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Monday, 20 December 2010

Winter in Handsworth Park

Handsworth Bandstand, 1890 - digital drawing by Jan Bowen
In Birmingham market a week ago I bought a postcard for 20p from Jan Bowen, an artist (her blogwho paints with her computer. The postcard that got my attention was of the bandstand in Handsworth Park - a scene she'd imagined from 1890 . I got chatting about the park and about the bandstand, which after long deterioration, is restored to how it was in her picture. "The problem with parks is that you're always having to argue their value against other things people pay for with their taxes" I said "and when compared with, say, hospitals and schools, parks can lose out." She chided me "No they're intrinsically good. You don't have to keep arguing their value against other things." "It's a habit" I said. "OK I understand why you have to argue a case based on utility, but don't be fooled into becoming a utilitarian." "I know. I know. It means you end up throwing off the raft the people you've decided are the least worthy." I thought of the first paragraph of my account of how our local park came about.
As the civic gospel of municipal improvement spread from Birmingham into the estates of Handsworth, its local government leaders saw a public park as a benefit for the district. Following the setting up of an education board and a free library, the adoption and proper kerbing of roads, street lighting, tramways and the construction of sewers, influential voices in the district began to speak of the need for a “lung” in the city. They did not pursue the 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 - but opposition to the Park from that quarter was at times so intense that calculative motives alone would not have carried the project through... Baddeley, S (1997) The Founding of Handsworth Park 1882-1898 (Birmingham University), p.1
Trying to make sense of the current situation I took a midday walk in the park, which was looking especially handsome under the light of a winter sun shining from a cloudless sky. In 1995 I wrote a short account of how Handsworth Park came to be created, jumping at one point between the present - walking my daughter through the snowy park one winter evening - and the past - a public meeting called by Handsworth's local government leaders to seek approval for a park in Handsworth:
It’s snowing on 30 December 1995 as I walk with my 10 year old daughter, Amy, to Handsworth Park. The sound of traffic on Hamstead Road gives way to the babble of ducks and geese on an unfrozen patch of the pool between the bank and the island. A warmly clad man is feeding them chapattis. A frieze of trees stands out against the dim snow. Lighted windows glow round the edges of the park. The tattered bandstand is rimed with frost; the breeze-block changing room for cricketers softened by the gloom. Snow softens contours, as well as evidence of place and even time. I’d taken a break from recording the past but instead of inhabiting my daughter’s present which is all about sledging and snow-balling I think of those assembling in the Public Hall on Soho Road.
As it gets closer to 8.00 p.m. on January 18 1887 what are the waiting Board Members thinking? How do they expect the evening to go? How is the room arranged and where do people sit? Joseph Wainwright, who will be in the Chair knows that the Board needs a mandate from this meeting to go ahead with the purchase of the Grove Estate. What are the Board officers thinking? Is there a reticent enthusiast alert to the work of “Capability” Brown or Frederick Olmsted (1).  Has the surveyor, Mr. Kenworthy, already discussed and sketched out an outline plan for converting the estate to a park?
On the pathway over the railway bridge in the centre of the park I make graffiti in the snow with my stick, competing with my daughter to see who can finish a word first. Prompted by an impulse of evocation I scrawl - “Wainwright”, “Austin Lines”, “Jubilee”, “Ward”, imagining the bafflement these might cause if spray-painted beside the present ephemera - “Ace”, “Gaz”, “Kaks” - on the bridge walls. Amy gets bored with this. Wanting me to push her sledge, she walks over my names and tugs me back to the present.
By 8 o’clock the Public Hall is full of “all the Handsworth notables.”(2) They’re all men of course. Woman do not yet have the vote, though the recent Women’s Property Acts mark a stage toward emancipation.(3) Some spouses will be waiting to ask how things went when their husbands get home after eleven o’clock. Joseph Wainwright, Chairman of the Local Board, presides, “supported by nearly the whole of the members of the Local Board”. Mr.D.Rose, who alone voted against purchasing the Grove Estate at the Board’s last monthly meeting, is there. Mr.William Joesbury, Chairman when the issue of the park first arose, Mr.Austin Lines, Mr.J.J. Hughes and Mr.J.Allday - the four members of the sub-committee set up in 1882 to seek out land for the park - are there. The Rev.Dr.D Randall, Rector of Handsworth Parish Church that overlooks the Hamstead Road side of the present park is there, looking “calm and contemplative”. His rectory stands near the banks of what is now the pool where I had been watching the birds being fed by a Sikh neighbour. Other names on the record are Messrs. William M.Ellis, Robert Mann, George Blackham, Philip Antrobus - some connection there with Antrobus Road near the park - Henry Ward, Clerk to the Local Board, who, having the agenda, will read out apologies for absence from Lord Dartmouth, who sympathises with the movement for a park but thinks that a resident of the parish as well as landowner should preside; from the Hon.A.C.G.Calthorpe who sends his support and trusts the Park will be approved and from Captain - just promoted Major - Wilkinson, who writes that “he could not think that anybody who had any regard for the poor could raise any serious opposition to the scheme. They might rely upon his best services.”(Applause)(4)  I wonder if the gentry anticipate the sort of meeting this will be and wish to avoid its clamour and the association with those with more reason to express themselves vociferously against further charges on their rates. This park is still a new idea. There may be a few who still think of Handsworth as part of the countryside and apprehend with grief the tectonic changes that are enveloping it, seeing in a myriad signs cause for dread at what the future may hold as the end of the century approaches....
1. Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) who, inspired by visits to landscaped parks in Liverpool, especially Sefton Park near Toxteth, had achieved fame as the designer of Central Park in New York.
2. Handsworth News, 22 Jan.1887 - “from our own opera glass”.
3. In 1879 Emmeline Goulden had married Richard Pankhurst, lawyer, friend of John Stuart Mill, and author of the first Woman’s Suffrage Bill (late 1860s) and of the Married Women's Property Acts (1870, 1882).
4. Daily Gazette, 19 Jan.1887
***** ******
I was going to just stroll down to our closest shop to pick up some milk and bread, but instead I turned left on Wellesbourne, crossed Hamstead road and entered the park. I saw a couple strolling towards me and as I passed nodded in greeting and said "Hullo" to the woman, who was a little ahead of the man. She ignored me.
My mistake. It wasn't a couple. The man was alone with the dog. The woman also walked alone....and she'd seen me taking photos. Better stare ahead and keep going. Next, I fell in step with a man going my way who commented on the beauty of the day. We walked towards the same bridge where I'd walked with my daughter fifteen years ago.
"I wrote a history of this park. How it came to be."
"Oh yes."
We walked in silence but for the clamour of the geese waddling in a huddle on the ice of the pond.
"Well it's great the way it's been restored." he said, "Wonderful."
At the railway bridge that divides the park east-west he went his way as I took a moment to check our plot on the Victoria Jubilee, just the other side of the metal fence, a white lump amid snow flaked weeds showing where our shed lay waiting to be put up, though I've not yet prepared the flat surface it needs.
The potatoes I'd planted in August and half hoped might be ready for Christmas have not survived. There was no-one to be seen on the allotments. I've a dream of sitting in the shed in weather like this, cosy from a small stove, sipping a mug of hot tea, gazing on my work.
Turning left past the railway bridge I could gaze towards the cricket ground and the 'cabbage patch' - where boys kicking a lace football near the wicket were sent by the old park-keepers to play despite the slope. A family with happy shouting were sledging on the slope above the bandstand; dad having as much fun as his children.
I nodded at a few more people walking through the park and came to Holly Road where as I stood by the door of the corner shop on Thornhill and Holly, came a loud interrogation "Well sir, what are you going to do about this?" Hylton, long term resident of Whitehall Road, tested me for an official reaction to the mess in the world, especially the snow and ice on the roads and pavement. Enjoying this game I said I thought that we should be understood. "This weather's so rare and unpredictable that if we invested in the equipment and people needed to keep road and airports clear in this kind of weather, it'd all be out-of-date next time we wanted to use it." I played a straight bat to his bowling, until flummoxed by another agenda - "Asians! Yes sir" who he confided, with confident authority, and with discrete non-verbal nudges, since we were outside an Asian corner shop, were driving old residents from their homes so they could obtain adjoining houses for their large families. "Oh right, yes, hm." Bowled, Walk to the pavilion. We went in the shop. "Hullo" said the shopkeeper Mr Sandhu "I was beginning to wonder where you'd got to." "I've been in Australia and New Zealand" I said, showing off. He asked about the weather and the cricket. "Oh dear" "Yes well" I said how impressed I was by the way he'd expanded the shop into the adjoining off-licence since I'd last visited and bought my milk and bread and headed back into the park - even more dazzling; wafts of snow dust melting off the branches of the black trees.
I was nearly back to the Hamstead Road entrance of the park when I heard a cry from behind me "Simon! How're doin'" It was the park wardens walking round. "Where's your dog, Keith?" I asked. Keith who's worked thirteen years in the park's department and been in Handsworth Park for at least five has long had a big Alsatian who works with him. "He's been cut back. Couldn't afford to keep him on." We chatted. I'd seen Lee, the park's manager, earlier in the week when arranging to do another History Tour of the park next 20 March. He's always discrete, knowing I blog, but my impression is of well disguised apprehension about the immediate future. As I chatted to the rangers Raghib and Barbara strolled by. "Oi" I shouted "Raghib! Come and chat to us."
"What's the proof principle-based politics works better than evidence-based?"
The gist of our chat. Our government is - intentionally and unintentionally - slipping through a shift in wealth from the have-nots to the haves - as massive as any in recent times. How it works is in the detail of cuts greater than those published, the dissolution of institutions, and the relacement of evidence-based policy making with something called principle-based policy-making - another name for conviction politics, their effects smudged by astute news management. Things will get worse for many people around here. A proportion of them are likely to start making their crust outside the law. As one of the have's, it's almost impossible for me to understand what the cuts and the increase in VAT and the rise in energy costs will mean along with the erosion of local government's powers to support voluntarism.
A friend sent me a 'think piece' from Cass Business School by Hilary Barnard. She doesn't say what will happen, only that 'Big Society' policies pose risks to the capacity of the voluntary sector that seem to contradict the self-help ethic of that idea.
** **  **
We scraped snow off Lin's car; sprayed the windows with de-icer, drove carefully towards One Stop Shopping Centre in Perry Barr, joining a 30 minute traffic queue in the last half-mile; parked up and started shopping, or rather Lin shopped and I trailed behind, now and then offering a helping hand with loading plastic bags at the till and placing them in the car.
Dreich at One Stop Shopping Centre, Perry Barr
Slush and rain. We went to Poundland and Home Bargains and Asda. It took us three hours. "It has to be done" said Lin understandably irritated by my gloom. "But this place is a sort of purgatory" "All shopping centres are grim. If you want interesting small shops you'll have to go to somewhere like Bourton-on-the-Water but there everything will be astronomically over-priced."
Birmingham Bullring at Christmas


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  2. Hail Pogus Caesar. Thanks for posting the link to those days that all whose home is Handsworth recall so well, not least because Handsworth has always included among its people, those who write, speak and make pictures of the place where they live and the things that have happened there. Handsworth was long dubbed the 'angry' suburb - with good reason. But now I count myself fortunate to live there and to regard it as my other home.


    In April 2012 the Victoria and Albert Museum London, acquired four of Pogus Caesar's limited edition black and white photographs for their permanent collection. The archival photographs printed from vintage negatives depict the 1985 Handsworth Riots which took place in Birmingham UK.

    What is now known as the Handsworth Riots lasted for two days. In the aftermath, well over 1500 police officers were drafted into the area and 50 shops were either burnt or looted. Damage to property was estimated at hundreds of thousands of pounds, 35 people were injured or hospitalised, 2 people unaccounted for and tragically 2 people lost their lives. Unfortunately some memories and crimes will never be forgotten or forgiven. Even today many people still question themselves and each other "how could a tiny spark turn into such a gigantic flame"?

    Birmingham film maker and photographer Pogus Caesar found himself in the centre of the riots and managed to document these images. The stark black and white photographs provide a rare, valuable and historical record of the raw emotion, heartbreak and violence that unfolded during those dark and fateful days in September 1985.

    BBC TV: Inside Out.


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Simon Baddeley