It has been a busy old couple of weeks with Cardiff and most recently Birmingham to explore on the back of a concert. I do not think I had ever been to Birmingham before other than to change trains at Birmingham New Street. I found it a pleasant experience. Not only was the cheap hotel we were staying in next to a canal – whose towpath proved a very pleasant way of walking, albeit briskly considering it was dark, too and from the gig, but also I had managed to completely forget about the cities connections with the Pre-Raphaelite movement and especially Edward Burne-Jones. In addition to the fine collection of work in city art gallery the stained glass Burne-Jones designed for the cathedral was, for me at least, breathtakingly beautiful. Do pop in to see it if you have the chance.
The other thing that I found to be a good use of time was a tour of the last remaining set of Back to Backs in the city. For those who do not know, and I confess that I didn’t, Back to Backs were one room wide houses built back to back so one faces out into the street while the other, separate dwelling faces onto a courtyard. Put bluntly they were thrown up as the cheapest possible housing and would have been pretty overcrowded, dirty and at least in the nineteenth century little more than hovels. Things improved as time went on, one of the themes of the National Trust’s presentation of the site, with improvements in availability of clean water first outside and then inside the homes and technology advances from candle to gas to electric lighting. But disease was always a problem and the sanitation always pretty basic even into the 1970s.
Listening to the stories of the people who lived and worked here was a sobering experience. These were talented, skilled people in many cases – the families who lived in these remaining houses were clockmakers, glass blowers and locksmiths – the last resident was a master tailor who made britches for the Queen’s Horse guards. Sometimes they made enough money to get out and – and this seemed a bit like a running joke akin to the phenomenon in Neighbours that everyone leaving Ramsey Street ends up in Brisbane – they moved to the posh district of Edgbaston. But in other cases they lived and died in these tiny little houses and got on with life as best they could.
The shop on the corner of this little time capsule of how people used to live is a sweet shop selling pretty much everything I can remember as a kid, bless them in ¼ pound bags. I have not asked for a quarter of Cola Cubes or Sweet Peanuts for a very long time. It is also very busy so I was not the only one it seems feeling nostalgic. Visiting a place like the Birmingham Back to Backs does remind you of how much nicer life can be these days compared to what it might have been back then, but there is a danger of forgetting that people were touch and proud of what they did have, even if it was not a lot. The lady who was our guide had grown up in a similar kind of property and to my mind seemed to be proud of that fact and not at all looking back with a shudder. These were communities that made the best of what they had; in a time when the highest level of ‘community’ in the street that I live in is perhaps a nod and smile of recognition, I do not think everything has improved.