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Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Oliver in the park

Moment of undiluted content, sharing fallen leaves with my grandson in Handsworth Park; these from our plane trees, broad and brown; heaped up they're good for falling on, being buried amid and shuffling all over the place. By the pond, willow leaves like little blades are strewn, yellow and curved, to be picked up in a bunch and thrown above our heads, spinning as they fall, winning, from our child, shrieks of pleasure and surprise. Down by the water's stoney edge, under the intense guardianship of eye and hand, Oliver sits by the bank as, across the grey city water, we're approached by hopeful fowl - Canada geese, coot, duck, moorhen, two married swans like galleons with their cygnets - no longer ugly ducklings. Oscar dog stands on an outcrop and earns open-beak hisses from cob and pen, but Oliver and I are treated as benign, at least non-combatants; allowed to stare.

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First thing in the morning I'd cycled to Aston station, taken the train to Blake Street and cycled about three miles in car-land to Aldridge Parish Church…
Car-land on the way to Aldridge from Blake Street
Aldridge Parish Church

…to give a talk about the Founding of Handsworth Park to over fifty members of the Probus Club of Aldridge. Nearly 15 years after I wrote a history of how Handsworth Park was invented in the 1880s its story has  taken more secure form in my mind. Good. When I asked how many of this audience, men of my age and older, had visited Handsworth Park, over two third raised their hands. Yet to me Aldridge feels so different from my Handsworth I'm apprehensive at the prospect of explaining how much I love the place and how much I've learned about it these last twenty five years.
"Our park was not, like many fine city parks, a gift from a philanthropic landowner. It had to be paid for by local ratepayers in what was then the rich and salubrious village of Handsworth in rural Staffordshire, at comfortable remove from the the smoke, noise and mess of the great working city of Birmingham. But Birmingham was spreading. Relentlessly."
I quote what I and others have written:
Birmingham’s expanding population sought new living space, leaving only the poorest in the insanitary courts of the city centre and even these were soon edged away by the Corporation Street “improvement scheme” initiated in 1875 and finished in 1882 at a cost of over £1½ million. A familiar idea of “inner city” was not so much when the poor increased but when they no longer lived so close to the unpoor. In addition there were houses closer to the city centre, such as the Jewellery Quarter, whose artisan owners were converting them into workplaces and setting up home further away while still working in the city. Handsworth, many of whose residents had a special connection to Hockley and St.Pauls, was only one of the outlying parishes of Birmingham to undergo a process of transformation to “suburb”: 'While it was going on, the process gratified landowners, developers, builders and the occupants of the new suburbs, or at least continued to lure them with the prospects of profits, status, and happiness, but pleased practically no-one else. Contemporary social and architectural critics were fascinated and appalled by the mindless, creeping nature of the sprawl ... The ceaseless activity of the builders, the alarming rapidity with which they turned pleasant fields into muddy, rutted building sites, the confusion of hundreds of building operations going on simultaneously, without any discernible design, the impression that little schemes were starting up everywhere at once and were never being finished, were in themselves frightening portents of disorder and chaosThompson, F.M.L. (ed.) (1982) The Rise of Suburbia (Leicester:University Press) pp.67-68.
The talk went well. Nervousness aside I enjoyed myself. Over coffee, one old man - my age - said "I wonder if some of those people you quoted, when the case was being made for a park in Handsworth, would have believed their words were being quoted all these years later?" It was a lovely thought. I'd read from some of the conscientiously reported transcripts of local leaders arguing for the park, debating with sceptics and people downright opposed to having their rates spent on a park in what was still countryside…and especially the concerns of the Vicar of St.Mary's Church, Handsworth:
Dr. Randall rose amid the uproar to make what the Handsworth News reporter, with irony, called the speech of the evening: “I will answer for myself. Allow me to say that from my heart I am the last man in the parish to stand between any object which is for the welfare of the people of the parish. It is because I don't think it is for the well-being that we should have the park that I lift up my voice against it. We have an agricultural parish, and we have some of the finest air in the kingdom, and I believe that the park will be more for the benefit of the roughs of Birmingham.” (a perfect howl of dissent, uproar for at least a minute and cries of “shame” followed by alternations of groaning and cheering)  Dr. Randall spoke of people leaving the parish because of the heavy rates. (“hear, hear” and applause) He thought the Local Board had erred through jubilee zeal or some other zeal.(laughter) The vendors had taken advantage of that zeal to raise the price. (clamour) “I will state on my honour and word that the same land including the house has been offered to me even a few months ago, first at £7000 and then at £6000. If on no other ground I will oppose the purchase because it is above the price at which it has been offered to a private individual.” (great cheering and interruption, Babel itself was not in it with the confusion of sounds that then ensued)..p.16 of my history, drawing on unnamed reporters for the Handsworth News and the Handsworth Gazette, 19 Jan 1887
The long campaign for the recovery of contemporary Handsworth Park required the construction of a political narrative (helped in our case by access to far wider reference*) as robust as that which persuaded our ancestors. Reading the words of contemporary reporters of the 1880s I'm even more aware of how astutely argued was the case for the financial value of the park, its utility for a fast-growing urban incursion - effectively an expanding 'Birmingham suburb', a 'lung' for the city assuring the 'vigour and health' of the new population in their tiny-gardened workers' terraces with hardly room to 'swing a bat'. I said to the Probis members "I love this park, my family love it. I see it dew filled on spring mornings, its tranquillity to be enjoyed alone as much as its bustling crowds on summer afternoons. And as for the fun of visiting it in the snow!"
Amy and Guy and the dogs in Handsworth Park

Christmas day 

Summer evening

Simmer Down Festival 2012

I would have argued for its aesthetics and in consequence would have had none of the impact of those shrewd local politicians who'd made their case for popular support with demographic statistics and the language of efficient accountancy; such calculation raising for the new park the largest single loan then known to the district…I quote from one of the crowded public meetings held in the Council House off Soho Road seeking popular permission for a park in Handsworth... 
"...If the park is established I feel sure that in a very few years houses will be built in the locality which will render no extra rate necessary to support the park” (laugher and cries of “no, no”). Mr. Lines sits down and Mr. Wainwright rises to reply:
He was commendably brief, but exceedingly earnest, and his short fiery speech was admirably adapted to secure his purpose. Every word told, and the promise that the Board would, if the resolution were carried, do all their promised work without raising the rate, and throw in the park as well, seemed to produce the desired effect. Having concluded his speech, Mr. Wainwright put the resolution, and hands having been held up on either side, he declared that..
..much to the disgust of many on the platform. Mr.Jacobs loudly protested that the proposition was lost and demanded a poll. Mr.Cooper offered to place in the hands of the clerk or the chairman a cheque sufficiently large to cover the expenses of a poll. Mr. Ellis fumed and Dr. Randall looked disconsolate. But the clerk explained that the Board had no power to arrange for a poll of the ratepayers and the malcontents had to satisfy themselves with empty protest and not too polite observations as to the chairman and his manner of conducting the proceedings. Meantime, Mr. Wainwright, with radiant face and beaming eyes, left the platform, being heartily congratulated by his friends and supporters, and as we elbowed our way out of the still crowded room, we felicitated ourselves on the fact that the vexed question of a public park for Handsworth had been set at rest, with every appearance of the settlement arrived at, being a final and permanent one. Handsworth News, Jan. 22 1887 (pp.16-17 my account)
Even so in the final paragraph of my account (and in all my talks about the creation of Handsworth Park) I conclude 
They did not pursue such an idea simply out of expediency or to raise the value of their properties. Such self-interest was present - used unashamedly to strengthen their case among the practically minded citizens of Handsworth and more covertly to mitigate social conditions that might spur political unrest - but opposition to the Park from some of those who would be paying for it was at times so intense that calculative motives alone would not have carried the project through.
'...its tranquility to  be enjoyed alone…' A 19th century postcard

*for instance The Economic Value of Protected Open Space or a much circulated Japanese study on the link between longevity and walkable green space.
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After a visit to town - coffee with Phil Crumpton to discuss Black Patch Park at Yorks Bakery on Newhall Street - I take my usual journey home, Oscar running in front, beside and behind, on the canal towpath - Gas Street, from the top of Farmer's Locks where narrow boats are moored, some with their generators running, dim lights showing through curtained windows, the whiff of coal and wood smoke from their stove pipes; onto the Birmingham Mainline, then sharp right onto Soho Loop, my eyes unable to make out the way I wheel the Brompton under the flat rail bridge, Oscar a lighter smudge in the gloom….
Dudley Road bridge over the Soho Loop canal
Soho Loop towpath by Clissold Street

…then with him back in his pannier, I exit the tow path through a gap in the railings to join Clissold Street with its speed bumps, All Saints Street, free-wheeling down Goode Avenue wary of turning cars, into narrower Crescent Avenue, across South Road and up the slope of Claremont Road that turns into Richmond Road - a cul-de-sac - at the end of which I cross at the traffic lights on busy Soho Hill onto Hamstead Road, cross the Villa Road, turn right on Radnor Road, then left down Wycliffe Road which continues into Beaudesert Road and home.
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We have our passage booked for Greece - a flight to Venice, then by sea along the chill Adriatic to the ugly port of Igoumenitsa, then, in late afternoon, a ferry crossing to Corfu. In our dear village, in Ano Korakiana - 'The first seeds of Winter' - the liturgy for St.Barbara in the church of Our Lady in Mougades, at the west end of the village. The festive cycle of winter begins:

Τα πρώτα σπερνά του Χειμώνα

«Βαρβαρίτσι, Νικολίτσι κι Άη-Σάββας μες τη μέση…» και κατά πως ορίζει το γνωμικό αυτό, ξεκινάει και ο φετινός χειμωνιάτικος εορταστικός κύκλος, με τη Λειτουργία της Αγίας Βαρβάρας στην εκκλησία της Παναγίας στην κορυφή της Μουργάδας.Σε αντίθεση με άλλες περιοχές της χώρας,το πρωινό είναι ηλιόλουστο και η μικρή εκκλησία δεν θα αργήσει να γεμίσει από κόσμο και μάλιστα κάθε ηλικίας: από τις δεσποσύνες Αγγελική και Μαριέτα, έως την κυρά Χρυσάνθη, από την ανηφόρα της Πλαγιάς.Κάθε είσοδος στο ναό συνοδεύεται από προσκύνημα στη μεγάλη εικόνα της Παναγίας, που δεσπόζει σε κεντρικό σημείο και στη μικρότερη της Αγίας Βαρβάρας, ενώ κατά την έξοδο, ένα σακουλάκι με σπερνά αναμένει τους πιστούς, φτιαγμένα «δια χειρός» Δημήτρη και Ελένης Απέργη, που έχουν εφέτος τη σχετική επιμέλεια.


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…and on the 24th November the website of the village describes a meeting there with William Gladstone.
Ο Γλάδστων 1859
I find the piece beyond my ability to translate, and I want badly to read this - a village record, probably unknown to history, of a local discussion with one of our greatest statesman, dispatched down the wintry Adriatic by his rival Disraeli, in part to get him from England, in part to see if the great man could resolve an intractable problem among the seven islands of  Britain's troublesome Ionian Protectorate. Gladstone, in his diaries, wrote later of being utterly absorbed 'in the affairs of these little islands...'The complexity of the case is inversely (so to speak) as the extent of the sphere.' (31 Dec 1858). And complex it is; even embarrassing; certainly politically sensitive to this day, not least because Gladstone a strong friend of Hellenic independence found, on touring Corfu, that union with mother Greece was not to the liking of many of the islanders he met. This, I hasten to insist, was not through love towards, or even friendship with the English - tho' that did exist for a variety of motives - but through apprehension among the more politically sophisticated, not about Enosis-Ένωσις - as such, but at too close a union with the political corruption associated with government from Athens, and indeed reciprocal anxiety in Athens at the prospect of being united with the radical intelligentsia of Corfu, Zakinthos, Levkas and Cephalonia. The British - ever 'perfidious Albion' - 'handed us over to Athens" I've heard said by neighbours in Ano Korakiana ' because through those corrupt corridors they could have more influence over the affairs of Greece than by struggling to preserve their unwelcome foothold on the Ionian Islands":
Ο Γλάδστων στην Κορακιάνα του 1859
27 Ιανουαρίου (1859): Υπήγεν η Α.Ε. Γλάδστων μετά των υπασπιστών του εφ’ ίππων εις το χωρίον Κορακιάνα, διότι προ ημερών οι χωρικοί τον επροσκάλεσαν και αυτός δια να τους ευχαριστήση υπήγε. Και άμα έφθασεν, κατέβησαν όλοι οι χωρικοί, προεστός και λοιποί, δια να τους υποδεχθούν. Τους συνόδευσαν εις το χωρίον και άρχισαν να τους περιγράφουν όλα. Όταν ήτο έτοιμο το γεύμα (εν γεύμα μεγαλοπρεπές και πλουσιοπάροχον), επροσκάλεσαν την Α.Ε. με τους οπαδούς του, οίτινες ήλθον και εκάθησαν εις το μέσον του τραπεζίου. Διαρκούντος του γεύματος οι πρόκριτοι του χωριού τους έκαμαν διαφόρους ομιλίας, λέγοντες ότι « είμασθεν καλλίτερα υπό την Τουρκίαν παρά υπό την Αγγλίαν, διότι τότε εχαιρόμασθεν πολλά δικαιώματα, τώρα δε όχι». «Διατί (τους απάντησεν ο Γλάδστων) δεν είσθαι ευχαριστημένοι με την τωρινήν Κυβέρνησιν;». Και ότι: «Προ καιρού επεριφέρετο μία γραφή (ανακοίνωση-δήλωση) περί αποικίας, όντες υπογεγραμμένοι κάμποσοι από εσάς». «Μάλιστα (είπον αυτοί), το εκάμαμεν αυτό δια να εκβάλωμεν άλλο έξω, το περί Ενώσεως.Δηλαδή εσπείραμεν και θέλει έλθη καιρός να θερίσωμεν», «Και πώς (τους είπεν ο Γλάδστων) δεν σας αρέσουν οι μεταρρυθμίσεις τας οποίας επρότεινα εις τηνΒουλήν; Τέτε θέλει είσθε καλύτερα και θέλει χαίρεσθε πολλά δικαιώματα», «Όχι» του απάντησαν αυτοί «ότι κάμνουν οι Αντιπρόσωποί μας, καλά καμωμένα»

Σ.Σ. στο έντονο αίτημα της πλειονότητας των Επτανησσίων για «Ένωση με την Ελλάδα» τη δεκαετία του 1850, η αγγλική προστασία απάντησε με ένα σχέδιο μεταρρυθμίσεων, προσπαθώντας να κερδίσει χρόνο.Στα τέλη δε, του 1858 ο Γλάδστων έφτασε στα νησιά προκειμένου να διαπιστώσει το κλίμα που επικρατεί εκεί. Το Γενάρη λοιπόν του 1859 οι Κορακιανίτες προεστοί τον κάλεσαν στο χωριό, όπως φανερώνει η παραπάνω αναφορά των «Καθημερούσιων Ειδήσεων» του Σαμαρτζή. Εκεί αυτός, μάλλον έκπληκτος, αντίκρυσε όπως φαίνεται αρνητικό κλίμα και υποχρεώθηκε να υπενθυμίσει ότι αρκετοί από τους παρόντες στη συνάντηση είχαν προ μηνών υπογράψει ανακοίνωση «περί αποικίας». Πιθανότατα η αναφορά αυτή αφορά το περιβόητο χαρτί που υπέγραψε μερίδα Κορακιαντιτών και άλλων, ενάντια στην ένωση και υπερ της παραμονής υπό την αγγλική προστασία. Υπάρχουν δε μαρτυρίες ότι στην ίδια (;) επίσκεψη ο Γλάδστων ομίλησε στους χωριανούς στις Μουργάδες, έξω από την οικία Μαρτζούκου (Άη Νικολόπουλος), αλλά αυτοί δεν έπαυαν να επαναλαμβάνουν το αίτημα «Ένωση αν’ όρος» (δηλαδή, «Ένωση άνευ όρων»)….

I wrote asking Aleko for help and within hours he replied.
Dear Simon and Linda. Here is the translation, done quite quickly, so please excuse mistakes!! My Greek lessons this year at Sally's are going very well. I now have two groups, beginners and an advanced group, all done on the same day, Tuesday 11 to 12  and 12.30-1.30.  Have many new people, a total of 18 now! Please get in touch when you come back to Corfu and we will arrange some meeting. In the meantime a VERY HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO YOU BOTH and a VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR! with love,  Aleko

On the 27th January 1859 His Excellency Lord Gladstone, with his aides on horseback, went to the village of Korakiana because some days before, the villagers had invited him. In order to please them he accepted their invitation and went. When he arrived all the villagers and dignitaries from the village came to welcome him. They accompanied him and his entourage to the centre of the village and started to relate to them everything about their village. When the dinner was ready (a memorably rich and grand feast) they invited His Excellency, with his followers, to sit at the centre of the table. While the dinner was under progress the village dignitaries delivered some speeches with their focal point being:
“We were better off under the Turkish rule than under the English, because then we enjoyed many privileges which we don’t now”
“Why” answered Gladstone "are you not happy with the present government…A while ago there was a declaration concerning colonies and indeed many of you have signed to join them”
“Yes indeed” they replied. “We did this in order to bring up another point - the point concerning the Union of our island with Greece…In other words we have sowed the seeds and are now waiting for the harvest…”
“And why” said Gladstone "do you like these reforms which I suggested to the Parliament? You would all be much better off and would enjoy many privileges”
“No” they answered “Whatever our representatives do are WELL DONE and WELL RECEIVED”
P.S. This request by the majority of the Ionians to join Greece during the 1850s was answered by the English Protectorate with many reformation plans in order to gain time. Towards the end of 1850 Gladstone arrived at the islands in order to find out what the general feeling was all about. In January 1859 Dignitaries from Korakiana invited him to the village, as written in the report of the Daily News by Samartzis. When Gladstone arrived at the village he noticed a very negative attitude so he was compelled to remind them that many present in this meeting had signed many months before a statement concerning ‘Colonies’. It is very possible that this signed document is the well known document signed by a certain section of Korakiana villagers OPPOSING the union of the Ionian Islands with Greece and who were pro the English Protectorate. There are testimonies that Gladstone spoke to some villagers at Mourgades, outside the house of Martzoukos (Saint Nikolopoulos). They never ceased to repeat the request : “Union under NO conditions”.

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Simon Baddeley