Saturday, 24 August 2013

Birmingham - save the old Central Library Building!

All this time, and I've never yet written a blog post about Birmingham, the place we left to come here to Hastings.
     Neither Philosopher or I are born Brummies.  We both moved there, separately, married to other people, in 1979, him from York and me from rural Gloucestershire.  But after 33 years, both of us called it home.
     Like Hastings, Birmingham always gets a bad press.  Lazy journalists write about both places without ever visiting them. My favourite example of this was about Hastings. I forget where this particular article came from, but it mentioned the desirable properties that could be snapped up for fourpence an area called 'Cliff Rly' on the West Hill. Clearly read straight off the A to Z, this refers to the Cliff Railway - the funicular!
     In Birmingham, we lived in Moseley, a leafy Victorian suburb in the south of the city - from the start, I was always struck by how green the place was - big mature gardens with tall trees, and quiet tree-lined streets. The tree-cover, and of course, the buildings, meant that we never saw the horizon, or that much of a sky-scape. Very different from down here....
     Anyway, this time we went up to take Eve back to her Mum, and as so often, stayed with our old friends Sue and Alex.
     Unlike all previous visits, which have been a hectic round of catching up with old friends, illnesses and holidays meant that we found ourselves with more time on our hands. Time to look at our old city through the eyes of a visitor - a tourist.  Hence this blog post.
     We'll start off in Moseley. Often referred to as Birmingham's answer to Hampstead, it is a bohemian mix of affluent professionals, academics, students in shared houses, and a good cross section of the ethnically and culturally mixed population that characterises the city.  I met my friend Jackie in Maison Mayci, one of the many cafes, pubs and coffee places. Nice, but frequently full of 'yummy mummies' and their unregulated, noisy, offspring. This time, it was hot enough to sit outside, and all the mummies were presumably in Provence anyway.
Moseley village

     Next day, a bus journey to the city centre, about four miles from Moseley.
     Like all big cities, in Birmingham you travel through different layers to reach the middle. At the very outer edge, much further out than Moseley, you first get the concrete council estates built in the 60s and 70s to rehouse people from inner-city slums. Castle Vale, where I worked, was one of these areas, but in the north of the city.  Then you pass through 'semi-land' - well-kept suburbs built in the 30's. Then the Victorian suburbs, either big houses in the higher, healthier areas, like Moseley, or streets of small terraces, generally in various stages of 'gentrification'. Then, the more economically deprived inner suburbs - from Moseley, you pass through Balsall Heath and Highgate, housing a shifting and diverse population in a mixture of new estates and more run-down terraces. The main streets are busy and vibrant, lined with balti-houses, saree shops, shops with strange vegetables and bright-coloured plastic piled up outside, cash/telephone outlets and second-hand car lots.
St Martin's spire from the Bull-Ring
     Next, outside the central core, the old manufacturing district, all derelict factories and vacant lots. This time, the empty sites were bright with buddlea behind their graffitied hoardings. Anyone who wants to see the truth of Britain's so-called economic 'recovery' has only to travel down Bradford Street. Some of the empty Victorian factories have been converted into social housing, but apart from that - desolation.
Selfridges escalators

     Then the futuristic shape of the Selfridges store looms into view as the bus passes the Bull Ring Market - a tenacious survivor from 'old' Birmingham.
     You get dropped into a seething throng outside the new Bull Ring centre. It is so busy - a far cry from more gentle Hastings. Mind you, on this particular sunny summer day the city was looking at its best - the new buildings all shiny, busy pavement cafes in the tree-lined Victorian part of the city.
     Brum desperately wants to be a a thriving 'Euro-city' - Britain's second city, bigger than Manchester. It has a long record of re-inventing itself. In the days of Joseph Chamberlain, crowded slums and ancient buildings were cleared to make way for magnificent expressions of Victorian civic pride. In the 1960s, tragically, some of these buildings were knocked down - quite a few remain though, including the Council House, the Museum and Art Gallery and the Town Hall. In the 1980s another building surge developed the canal system as leisure and living quarters, and produced stuff like the International Convention Centre. In the 2000s, the decaying 60s roads and buildings are being replaced.  Since we moved to Hastings, the truly squalid 60s New Street station has gone - the new station is a huge improvement, and the new Library of Birmingham will open any day.
     It's an interesting business, the library.  The new building looks very striking, but they now intend to
New Library of Birmingham
demolish the previous building, the Brutalist ziggurat by local architect John Madin, who died in 2012.  No way should they knock it down. The rough-cast concrete may look dingy and stained now, and the style may be unfashionable, but I am convinced that in another generation Birmingham will be regretting its loss in the same way as it regrets the loss of its high-Victorian buildings. I can't better this article about it from the Independent.
Old condemned Library - further messed-up by stalls from tacky food fair

     Very little seems to have been done to save the building or even get it listed. It seems to have few friends. As I see it, it could easily be restored to take its true place as one of the most striking buildings in the city.
     Back in 2011 we went to Lanzarote, and stayed in the Gran Melia Salinas hotel, a 'heritage' 1970s building by famous Spanish architects Fernando Higureas and Cesar Manrique. Slightly later than the Birmingham Library, it is a bit more organic, but has many similarities, not least the central atrium. Here are two contrasting pictures. I am not saying that the old Birmingham library could become a tropical garden, but much could be done.
    Battleaxe says - save the Birmingham Central Library!


Gran Melia Salinas, Lanzarote

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Granny Battleaxe: Camber Sands on a windy day and other stories....

We have grand daughter staying for a few days....  as usual, we planned an outing to Camber Sands, one of her favourite places - she loves the huge wide space, and playing in the dunes. 
    Usually we have a great time but it was very windy, and the tide was so far out you had to squint at a distant line of sea that looked
GD enjoys her lunch....
suspiciously close to the French coast.  The sand blew across the beach in stinging waves, and got into everything. The first encampment we made rapidly looked like a Saharan sand storm had passed through it..... Still, the sun soon came out, Philosopher made a lovely sandcastle, and we made a better place to eat our lunch without sand getting into the sarnies.
Philosopher's castle
Camber Sands
     You have to hand it to British holiday-makers, we gave up after lunch and came home leaving many still hanging out in their wind-break stockades. The camps looked like those round fortress houses you see on the wide wild steppes of Mongolia? Tibet?
      My thighs still ached yesterday after a heart-attack inducing clamber through the dunes in search of GD, who then turned out to be down on the beach after all.
     Next outing - a day down in Hastings.  Hair cut first, followed by Pizza Express. They have a very sophisticated kids menu now - several starters, about 4 different pizzas, 4 different pastas etc. Although I am a great fan of the diet 'Leggera' pizzas, I get a tiny bit cross with the Hastings branch - you go in when it is busy and they say sorry for taking so long we are so busy.  You go in when it is empty and the staff are standing round yarning....
     Then, to the Odeon and Despicable Me2.  Philosopher and I greatly enjoyed the first one and were looking forward to the sequel, but it was disappointing. The ideas seemed to have run out already, and it was all about the hero finding luurve, when all one wanted was lots of super-villain action. We had to sit through many samey-looking trailers for formulaic computer-generated kids animated films before the main feature. We are connoisseurs of the genre by now - a new DreamWorks thing about snails was the only thing that looked promising....
     Going to the movies with Eve is often challenging and today was no exception. For example: in a loud voice, she enquires, 'Who is talking in this cinema!'
    'Nobody except you,' I hiss, 'Shhh.'
    'Now someone has got their mobile phone on!'
    'I can't see.... that girl in front is too tall....  that's better, I can sit on my feet......'
    'I've got pins and needles now, feet really hurt.'
     Then it's clothes shopping.  You wouldn't believe that Marks and Spencer could devise yet more ways of producing clothes that nobody wants to buy, but try taking a look at their range of girls' stuff.  They sell leggings and tops in sets, which is a bad idea anyway, because picky kids are unlikely to want both halves. 
     The first lot Eve tried, the leggings were so tight you could not have got a broom stick down the leg, and the top was so big I could have worn it as a dress.  The next lot, the top was tiny and ruffled unattractively round the pubescent bum, and the leggings were enormous and baggy.... We ended up getting stuff from Tammy Girl at BHS, as well as an alarming gold lamé T shirt from Peacocks that she particularly wanted - yes, I speak the truth. I can't imagine where she gets her taste from. Still it was only two quid in their sale.
     Home, worn out....... Tomorrow is another day, and then we drive up to Birmingham with her on Sunday.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Summer stuff, friends, Battleaxe Birthday, Towner etc.

So, back in from the garden - what else has been going on?
     Busy... I have just about finished the Hastings Writers' Group website, and very good it looks. Am now working to get the group's charity anthology 'Animal Writes' ready for the printer. I am fed up with it. I don't think I'll do any more book editing - I have had no time to do any of my own writing, except for this blog. When I took it on I vaguely thought it would be like the housing publications we produced during my former working life - we just edited the words and then sent the whole job to the printers, who did all the layout, covers etc. But this is different - worse - you have to format the ruddy stuff and set it out as well as proof-read and edit it.
     We ask contributors to send in their pieces proof-read, formatted and corrected, but needless to say most material arrives as it was when it first fell out of the authors' heads. I don't mind proofing and editing, but I hate the layout stuff - no sooner do you take your eyes off a file than a piece has reverted to some previous version of itself, quite often taking neighbouring pieces with it.
     Our friends Sue and Alex came down from Brum for a few days last week and weekend - weather was
Sun, sun, sun
fabulous, and Hastings showed itself at its best. Did all the usual sea and sun stuff. On Friday night the four of us won a quiz. Philosopher and I have competed in three quizzes since we moved here, won two of them, and been second place in the other....I think we will start renting ourselves out to quiz teams.
     Last week we went to visit the collection store at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne. We had joined as members a few months ago, and one of the services they offer is a free store tour.
Towner store
     We were a bit miffed when we arrived because the traffic was just terrible driving across from Hastings - it would have been a fat lot of use if one had been lying, gibbering insensibly, in an ambulance, being conveyed to the 'improved' Stroke Unit at Eastbourne Hospital. They have now got rid of stroke services at Hastings, apparently... but that is by the by. We arrived at the Towner with about one minute to spare, the journey having taken well over an hour, to discover that we were not down in their diary and there was no one to show us round. We gnashed our teeth and loomed threateningly, and staff rushed to remedy the situation.
     It turned out well. The woman who took us to the store had not prepared, so we looked at things at random - she pulled out many big sliding panels with lovely stuff on. Instead of there being loads of people as
we had thought, it was just us, the woman, and an art student on placement. There are some Victorian paintings, but it is mostly C20, including a big Ravilious collection. We did not look at those very carefully because these days they seem to be everywhere.
     This first painting is by Harold Mockford - a huge, very powerful canvas, not shown at its best here.
Harold Mockford - Eastbourne

John Piper
     After, we went for a meal at the Trattoria Italiano in Bexhill- had never been before - it was excellent.
     Yesterday it was my birthday - another bright sunny day. Had some lovely presents, then went down to the Jerwood for coffee. In the afternoon I went to my WI book group, and took some fizzy wine. We had cake, fruit and wine, and vaguely discussed Wilkie Collins 'The Woman in White'. I had never read the book before, and thoroughly enjoyed it - it rattles along more dynamically than most modern thrillers, and brings some great characters to life.
     In the evening Philosopher and I went for a meal to the St Clements restaurant in St Leonard's - again, we had never been before, and again it was excellent - we will definitely go again next time we want a little treat. It felt relaxed, service was good, price not too extortionate, and food just right.
     Today we have had another nice day. Met friends Bob and Alison over at Nymans gardens, where Alison is a guide. She showed us round the gardens - all very interesting. The hydrangeas were looking particularly good - here is a very vibrant blue one which I would like for our garden,  then we went for lunch at their house in Horsham.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Our garden...all is well.

I thought I'd start this month's posts with a nice soothing piece about our own garden.
     I am very pleased with the way it looks now compared with how it was when we first moved in a year ago. 

New roses in the back garden
    The previous owners of our house kept the garden neat and tidy, and even tended a little vegetable plot, but it was very featureless and bland. I sense that they did what needed to be done, but had no real love for it.
     Big areas were slabbed, decked or covered with pink granite chippings on top of membrane, with a few pots scattered about.  Here is a general view across the back garden, before and after.  You can't actually see that I have dug out a whole new herbaceous border on the top right.
     There is still a big slabbed area, but it is gradually filling up with containers, and the big vegetable trough you can see on the right of the picture below has helped too.

Garden before

Garden now

View out before
At the back of the house a very large conservatory covered too much of the outside paved seating area (you can see the edge of it in the 'before' photo above), and it also made the living room very dark and stuffy. We got the builders to demolish the conservatory - they were very sniffy about it and shocked that we should do such a wasteful thing.  The patio door was replaced with a bi-fold door.  However, the first thing we had to contend with was blazing sun - so we bought an awning. Second thing - wind whipping across the back of the house, so we got the builders back to build brick troughs, and Philosopher built an arch and put up trellis. Add to that the cost of reinstating the crazy paving, and we could have had a snazzy new conservatory for less. But the result is very pleasing... here is the view from inside, before and after:

View out, after
Front before
The front garden consists of terraces sloping down to the road - again, much of this was covered in pink chippings, except for the neon Barbie pink azalea area referred to in previous blogs. On the top terrace, we scraped off the chippings, ripped up the membrane, and hacked away at the solid compacted clay beneath to make a big flowerbed. This was backbreaking, and required the addition of tons of compost and soil improver, so I adopted a plan of digging planting holes in the clay and inserting plants that hopefully, would spread. This has had mixed success - in some cases the holes have not been big enough, and too much water, held in by the surrounding clay,  has collected round the roots of the plants. This, combined with scorching sun and quite a lot of wind, makes it quite challenging environment for the poor things. Still, it is looking much better....

Front now
    At one side of the house was a large area of decking, which looked very dull. The builders left a pallet behind, so Philosopher made it into a plant platform, and we have put loads of other containers around to hold herbs and other nice smelling stuff- it now looks good.  The mirror works well- we found it in the junk yard down in Courthouse Street. We refurbished and kept the vegetable patch, and also put a new studio shed at that side of the garden.
Side Decking, plus studio shed
Here is Buddha, from Birmingham, in his new home.  He nearly did the removal men severe damage when they staggered up the steps with him - in fact, I think that pallet belonged to Buddha, because he had to go in a special place in the furniture depository - he was too heavy to go in a container.

One notable thing - how big plants have grown here. I brought quite a lot of plants, particularly my collection of perennial garden geraniums, down from Birmingham, and where we just had a few spindly stalks in our Victorian city garden, we now have massive clumps up to a meter high.  Look at these petunias, and as for Philosopher's giant spinach, beans and rhubarb..... Slugs are busily eating the spinach, but there is so much of it we can easily share it between us all.
Big petunias
Huge beans etc.