Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Lights, camera, action

The Digbeth Speaks team were also at the Custard Factory event on 8 June, as featured in the blog post below, but this time we were recording the sounds of Digbeth in a different form -  the lovely duo Hassan and Anni were busy filming us and the event!

Watch this space; we'll post the short film here as soon as it's ready!

Vintage, BBQ and Abseil galore

On Saturday 8 June, The Custard Factory just off the Digbeth High Street played host to ‘The Vintage Fair’ . For those who weren’t there - you missed out. Blessed with glorious sunshine and the tantalising smell of BBQ, I spent the day wandering around the stalls, which were a mixture of car boot and professional sellers, each packed with unique and quirky treasures. Needless to say my bank balance took a substantial hit.

After taking in as much antique furniture and vintage clothing as I could, with my friend, I headed to ‘yumm’ café where I purchased a warm wrap of mixed salad with some form of grilled cheese which came from Syria whose name I honestly couldn’t tell you (it may be useful to note that if you spend over a fiver here they allow you to have up to £50 cash back, saving you the £1.50 fee the cash machine the spa charges). We took our food to the only spot in which to be seen eating lunch on a sunny day at the Custard Factory - the large pool in the centre of the courtyard which sometimes (albeit rarely) has its fountain running - try finding a lunch spot like this in the Bullring!

The wrap, although very good, couldn’t exactly eliminate the longing I felt for the BBQ which was wafting its scent around the place. Next time I’m definitely going with the BBQ! (The pool is also a fabulous place to sooth hot and shopped-out feet!)

Apart from shopping, vintage, and BBQ’s, there was a lovely busker, a terrifying abseiling opportunity over the edge of one of the Custard Factory’s buildings for Acorn's Hospice and a rally of vintage motorcycles to entice the crowds. It was a perfect way to spend a summer Saturday, and I certainly recommend that you make it your mission to get yourself down to the next one which is on 3rd August.

Guest post written by Maysie Chandler, Oral History Interviewee
Photos courtesy of M Chandler

'A Small Hiccup' exhibition and 3rd birthday, Grand Union, 24 May

On Friday 24th May, a group of us, comprising Marie, Sarah, Hamish, Nikolay (our trusty photographer) and I, attended the opening of 'A Small Hiccup', at Grand Union, Minerva Works. The gallery was also celebrating its third birthday. 

Grand Union is both a gallery and studio space in Digbeth, which is run by, and supports, artists and curators. ‘A Small Hiccup’ is their latest exhibition. Running from 25 May to 5 July, it showcases artists’ responses to diseased language. We were fortunate to be able to attend the opening, hear the introductory speeches and then peruse the new exhibition (the enticing samosas provided were an added bonus).  In addition, we were able to view the eight studios of local contemporary artists that also occupy the space, which gave us the opportunity to be able to see the artists in their studio setting and witness the new, exciting art that they are each working on. We were able to discuss with the artists their inspirations, aspirations, techniques and mediums they are experimenting with in their art. We had a fascinating discussion with artist Harminder Judge about the research he is undertaking for his latest project.

Whilst at the exhibition we found plenty of people willing to be vox popped, some of whom were the artists themselves. Visitors to the exhibition, both those that live locally and regularly attend events in Digbeth, and individuals who had travelled specifically to attend the event and were thus experiencing the area for the first time, also shared their impressions of Digbeth with us. All in all, we were grateful to be able to record the diverse and stimulating perspectives of the artistic community that seems to be thriving in Digbeth.

Hannah Squire, Project Volunteer

MSFAC exhibition launch, 17 May

Margaret Street Free Arts Council (MSFAC) is a punk art collective currently based at the Edge, Cheapside. Since its formation at Margaret Street School of Art, it has been gaining strength and ferocity in its attack on political and social evils. MSFAC promotes free art that involves the grass root level disillusioned with 'Democracy'. Amongst their many creative outputs is the newspaper Distrakshun Press, as well as free head shaving, printmaking, ukulele-making workshops in solidarity with punk and anarchist movements.
For the Digbeth gallery late opening on 17 May, MSFAC launched their new exhibition in collaboration with Dan Salisbury. In their signature hand-made fashion, hand-painted wall texts and placards made sarcastic remarks on Captialist Realism, quoting the likes of Frederic Jameson and Mark Fisher. On the ceiling hung the cardboard piñatas depicting the word 'POMO', next to them were a set of bats, tempting the audience to take charge and destroy 'Postmodernism'. By the end of the exhibition, the piñatas were shredded to pieces, achieving the artists' purpose to remove the demarcation between 'art' and 'protest'.

Having talked to Amy, Niall and Matt, founders of MSFAC, I can't help but to admire their genuine commitment, their insight into thetheoretical and practical implication of their activities. As they have declared on their blog, MSFAC is a rebellious 'council of working artists' that aims to one day overthrow the 'market obsessed government art council'.

Tessa Mo, Project Volunteer

Gangs of Digbeth: an historical walk hosted by the Friends of Birmingham Archives and Heritage (FoBAH), joined by Digbeth Speaks and the Digbeth Residents Association, 12 May

As FoBAH and friends from the Digbeth Residents Association gathered at the Custard Factory entrance with umbrellas at the ready, Chris Upton’s enthusiastic welcome instantly brightened up our afternoon. Chris is a Senior Lecturer in History at Newman University and, more recently, has been an advisor for an upcoming TV series, ‘Peaky Blinders’ based on Digbeth’s historical gangs. The name ‘Peaky Blinders’ is said to come from the peaked caps that men hid razor blades in for protection. There are also associations to the caps obscuring a person’s face and thus reducing the chances of identification. Our walk was guaranteed to be filled with entertaining anecdotes!

The first leg of our journey took us to a bridge that crosses the River Rea surrounded by brightly coloured graffiti. Significantly, this particular point of the river indicates the geographical division of Birmingham and Aston.

Chris began here with a short introduction into the various gangs of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. He mentioned some of the unusual names that these might have held such as Burger Bar Gang, Magical Gang, Ghetto Hustler and Slash Crew. Today’s gangs are hostile over territory and use clothing as visual signs of affiliation. Gangs of the 20th century were predominantly formed in factories as opposed to those of the 19th century which were associated with various streets in Digbeth, for example, Milk Street, Barn Street and Allison Street gangs. The area was industrious and many of its workshops can still be seen, although they have now been converted into artistic studio spaces and flats. Historically, these factory and workshop environments fostered the formation of gangs according to each trade.

We crossed the canal at several points on our walk and were reminded at certain cross roads of the pubs that would have been visible at the end of certain streets. Chris shared some archival anecdotes of drunken brawls, beatings and sentences that people may have experienced. Anti-social behaviour was often caused by drunkenness and there are records of 1000 arrests made in 1914 for drink-associated disorderly behaviour. As we continued through the wide main streets of Digbeth, we were also asked to visualise the cramped living conditions of earlier times, where the spread of diseases was rife. The back to back housing and areas with small court yards would have encouraged the formation of micro-communities, sometimes made up of entirely Irish or Italian immigrants.

However, we also encountered buildings that were put in place to reform the area as an alternative to the violent behaviour advocated by Digbeth’s many free houses. One such building is the medical facility on River Street, whose red brick is still very striking today. It is here that free food was distributed when the economy was down, and where Bible study classes also ran. Although it closed in 1945 it operated for about 70 years.

As we reached Minerva Works, an artist-led studio space by Fazeley canal, Chris gave us a 360 degree snapshot of the various warehouses that were once in place. He mentioned the Hicks Slaughterhouse, offices run by canal companies, and the Kyrle Boxing Society which offered the recreational sport as a way in which people could express their heritage, identity and ‘otherness’ to each other. The Typhoo Tea factory still looms over the canal. Although currently vacant and disused, the building still has its own canal basin. It is impressive to think that, in its heyday, 80 million tonnes of tea were transported each year from Ceylon via London on this canal.

The lawlessness that was rife in Digbeth changed with the introduction of Street Commisioners in the 1780s. An Act of Parliament gave them the power to bring in restrictions which started with fireworks, climbing trees and throwing stones, especially at funeral processions. Actions that had been perfectly legal before now became illegal and unacceptable, and there was a requirement to behave in a certain way in the city in the eighteenth century.

These new restrictions pushed crime to the fringes, especially with only 2 police officers for a population of 50,000! Gangs would assemble on Garison Lane, Pershore Road and bits of unclaimed land to partake in cock fighting, bull baiting, mass brawls and pigeon flying because there was no police presence due to confusion over whose jurisdiction it was. The Street Keepers and Night Watch were required to stick to the urban city centres, and were often made up of older men who simply couldn’t chase down the criminals! Birmingham police struggled to control major offences and riots. One such example of this was in 1839 with the Chartist Riots or Bullring Riots. The Birmingham police were unable to control the riots and more officers were sent up from London by train. As the government said Birmingham couldn’t police itself, a new police force was created in Birmingham.

We concluded the tour in the car park behind The London Museum Concert Hall on the corner of Park Street. Built in 1863, this is the last remaining Victorian music hall and is sadly due to be knocked down. This place was popular amongst Digbeth gangs and in the later nineteenth century, gangs would make their money from gambling on horses. This was true of The Brummagen Boys who were a gang that controlled the South East race courses. However, they lost control of these after a failed ambush of the Sabini Brothers and after 23 members of The Brummagen Boys were locked up following the Epsom Road Battle.

We finished the tour there. Although most of us were soaked through due to the continual rain, our appetites for Digbeth’s gang history had been well and truly whetted. We would like to take this opportunity to once again thank Chris Upton for this wonderfully enlightening and entertaining tour. Afterwards we invited everyone back to the Old Crown, where we enjoyed speaking to people about what we had learned, as well as what Digbeth means to them. A further blog post about the walk can be found here.

Marie Giraud & Holly Beaumont-Wilkes

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Spotted Dog Pub

We had a recent team meeting at The Spotted Dog pub, and spent some time talking to the Landlord John Tighe about the history of the pub. He showed us the original handwritten deeds, complete with wax. Thanks to John for spending some time talking about Digbeth (there's a nice article about him here too)

An artwork made from photographs on fabric depicting the pub

They commissioned a stained glass window for the pub
The Digbeth Speaks team!
Sarah Taylor Silverwood, Project Manager