In August, spurred on by a Lichfield blogger and a Walsall photographer about the fact that i’d never been that far north to that Walsall I’d never been to despite my 33 years living on this planet, with Birmingham as my home. On the 12th of September 2012 it finally happened. I’d gone to Perry Barr to hand in some work at the University, and decided after I’d finished there that I’d continue my journey to the terminus.
Before leaving the flat I enjoyed a quick blast of “I’ve Seen Them Come” by the Fall off their latest LP “Ersatz GB.” In the song, the Fall’s leader, Mark E Smith (or MES as he’s now known) shouts “I’ve been to Ban Ding! I’ve been to Balthazar! I’ve been to Prague!” and now, dancing around the flat I now added “I’ve been to Walsall!” Buoyed, the journey to Perry Barr went by in a flash, and as I’ve recounted the journey there (and back) in detail before, I didn’t feel the need to make any notes.
Because I was feeling adventurous I didn’t go into the main entrance of the railway station, instead opting to take the access route. I went down the subway which twisted around and turned me back on myself on the staircase. At the bottom I found myself in a long white dank tunnel smelling dully of piss and fags. The tunnel of light before the ascension to heaven – Walsall, the promised land. This would take me to platform 2 – the Perry Barr to Walsall link. My sense of direction was telling me that I was going the wrong way, and this was proved right when I walked up the steep steps and saw the University building looking down at me and seeming to say, “Sorry Jim. Not here mate, You’ll have to go down and back around on yourself again.” Never mind. I turned around and buggered off back down the subway, past cans of coke lodged in between holes in the broken whitewashed concrete. As I made my way up the steps again, I passed a wall sprayed with three tags and a drawing of an aerosol can, below that a date from the future, the 14th of October. I didn’t know if this indeed was a Day of Significance but it looked excellent and I took a photo.
I had my urban exploration cap on today. In Walsall, I was going to The New Art Gallery, specifically to see the latest in Multistory’s Black Country Stories project; a photography exhibition and installation by Mark Power. I’d seen the Martin Parr exhibition which had appeared at The Public in West Brom in 2010, and thoroughly enjoyed the photography. I believed the Black Country Stories project fitted in nicely with my concept of suburban/urban psychedelia, the main focus of my ‘The Wind’ project: the ability to experience the bright senses of the world through the mundane and the everyday. Childhood evoked by signs painted with marker pen on coloured card, poundshops, and the feelings by exploring the shopping centre and the discount shop for the first time as a youth – New Boots and Panties – the kaleidoscope of the music hall turning into the Beatles, now turning into vivid shop frontages with exotic imagery in their names – The Emerald Empress, Total Eclipse (both seen in Cape Hill/Winson Green.) Scenes behind the terraced houses and bedsits/store rooms above shops, altered states at the bus stop and the street corner. When I heard about this exhibition, and that it was finished on the 15th of September, I was determined to go. I’d been to West Brom quite a few times. I’d got the tram. I’d walked down the High Street. But I’d never been to Walsall.
Walking back onto the road, I went into the railway station properly. I walked past the ticket office and down the steps onto Platform 2. After finishing at the University, I would always be on Platform 1, ready to make the journey back to Birmingham New Street, but not today. Unchartered territory. When the train came, I boarded and got a double seat, sitting on the left hand side of the carriage. Leaving Perry Barr, to go northwards. The train picked speed for Hamstead. Behind me, a group of middle aged women chatted amongst themselves. I can only hear scraps of conversation these days because of my deafness on my left hand side, but I tried my best to get a grasp of their day-to-day affairs to add a bit of colour to the journey. At first they were talking about chicken sandwiches, but that’s really all I could understand as the noise of the train got louder over their discussion. A bit further on I could make out “There’s never any of them who want the window open” which, judging by the gist of what they were saying was referring to the fact that one of the women worked in a space that had poor ventilation, and none of her co-workers wanted to open the wind because it would be too cold for them and they’d got three layers on them already. She sounded regretful about this, and so did her friends, who solemnly greed with her on this matter.
After departing from Hamstead railway station, looking left out of the carriage window, the landscape got greener emerging from the industrial unit, beginning to exercise its feelers across the city. Soon, all to my left was lush green foliage, rivers and streams and rockpools in clearances in forests, however whilst looking out of my right hand side all I could see were streets upon streets of Barrett Homes each linked by an exact and methodical road system. My attention stayed on the left hand side. I hadn’t counted on this greenery sprawling out from the urban landscape. The next time I made the journey, I would imagine myself as Super Mario into the Forest of Illusion, here, the Forest of Hamstead, where I’d stealthily dodge and weave past energy-depleting spiders and fireball-spitting firetraps.From Duddeston-Aston-Witton-Perry Barr, I would have more been in an Industrial Zone which would have been hard enough, but at least there was free-running potential on the many pop-up shops and small businesses selling hair-weaves and simcards. In the Forest of Hamstead, stealth and exploration would be the key, and perhaps even a visitation into 3D territory, with affluent houses to explore and rich gentry to appease.
Amputrees heralded the entrance to Tame Bridge Parkway, now standing with new-found pride and vigour after the Paralympics. The summer of sport had now finished, and the country was grinding back to its usual wallow in self-pity and ‘healthy’ cynicism, counting down the days to Christmas with its again, usual mixture of grudging acceptance and bitterness. For me, the psychogeographer, determined to see the country with fresh, unprejudiced eyes, such misery was infectious, and a daily battle was fought to not cover up my own insecurities with resentment at others. I found solace in the short stop to Bescot Stadium by staring out of the right hand side at the slag heaps on the railway sidings, possibly last seen in one of the later Doctor Who episodes starring David Tennant. A road sign to the M6 (Northwest) justified that we were en route to Walsall and Wolverhampton, and an advertising hoarding showed a pair of trainers – JD Unrivalled – and a new date for the calendar – Clarins ‘Extra Firming Day.’ I was unsure which company had stuck up these hoardings – was it Clear Channel or was it Maiden? Maiden were the best, because, being in the West Midlands, the home of metal, I occasionally saw the words ‘Iron’ scrawled in marker pen above the ‘Maiden’ logo, written in a moment of fervour and pride by some heavy metal ‘mutha’ dressed in denim or leather. The woman behind me still sounded regretful, and as the train went past a lorry for Buxton Lime and Cement, I heard two sentences that carried with them the same portentous tones and universal agreement from her friends as her earlier statements had done:
“Nothing worse than putting people off with expensive phone calls.”
“I don’t like looking at people when I’m talking to them.”
This woman was a sage, a prophet. She was talking about Skype, and the intrusion thereof. She was a woman who knew what she wanted, and wouldn’t stand for any nonsense. Come the revolution, she’d be the one who people would flock to for answers. Her quick quips and tight-lipped answers, with a slight shake of the head would make her our new queen. And whilst thinking this, I was pleased to see that finally we were getting into Walsall. The promised land.
(End of Part 1 – Part 2 to come later on in the week.)