Teach me about Erdington

A month or so ago I was given a guided tour of Corby by James from the contemporary art organisation Fermyn Woods.

That the local government’s website has the tag line “Building a bigger, better, brighter Corby” might confirm your suspicions about this ex steel-working town. However, as we drove around the area, James was able to relate a non-stop series of facts, anecdotes, tales and legends about the landscape and the people who have lived and worked there.

I’m fascinated by how these stories get passed on. Some are experienced directly, others may be retold to make conversation between parent and child whilst out walking the dog. It sounds like the gamekeeper would be a good person to sit around a campfire with, too!

I grew up in the New Forest, and I’ve absorbed something of the stories of the kings, the ghostly nurses and the World War bombs. However, looking at the programme for the Still Walking festival has brought home to me how little I know about the city and culture of Birmingham – even though I have lived and worked here for […counts on fingers…] 15 years now.

I came here to study at university, and my experience of the city has been pretty much limited to the South West sector between Bristol and Alcester Roads. I’ve never been to Marston or Bordesley Greens; Perry Common remains a mystery to me; Handsworth and Nechells – places I’ve heard mention of on the news; Smethwick I would have to look up on a map…

I think this is why I’m intrigued by Kerrie Reading’s event Swanning Around Erdington.

Erdington High Street

Erdington High Street by megara_rp on Flickr

Kerrie has been meeting with Erdingtonites (Erdingtonians?) to pool their collective knowledge. Taking Erdington High Street as the starting point, Swanning Around Erdington will be a trail through people’s memories and thoughts about the town. Kerrie’s interested in how people and their collective stories help shape a place and Swanning Around Erdington forms part of a much larger body of research investigating how communities engage with their town/city. Buy your tickets for the family-friendly performance and a taster of the stories she’s gathered.

I originally started this post pondering “where is the local history?”, but I think maybe the question I really want to get at is how local history is transmitted and what micro-histories people want to share. I’m not so much getting at the sort of things that make it to the history books, but the more personal histories, the stuff that’s significant either on a local scale or maybe even to one or two people. Individual perspectives. Mass observation day diary type stuff.

So, here’s the challenge:
I know nothing about Erdington. I don’t think I have ever been there.
What can you tell me about Erdington – the Erdington you have experienced?

I’m now handing the comments section over to you… Teach me about Erdington, please!


Don’t Look Now

Look Around You 2

My earlier post recommended seeing your city afresh by not having a destination. All sorts of things pop out of the stonework when you start looking for them … just try it!

Imagine taking your urban ramble again, but this time just using your other senses. A friend (and you need to trust this person!) has blindfolded you and is allowing you to wander according to sounds you hear, smells, tactile sensations and (not recommended) by taste. There are other senses too – temperature, balance, direction… we rely on a lot to get us about. The city takes on a different shape and atmosphere and seems to be offering more information to deal with, not less.

Usha M’s walk for the Still Walking festival takes a look at – or rather experiences – these senses. Usha is a movement artist and themes of awareness, balance and sense have always been at the core of her work. Brindleyplace have kindly allowed their meticulously kempt arena to play host to Usha’s explorations.

So what to expect? Those signing up should be willing to be blindfolded and will be led through manoeuvres to tease out our often overlooked reliance on our extra senses. It is sensory deprivation, but instead of floating in a tank of water, you are actually roaming free (guides will be on hand for each participant so you don’t actually end up floating in the water). Usha says she is always struck by the quick shift from nervous anticipation to joyous curiosity she sees in people when she holds these events, and how it affects them long after the event has finished.

Don’t miss anything – buy your ticket today!

The Art of Walking

When programming the festival, I knew I wanted to push the usual definition of the term “guided tour”. I wanted the programme to reflect the diversity of people I had encountered during the past year, only a few of whom would think of themselves as tour guides. My personal moment of epiphany was during Kira O’Reilly’s Silent Tour from last year’s Fierce festival. Guided walks didn’t have to be about learning new facts, or even involve talking to people. They didn’t even always need a guide.

I wanted the walks in the festival to be genuinely diverse; to include local histories, but to look beyond – the festival is all about exploring. I began to look at the world of the walking artist and discovered many artists who incorporated some aspect of walking and the landscape into their work, but who would shy away from the term “landscape artist”. The timing of the festival has enjoyed some happy coincidences which have helped convince me that I was heading in the right direction. One of these was the IKON gallery’s exhibition of the art of Hamish Fulton (on now until 29th April).

[ F ] Hamish Fulton - Coast to Coast Walks (1976)

Hamish Fulton sees his lengthy marches across the world as being his art form. He doesn’t alter the landscape in anyway way, or leave anything behind. The art is the walk itself. What he exhibits in the gallery isn’t the actual event, nor even a thorough documentation of his voyage. We are presented with information about the date and location of his walks, and short factual statements (such as “no paths”) in a huge, bold typographic layout that reminds me of the road signs he must regularly encounter on his journeys. Those signs have to convey their meaning quickly and efficiently.

Looking around the exhibition I had the feeling you get when rain lashes against the window from the safety of your warm living room. Hamish’s walks are often epic lengths and sometimes crossover into mountain climbing – gentle strolls these are not. One work from August 2000 shouts what Fulton’s world was reduced to that day: “BRAIN HEART LUNGS”, with the tiny annotation: “climb to the summit of Cho Oyu… without supplementary oxygen”. Spending more time with the huge wall pieces reveals subtleties – words are often to a specific letter-count and have a measured rhythm. Poetry from a man conserving his energy.

Hamish leads a city centre walk on Sun 8 April in connection with Fierce Festival

Hamish talks about his work on Sat 7 April at IKON- places for both events are free but booking from IKON is essential.

Hamish Fulton – IKON Gallery until 29th April

The IKON are also teaming up with Northfield EcoCentre for a River Rea exploration on Sat 17 March

Hannah Hull
also will be giving a talk on walking artists during the festival.

SW on BBC Radio WM

Ben went in to the BBC studios today and spoke with Carl Chinn on Radio WM about guided tours, walking experiences and how the Still Walking festival came about.

You can listen to Ben and Carl by using the player below, or you can right-click on the link and download it.

Ben Waddington speaks with Carl Chinn on BBC Radio WM


Birmingham’s Surprising Vistas

Several weeks ago, Ben was out looking for snails (ask him about it one day) and he stumbled across this view:

It was exactly the place he’d intended to go to, but he was completely taken aback by the presence of the stones and the distant city centre towers behind them.

Since then we’ve been curious about these surprising vistas of the city: those unexpected views that show a different face of Birmingham. Sometimes even making it look like somewhere else.

Here’s an example from my own collection. Again a view towards the city centre; this time from the top of a roof in Digbeth.

Digbeth Sunset

A view of the city. But which city?

I think it’s the gulls and something in the graininess of the sky that makes this a surprising vista for me. This Birmingham feels like a coastal American city.

Does Birmingham-as-elsewhere only happen at sunset? Does it require a little red-sky magic to make it happen?

We’d love to see any photos you have of Birmingham’s familiar skylines and landmarks glimpsed in such a way that make you feel you are no longer in Brum: slivers of landmarks from odd angles; views of the city that jar with expectations…

Use the comments to link us up to your images, or Tweet them at us if that’s more your style. There’s also a Flickr group here: http://www.flickr.com/groups/brumvistas/. Surprise us!

Update: red-sky magic not required!

Look Around You

While researching my tours for the festival this week, I realised that as much as I think I know the streets of Brum, I always find something new when I start looking again. One thing we rarely do when we’re in the city is stand still and look at it (unless maybe you are smoking in a doorway or waiting for a bus). Why would we? We’re trying to get somewhere. And if we are on the move, we are traffic and have to keep an eye on the road, not the horizon.

Yesterday I spent two hours looking at modernist design in the city and last week it was stone and terracotta architectural oddities. Some of the best examples I found were between the places I was heading to. I generally keep an eye open for stuff around the city, but deliberately setting out to look for it, with no other intention or destination, really yields rewards.

I think all the guides in the festival have done the same with their own particular interest. Usha might miss the Central Library but be acutely aware of the slopes and curves of Chamberlain Square. Mark may only have noticed Queen’s College’s weird bats and gargoyles if they appeared as a backdrop in BBC’s Hustle.

The idea that we all occupy our own worlds of experience is fascinating. The thing to do, of course, is invite people in and shown them round.


Birmingham Graphic DNA: Digbeth Found Fonts

Still Walking isn’t afraid to visit the grittier side of town if there’s something interesting to be found there. Gez Marshall has been combing the back streets of Digbeth for the last few months in search of indigenous lettering – that is, signs created by the company itself, almost always by someone untrained in the graphic arts. Her interest ranges from the metal letters cut and shaped by the factory itself to signs painted on walls which are closer to graffiti than corporate branding. In between lie some visually arresting example of graphic naivety which are spectacular by NOT knowing the rules they are breaking. The letters tell the story of how we think about alphabets, accidentally create our own fonts and are a glimpse into how people think.

They also tell the story of Birmingham. Gez has unearthed examples stretching back a century or more and they chart the changes in local industry and the character of the area. It’s the local angle that she’s going for: she wants to find out if Birmingham lettering when taken as a whole, can show Birmingham has a local typographical “accent” (the DNA of the tour’s title). Her work reminds me of a naturalist returning with specimens in jars and carefully noting the differences in size, colour, origin and material. It’s also a living habitat: a fan of lost type and “ghost signs” myself, I feel the loss when something I’ve come to enjoy seeing on a regular walk disappears. The research is all part of Gez’s PhD project. and she also has a blog.

You can do some font field work yourself on her tour for Still Walking here.