Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Community life in Digbeth? Monday 15 July

On Monday 15 July we went to St Anne’s Roman Catholic Church on Alcester Street to meet Father Patrick Brown. We talked about the Digbeth Speaks project and discussed potential people we could contact to record stories about the Irish heritage and spiritual life of the area. We found out that Cardinal Newman had founded St. Anne’s in a former gin distillery next to where the present church was built. Father Brown recounted some of his memories about Digbeth from the 1970s and talked about the ways it had since changed. We recorded a short interview with him to go into the archive - he had an interesting insight on the question of whether Digbeth has a ‘community’ today. While many of the church’s parishioners live across Birmingham, for those with Catholic and Irish heritage, St Anne’s brings that community together.

Next stop - SIFA  Fireside, a charity that tackles homelessness, alcohol misuse and social exclusion across Birmingham, situated in an old printing factory on Allcock Street. Development Manager Simon Hackett invited us along to their weekly forum to talk about Digbeth Speaks. We also found out about the fantastic work that the charity does as well as hearing from some of the service users about the positive impact that the centre has had on their lives. Rob told us the story behind the name of the band he is part of - Feed us Biscuits, we should’ve guessed by the digestives on the table! Check out their performance here.

We then stopped off for a lovely lunch at the Greenhouse CafĂ© in Digbeth, before calling into the Lakeside Gallery at the Custard Factory – where our exhibition at the end of the project is going to be held. We also called by one of the vintage shops on the way, where Carly bought this beautiful 1930s brooch!  

When we arrived at the gallery, we were greeted by an exciting exhibition of street art. Setdebelleza is a Spanish artist is touring galleries around the world.

After visiting all the people and places on that day I started to think about the whole range of reasons that people visit Digbeth, including eating, socialising, going to an event or exhibition, or shopping; for those that visit SIFA fireside, it’s a place that offers many of the same activities and it’s a lifeline to them; for parishioners at St. Anne’s it’s a spiritual home. While Digbeth might not have a traditional, fixed community, it welcomes a range of smaller communities and individuals as a modern, multi-cultural hub, but with reminders of its industrial past. 

Lauren Dudley
Project Volunteer

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Deadpixels, 18 July

On the 18th of July Suki10c hosted the second instalment of ‘Deadpixels’, “Birmingham’s newest retro gaming night”, fusing the moody urban nightlife of Digbeth with such console-gaming classics as Street Fighter, Tomb Raider and Goldeneye. As Nikolay, Dasha and I entered the venue I was pre-empting my devolution into a rosy-cheeked fledgling as I caught sight of the Goldeneye menu screen, replete with all of the childhood wonderment of the then next-gen of gaming. Fortunately, I was able to control my excitement and Nikolay and I took to the pads for our first game of the 007 shooter with one of the promoters of the night. With Nikolay respectfully bowing out midway through, it ended in a tie between myself and the promoter – not bad after a 10-year hiatus! – after which he kindly provided a great vox pop, likening Digbeth to one of the main arteries connected to the heart of the city. 

The evening was a slow-burner and modestly attended, but gradually, one by one, the venue began to fill out. As music went it was a hybridisation of dub reggae, dubstep, breakbeat/hip-hop and a general assortment of electronic dance music; a variety consistent with the rich history of urban music and club culture in Digbeth. Indeed, an apt setting for these confluent cultures. Since the early nineties MC’s have drawn on these classic retro titles as witticisms in their lyrics, and when sampling technology developed producers were able to patch in familiar sound bites from these games into their beats: an aesthetic adopted by a wide range of jungle, garage and grime producers including, most notably, Jo, Wiley, Zomby and Birmingham born Preditah. And that’s not to forget the tradition of martial arts in Hip-Hop/Grime culture (think Wu-Tang), where ciphers and battles are decided on the raw, lyrical force and dexterity of the MC’s. (Hell, grime legend D Double E couldn’t make it clearer with his ‘Street Fighter Riddim’!) It’s no secret that Digbeth has been a vital mainstay in the development of these cultural legacies in the UK, and Deadpixels’ bimonthly night presents a refreshing new direction. Everyone I spoke with effused on the importance of Digbeth as an aspiring, alternative community, facilitating these types of event.

Later in the evening Stale Dale & Chonkybeatz performed a masterful live beatboxing set as a respite from the button bashing. In fact, the Street Fighter corner had amassed a slew of budding players eager to test themselves against an opponent, Goldeneye too had its moments, but Lara Croft was left, sadly neglected in the middle of the dance floor. All in all, the night was a charming, down-tempo alternative to the usual offerings and I look forward to part three to see how they develop the idea.

Hamish Campbell-Legg, Project Volunteer

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Irish Heritage Group, 3 July

Sarah and I spent the evening of 3 July at the Irish Club, Digbeth High Street for a Birmingham Irish Heritage Group meeting and lecture. We were kindly invited along by Jim Ranahan with the support of Ann at the Irish Heritage Group.

Jim gave a really interesting talk entitled 'How do we want to be remembered? Community involvement with Birmingham museums', which stimulated a lot of discussion afterwards about representation of a collective heritage and community engagement. We were delighted that Jim used our project as an example of the ways in which the community could tell their own stories and gain wider representation in the archive.

Following Jim's lecture, we spoke to the group about our project. We received a warm welcome and enjoyed talking to several members of the community afterwards; they each had fascinating stories to share about life in Digbeth, past and present.

Sarah and me with Jim and Ann

It was an insightful evening and we are looking forward to interviewing Jim and two members of the group - who we met on the night - over the coming weeks.

Carly Hegenbarth, Project Manager

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Pubs of Digbeth walk, 29 June

On Saturday 29 June we co-hosted the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Love Architecture Pubs tour of Digbeth. It was led by architect and urban designer, Joe Holyoak and we were joined by people interested in architecture, Digbeth and, crucially, pubs...

We started at The Woodman by Millennium Point which has recently been granted planning permission for renovations and to be reopened. The architecture was by James and Lister Lea who were responsible for designing a number of pubs in the Digbeth area during the late nineteenth century – they’re easy to spot by their red bricks and terracotta decorations. The next pub, also a James and Lister Lea, was the Eagle and Tun. Now boarded up, it was once frequented by UB40 whose recording studios were just round the corner – the interior features in the video for Red Red Wine and there’s an article about it here.

At one time there was a pub on virtually every other street in Digbeth; we learnt that they were mostly on street corners in order to maximise passing trade. Some were purpose-built as public houses and others were converted from domestic buildings, such as the ex-Spotted Dog on Meriden Street.

On the tour, we also passed other pubs no longer in operation such as The Old Wharf on Coventry Street, which was known for its Heavy Metal clientele and gigs and only closed in recent years. I went there a couple of years ago (and it was Metal) so that must have been very soon before it closed. It had a small stage in the gig room and the whole interior back room was painted with images of bands from through the ages.

After The Old Wharf, we passed the Birmingham Packpackers. This ex-pub on the corner of Coventry Street was built in the 1920s and is of a notably different style to the grand James and Lister Lea pubs. At the start of the twentieth century there was increasing concern about drinking and pub environments - as such, new pubs were built in a more domestic style. The Spotted Dog on Alcester Street is another pub that would appear to fit this style.

Towards the end of the walk we went into The Anchor and The White Swan on Bradford Street to see the interiors; both are James and Lister Lea and are definitely worth a visit. The White Swan still has its original Minton tiles and both pubs retain much of their original character.

We ended in The Old Crown which archaeological investigations date to the late fifteenth century - so, far more ancient than the other architecture we’d already seen. The building began life as the Guildhall and School of the Guild of St John the Baptist of Deritend (the church of St Johns used to stand on the other side of the road) and didn’t become a pub until the nineteenth century. The building has a long and fascinating history which is well worth investigating, including that it was used as a safe house during the English Civil War.

Some fascinating themes emerged from the histories of these pubs and the people who we spoke to on the walk. Firstly, and in contrast to now, pre-Second World War, Digbeth was a densely populated area with terraces, back-to-back housing and factories crammed in with a multitude of pubs serving the community. Now many of these pubs have gone but their traces can still be seen on street corners throughout modern-day Digbeth. Another consistent theme is the sometimes difficult dynamic between residents and pubs, particularly music venues of which there have historically been a lot in Digbeth. Noise complaints have frequently threatened the survival of pubs - The Rainbow on Adderley Street had a very narrow escape from closure a couple of years ago, and The Spotted Dog with its legendary Jazz and Irish music nights has been more recently threatened. The industrial nature of the area was commented on by our fellow walkers, as well as the fact that many of them hadn’t been into the pubs here before but that they certainly would again.

All in all, we had a fantastic day and spoke to some great people - this was thanks to everyone on the tour, the pubs of Digbeth and a few pints along the way! The message is: go and explore Digbeth’s great pub heritage!

For anyone interested in finding out more, Joe Holyoak has highly recommended the following books: Birmingham Pubs 1880-1939 by Alan Crawford, Michael Dunn and Robert Thorne; the Birmingham edition of Pevsner Architectural Guides to Birmingham; CAMRA’s Britain’s Best Real Heritage Pubs, Pub Interiors of Outstanding Historic Interest by Geoff Brandwood.  The Midlands Pubs website is also an excellent source of information on Birmingham’s pubs.

Katie Hall

Volunteer social

On Tuesday last week we hosted a great social for all our volunteers as a thank you for all their ongoing hard work and to celebrate our achievements so far. It was lovely to get the team together and chat about the project, including experiences of doing oral histories and vox pops, as well as times spent in Digbeth. Thanks everyone!!

We also had the chance to update everyone about what we’ve achieved so far, and talk about the exciting things still to come, particularly the exhibition that’ll mark the end of the project which we’ve now confirmed will be at the Custard Factory. It’ll be fantastic to share everything we’ve gathered about Digbeth over the past few months.

Watch this space…..

Katie Hall