Second city snippets part 2

I sat in a cafe looking out at Victoria Square and the Council House with its stone walls and columns and domed roof. The fountain in front of the Council House, officially named ‘The River’ but known locally as the ‘Floozie in the Jacuzzi’, was designed by Indian sculptor Dhruva Mistry. It was coated in snow that day. Water cascaded down the steps from the upper pool into the pool below. Pigeons flew overhead as people took photos of each other. The fountain was turned off in 2013 due to costly leaks and was filled with plants in 2015. It is due to be restored however as part of a £25 million regeneration of the city centre.

Pigeon Park is the name locals give to the grounds of Birmingham Cathedral. It’s a favourite place for people to eat lunch and sunbathe. I walked into the park and took a seat on a bench opposite the cathedral. The sound of ringing bells filled the air and echoed off the surrounding buildings. Male pigeons were trying to attract the females – fanning out their tail feathers, bobbing their heads up and down, twisting round – but the females didn’t seem interested. A man walked by with a big afro hairstyle and a boy rode in circles on his push scooter.

Pigeon Park and Birmingham Cathedral (Image source: birminghammail.co.uk)

On Kings Heath high street a man dressed as Elvis pushed a buggy with a sound system in it playing Elvis songs. Another man high-fived Elvis as he walked past and a woman who was working in Wilko over the road called over to him, giving him a wave. The Elvis man is a local celebrity in Kings Heath. He is commonly known as Monkey Man as he used to push a soft toy monkey around in the buggy.

My friends and I visited the Jekyll and Hyde bar and gin parlour on Steelhouse Lane. It has a ‘Secret Garden’ where murals of Alice in Wonderland characters decorate the walls. We sat at a bench out front where a reunion was happening for a woman’s 40th birthday. Some men on a bench behind me were talking about the police station just up the road. One of them was saying how he was in the cells there once, waiting to be called up to the magistrates. There were a few other men in there with him, he said, one of whom was his cousin. He was talking about this loudly as though he wanted everyone to hear.

The ‘Secret Garden’ inside the Jekyll and Hyde bar (Image source: birminghammail.co.uk)

We got up and left soon afterwards and headed towards Colmore Row. People stood at bus stops and gulls sat on the grass in Pigeon Park. We turned down Newhall Street and walked past Purnell’s restaurant, which is owned and run by Michelin-starred chef Glynn Purnell. After crossing Great Charles Street we turned right on to Lionel Street, walking its length past the B.T. Tower and under the railway bridge by Snow Hill station. Here there are arches which are occupied by a nightclub and a restaurant as well as other businesses. Joining Great Hampton Street, we walked up the hill, passing a Lebanese and Syrian restaurant before reaching the Lord Clifden pub.

The bar in the Lord Clifden was busy. Artwork featuring the Sex Pistols, Blondie and the Stone Roses adorned the walls. The fridges behind the bar were filled with colourful cans of Tiny Rebel IPA. We walked down a corridor and into a large beer garden. A big screen was showing a women’s rugby match between France and New Zealand. People were dancing to soul records being played by a DJ. A blonde woman who looked like a young Debbie Harry in a yellow and green dress stood nearby. Another woman, from Stourbridge, spoke to us. She told us the Black Country slang for neck was ‘clack’ as she encouraged my friends to down their drinks in 10 seconds. We stayed here for an hour before leaving. I said goodnight to my friends (I had to be in work the following morning) and walked down to the bus stop where I caught the number 74 to the city centre and got the last train home from Snow Hill station.

It was a rainy and relatively cold evening in July. I got the train to Moor Street station with a friend. We were going to the Sunflower Lounge, a popular live music venue, to see some bands. Leaving Moor Street, we crossed the road and went into the Bullring shopping centre, walking from one end to the other to come out opposite New Street Station. We headed over the road towards the Sunflower Lounge. On the way a man in a grey tracksuit walked up behind us and hassled us for money while at the same time insisting he wasn’t a beggar. He had an aggressive manner and followed us into a convenience store before striding off down the road.

After leaving the store we went in the Sunflower Lounge which was already busy. People were standing outside in the smoking area and others were sitting at tables inside. About twenty minutes had passed before a crowd of us went downstairs to the basement where the bands perform. ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ by the Stone Roses was playing from the speakers. More and more people gathered in the room. The first band came on stage. They were called Hyde but that night they announced they were changing their name to Roma Cove. They were a good band comprising two guitarists, a bass player and a drummer. The second band on was The Verse, another four-piece. A lot of people in the crowd seemed to be there specifically for them and were singing along to their songs. The band had a lot of energy and got the crowd jumping.

The Sunflower Lounge (Image source: birminghammail.co.uk)

A lot of the crowd had gone back upstairs by the time the third band, a Glaswegian outfit called Voodoos, came on. The bass player told those of us who remained to come closer to the stage and the singer told us to “turn the energy up a wee bit”. My friend and I weren’t into them though so we went back upstairs and out to the smoking area.

I sat in a cafe in Waterstones. Below, on the junction of High Street and New Street, a group of lads were taking turns to do some street dancing. Music played from a large speaker. A crowd began to form in a semi-circle around the lads, who put caps upside down for people to toss money into. Their dance moves became ever more skilful and impressive.

It was raining in the city centre. A discarded umbrella, turned inside-out, lay on the ground. High-rise office blocks loomed over us as we crossed a wind-swept plaza. Large puddles formed at the side of the road. Colourful street art adorned the walls of buildings. Starlings ran about on the pavement, looking for food.

A jazz quintet played in the lobby of the ICC (International Convention Centre). Outside it was dark. The headlights of the cars and buses reflected in the rain-soaked street.

Second city snippets

In Birmingham’s Chinatown there are buildings with curved Oriental roofs painted green, with red and yellow walls. Two statues of lions stand guard outside the Chung Ying Chinese Restaurant. Across the road is the Arcadian complex, which houses Caffe Chino, a colourful and quirky Chinese cafe and cake shop. As well as cakes, it sells buns and a range of drinks including milkshakes and bubble tea. I went there with a friend. We were served by a helpful waitress who told us what the different cakes on display were. My friend had a slice of tiramisu cake. I had a chocolate-flavoured bubble tea.

Caffe Chino, The Arcadian (Image source: TripAdvisor)

On a rainy Sunday afternoon I went to the Six Eight Kafe in the city centre. Here, in the basement, I watched a live performance by a singer-songwriter called Martin Crocker. The room was large and open-plan, decorated with modern art and furnished with armchairs, sofas and tables. There were instruments at one end: a drum kit and a guitar. I spoke to Martin. He had travelled up from Bristol and was heading down to Brighton that night. Gradually more people arrived until every seat was taken. Martin performed his set. He had a great voice and played the guitar well. The audience applauded enthusiastically. The Six Eight Kafe was a good alternative venue for live gigs in the city. Unfortunately, due to the redevelopment of surrounding offices, it closed in 2017.

Six Eight Kafe, Temple Row (Image source: Business Live)

The Ort Cafe, in Balsall Heath, is in a building that used to house a print works. I went there one night to watch an evening of spoken word acts. Entering through a sliding door, the room was already busy. In one corner was a kitchen area serving hot and cold drinks, both soft and alcoholic. In the opposite corner was a performance space lit by lamps that changed colour, creating an ambient feel. Performing that night were comedians and poets.

The Ort Cafe, Balsall Heath (Image source: Birmingham Review)

It was a cold night. I made my way to Prisma nightclub where my friend was DJing. The market stalls were empty. I was going to use the cash machine outside the Spar shop on Upper Dean Street but two noisy lads who had been on the same bus as me were walking towards it. A security guard stood behind a barricade as a car sped up the street. I used a cash machine in the Arcadian complex instead. Music was blasting out of one of the bars. Two men were smoking outside. I walked up Thorpe Street which was dark except for the light coming from the stage entrance of the Hippodrome. At the junction of Thorpe Street and Horsefair I turned left and carried on to the club.

The doors of Prisma were closed when I got there. I waited outside for five minutes before a man opened the door. “Hi, is it open now?” I said.
“In a few minutes.”
“Oh, ok. It’s alright, I know the DJ.” I said. The man spoke to someone inside.
“When do we open?” He said. “Now?” He looked back at me. “Yes, you can go in now.”
Duran Duran’s ‘New Moon on Monday’ was playing when I stepped inside. I walked through to the lounge area where my friend was and joined him on the DJ platform. The multi coloured lights on the ceiling appeared to have a life of their own, changing direction constantly. The barman cleaned the counter as a woman mopped the floor. One of the club owners walked in and out. A doorman poked his head in occasionally from outside.

I stayed there a few hours before leaving to get the bus home. When I stepped out of the club I noticed people were queuing outside the entrance to the club to get into the upstairs room. A doorman, who I had chatted with on a previous visit to Prisma, was checking their tickets as they went inside.

He had told me about the Birmingham club scene in the 1980s and ’90s. There seemed to be a lot more clubs around then. He described to me some of the soul and jazz venues. One of these was a wine bar near the police headquarters at Lloyd House. Another was a place near Priory Square where you could buy clothes as well as have a drink in an upstairs bar. He spoke fondly of nightclubs that no longer exist like Millionaire, Pagoda Park and the Powerhouse. The doorman said how the ’80s and ’90s was “his era” and that the music from this time is his favourite as it reminds him of when he first started going clubbing and drinking in Birmingham. Prisma nightclub has since joined the list of Birmingham nightclubs that are no more – it was shut down after a violent incident occurred there. The building has since been demolished.

The former Prisma nightclub, Bristol St. (Image source: Birmingham Live)

On a hot, sunny Saturday a Brazilian street party was being held at a club called PST (People Stand Together), a brightly coloured building in an industrial side street of Digbeth. It has three floors which include a dance area, stage, garden area and cafe. Outside the club stood a tattooed man wearing a vest. “There’ll be free beer and weed after the show if you’re lucky”, he said as we queued to get into the event. Reggae and Brazilian music played from a huge speaker by the club’s entrance. A woman wearing a blue dress gave Forro dance lessons. Inside the club there was a lit corridor with colourful murals of people on its walls. I turned a corner and headed up a staircase. At the top was another corridor which led to a rooftop terrace on which were tables and chairs, a bar, and a kitchen serving curries and patties.

PST club, Lombard Street, Digbeth (Image source: Grapevine Birmingham)

The small bar served Red Stripe beer and Thatchers cider among other drinks. The terrace had a homemade, DIY feel to it: the floor was made from wooden boards and the roof from clear plastic sheeting. The building reminded me of the interior of a Laser Quest venue with its multiple floors and corridors.

I went out one night to the Jam House, a live music venue in St. Paul’s Square near the Jewellery Quarter. In the early hours I made my way to the bus stop on foot, passing restaurants that had closed for the night. Rough sleepers lay in shop doorways. Workmen in orange overalls and hard hats were busy working on the Grand Central and New Street Station development. Doormen stood outside nightclubs. A woman with a Mohican hairstyle chatted to a man outside the Institute club in Digbeth. Some buses were still running but not mine. I had to get a taxi home.

Concrete fish sculpture

On Fox Hollies Road there are three tower blocks, each one 12 storeys tall. A stretch of parkland called Curtis Gardens lies between the blocks and the road, with trees and a playground. A gate with two pillars marks the entrance to what was the site of a Victorian manor house called Fox Hollies Hall. The hall was demolished in the 1930s. Near to the gate is a concrete play sculpture of what I used to think was a bird’s head, but is actually a fish. It was made by the sculptor John Bridgeman, whose play sculptures for children were common on Birmingham’s council estates that were built in the sixties as part of the city’s post-war regeneration. Sadly it is the only one to have survived. Play sculptures were a popular innovation from the mid-twentieth century through to the late seventies. Urban planner Gabriela Burkhalter describes them as “art that could be touched, climbed on and crawled through.”

Concrete fish play sculpture, Curtis Gardens, Acocks Green (Image source: The Guardian)