I’ve Been to Walsall (part 2)

I stepped off the train like Everything But The Girl and made a mental note of what time the train would return to Birmingham New Street (10 and 40 minutes past the hour) and what platform I would need to be on (3.) To my left a group of middle aged men held court in a circular seating area swigging from cans of Crest for a mid-morning livener. They looked at me as I gawped at them and I went quickly up the ramp to the stations exit. The exit led onto a shopping centre, the Saddlers, a clean concourse to the High Street, with a Claire’s Accessories and WHSmiths to my left. More newsagents and pastie shops, alas, I could not see the chip-shop-chip Gregg’s pastie that I’d heard about earlier on in the year.

I exited the Saddlers and got out onto the High Street. Scores of people went about their shoppers business. Mothers with their hoards, slow moving gentlemen fresh from their prayers, people of all ages in all fashions. This was Walsall, and Walsall was alive. People moved in and out of my peripheral vision as I stopped and drank in this scene, the first time I’d ever seen this view. Walsall in action. Flouting Jarvis Cocker’s line in ‘Common People’ when he says ‘everybody hates a tourist’, his long, tapering fingers waggling in front of my face, I greedily got my phone out, and was ready to take some snaps for posterity. Recently, I’ve stopped being a complete amateur-photographer, preferring to see things with my eyes wide open, stretching my eyeballs to take in the full technicolour of what’s in front of me, rather than ruining my eyes through a small screen. Today, however, I was here to not only experience, but also document. A few photos for posterity. I’d be Martin Parr or Mark Power. I saw a fading brown and red newsstand for the Express and Star, which I’ve heard referred to as the best newspaper in the West Midlands by some people. I stood in the middle of the high street and lined up my phone, and waited patiently for a slow moving gentlemen to move out of my line of vision. I lined up my phone again, and then to my right I heard;

“Hey mate! Take a photo of us!”

Three gangly youths in t-shirts and trackies bowled into my sights. Enthused I looked through my sites to get a good portrait, but the flash was taking its time to get into focus. I told them to wait and they laughed at me. This was too good an opportunity to miss. “Come on, we’re waiting!” they chided, and I could sense that one of them wanted to go. More fool him, as when the picture was finally taken, it was a beauty.

I didn’t even mind that one of them was giving me the finger (it’s a bit American) as I knew that this was a damn good picture. I said to them that this was brilliant and I loved it. “Yeah. Whatever. See ya mate.” They didn’t need to say anymore. These three (well two, I think the other one was sulking at being delayed) lads had blessed my journey and my time in Walsall. This was a talisman. This indicated that today was going to be a good day. I laughed all the way to the New Art Gallery. Walsall. Yeah. I didn’t even keep my smirks to myself as I was comforted in the knowledge that these people from Walsall were a good laugh. And I beamed even more when I saw the place.

Built during 1995-2000 by Caruso St John Architects, a stunning tiled tower next to the canal wharf, PureGym and Poundland, fun pubs and independent greasy spoons. The old warehouses and yards gave the gallery even more grandeur. A breath-taking sight as it towered above me. I was pleased to notice that in the window was an advertisement for a forthcoming exhibition of Damien Hirst – having enjoyed the career retrospective at the Tate Modern earlier on in the year, to bring the sharks and the cows, the diamonds, the gold, the fag ends and pharmaceuticals to the city of Walsall, or at least even a bit of it, would be, as my pal Chris Wayne would say, a real coup for the city. This was a first for me, a new gallery to enter. The place modern; smelling clean and looking efficiently sleek and organised. I decided to take the stairs, past giant picture windowns giving excellent panoramic views of the city. I wasn’t going to bother with the Garman Ryan collection today – instead, I went onto the third floor where I discovered that Street, a celebration and exploration of the urban setting was playing, again until the 15th of September.

Walking through, making a mental note to save it for later, I walked through the gallery, tall, beautiful white walls with photos and images of beautiful dilapidation, new colours emerging from rust, butterflies emerging from the chrysalises. Mark Power’s work presented with exact precision, feet on cobbles, earrings and exquisite piercings on mottled skin.  I walked up to the 4th floor, and was seemingly teased up there by a recording of a thickly accented woman of the Black Country reading out a list of eye shadow colours, alternately gruff and sensual. ‘Apple. Black Cherry. Vanilla.’

The 4th floor housed Harminder Judge’s “In This Strange House” (running until 25 November) a study of the occult writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton. I opened the door to get up the steep staircase, and ‘Apple. Black Cherry. Vanilla,’ changed seamlessly into a deep and barely audible voice incanting away at the top of the stairs, the top of the building, the attic, where the exhibition was held. In the middle of the room I found myself standing under a large child’s bed. I was what lay underneath and behind. I was the monster. The entire room was to play house to ‘a dream of dark and troubling things.’ A scale mock-up of a gothic mansion on one wall, in homage to the old dark houses and dwellings such as the Bates Motel or 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville. Those houses where the child battered and distorted by the family unit, finding solace in the dark corners until they turn and takes the youngster for one of their own. A vessel to fill and to carry out their evil, to make it real. And then death, forevermore to act as a cypher to bring new children in, so the house can retain its energy, now even more alive. The business of psycho-geography, the evil living and residing in suburbia when you’ve had too much tabloid to read, fit to burst on the stories of serial killers and abductions. Every building that is passed could potentially have its own dark corners.

TV sets on the floor flickered with grainy CCTV imagery of paranormal activity; but behind me on the wall flickered a stroboscopic worm-hole, looking like the tricks the eyes and the mind play on you when your serotonin levels are depleted. When I stared closely into the void I kept blinking else I would be in danger of entering The Realm. In this case the worm-hole had its own cypher, it’s own talisman; a young girl weeping with head buried in arms. For heaven’s sake I hoped the child doesn’t look up at me. I was reminded here of Vince Collins’ short animation ‘Malice in Wonderland’ (careful now) If this image looked up and faced me, I would be her in a second, trapped in the walls of the New Art Gallery, floating and changing in the fourth dimension. I looked away to the wall to my right. 46 photographs depicting occult activity in the Black Country, presented as a storyboard. The disembodied voice recited its mysteries as I looked for scraps of shadows in the black and white photography, which was acting as a storyboard, a gallery for witchcraft within the disused collieries and steelworks. The room  pulsated with the dark of the uncanny, and a quick nip to the toilet threw me into a Lynchian world; heavy blue lighting and immaculate wooden features, tall doors and low washbasins with Heath Robinson taps. Instantly refreshing. I’d be back here again for the Hirst exhibition, and I’d definitely check into Harminder Judge’s loft space again as well.

Back down the stairs with the incantations behind me, opening the doors back into Mark Power’s Black Country Stories. Footwear on the cobbles; moth eaten boots, gaudy red plastics.This was the sexualisation and the fetishisation of the Black Country; from gentlemen’s clubs on the sides of dual carriageways where glamour models made even more alluring with acne scars and crows feet gyrated and twisted with mechanical accuracy; to images of spray tanning and intricate false nails and knee-wobbling close-ups of body piercings. Again, this was the concept of “the importance of looking good in spite of it all”, particularly useful in these areas of the Black Country, the West Midlands often seen as the ugly sister to the swans of London and the fashionable upstarts of Manchester. The seeds were being sown; indeed, one photo showed white sliced bread thrown on the tarmac for the pigeons, middles scooped out with hands, whole pieces casually discarded on the floor. Unlike if it had been thrown onto the grass, the tarmac wouldn’t be able to absorb the bread, enabling it to return from whence it came, but instead, the food would go stale and attract insects, gaining spores and mould and decay, until a young lad on community service would amble along and spear it on a pointed stick and put it into a bin bag ready for landfill. A study into landfill and the resurrection needs to be imagined, quite possibly in a further chapter within ‘The Wind’ or maybe even a book on its own. What does the decaying mass look like under the motorways and the viaducts? Enveloping and churning around, nests of moths and anthills and vivid underground rainbows, the smells so sweet and sticky in those new man-made worlds and realms. Indeed, the seeds were being sown. Out of this would emerge a splendour never seen for millions of years, a vision of multi-coloured dreams and mirages.

For the while in modern day Dudley and West Bromwich, creators of this urban decay stared out into the abyss – youngsters observing the bruised concrete, adding scars of their own, looking away or staring definitely at the camera. Around me in the gallery, groups of schoolchildren and students paused and imagined, spurred on by their teachers to examine the textures and the meanings behind what they saw. Sketching on pads and pouring out ideas. I went from the Black Country Stories into the ‘Street’ exhibition – a collection of works which the hand-out told me ‘represented ‘a view of the modern urban environment.’ I headed for the cinema, which was home to a projection of Nicolas Provost’s Storyteller (2010), a mirroring and re-imagining of the skyline of Las Vegas: Neon signs pulsing and flickering into each other in liquid motions, cars stopping and starting, red blood cells floating upside down and going down vertical streets, the veins of the city. Buildings contorting and bouncing off one another, swallowing and regurgitating lights from rooms and reflections. I recalled Gasper Noe’s Enter the Void; the lights releasing my mind, floating around the gaudy universe in this wonderful loop. I stayed until the film finished, going around on a loop and went outside and stared at the rest of the work on display, paying particular attention to Miao Xiaochun’s photograph Orbit, a gigantic mural of a Chinese transport system, with calligraphy and characters smiling on the sides of trams and buses. Scores scattered about. Xiaochun’s work – an eye of a God, seeing in widescreen for miles, taking everything in silence, a beatific meditation. On my way out, I overheard a school group sitting underneath a mural designed by San Francisco based artist Barry McGee: The tutor was asking them to consider art, and what art was for. “Art describes the way you feel” one of the lads sitting cross-legged on the floor said. Indeed, he and his peers would exit the museum, their footsteps, their walk, their entire design altering perceptions. They were all art.

I left the gallery and decided to have a bite to eat. I didn’t feel like sitting in the Costa on site so I headed for Café Munchies, a greasy spoon on Shaw Street selling B-E-S-Ts and proper tea. I went for a bacon sandwich on a doorstep and a cup of tea, and sat outside admiring the view of the back of the Pure Gym and Poundland. Two men on a crane were painting a window, talking to each other and pausing, their movements methodical, yet pausing awkwardly to work out their next move. Attractive young mothers in tight skirts with their hair scraped back walked into view and out again, repetitions of the same people I’d seen earlier in the street. The sandwich came and I drowned it in the value brown sauce, and crammed it into my gob eagerly. Dead meat on white to sedate me. My hand jerked with the excitement and I poured about three times the amount of sugar into my tea. No problem, the tea thick and chewy like it should be, mingling with the tang of the sauce. The waitress came outside and I thanked her for the food, saying that it was doing the job very nicely. She said thanks and went to talk to a man in a car, who I perceived to be the owner, and carried on with him as I finished my dinner. I’d got brown sauce down my jeans due to my ungainly eating habits, but this wasn’t a problem either.

It was time to go, to go back down the High Street, past the pub that I saw (I’d get a half or six back in Birmingham) and get the train. On my way out, I said goodbye to the waitress, now with a friend of hers. The driver/owner leaned out of his car and apropos of nothing said “Don’t you listen to them! They don’t know what they’re talking about!” I didn’t know what to say to that, and got my phone out of my pocket. I thought I’d take a nice picture of the café for posterity, for my archives, yet on lining up the viewfinder, I heard “Ooh, you want to get a picture of us?”

I took not one, but two, and said what a lovely day I’d had, and it had been my first time in Walsall and I’d been made to feel very welcome. “We’re all lovely in Walsall! Ta-ra for now!” they replied, and I made my way back to the railway station. The journey back to Birmingham New Street was pretty uneventful, a few signs of machismo here and there by my fellow passengers, but that wasn’t going to spoil my Walsall vibe. I headed up to the Wellington on Bennetts Hill, and would end up at the Victoria via the Post Office Vaults. It had been a grand morning. I’ve been to Walsall.


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