In 1977, I left Winson Green (where I was born) to attend university in Leeds. I returned for a year post degree when I found a civil service job in the city. From there I completed teacher training in Worcester, found a teaching post in the north-west and never really returned apart from occasionally visiting my parents. Some years ago, my late brother and I moved them to a pleasanter spot, closer to him. In Birmingham the other day, visiting my aged father in his nursing home, I decided to return. Like most of the population, I’d seen Benefits Street and expected the worst. Would Winson Green have changed out of all recognition from a poor but respectable working-class area to a drug pushing, gun running kind of neighbourhood? In the event, the place was incredibly quiet, dull, with a few children playing on the street, just as I once did.
Walking from the city centre to Winson Green was not as far as I remembered. I used to walk it a lot to save on bus fares. The main Lodge Road, known for its high walls surrounding the asylum/psychiatric hospital, seemed much shorter than it used to be. It is for it has been broken up into sections, and most of the wall has gone. The old hospital is no more but the prison has greatly expanded to absorb it. There is also a pleasant park in the hospital grounds, All Saints Park. The hospital closed in 2000 (care in the community?) but started in life during Victorian times as the local lunatic asylum for paupers. All Saints Hospital as it became known is now part of Winson Green (Birmingham) Prison which dominates the Green. How it dominates.
My aim was to visit three places: where I was born, where I was christened and where I was educated. Add in a fourth: where I played. Perrott Street is still there, as is number 56 (I was born at home in one of the bedrooms there) next to the gated entry where I used to race tortoises (a very slow game) and play cricket. In the front window is the WWF sticker my late mother stuck on the window having donated to them. Time flies but not here. The terracotta-coloured pebble dash meant I could see the house from the end of the street, even with my eyesight. As I walked along the street, I remember the families who lived in each house, and the local shop a few doors away, run by Maisie and Len.
My old school, Foundry Infants & Juniors is a place of which I have fond memories. Teachers who cared worked there, doing their utmost for the children who by anyone’s standards were socio-economically challenged. I learned my tables and developed my fascination for reading (I read the story of Gelert over and over as the school did not have many books) and Tudor history there, due to all the project work we did to maintain our interest and teach us about things we were unlikely to ever otherwise see. A student teacher read to us of a character called Bilbo Baggins. So exciting!
It is now Oasis Academy (such names) with goal posted playing areas. Ofsted tells us it is ‘good’. Back in the day, a handful of us passed the 11+ and I remember the benign but teacherly Mr Williams telling me I was bright, so would pass. His faith in me really helped me to succeed, as I went off to grammar school leaving my friends behind in the secondary modern.
My christening was at Bishop Latimer’s Church. My Aunt Iris bought me a silver christening cup but spelt my name wrong. I still must have it somewhere. Later my harrassed mother (4 people in a small house with a woman who liked her own company) tried sending me to Sunday School but I was not too popular due to my interest in the Marian Protestant Martyr rather than the Bible. I also checked out Brownies once or twice but the uniform life was not for me.
During my visit, I checked out Black Patch Park, once the home of Romany gypsies.
(who my grandmother warned me about, along with crossing the ‘horse road’) and alleged birthplace of Charlie Chaplin, but it was fenced off and badly overgrown like a building site. There was a Romany curse on the park against anyone ever building on it so I wonder what will happen. The road running alongside it I used to travel along to visit my friend in neighbouring Smethwick has also been closed, fenced off, and is overgrown. Houses are now demolished but street lights remain.
Interestingly, when revisiting one’s childhood, everything seems smaller. It seems poorer. It seems irrelevant in some ways, yet those sights, those streets, walking the path awakened so many memories that it has revitalised my interest in my childhood, my parents, and the area in which I lived.