipes to the impeller and looked inside the engine block, using it as an opportunity to change one of the drive belts, but what’s causing the water circulation problem? I tried starting the engine, priming with seawater in case of an airlock. No flow. Frustrated I cycled back to the village in the dusk, in time for supper on Mark and Sally’s balcony – pasta, pork, chicken, wine and happy conversation against a dark landscape and the calling of owls. “As well as the skops, we have a barn owl” said Mark. I went to bed on a full stomach aching pleasantly from cycling up the valley and groping with spanners in the engine locker – a mechanical illiterate learning how things work. Lin played quiet music on the keyboard next door as I sank into sleep. Dave’s meeting me at the harbour on Sunday morning to see if he can find the problem. Thank heaven for friends. In England, with tides and more or less constant wind, I’d not need the engine – but Ionian calms and fore-and-aft mooring makes it tricky to rely on sail. * * * Andrew Simons, one of my friends to be made redundant. He's been over ten year's Director of The Centre of the Earth - a purpose built eco-classroom next to the prison and canal in Winson Green. It's to become an office. He'd assembled an collection of photos and texts about Black Patch Park to go on display at Soho House for the Matthew Boulton Centenary. It tells a story that had disappeared for a few decades, especially how the Gypsies, driven from the Black Patch to make it into a park had sent us their descendants to campaign to save it from being built over by Sandwell Council. What chance at exactly the same time as we campaigners for green space in the city discovered Sandwell’s plans to build on Black Patch Park, that Ted Rudge, a mature student at Birmingham should have been guided by Prof Carl Chinn to study the Romany links to the area, and having done that made connections with those he studied and written a book and created a website of local history that gave prominence to this small acreage of greenery in Winson Green on the Birmingham-Sandwell border?So now I know of King Esau and Queen Henty; he, I believe, cremated in his caravan; she, buried in a grave we’ve not yet found with her husband’s ashes in St Mary’s Churchyard, leaving a curse on anyone who built on the Black Patch, a story Bryn Phillips turned into a song for our successful campaign. But such history will be the trickier to unearth if expertise like Andrew's is taken out of the community mix. Les Wattam is sending me more information about the wagons in this old picture of the Black Patch - Queen Henty standing tall back left of centre. * * * Meanwhile in London. ... see also this YouTube clip * * * ...and in America, this conversation between Bill Moyers and William K. Black, former senior regulator about what went wrong with the banking industry, why the economy's in the mess, the futility of the bailout and the loss of our 'capability for outrage'.

1 comment:

  1. Simon,

    I was able to talk about my friend in front of assembled colleagues on his last day. Decision makers nowhere to be seen.

    I explained amongst other things that the term 'Redundant' was too final and wrong. My friend after all has so much more to give.

    And instead of the usual impersonal drivel about this and that project that the departee has delivered as, if this somehow defines them. I tried to say something of the man.

    I felt the most fitting tribute was that 'no one ever spoke badly of my friend and perhaps more to his credit I never heard him speak badly of anyone else'

    'The worst things always seem to happen to the nicest people'

    Graham

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