Saturday, 12 March 2011

For Realism

Who'd have thought of going to Birmingham for a day out? Well, during the February half-term I took a break from launching my glittering freelance career to do just that. We started off at the city's marvellous Art Gallery - one of the UK's great provincial collections - and its special exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite drawings.

We then went our separate ways, my wife and kids to The Bullring and yours truly down to the Jewellery Quarter to explore.

According to a trail-guide leaflet I'd picked up at the Art Gallery, Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter offers the visitor a 'unique urban landscape.' Well, it's certainly striking. I was taken with it, in fact. If you've never been it's worth a stroll around, a quirky blend of workshops and bling-merchants, Victorian cemeteries, a striking cast-iron urinal (sadly no longer in use) and the city's last remaining Georgian square. It still has a lived-in, work-a-day feel too, although you can see signs of gentrification around the edges.

My grandfather grew up near there, in a two-up/two-down Brummie back-to-back with an outside loo, no running water and 11 brothers and sisters. I'm half Brummie you see, my grandparents moved down to South Wales during the War. I looked up the length of Hockley Street towards Farm Street where he grew up, wearing a sister's cast-offs until he started school when he and his next sister received a set of 'parish' clothes which marked them out for scorn from the other kids.

Realism or Romanticism?
My granddad's old man was rather fond of the drink and would send him into the house to fetch his tea at the end of a shift (they worked in the same factory) then disappeared into the pub for the rest of the evening. I remember meeting my great-grandfather once. He was in his late 80s and  living in a high-rise as the Council had cleared the old slums. My granddad was completely teetotal on account of his dad. He wouldn't even touch trifle if it had sherry in it and once threatened to walk out when a surprise family celebration happened to be held in a pub.

It was his sisters that made the biggest impression, though. Real characters. All fiesty and five-foot nothing. There was Dot and Else, Lil and Minnie and aunt Nell who had been diagnosed as having the worst case of cerebral palsy in the Midlands. She was great. Her face would light up when we walked in and she'd call Aunt Else to fetch her purse so she could give us a tanner each. The Book of Common Prayer she gave us when we emigrated to Australia as £10 Poms in 1964 is one of my most treasured possessions. Long before my time, her mother used to wheel her right across Birmingham to the hospital where they'd twist and bend and manipulate her limbs. She was almost cork-screw shaped towards the end, her head facing back over her shoulders. The vicar who conducted her funeral said he'd learned more about faith and endurance from her than anything he'd been taught at seminary. They were the salt of the earth, all the Tonks girls.

Anyway ... a week or two later, on Radio 4's Poetry Please, I heard Roy Fisher's 'For Realism' which deals with that part of Birmingham and the slum clearances - it talks about 'the corner of Farm and Wheeler Streets', Lucas's lamp factory, 'a man in a blue suit/facing into a corner/straddling to keep his shoes dry.'

There's realism for you. That and my Granddad's mum wheeling Nellie right across town week in, week out.

'A conscience
builds, late, on the ridge. A realism
tries to record, before they've gone,
what silver filth their drains have run.'

Roy Fisher

No comments:

Post a Comment