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Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Handsworth Park History Tour

Aftab Rahman:  Hey Simon that image looks really good. We have thrown a stone in the pond and now we will see the ripples.
Simon: Yes indeed and it's our pond and we watch those ripples - assiduously! Let no-one assume that in thinking up and developing a Heritage Trail for East Handsworth and Lozells, we not are also recognising, as did those Victorian predecessors whose lives we are striving to recover, that we live amid the pathologies that beset all cities, and that our project is not some detached indulgence but one which directly - and with the same concern and commitment as characterised the concerns of our ancestors in this area - addresses the conditions presented by deprivation and its effects in misery, crime, anomie and ill-health. The money invested in this project is an investment in reducing crime, and in improving education and health.

On Saturday morning I was guide for a history tour of Handsworth Park - at first called Victoria Park, like many others at the time, in honour of the Queen. The chilly weather and the snow, still falling now and then, did not deter over 15 people turning up. I've been doing tours of Handsworth Park for years.
A photo of the opening - in pouring rain - of Victoria Park Extension on 30 March 1898
This one was included in a more ambitious enterprise dreamed by my friend Aftab Rahman of Legacy West Midlands. Handsworth Park is one of ten other places with historical resonance included in the East Handsworth and Lozells Heritage Trail (see local press)

Aftab designed a poster for the project, set up a website and includes many pictires of places on the Heritage Trail on the pages of Facebook.

Legacy WM won a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant to develop a heritage trail for Lozells and East Handsworth training 15 volunteers in a greater appreciation and understanding of local history so they can give guided tours. Legacy WM is working with South and City College to develop an accredited course, being run at St Mary's Convent, with the aim of launching the trail on the 25th May 2013. Once trained the volunteers will give guided tours to the community, people across the city and visitors to Birmingham, tours that will include
This was how Tom Rowley described the tour in The Telegraph in February....

Birmingham's new tourist trail - but will coach parties want to visit East Handsworth?

Do tourists really want a guided tour of the once riot-scarred streets of Birmingham?

A snowy day in Handsworth: Aftab Rahman with Tom Rowley on Hunters Road, Handsworth

Walking tours of Oxford begin by the gates of Trinity College. In Bath, the eager participants gather at the Pump Rooms, and in Edinburgh the route starts at the foot of The Mound, near the Royal Mile. But our rendezvous today is the Asian Resource Centre.
I’m the first visitor to sample Britain’s newest – and most controversial – walking tour, and my eager guide, dressed in hardy boots and a baggy cagoule, is Aftab Rahman. Rather than lingering by a Bridge of Sighs, though, the two-hour route will see us walk through two of the country’s most deprived and notorious neighbourhoods – Lozells and East Handsworth – in search of their industrial heritage.
The wards, two miles from Birmingham city centre, are not an obvious tourist draw. One in four of the population is unemployed and a recent police newsletter warns of anti-social behaviour, prostitution and drugs. More than four-fifths of locals are from ethnic minorities. It was here that racial and economic tension sparked the riots in 1985, when two brothers burnt to death in the Post Office they ran and 45 shops were looted. In 2005, further rioting claimed another two lives and injured a police officer.
It is perhaps surprising, then, that the Heritage Lottery Fund has given £38,000 to launch the tour. When it begins in May, volunteers in Victorian garb will guide visitors around the area for free each Saturday.
The local MP, Khalid Mahmood, thinks it is a huge waste of money. “We’re talking about the middle of Birmingham,” he sighs. “I don’t think it is picturesque. We haven’t got the sort of sites they have in York, for example. Of course we have some history, but we’re not in that league. We’ve got to understand where we are. We’ve got better things to spend that money on than walking a group of Japanese tourists around.”
Lottery funding should go towards regenerating the area or helping residents find jobs, he argues. “I think they should provide pamphlets for people to explore the area themselves. Then visitors could interact with local businesses and put some money back into the community.”
Undeterred, we set off in driving snow, and Aftab dismisses Mr Mahmood’s concerns. “The MP should be promoting his own area, not putting it down,” he tells me, as we pass the “Eat Well” Caribbean vegetarian takeaway on Hamstead Road.
Aftab, 42, emigrated from Bangladesh to Lozells with his family when he was six. He admits that the area has generated a bad press over the years. “I came here in 1976 and it wasn’t always rosy,” he recalls. “There was a lot of violent racism in the early days and the riots when I was 15 were devastating. Shops were burnt down, there were petrol bombs and stand-offs with the police.”
Walking tours in unlikely areas are a recent phenomenon and not confined to the West Midlands. Visitors to Belfast will soon be offered a walkabout that includes a dozen sites associated with the worst atrocities of the Troubles. Last year, an enterprising bus company launched a £15 tour of the M25. The chance to spend four hours in a jam seems unlikely to become a major draw. Aftab, on the other hand, is determined that his tour will work. “Ultimately, I want people from London and across the world to come,” he insists. “We have enough to showcase here for the world to see.”
It is impossible not to be cheered by Aftab’s enthusiasm. Whether he is pointing out Soho House, a grand Georgian home where the industrialist Matthew Boulton lived in the 1700s, or “one of only six bandstands in the West Midlands” in the park, he is proud to call himself a local.
Aftab, a former youth worker with Worcester city council, is an energetic supporter of the community and has set up several charities to help young people into work. He will run the walking tour in his role as director of Legacy West Midlands, an organisation he set up to promote the area’s history.
But some of Aftab’s showpieces are, frankly, of limited appeal. The “first Halal slaughterhouse in the West Midlands”, where customers used to be able to select a chicken to be killed, is, perhaps, of minor cultural interest. Similarly, a row of nine Georgian houses, sympathetically restored, have little to commend them beyond charming sash windows.
But the route also takes us into St Mary’s convent on Hunters Road. Built in 1841, it is the work of Augustus Pugin, more famous for much of the interior design of the House of Commons. Two of the nuns greet Aftab warmly and show us Flemish carvings and a grandfather clock by Pugin.
Our final stop is St Mary’s church, back on Hamstead Road. The Norman tower is magnificent but Aftab heads straight to a marble mausoleum where James Watt, the Scottish engineer and inventor whose improvements to the steam engine were key to the Industrial Revolution, is interred.
“This is what my trail is all about,” he says. “We have these hidden gems here that people don’t know about. It is beautiful and we need to make a song and dance about it. People think of Lozells and East Handsworth as a riot hotspot with gang affiliation. But it is not like that. Give this area another 10 years and it will be one of the most desirable places to live. What was Brixton like 10 years ago? The community is growing slowly and it is just a matter of time. Give it a chance.”
Our tour may be over, but Aftab will never tire of walking around his neighbourhood – even if coachloads of tourists fail to turn off the M40 at Junction 16.
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“We’re talking about the middle of Birmingham," said Khalid Mahmood “I don’t think it is picturesque. We haven’t got the sort of sites they have in York, for example. Of course we have some history, but we’re not in that league. We’ve got to understand where we are. We’ve got better things to spend that money on than walking a group of Japanese tourists around.”
Our MP's words angered Lin
"He's rubbishing his own constituency'
I enjoy quotes like this though. They are a challenge. Handsworth, modern Handsworth where we've lived since 1979, has a reputation I rather enjoy, not only because it discourages visits by the kind of people who made comments like this below Rowley's carping piece... you can work out for yourself, the area is a dump. you could work out your own guided tour out with a book on birmingham architecture. i wouldn't recommend someone white do it, as your safety could not be guaranteed. it still has a black presence so mugging is a distinct possibility, and it is now overwhelmingly muslim, so not to be recommended for non muslim women, especially white women, as some of these people regard non muslim women as easy meat (especially if you happen to be very young, white, and from a dysfunctial background). thinking about it, as a brummy i have to say it would be better to take a trip out to worcestershire or gloucestershire and see what england use to/should look like. birmingham is rapidly looking more like a 3rd world country, and i can't see why anyone wishing to sight-see england would want to look at that. sorry to disappoint.
...but much more important because the history that resides in this area is entirely formidable. I've been taking people around Handsworth Park, including my entranced Japanese students, for decades, telling them how "in this place the modern world was invented"
Showing my Japanese students around Handsworth

For years I've lived amid the echoes of this astounding source. Only in the last twenty years or so have I begun to grasp the causes and consequences strewn around me - this place where the industrial revolution was seeded. 
Another history tour of Handsworth Park (photo: Lee Southall)
I cherish the concealment that hides this significance from so many people, including our MP who talks unknowingly of "understanding where we are". It may seem a paradox but I don't want this area to become a museum replete with commodified history. I value it too much for its present life including its risks and the things that anger me as well as those things in which I rejoice. 
Our home in Handsworth

I'm protective, even possessive, cherishing Handsworth the way I might cherish a chest of private family treasures that, as an old man, I might ease open with false reluctance in response to the pleas of curious grandchildren, encouraging their small eager fingers to touch and hold; their ears to listen, uncritically, to my crafted accounts of amazing things; their innocent eyes to gaze untroubled, wondering and happy at what one day they will be taught as 'history'.

Talking about Handsworth Park in the Sons of Rest -  run now as a café by Mark Bent and family

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Dear All. I enclose the Minutes of the Handsworth Helping Hands meeting on 21 March’13
I have collected the HHH van from Mike and parked it at the compound in the usual place. The new battery started the engine instantly even though it had been sitting with both leads connected in very chilly weather for nearly a week.
As it is for extra assurance I have disconnected one battery lead and also ensured that the jump leads previously in the back of the van have been left in the driver’s cabin.  The driver’s log is up to date.
By the way Mike T has now heard from Michelle Climer, via Luke Kennedy (Assistant Service Manager, BCC Fleet and Waste Management) that unless there is a shift of policy, or some specific discussion of the idea, we cannot use our charity waste disposal licence for any waste other than that we can carry in the van
QUOTE: Hello Luke. The charity permit is not transferable, it has been issued on a specific set of criteria. Charity permits cover small quantities of waste from charitable activities, not the clean up of areas and any further work, especially on a larger scale would need to be discussed in detail.  The cost to the Birmingham City Council is quite considerable and would need to be considered against operations that we already provide in the area. Regards, Michelle Climer, Waste Data & Operations Manager, Veolia- 0121-303-7377 END QUOTE
Best wishes, Simon
Thursday night's meeting of Handsworth Helping Hands

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A note from Waseem, one of our ward councillors:
Hi Simon, Received this email this afternoon with the attachment in response to my email to the chair of planning and licensing & public protection committees. Doesn't really say anything positive on how an elderly resident is protected.  Many thanks. Best wishes, Waseem Zaffar, Councillor for Lozells & East Handsworth Ward
Dear Cllr Waseem Zaffar Thank you for sending me the copy of James Wagstaff’s letter of 25 March 2013, also copied to Cllrs Sharp and Dring, in which he responds to your concerns about work at xx Beaudesert Road, Handsworth (refs: 2012/1754/ENF & 2012/05049/PA)
Over six months a woman in her 80s living alone since her husband was taken into care has suffered life threatening harassment in the form of dangerous building and excavation involving heavy falling debris, late night noise, trespass on and damage to her home at the hands of an uncommunicative and insensitive neighbour while we, also her neighbours (Simon Baddeley, Chair Beaudesert Road Residents), her ward councillors (Cllrs Mahmoud Hussain, Hendrina Quinnen and Waseem Zaffar), along with officers (Philip Whittaker, Maxine Brown, Katie Moriarty as well as Waheed Nazir, Director of Planning and Regeneration, Chair of Planning Cllr Mike Sharpe and James Wagstaff, Principal Enforcement Officer at Birmingham City Council) have found themselves powerless to help her as she continues to receive demands from that same neighbour to complete the work he began without any attempt to meet or consult with her before he began major extension work on his property with the consequences that followed.
There has to be something seriously wrong if local government with its formal duty of care for vulnerable people can only suggest to this old lady that she resort to civil action to gain redress for the injustices perpetrated against her.
As you may imagine I could not agree more that James Wagstaff’s exculpatory letter says nothing 'positive on how an elderly resident is protected.’
I am happy for you to circulate my thoughts on this miserable situation.
Yours sincerely, Simon Baddeley
Excavation damage to and trespass on a neighbours property 
....and a comment from my friend Jan D:
as always you hit the nail on the head .As far as this sorry saga is concerned it is shameful and sadly illustrates the parts of local government I do not like and tried with only various degree of success to confront in my time. I can't help feeling that this is the response of a middle ranking bureaucrat and jobs-worth who is hiding behind rules and regulations to justify doing nothing and covering his back. No doubt everything in the letter can be evidenced and I suspect it has been 'authorised' by the legal department who generally speaking are pathologically risk adverse and defensive. It fails to address the issue which is the Council's Duty of Care to Vulnerable people and as such you may have grounds to take action against the council on these grounds.You could draw it to the attention of the Director of Adult Services who is Peter Hay, but whereas they may help the old person they would not on their own have powers to deal with the neighbour. This require a council-wide response. I think the only options now are a sustained publicity campaign and civil legal action. Not a happy scenario! Best of luck, J 
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Aleko Damaskinos, unsuperstitious and collector of unconsidered trifles sends this from Corfu about το Στριγγοπούλι, πάτσα νυχτόβιου αρπακτικού - a nocturnal predator, probably the tawny owl, but perhaps a barn owl:
The bird that 'brings death'
A bird that nobody talks about is this one…
Nobody has ever seen it, but only hears it in the night!
It is called the striglopouli (The screaming bird).
If anyone hears its call near their house it means that some member of the family will die! If though the bird is shot and killed the curse will be lifted!
Nobody has ever managed to do this, and then they would then know what this bird looks like!
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In Athens Greek Independence Day celebrations on 23 March were sombre, overshadowed by news from Cyprus. As I'd expect Nick Malkoutzis writes as intelligent a piece as I've yet read about the financial mess there. While I ponder the idea that Cyprus, an economy hardly the size of Minneapolis (as a friend observed), has in this crisis sent shivers across the globe not to mention the repute of the Eurozone; that dubiously enriched Russian oligarchs are getting a just haircut and therefore "so what?'; and being sure that if I'd been making decisions made by the  'technocrats' in recent days I’d have made the situation worse and the only lessons is one that reinforces the old ballad....
It’s the same the whole world over:
It’s the poor what gets the blame.
It’s the rich what gets the pleasure;
Ain’t it all a bloomin’ shame. 
Nick writes:
At the beginning of last week, Cypriot politicians insisted they would not choose a 'suicidal' option for their country. By the end of the week, they picked one that would inflict mortal wounds instead.
Nicosia’s handling of its unprecedented predicament has been cataclysmic. But the approach adopted by the European Union and International Monetary Fund to Cyprus’s problems has also been disastrous. The eurozone has been building up to an omnishambles moment throughout the debt crisis and it finally struck in a small island state in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The agreement arrived at in Brussels early Monday, following hours of talks involving Cypriot officials, eurozone finance ministers and EU and IMF chiefs, is being billed as the least worst option after all sides took successive wrong turns on the way. That may be the case but it will be little consolation to thousands of Cypriots who have lost a big chunk of their deposits and face uncertain times ahead.
For those looking at the longer-term picture, the island is in for years of extreme difficulties. Its banking system and concomitant services made up about half of the island’s economy. This has now been obliterated. Depositors are unlikely to trust Cypriot banks for some time to come and young Cypriots will have to choose to become something other than lawyers, financiers and accountants. Many will have to consider a future away from their homeland, which faces a double-digit recession in 2013 and more years of economic contraction ahead....
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Lovely and satisfying reactions in Thurrock a few days ago - just one example of across the board reaction among participants to a seminar on Managing in Political Space
I'm invited to do further work on this later in the year.

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