When my mum was living at home with us, we made a list of things we would do when she had moved to live with my sister. It was the 6 months with us, 6 months with my sister arrangement. Mum was 91 and bed-ridden, so it was full time care – we snatched a few days away when my sister and her husband stepped in but on the whole we were confined to the house. We stuck the list on the fridge and added to it when we thought of things – Go for a Turkish Breakfast, visit Poland, to Outing to Walton-on-the-Naze… Another thing we added was Day-trip to the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham.
I lived in Birmingham from 1968-1971, moving as one did in those days from University halls of residence to flat-share to bed-sits and on to house-share, in different parts of the city. In those days Birmingham was still recovering from the war but was still full of Victorian slum dwellings which had survived. One weekend a Sunday newspaper colour supplement carried a long article about the appalling housing conditions that many people were living in, in Balsall Heath. I wanted to get involved with those who were trying to do something about it and for the last term of my first? second? year at the University I went once a week to the poorest areas of Balsall Heath. I’m not sure I did much more than visit people and play with their children. I remember standing with one of the full time workers when a mum came past, pushing a pram with a couple of kids inside, and told him proudly that he should be pleased because she’d taken his advice and they were having salad tonight. Not being a great lover of salad, that didn’t seem to me an uplifting suggestion.
In my final year I shared a house with four other women in the heart of Balsall Heath. Things were starting to improve – it was a vibrant area, with great restaurants and the nearby Cannon Hill Park Arts Centre, but we were all at one time or another propositioned by men looking for prostitutes, as we walked home, or stepped out to use the phone in the call box at the end of the street.
Roll forward a few decades and I read an article in the Guardian describing an exhibition called Varna Road running at the Ikon Gallery – photographs of Balsall Heath taken by Janet Mendelsohn, who was a student at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies from 1967-69. It sounded like part of my history. Onto the list it went, and a promise to myself that we would go.
In the event, a month before my mum was due to move to my sister’s, she died. And then tragically and shockingly, my brother-in-law died.
So it was only this week that we were able to properly study the yellowing piece of paper, curling at the edges, that was still stuck on the fridge. I found the Ikon gallery on the internet – and woe – the exhibition ends tomorrow. It’s just not possible to go. I sent for the postcards which arrived promptly. If you’re in the Birmingham area, go – it sounds wonderful.
And read this piece from the girl in the picture at the top, here. The story comes full circle.