This is a modified extract from chapter 4 of ‘The Wind’ called ‘New Light Through Old Windows.’ In this chapter, the narrator goes on a walk into Digbeth via Wrentham Street and Highgate. He passes several establishments on his way that to him are ‘out-of-bounds’ – be it pubs that he hasn’t gone into yet for reasons stated below, or businesses that used to thrive, but are now closed to the public.
In this chapter, I attempt to give derelict buildings character and life, without descending into the world of pathetic fallacy. Even though Silver Wok and the old Blotto’s are shut to the public, the memories attached to them give them a vibrant glowing life without having to resort to an early overdose of pathetic fallacy.
Pathetic fallacy does feature a lot in the last third of the book after the city is destroyed by the fall-out from the Birmingham riots, but is seen to re-generate itself. Previously inanimate objects (not just buildings but buses, pavements, streetlights etc) begin to take on characters of their own, they speak to each other and comment on the city, blurring the lines between psychogeography and magic realism. This is all done under the watchful and guiding eye of something mysterious hovering in between the Rotunda and the Selfridges building…
Because of the project lends itself to multi-media, I have added photos from my own collection to illustrate this extract. Whilst this gives the text a rather good look of ‘The Rings of Saturn’ – be aware that the end product may have one or two more bells and whistles attached…
I walked along the road to where The Wellington Hotel stood, I stared up and looked for a while at the rooms above the pub, and in the rooms over the next establishment, a sandwich shop, which advertised crusty bread, cakes and sandwiches, now closed off for business, and had been for quite some time. Windows now covered with posters advertising club nights. It looked as though it had been closed down since the 1990s at least. And above it, on the first floor, I saw a set of faded curtains on a picture rail.
The curtains obscured what was in the room, not in clean blackness, but a grey-brown murky colour. I stared up at the window, and tried to make out any clues to what it was – a bedroom, an office, or a storeroom? In front of me, a door, which I didn’t risk trying to see if it worked. If it did, where would the steps take me? Take me into the unknown, interrupting dark activity, or a man-trap set for the wary. Feeling like a right chicken, I walked along the road quickly. This place was out-of-bounds. And this was a concept that I’d thought of for many other places, open or closed. The Colwyn pub, for example, where, despite having lived spitting distance from it for the last five years, had never even ventured in for some reason. There it stood.
A Banks’ pub, yellow whitewashed walls. Perspex windows. And inside didn’t look like something that would interest someone with a keen interest in ale or architecture. It just was what it was, somewhere that would serve lager and cider, and sweet drinks on the optics. No problem with that, some of the best backstreet pubs in Birmingham City Centre do that, and they do that very well. So what was it that made me consider it out-of-bounds? Was it hastily veiled snobbery? A fear of the unknown? No. I thought, that as I could look into it from the street, that it didn’t look like my kind of place, and perhaps even the Perspex was there to deter people like me (snobs) from going in and taking up a seat that was reserved for one of the regulars. Or perhaps they’d welcome me with open arms, and it would be my local, and I’d meet new friends. When I said that I lived in the new-builds as one of the gentry they would look at me and say ‘You’re alright’ and slip me something nice to go in my drink. But no. Not in this lifetime. I’d never go in there to find out.
And this was the same as I walked along this part of the drag to Wrentham Street. Past a flight of stairs leading up something called the Ambassador Suite, the retro lettering attempting to give the establishment an aura of retro sensuality, the taboo, or the forbidden. Or maybe, that it wasn’t retro, and just had been there for an incredibly long time, the business carried out in the place being the oldest profession after all. Unless of course I had read far too much into the typography, and the place was just for tired working men to hang out in and play cards in the evening, smoking cigars and wearing visors. And seeing as I wasn’t affiliated with the Redwood Club, a members only Mitchells and Butlers pub next door, combined that it was also ‘To Let’ I presumed that that was also out-of-bounds area for me. This street was full of wonders and places that despite my thirty plus years, I would probably never go into…
Emerging from the bottom of the road past the block of flats and the karaoke bar on the right, and the boarded up Silver Wok takeaway, still with stark yellow sign and large black lettering. I had been in Silver Wok though, and could imagine myself in there back in the day, waiting with a fuzzy and stoned brain, the noise of electricity making me giddy and claustrophobic, the claggy smell of five-spice adding to the sense of unease and paranoia, choking me viciously. Sitting on the plastic chair obediently, then deciding to get up and stretch my legs, then sit back down, fidgeting and stretching, crossing my legs back and forth. When I’d get the carton I’d get back onto the Pershore Road and cross at the lights, the still air stale with the smell that had been left behind by the nearby abbatoir mingling with the aroma of the beef curry and rice in my carrier bag, twisting and turning in the wind. That day, I would be heading over to Blotto’s studios, a three storey rehearsal rooms on Barford Street. Suddenly all feelings of paranoia dissipated as I pressed the intercom to be let in. This had been my second home since 2000, my introduction to Digbeth, where I’d go after a days work in the city. Intercom buzzed the door open and I went up the steep steps into the reception area. Of course, this was in the halycon days when you could still smoke indoors, and on opening the door to the room I’d be hit with an inviting stale odour of fags and damp, the beautiful, inviting smell of the artist. The walls adorned with posters of local gigs, full of collage and danger. Leopardskin against filched press cuttings, crayons and coloured pencil scrawl on folded over scraps of paper. The punk ethic alive and kicking against everything in these backstreets. A record player in the corner was playing dub records, the echoes and filters of Tubby or Jammy bumping in time to the black and white CCTV footage of the entrance below, and also providing a soundtrack to the black and white portable telly showing a late afternoon/early evening soap opera. From time to time the door to the corridor of the first floor of the rehearsal space would open and the reception room would be greeted with a staccato blast of ska, funk, punk, reggae or rock, or sometimes, a mixture of all five. One this floor, there was at least eight rooms of varying sizes, all housing their own band, who had decorated it with pictures of dolly birds, graffitied insults directed at band mates, gig schedules and plans all pinned on top of peeling insulated carpet. Overflowing ashtrays, cables, cans of lager. The rooms were freezing cold, the toilets blocked, but you’d get a warm glow from the sheer buzz of the place, and the people you’d meet. From Barford Street outside, you’d hear the dull thud of the drum kit and the buzz of guitars in time with the shutters on the factory gates, and the roll of the vans going through the urban vista, but that was long gone. That incarnation of Blottos came to an end around the turn of the last decade, and the rooms moved to Floodgate Street, on the other side of Digbeth. My memories still vivid of the lost days and nights spent there, and the dazed belief that anything could be achieved within those wall echoed throughout my brain, as I contemplated the boarded up windows, perhaps the best soundproofing device in the world. Nothing happened in those rooms now, maybe the odd rat scurrying across the floors, trying to find scraps of rotting food, or making its home in scrumpled papers and kebab wrappers.
I was going to turn into Highgate, to Gooch Street, and walk past the kebab shop that again, once thrumming with electricity and housing several stoned individuals wanting some stodge to line their bloated stomachs, now, like Silver Wok, boarded up and closed for business. Next to that, the other way into Barford Street, past a butchers and a stockist for hair and beauty products for the afro-carribean woman.
Images of 70s Blaxploitation beauty in terraced houses in Handsworth and Aston peppered my brain, and smiling, I walked further on up the road to another pub that was out-of-bounds to me, taking me left into Bissell Street. Shamrocks and Sky Sports here. Sir Charles Napier, an excellent looking place to be fair, a good backstreet boozer. A group of men sitting at the window, who all stared at me as I walked past peering in, rather like the townsfolk would in an old western starring Clint Eastwood , or perhaps more when Michael Caine first enters the Northern boozer at the start of Get Carter. They turned around and sized me up. And indeed, as I walked past, those at the bar turned around on their seats, and it was then I knew that I wouldn’t be able to go in that day, as I’d probably be expected to perform, to engage with them, which I wasn’t in the mood for that day, a shame, but I had some serious walking to do. Now I was on Bissell Street, warehouses being used, and some converted into office spaces, office spaces with a fax machine and a 60w bulb, that was it, practical, minimal overheads. All they needed to run an office. And in the middle of the warehouses, The Catherine O’Donovan.
In all my years of going into Digbeth, I had never been in here, because it had been shut. Not boarded up, just shut. Darkness behind filthy net curtains, a hangover from the pre-smoking ban days. Peeling window panes, painted green and white. No attempts had been made to seal off the pub to any potential thieves or strays, apart from a sign placed next to the window, showing a cartoon dog notching up a tally of humans on his dog house, skulls and bones scattered on the ground around him. ‘Trespassers Will Be Eaten Alive’ the sign warned.
And looking at the pub, I thought that this was highly appropriate. I could see a wary traveller, rain soaked and weather beaten, having lost themselves in the city’s streets, looking desperately for somewhere to rest their weary heads for the night. Back and forth through the streets they’d go, going back on themselves and into dead ends and out again. And then finally, Bissell Street, the sign of the Catherine O’Donovan creaking in the wind. Finding the front door ajar, and wandering in. Must, cobwebs and damp. A scratching from behind the bar, sticky with slopped ale and white hair embedded into the wood, crusted with blood. Edging further and further in until the inevitable happened, and they were torn from limb to limb and feasted on greatly, their screams sounding too quietly for anyone in the Sir Charles Napier to hear against the roaring thunder outside. Yes. This was definitely out-of-bounds. I picked up my pace slightly in fear, and got onto the crossroads. To my right, the New Inn, another Banks pub, which had the same implications for me as the Colwyn earlier, however, to my left was the Lamp Tavern, which had a small lounge area, full of regulars enjoying the spoils of the fantastic bar, stocked full of ales and whisky. A place that was always good to sit in and waste some time, and had been recommended by friends of mine when I had made my first venture into Digbeth all those years ago. And the Lamp Tavern thankfully, was still open. There was no need this time to use my imagination.