Tomorrow is my 35th birthday. I’m not angling for birthday wishes, to be honest when people say, “It’s your birthday tomorrow!” it serves more as a sharp reminder rather than to build-up excitement.
I’m celebrating this Saturday in Birmigham with Sas Taylor (whose birthday was a couple of days ago) and Carl, who’s keen to mark our new Cardiff adventure, with ‘A Brummie Fiesta’ (Sas’s idea). Here’s the eventbrite’s blurb:
Last year we celebrated the birthdays with a cheesy grin. This year we’re hoping for more of a DIY Mexican wave, so…
If you can rustle up some chilli, make it.
If can you do a mean mojito, mix it.
If you have a fetching sombrero, wear it.
If you have some Mexican music in your collection, bring it.
Hopefully we can mix up a lovely warm, fiesta feeling that will take our minds off this wet, post-holiday winter weather!
Join us at 7.30pm onwards on Saturday 14th January 2012.
Friction Arts have very kindly given us use of The Edge in Digbeth for the evening – see location details.
I’m keen to record what happens whilst I’m settling into Cardiff life so joining in The Guardian’s 52 weeks photography project (‘join our photo project to share your 2012 in pictures’) seemed like the perfect way of doing it. A photo a week seems do-able, more so than a lengthier blog post or photo a day (with 365 Days), with which I could imagine myself lapsing with.
The project features a fair bit of ‘iphoneography’ but my first image was taken with my trusty Canon G12 after I’d tried and failed to capture the image in the failing light with my iphone.
I took the photo last Thursday evening. After having had my brolly blown inside out and getting soaked as a result early that morning, this bin with broken brollies sticking out of it in Bute Park seemed to say it all about the stormy weather.
The weather wasn’t the only unusual thing – being in Bute Park after dark also felt like quite a novelty. Bute Park traditionally closed its gates at dusk, forcing commuters to walk or cycle around rather than through the park after dark. But over October-December Cardiff Council held a three-month pilot where they opened the major routes until 7pm to allow cyclists and walkers to use them for their journeys home from work.
I’m unsure what the results of the pilot were – the routes seem to have been well-used after dark. But the gates have remained open until 7pm after new year, so the pilot seems to have been extended at least. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it becomes a permanent arrangement, as the walk/cycle from Pontcanna to central Cardiff via Bute Park is a particularly pleasant experience.
I’ve not taken my second week’s photo yet, I’m hoping inspiration strikes me soon!
Pontcanna saw the new year in with a new hyperlocal website – PontcannaHub.com was launched on 1st January by the Pontcanna Pine/Dairy Team. As well as ‘an information website for people who like, live, visit & work in Pontcanna’ it also supports the local campaign against the proposed developments of a Sainsbury’s and Tesco supermarket.
Now I’m not anti Tesco or Sainsbury’s per se – I can see that in some places, a local chain supermarket might not be a bad thing. I remember being delighted to hear (unfounded) rumours of a Digbeth Tesco Metro shortly after I moved there in 2007 because the area had so little in the way of local shops and amenities at that time.
But Pontcanna is a very different place to Digbeth – a big part of its identity is its many local independent shops, cafes and bars. Since moving here I’ve found myself doing my food shopping at the local butcher’s, baker’s, greengrocer’s and deli rather than getting the lot under the one roof and I and a lot of other local residents seem to prefer it that way. That and a fair few other reasons (local parking and housing issues) is why quite a few of us will be heading to St Catherine’s Church Hall on Kings Road this Thursday evening to discuss Sainsbury’s proposal.
I love finding discarded notes and lists, like the ones above I found on the streets of Caerphilly, which tell me I really ought to get my skates on with my Christmas shopping. But it’s hard to feel festive whilst in a strange transition stage – Carl and I moved the bulk of our stuff to Cardiff over the weekend but we’re now back in Brum for the week, in a pretty Spartan flat without much in the way of basic furniture, let alone any Christmas decorations.
We wanted to at least put some Christmas lights up in the front window of our new Cardiff house, as ours is the only one in the terrace without a full-on, festive display but we couldn’t find which box the removals company had put them in. So ours is very much the miserable ‘Bah, Humbug!’ house of the street.
But last night Carl and I finally managed to get into the Christmas spirit, decorating his parents’ tree to a soundtrack of Christmas hits and enjoying some mince pies and wine whilst admiring our efforts. I went home happy with that warm, Christmassy feeling inside and the realisation that, “Shit, Christmas is this Sunday and I haven’t got ANYONE’S PRESENTS!”
As anyone following on me on twitter will be aware, the last month has been an eventful one for Carl and I.
It started off with Carl getting a fantastic new job at Cardiff University. We’d taken the decision to move to Cardiff a few months ago for a variety of reasons – so I could get closer to my family, to embark on a new adventure together, to begin a fresh chapter in our lives. We weren’t expecting this move to happen quite so soon, however – Carl spotted the perfect job, went for it and suddenly we had just over a month to relocate.
But before we had time to start packing and go house-hunting I went into hospital for a minor operation, which resulted in a surprise diagnosis of edometriosis and two weeks in a weird, post-operative fog.
Time and nerves have been kind of tight, but we seem to be getting there and are hoping to move into a new place in Pontcanna, Cardiff very soon. But that’s not the place in the above picture. That place is a block of flats just a little further down the same road that stands where an old house once was, in which my parents and brother lived until 1976, when Mum discovered she was pregnant with me and the family moved to a larger home.
This big rush to get ourselves sorted means we’ve no real time to say a proper goodbye to Birmingham, which I want to do. After living here for almost 15 years, I’ll miss the place and the people like crazy and the prospect of leaving is as scary as it is exciting. We’ll be back to visit lots, of course but I’m hoping the first trip back will be for a last Brummie birthday in January.
When telling people I’m moving I find I usually get asked three questions:
1. What will happen to Digbeth is Good? This will continue to stay in the very safe hands of Pamela, secretary of Digbeth Residents’ Association, who’s been blogging on there more than me of late. Midge will still be posting his music-related updates and I’ll chip in from afar when I can. Obviously, the more the merrier so if you’d like to contribute to Digbeth is Good, either regularly or just for a one-off post, let me know!
At the end of October, Carl and I went on our second halloween holiday to a decidedly goth-filled Whitby (#holigoth) whilst Midge kindly looked after our flat and cat Samson (#cityliving2). Here are the results…
At the beginning of the month Simon Whitehouse asked me lead a session at the last Birmingham Brewcamp, where people ‘drink tea, eat cake, learn stuff’, by outlining what I’d like from Birmingham City Council that I felt was currently lacking. My answer was instant and very simple: ‘A relationship.’
Let me elaborate on that a little – I find communication with Birmingham City Council difficult, it never feels forthcoming. Councillors very rarely attend Digbeth Residents’ Association meetings (I think Councillor Yvonne Mosquito has attended a couple of times over the years) and since our treasured Neighbourhood Manager Andy Sheppard was made redundant, there has been no council presence at Digbeth Residents’ Association meetings, which is a pity (and contrast to the good attendance from local police officers).
When looking for a response from Birmingham City Council with stuff I’ve done on Digbeth is Good, I’ve always found getting one a bit of an uphill struggle, be it waiting in vain for replies to repeated emails to local Councillors about the empty Moseley Road houses in which two squatters died in a fire or asking the press office for a statement about that AWOL Big City Plan bus incident back in 2009.
Anyway, once I’d finished what was admitedly a bit of a frustrated moan (sorry about that) the conversation turned to possible ways of turning this state of affairs around and positively engaging with a local council. Then Dan Slee came up with the brainwave of pooling the suggestions with an open-edit spreadsheet: 101 ways to communicate with your council. It would be great if you could contribute, the more imaginative the suggestions, the better!
You’ll notice next to the ‘means of communication’ column there’s another asking you to rate it as either Passive, Aggressive, or Passive-Aggressive. I don’t doubt this classification is overly simplistic and it’s not meant to be taken terribly seriously, just gauge whether you’re making a gentle approach in the hope of a response, exerting gentle pressure to try and encourage one if you don’t feel it is/will be forthcoming or asking for a response in a way that makes refusal difficult or impossible (such as an FOI request).
I’ve put a few means of communication on the spreadsheet to kick things off, I can’t wait to see some other suggestions!
Living together’s a funny thing, you get to discover all sorts of quirks and habits about each other that may not have been as apparent beforehand. For instance, I began to realise that Carl can spend hours at a time on his PC playing All Points Bulletin, a kind of violent, online, collaborative version of Grand Theft Auto. He wears a headset whilst he’s playing, shouting things like, “GRENADE!” to his team-mates, or ‘clan members’ as he calls them, which can be rather startling when you’re sitting on the sofa watching TV or reading. As someone who’s never gotten into playing computer or video games, it seemed like quite a strange thing to do.
There was only one thing for it. Soon after I moved in, the twitter account @APBwidow was born, quoting the strange, disjointed things he says down his headset mic. I wasn’t really sure how he’d take this, so thought it best not to tell him at first. But when we were at Birmingham International Airport awaiting out flight to Bulgaria, the subject of his online game-playing came up. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you had a secret twitter account with all the things I come out with whilst I’m on there,” he said. Ah.
I knew I wasn’t busted – Carl isn’t half as underhand as me and if he’d found out, he would have just said so. But even I’m not underhand enough to have had this conversation without coming clean, so I told him. The pleasant surprise was that he was delighted – so much so that he pointed fellow clan members to the account in the Metal Heads forum (‘Your girlfriend has totally 0wned you!’).
The unpleasant surprise came shortly after we got back off holiday – he wasn’t playing APB as much as he used to and fancied a bit of a break. It means @APBwidow has gone a little quiet of late but she still has things to tweet about, such as his comments on the newly released Onlive games he’s trying out and my favourite online gaming discovery so far – Mr Toots the killer-rainbow farting unicorn.
In late May, Carl and I went to the Goat Milk Festival in the small, shrinking village of Bela Rechka, Bulgaria. It was my second time there but Carl’s first. I was very glad Carl could come this year – last year the Bela Rechka magic worked in ways I couldn’t really articulate but had me doing positive things afterwards, such as ask him out.
Again, I’m finding it hard to put the Bela Rechka experience into words after the event. All I find I can talk about is its affects – the feeling of your body giving off a relaxed, satisfied and satiated sigh. The time and openness to listen intently, reflect quietly, discuss around the fire passionately and maybe find some inspiration over a few rakiah’s (“Create drunk, compose sober,” as Sandra often said.)
As I can’t find the words to describe it, I’ll try using someone else’s. Murat Yilman Pomak, Turkish drummer, dancer, teacher of both and socialist, called it a ‘sabbatical for activists’, where they can share, learn and get the reassurance that they’re on the right path before going back and being the strong, creative voices in their communities.
One thing I can describe and illustrate is the artistic process Lee and Sandra of Friction Arts with Bulgarian artist Antina Zlatkova put us Brummies (namely Carl, Soesen Edan, Simon Walker and I) and Gita Hashemi through to contribute to the festival and its theme of abandonment.
Friction teamed up with Antina, who had been mapping the many abandoned houses in the village and the stories they contained. We went inside one of these houses, silently carrying out our instructions:
Observe how you move
Gingerly. Not just because of the creaking floorboards and beams, but because the house was so personal to its previous inhabitants – old family photographs on the walls, trinkets on the shelves, clothes in the bedroom and food in the kitchen – an amber jar of peaches being the thing that left an impression on us all.
Find something that is still
Whilst wandering I found an old snail’s shell stuck fast to the wall, its inhabitant long gone. It struck me as being an abandoned house within an abandoned house, so I took a picture of it.
Find something that moves
The things that I noticed moving were the very things I didn’t expect or want to move – the structure of the house, its floorboards and beams. The night after our first visit we decided to go back and take another look. Most of us sat outside whilst Antina, Lee and Simon went inside. We were horrified to hear a loud CRASH, followed by the fizz of falling rubble. The, “We’re okay!” that followed came as a huge relief. As Soesen said, there was something about the house that said, “Don’t push me, I may break.” The house seemed to shout HANDLE WITH CARE.
Find a sound
I had to search for this a lot more consciously than I did the other things but I finally found it in the bedroom’s wardrobe. It was strangely empty of clothes, which were strewn all over the floor, as if the place had been ransacked between its abandonment and our exploration. The wardrobe hadn’t been opened in a while and was rusty and dusty, resulting in the wood-stuttering sound you can hear in the audioboo above.
Find a smell
The smell was with the sound but presented itself a lot more obviously – the dank, musty yet not unpleasant smell of a pile damp clothes. It bought to mind my wayward childhood moments of exploring abandoned sheds and spaces, and the thrill of danger of discovery and the unknown that came with that. I didn’t take a picture of the pile of clothes, but did photograph the old shoe with a dead moth inside that Simon noticed.
Find something that is to come
In the bedroom I found an old jewellery box balanced on top of a pile of old clothes. I opened it to find odds and ends within and myself reflected in the mirror glued to the inside of its lid. And it occurred to me that this was what to come for most of these abandoned buildings and spaces – people like me rediscovering, exploring and ultimately changing them, for better or worse.
I took a photo of myself reflected in the mirror. Then I looked at the items in the box – old costume jewellery, pill packets and a broken pair of spectacles. I arranged some pearls around the mirror and took another picture, almost as if I was wearing them. Then I put on the glasses and took another picture. I was placing myself within someone else’s story and shifting it. I didn’t feel much guilt over this – those that had emptied the wardrobe had done the same before me and those who were due to demolish the house in the next couple of months would so afterwards. This process of people finding, disturbing and re-purposing the abandoned felt inevitable.
Find a pattern
The pattern I found was one of the structure of the house, a pattern that was unravelling with the house itself – its wooden beams, self-supporting and criss-crossing.
Find anything else!
We all took away different impressions, thoughts and feelings from the house and did not share them until after we had left, eaten lunch and reflected. After lunch we shared our findings – Soesen’s feeling of its fragility, Simon’s looking at it through a child’s eyes, Carl and Gita making us see things from a different angle and Carl’s wondering at seeing me wave at him from the front window – when was the last time a villager had seen someone wave from there?
We discussed our experiences in the house and possible ways and means of sharing this with others without a risky and intrusive mass-invasion. Some of us spoke of the need to bid it farewell in a way its inhabitants mayan’t have done. Gita spoke of the need to give something back to it.
After Gita, Soesen, Carl and I had gone to bed Lee, Sandra and Simon discussed things further, which resulted in an idea they shared with the rest of us the following morning. Sandra and Lee lined us up against a wall, stepped back and paused.
They then walked towards us. Lee caught and held my gaze, came up to me, kissed me on both cheeks and simply said, “Goodbye” before walking away. As the house had known a human abandonment and farewell, so did I. I burst into tears.
Afterwards we gathered our thoughts and discussed ways of doing this in a larger group. Gita spoke of wanting to give something back the house as well saying goodbye, which resulted in a moving, late-night ceremony that Friction Arts have done a much better job of describing than I could.
The Bela Rechka magic worked itself once again this year. Some of it because of the amazing place we were in and the amazing people we met but a lot of it due to the process Friction Arts created to help us connect to an abandoned house in a way I’m sure I’d never have done otherwise and bid it farewell the way we would a close friend.
The StoryCamp image is an unabashed emulation of the title sequence of everyone’s favourite storytelling TV show, Jackanory. I hope you can make it. If you can’t but would like to keep track of StoryCamp goings-on, there is a StoryCamp blog and the twitter hashtag is, unsurprisingly, #storycamp.