I spent eleven hours on the 11C bus on the 11/11/08. This is a psychogeographical report, it’s not a tale of the trip nor an attempt to map or really delve into areas along the eleven route. I’ll get to that later, I think. I’m not interested in mapping this, only in the most general sense of how places connect together and it doesn’t mention the bus itself much. Other than a method of transport its main function was to provide both the structure and lack of control for the journey. Despite the three circuits, thoughts about the places are combined into one loop.
The stops in King’s Heath are bad, squashed together 11 and 35 on a pavement not wide enough to support a queue, it forces that particularly British type of hanging away from each other. Holding back, as you would have to make the decision to interact, even if only to be polite. Even squeezing onto a packed bus gives you a feeling of space, how can humans together give off that aura of dampness when it hasn’t been raining?
Birmingham is really green and lush in places, the mature trees either side of the road can fool you into thinking nothing happens, that people wash cars clean of that tree gloop and have special machines for either sucking or blowing leaves subject to preference. Riding on the top deck you feel the need for those heavy suburban curtains, the drives where the parked monster truck acts as a barrier.
Where shops appear they don’t seem to be planned, the ‘party shop’ in Stirchley on the Pershore Road seems to whimper “celebration” rather than shout. It’s falling into itself, does it open? I don’t know. It has competition, the area thrives on the vibe of balloons and peculiarly dull glitter. Even the charity shops, the copy shops, the functional shops hide a stash of party poppers beneath the counter. In the pubs it’s perpetually New Year.
Bournville seems the most suburban suburb of them all, but really it’s an estate. Suburbs need more than the endless, not straight for some reason, roads with heavy foliage and cars, they need focal points. Bournville’s focal point is leaving it. I’ve never been to Bournville in the same way I’ve never been to the past, it wouldn’t be right. It looks focused on being itself, it has an insular industriousness. An order; factory, play, road, out, continue.
If Bournville is connected but disconnected from its surroundings, then the bit of Selly Oak that follows is disjointed. It isn’t the never-ending roadworks and diversions, it’s the superstores, casualties, job centre pluses that must be travelled to. The imposing new QE struggles to look out of place. It should, given that it and the hospital it replaces – where I was born (I remember little) – rise higher than the estated surrounds by hundreds of feet. It’s impressive, but you get the feel that the architect went for iconic and it’s got all the surprise of a neon kettle. Grey, red, green, blue. It makes me want a cup of tea. The iconic features here are the drugedly planned road island, and the huge army and navy stores.
Harborne teeters on the brink of something, it has ambition (or pretension) and strives to be a sort of Bournville with booze. Do people still do “the Harborne run”, or have the pubs become wise to gangs of university students and the hassle to spending ratio? Do Tony Blair’s 50% of the population indulge in that sort of fractious entertainment? Pub crawls are always too much crawl and not enough pub, an orgy of excess for those that can’t cope with excess, or their ale. About as Bacchanalian as a game of golf, with a similar ratio of fun to walking between brief bouts of choice and excitement. For a time my mother ran Harborne Post Office, one of the proper sort of PO that does posting letters and pensions and – at the time – very little else. Does the pillar box red comfort? It’s not a comforting colour, the gloss has a sweaty vomitous sheen.
Do you feel sorry for Bearwood? Neither Brum nor yam, it falls between two distinct but equally laughed at stools. But Bearwood seems older, the paint peels and the high street reminds me of Witton Road in the eighties. Independent shops, with independently graphic’d frontages melt one into the next. Is it darker here, does it rain more, it feels like it. I can feel the Gs being expunged from my phone signal. Can we reach Birmingham before we reach the blessed relaxed time before the matrix?
Dudley Road seems to be the closest point to the city centre – offering spectacular views of lights at night, or not so spectacular views of stooping cranes in the day. The hospital overshadows everything, against it even roads with buildings look like they are derelict. As Terry Hall might say, all the pubs are closed down. If the hospital towers above its vicinity, a left turn intoWinson Green and there’s something less welcoming. Do we expect a prison to be architecturally interesting? The slitless walls, with less features than a warehouse, make the houses opposite feel like they’re those at the end of the world. It looks more dumped there than Selfridges does in the city centre.
The leafy Handsworth Wood gives out to the concrete expanse that is Perry Barr island, the first thing I notice is the lack of something but it takes a trip round again to realise what. The library has been bulldozed, if it has been replaced then it’s not obvious where. It was an old, circa 1900s red brick building that along with the Methodist church opposite lent something different than dirty sixtiesambience to the area. Without it, the area looks a mess and the church looks out of place. The area around Perry Barr island is bad for the brain, posters, shop signs, architecture, poor attempts at shrubbery on central reservations (although it is winter of course) clash each way you turn. The underpass stunk of piss in the eighties when I lived there, it was dark and scary – the bus doesn’t go down there.
Down Aston Lane, past one of my old dole offices and my nan and granddad’s old house. From the house I used to go over the road to the paper shop, dragging my soft toy dog on a string as my granddad walked his rather more alive dog. The shops are still there, but how well they’re doing now the newTesco is open I wouldn’t like to guess. Witton was a paradise of shopping, nearly every corner store, sports, television and more, owned by ex-Aston Villa player and managers: “Leslie Smith for Television” or “discount Dick” Taylor. The team’s influence extended to the streets, the railway bridge was painted in claret and blue by Tony Daley and Gary Shaw – or at least they posed for photos looking very much like they had. It’s peeling now, more through the neglect of the railway system than the Villa, one would guess, as the club are intent on putting their logo on everything.Scrubland is official Villa car parks, the train station is “Witton for Villa Park” – not for living in?
Birmingham lacks rivers, but the Tame here doesn’t inspire, industrial estates hidden by weed-ridden greenery and a road that hugs it. There is life on the other side of the road, but a view it doesn’t have. When the river meanders away it’s replaced by a motorway suspended on concrete columns and then a graveyard. The concrete columns are now a terrorist target, signs warn of the consequences of stopping. Surveillance of this exhaust coloured patch must be police punishment for some misdemeanour committed on patrol.
The row of four Banks shops in Stockland Green seen to finally have had new signage, or merged to one larger shop with one tiny subsidiary holding fast against the internal market for “big and tall clothes” or ladies’ dancing pumps. It’s a monster of a traffic junction, incomprehensible from all angles. If you wanted ladies’ dancing pumps, but were stranded by the bingo, you’d have to get a taxi and hope he’d mastered his sat-nav.
Erdington is trying to get that complicated, the bus takes a road and turns back on itself a mere vehicle’s length along it, there are bizare half-island half-right turn areas, a shop in the central reservation. But it can’t hold a pound shop scented candle to Stockland Green. Six Ways sounds like a Knightmare scenario, but there are only five. Take away that you came down one and you’re down to a manageable four exits. The bus takes just one, eventually.
Erdington through Ward End leads onward without a change in scene; trees blow, the pavements widen and contract. Birmingham’s increasingly tiny suburbs flick one to another and it blurs. At the Fox and Goose the ‘entertainment centre’ is anAldi. In the gathering doom it looks nicer than an Aldi might, but does it say much for the area – there’s entertainment here to be sure. More than cheaper food shopping. Stechford and the demolition therein does jar you out of the Erdington haze, pubs are gone, only shopping remains.
Shopping doesn’t remain at the Swan Island, a fairytale name now attached to a dilapidated shopping centre. The flats have neon, the shops have plywood and graffiti, regeneration can’t come too soon. The run down intoAcock’s Green (once owned by Mr Acock ? – yes), is nice. This is a suburb that is filled with amenities for its population, a rail station, pubs, shops not chained but left to their own idiosyncrasies. A contrast to the centre (is the “green” the traffic island?), which doesn’t really – but it does have life, one of the most bustling areas we’ve come through. And who can begrudge people a game of laser quest, the free market shall provide.
The houses get more expensive, larger and more sunken-back as Fox Hollies gives way to the downhill to Sarehole Mill. The Mill and the bog are a feature of Birmingham’s high water-table – until industry moved in to suck it out. With heavy industry now almost gone, the waters are rising and it has a dampness. The air has a dampness, we’ve freewheeled into a well of sorts. It takes a lower gear to pull us up toBillesley where along with drying out there is something different about the surroundings , are we further from the centre of town – no, I don’t think so, but maybe we are further from proper shops, there are more houses, more a sense of movement out, more cars itching to get somewhere. Or maybe there are just more cars, the further you move towards King’s Heath the parking gets tighter, the houses terrace, the closeness can be touched, the bus stops become an obstacle. And we go round again.