Saturday, 1 September 2012

What's it mean to be Brummie?

Οδός Δημοκρατίας, Άνω Κορακιάνα, Κέρκυρα
Dear Cllr Zaffar
I am so sorry that neither Linda nor I can attend at the Inquiry on 18 September 2012. I know we would very much have enjoyed contributing and hearing what others have to say on the subject of being a Brummie along with other questions you are investigating.
Linda says the attached essay on ‘Being a Brummie’ is far too long - over 4000 words - and doesn’t answer in any precise way the questions your committee is asking, but it was a good exercise for me, and who knows, some parts of it may be of interest and even use to you and your colleagues. I look forward very much to reading the O & S Committee’s final report. Consider the attached is ‘written evidence’ submitted to the committee and therefore in the public domain. Any errors are mine.  Best wishes, Simon and Linda Baddeley copied to Rebecca Short, Iram Choudry for Birmingham City's Social Cohesion and Community Safety Scrutiny Committee
‘WHAT IT MEANS TO BE BRUMMIE'
There cannot be a city in the world where combining social cohesion with integration is not a matter of concern, pride or a mix of both. Much of the world has set itself against 20th century solutions to intractable problems of human integration - partition as happened in British India, in Ireland, in Greece and Turkey in the 1920s and now, again, in the Balkans, is almost as discredited as apartheid. We know that without formal action by governments some populations will, even in the same country or city, seek partition and isolation according to identity and often economic standing, aggregating in particular districts and even by street, using politically correct codes to seek areas where they may find others like themselves or avoid ones where they will not. We know that efforts by government from bussing in order to integrate schools to making it unlawful for finance companies to ring fence mortgage lending areas have had debateable success when it comes to reducing a tendency for populations to atomise. This process can be exacerbated if implicit, or worse, explicitly approved by government agencies and businesses through ill-balanced policies and employment practices. One person’s cohesion is another’s separation. There is a dilemma here, riven with contradiction. If a community of place feels threatened in its identity, especially in its ability to socialise children into its own habits and mores and faith it will work to maintain its boundaries, pursuing initiatives to enable schooling and child rearing that sustains its fold. Thus the very social solidarity that we value by becoming associated with one group ends up harming efforts to weave a more inclusive social fabric for the larger population.
I’m Simon Baddeley. I and my family have lived in Handsworth since 1978, I arrived in Birmingham in 1973, living first in lodgings in Cannon Hill, then having explored the city via circuits on the number 11 bus route, buying a small terrace near Edgbaston Reservoir. I have worked these years as an academic with a special interest in the working relations of politicians and managers in local government. With my colleague Andrew Coulson, an ex-councillor for Selly Oak, I run an accredited course on Overview and Scrutiny at my university. I believe in evidence-based policy-making but am not naïve about the challenges this presents to elected politicians. I’ve been involved in many local groups and campaigns. I was a founding member of the Handsworth Park Association. I maintain the Handsworth Allotments Information Group which carried out local research on demand for allotments to stop the Victoria Jubilee Allotments from being entirely lost to housing development. Since 2010 I have had a plot there, with bees. I gave up my car in 2007 and have for many years advocated improved public transport, and an infrastructure for our city that encourages walking and cycling. I have lectured on local government issues across the UK as well as in Sweden, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and remain, in my 70th year, a part-time visiting lecturer at Birmingham University. With my wife, Linda, and other neighbours, we have recently brought a local voluntary handyman service from insolvency, to a situation where, renamed as Handsworth Helping Hands, we aim to provide a mix of free and paid services to vulnerable people, and carry out such tasks as garden tidying, street clearance and the laying out of neglected public flowerbeds. The following essay is one that I was invited to submit by Cllr Waseem Zaffar MBE as an attempt at answering the question ‘What it means to be Brummie'. My essay is autobiographical. It implies that I was the instigator or main actor of various events. Where this is true I am proud, but no-one is more aware than I that co-operation, collaboration and joint activity among friends, neighbours, strangers, council officers and elected members has been an essential ingredient of my active citizenship in Birmingham - no mean city.
When I was ten years old in 1952 my parents were driving me and my sister from London to Pembrokeshire for a holiday by the rocky coast of St David’s. Our route took us along the road to Wolverhampton that passes through the Black Country. As I looked east I recall peering from our car at a landscape of chimneys under a grey sky and making a remark about how ugly it was. My stepfather, a wise man as I now know, from Yorkshire, self-made but taken to living with my mother who was from a social background that included being a debutante, presented to the King at Buckingham Palace (an outmoded ritual) said gently “That, Simon, is Birmingham. In this place we are passing through they make the wealth of the greatest empire the world has ever known.” He was no imperialist. By ‘greatest’ he meant ‘very very large’, as I, brought up in the 1950s on maps of the world covered in pink, well knew. “Don’t ever forget that. This is the Black Country we’re passing through”. Not only did he mean ‘very large’, he wanted me, a Londoner and a child of the Home Counties where I went from age 6 to a private boarding school, to have a childish introduction to how wealth was made; to an idea of work that was as far outside my ken as coal-mining was to the Etonian George Orwell, before he did research for The Road to Wigan Pier.
Many years later I came back from higher education in a mid-Western university at a loose end as to what my career might be. They didn’t do the careers preparation that is normal now. I got the education at public school and later at Cambridge of someone whose employment and future were taken for granted. Not a brilliant intellect nor an assiduous student, I scraped through that privileged education until the Americans forced me to maintain A grades to stay in Grad School and even kept class registers. I recovered enough credit to be able to apply for academic work, and so was called from my temporary lodging near Trafalgar Square to an interview in Birmingham.
At New Street Station I was a little late. I asked the taxi driver to go quickly to the University
“Which one?”
“Er?”
He made a guess and drove west. I had only that childhood memory of Birmingham so I was puzzled that our route seemed, after the first minutes, to be entirely lined and even overhung with trees and hedges. I even glimpsed a lake and broad lawns on the way. The interview was nine floors up in an ugly tower block from which, while waiting to be called in, I saw, beyond the red-brick of Edgbaston campus, a vast landscape of houses laced with trees and green spaces with blue hills in the distance.
“So it’s quite a small town” I thought seeing countryside on the city’s edge. “I could get out of it quite easily”
If I had been asked in those days what I would have thought of spending my career in Birmingham, of making a life here and bringing up children, if I had any, as Birmingham citizens (I hadn’t encountered the term Brummie then), I would have laughed and made some remark like
“Hand me a saw so I can remove my legs – without anaesthetic”.
I’m familiar now with Londoners who aren’t sure of our city’s whereabouts and the cliché about the no-man’s land that begins north of Watford. To people born in Birmingham it is probably impossible to grasp the level of loathing and contempt that a certain type of southerner has for ‘the great working city’. For years after I’d come to work here I had a London relative who would wonder ‘when I was coming back to civilisation’. I, unphased by class, ethnic or religious difference in others, raised by parents for whom that kind of attitude was a crime worse than murder (to which such sentiments led, as they well knew), directed all my latent capacity for prejudice and irrational animosity towards places. And of all the places I imagined the worst, none exceeded Birmingham.
Birmingham forgave my unfounded and ridiculous ‘placism’. Well actually it didn’t. If I can personify a whole city in the style of my inane London-bred prejudice, Birmingham didn’t even notice and if it did, it couldn’t have cared less. This is not a city with a chip on its shoulder. Not for me anyway. I love it even for its drear messiness, for its accent – considered, I’ve read somewhere, the least liked in the country - which can make me stop dead and turn to greet if I hear it on some foreign street. I was amused when once another step-grandfather, retired to a shooting moor and fishing river in the Highlands, on hearing my visiting six year old daughter bubbling with enthusiasm, suggested she might benefit from a few elocution lessons. This opinion was immediately conveyed to her by my mother. They were highly amused “I’m a Brummie, Grandma,” she laughed. 
The Birmingham in which I came to work in 1973 was already changed beyond the recognition of that childhood holiday memory of a view from a car on the way to Wales. The sea of belching chimneys was near drained. The air was clean without the waft of coal fires that I could still gather when visiting my future wife’s parents in Cannock. As with other industrial cities of the UK and indeed across the rich world, the manufacture that was part of Birmingham’s core, her raison d’etre, shared – as Boyle’s 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony told Londoners who might have missed it – with the whole of Britain, was in terminal decline, haemorrhaging all that gave meaning and identity to thousands of her citizens, bleeding away tool setting apprenticeships; whole workforces thrown out of work, hundred of small enterprises becoming as abruptly, mysteriously and poignantly desolate as the Marie Celeste. I recall seeing heavy machinery parked on some of the city’s industrial side roads, boxed up and addressed with foreign writing ready for shipping to the far edge of the Pacific. In the Jewellery Quarter post office there were more and more queues of people with small parcels of unfinished metal goods being sent off for cheaper polishing 10,000 miles away, to be posted back to a diminishing pool of workshops as more and more were converted to retail outlets. A landscape of exciting possibilities was turning into one of hopeless impossibility.
As is the case with history in the making, I missed the full grain of these tectonic shifts in the global economy – seeing instead a sequence of separate events that didn’t make any sort of clear picture of what was happening to ‘my’ city. It was only in the late 80s after the riots that some called ‘rebellions’ – we were ever debating different narrations of the slow trauma that had hit Birmingham – had had their worst impacts on the very people brought in to enliven the local economy, as our great empire imploded.
My first home in Birmingham was at 1 Daisy Road, near the Edgbaston Reservoir. From there I got married. Linda and I were already matched when it came to combining our salary earning jobs (she a primary school teacher) with voluntary activity. We started The Reservoir Roads Residents Association, initially to campaign against the noise and nuisance, especially car parking in our narrow streets, from events at the Tower Ballroom. We took them to the Licencing Committee and won a deal that saw the ballroom funding an overflow car park. John Marriage QC for Mecca, accused us – eighty neighbours assembled at the licencing committee - of being ‘brown shirts’ trying to provoke indignant rebuttal that would make us look stupid. We didn’t rise to that ruse. Later, when the city wanted to sell off a tract below us for housing, our association, consulted by the council, were successful in getting a playground included in the final plan. We also set off a wasp’s nest of successful protest after city engineers tried, misguidedly, to redirect traffic past the local primary school to relieve congestion at the end of Ladywood Middleway.
Later a more sombre and divisive circumstance; a friend had taken Lin and I to his Working Men’s Club in Weoley Castle. Visiting us, he suggested we all visit ours – The Mount Pleasant on Reservoir Road – where I, from Westminster and Cambridge, was proud to have been accepted as a member. On arriving we were welcomed as usual at the door, but Tom, trailing us, was barred and told that it was ‘a members only evening’. I once saw an outside toilet in Alabama bearing the sign ‘coloureds only’ but I’d never seen Jim Crow at work in England. Of course I’d read about it; had heard of signs in Birmingham windows letting flats which said ‘No dogs or coloured’. We were deeply embarrassed. Tom, inclined at first not to dignify the insult by even noticing it, pursued the incident through the CRE and we, with another friend, were witnesses able to use the articulate skills of a teacher and an academic to strengthen Tom’s case that the Mount Pleasant exercised a colour bar. I learned later, when the club was forced by law to open its doors wider, that this was the first successful case of its kind in the country – so skilful had such clubs been in camouflaging their prejudices. It didn’t make me feel good at all. I had been welcomed into a working men’s club and helped turn that hospitality into a poison chalice for them. An old Irishman took me aside in the aftermath as I sat bravely, but in Coventry, forcing down a pint in the club bar;
“Simon, Simon, Simon. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. We know you mean well. They used to treat us like that. We were the duck eggs. Now they do it to the coloureds. Simon you’ll never understand. I see all these people (I could almost see his parentheses on ‘these people’) everywhere. I see them all the day, Simon, everywhere! I just want to have one place where I can be among my own.”
Our residents association chairman – a sober neighbour – said quietly to me
“I’m very disappointed in you and Lin”
He’d put me up for the club and was on its committee. So here was I, possibly the only man in the UK who belonged both to a Working Men’s Club in Reservoir Road in Birmingham and the Savile Club in Brook Street in London, understandably unwelcome in the first and shortly to resign from the latter, because it refused to open its doors to women. Was I getting overstretched in self righteousness, or was it that Birmingham’s non-conformist tradition of radicalism, unconnected to party political allegiance, had proved infectious?
One day in 1985, just after Carnival in Handsworth Park, I walked my four year old son down the Lozells Road, a few hundred yards from our home in Handsworth. The road had the reek of burning, buildings scorched, windows smashed, cars burned out, after the mayhem of the previous night. We’d had phone calls from foreign relatives asking if we were OK and had stepped outside and heard sirens in the distance. I wanted my son to remember this in later years (as a 30 year old, he was out with his expensive camera in Newtown taking dramatic photos one torrid night in July 2011 as the Barton Arms was looted and set alight). Mrs Thatcher’s Lord – Willie Whitelaw - had cautioned her not to view these events as just criminal. So, amid all the local enquiries in the shocked aftermath, we had a very senior civil servant sent up from Number 10 to visit. Denise F, of Haughton Road Residents, organised a spread for him. Twenty or so of us from different local groups were around a table in a borrowed room by Richmond Hill. We were asked to think aloud about what had happened. A woman, who worked for a lift company on Hamstead Road, waxed furious at the failure of the police to do something about ‘these people’. She was steaming with resentment and in this small assembly of white people she wanted to send a message from Handsworth and all of “us” that “enough was enough” and “we want you to do something now to deal with these people and help us to leave the area”. Denise interrupted her in mid-flow. “Excuse me,” she said, as she still does nearly 30 years later when making a public point, “but who’s ‘we’? I want this gentleman to know that we are all from Handsworth and we’re all disgusted by what's happened, but that doesn’t mean we want to leave Handsworth and I’m not sure who do you mean by ‘these people’?”
I remember two things, no three; how that intervention set us all talking and the civil servant listening; the look of astonishment and utter dismay on the face of the first woman who thought she was among her fellows; and the swell of pride I feel to this day at living in Handsworth with neighbours such as these.
Jump forward twenty years. Jump past Birmingham’s great and quite successful endeavour at transforming itself into a post-industrial city. Jump past my and my friends’ and neighbours’ campaigns for the future of Handsworth Park, my short history of the founding of that park, made easier by the community history resources of Birmingham Central Library, our campaign to save at least part of the Victoria Jubilee Allotments, working with local people and helping make two telling TV programmes on the subject, so that we could see, in Handsworth, the biggest new municipal allotment site in the UK since WW2, starting and running a residents’ association in our road, successfully lobbying a rating tribunal for changes in the valuation of our and our neighbours’ homes. Jump past petitioning over local issues to do with night noise, conserving green verges, resisting unwelcome planning applications for changes of use or incursions on green space, cleaning up the church yard of St Mary’s, Handsworth. Jump past helping start The Friends of Black Patch Park, a successful campaign, in which we were joined by the descendants of the Gypsy families, who had been turfed violently from the Black Patch in the 1900s in order to lay out that same municipal park now under threat of being used as retail space.
It’s 2005, just twenty years since the grim events of 1985. Jump to me thinking such things will not happen again. In summer 2005 a tale spreads with help from local radio stations, some supported by the Home Office now, and of course via forums on burgeoning social web, that a young Black girl has been repeatedly raped in an Asian owned hair products shop. There are riots. A young Afro-Caribbean schoolboy on his way home and, until now, uninvolved in these events, is murdered in the street by a gang of Asian youths.
The media, as is their job, were on our streets in some numbers, along with innumerable police officers in yellow tabards, seeking and collecting evidence from people of all ethnicities in a way that would have been inconceivable twenty years earlier. I was cycling down Lozells Road feeling depressed – an unfamiliar mood brought on at realising that warnings I’d thought alarmist, even inciting, had proved so correct; miserable that so much angst, from which I, with job, good health and unalloyed optimism instilled since birth, could not begin to experience – that such a desire for futile and anarchic attempts at violent resolution still lurked unseen and had had such cruel consequences. I was dismayed that complex economic and cultural differences seemed to have spawned a myth that put together multiple rape, Asian business success and hair products. What kind of alienation and anomie could have enabled such fatal stupidity among my neighbours? I parked my bicycle outside the Pak Supermarket (it’s owner once said, unless this is another if nicer myth, “Some people call me Paki. I’ll give that name to my shop”). I bought some vegetables and I chatted to the man at the till. That was pleasant, given we were all on edge. As I walked out of the shop I clumsily jolted over a display crate of tomatoes which spilled over the pavement, even into the road. I started blindly, almost tearful at this stupidity added to depression, to pick them up. “Don't worry, Don’t worry,” cried the shopkeeper hurrying to help, “No problem”. Then a smart little saloon car drove up and parked right by us and out hopped a beautiful young black woman, my daughter’s age, and she too began helping me to pick up the spilled tomatoes, all three of us chatting as I apologised. I cycled a few yards down the road and then – I an unbeliever – mouthed a prayer, “Thanks my lord and my redeemer”.  I get these ridiculous signs now and then, which I find odd, not embarrassing, in fact joyous, but wonder why they come to me, often just when I most need them.
I think it was only two years later I was at one of the local police consultative meetings at Rookery Road Fire Station – a new building with meetings for the use of community groups. These meetings are never fractious. ‘We’ are a sample of familiar faces from across several neighbourhoods within Handsworth, Lozells and Soho, including people of every background who’ve been attending similar meetings for decades. A lot of us know each other and enjoy our debates. We listen to local crime statistics, report concerns in particular areas and argue about detail.  We had been discussing the increasing visibility of young white prostitutes on certain streets. One Black woman began to wax voluble about “all the new comers” – Eastern Europeans, especially Poles but others from an expanded EU – and mentioned that “these people” were “bringing down the quality of the area”. There were a few nods of agreement but suddenly someone said “Wait a moment! What are you saying?” There was a hush and then widespread laughter. The meeting then moved on to a discussion of the causes of prostitution, the work of the police and social services in trying to bring these young women into the protection of social services, trying to find and arrest their handlers. Someone said “and why have we no Eastern European groups represented here?”
Answers to the questions posed by the committee are complicated or they are not answers. Writing down my thoughts makes it a easier to admit what I don’t know. I would like to please the no-nonsense element of this city, to have had some snappy bullet points that would cut to the heart of the issues. That would be lazy. Of course there must be summaries and lists, but I hope we can also read stories that describe how individuals find the balance, amid all the contingencies of life, between the many identities and separate loyalties that accompany growing up in a diverse yet connected population. The variety that both pleases and worries is not just out there. It is also inside the home and deep inside individuals. There is a challenge of external governance but there is also one of internal governance. The stories I hope to see are, like mine, the biographies of people living in a complicated world – one which will get even more complicated, demanding emotional literacy and private courage. Citizenship is eroded in a globalised economy, having more to do with the papers people need to work than with identity and duty. Place is eroded in a joined up world just when social fragmentation makes us yearn for somewhere we can stand our ground. Identity is no longer donated by birth - or not securely so - but must rather be striven for, invented and created by every individual. Citizenship is not what’s on a passport. It’s a journey that someone must make, as in other times they made pilgrimages. Some of us from birth learn of the importance of the Haj. I would like examples of pilgrimages that others can imagine taking. Children not equipped at home or by other institutions with the necessary navigational instruments and skills to make this highly personal journey are deprived; at risk of becoming no more than consumerist ghosts.
Handsworth

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