It had been many years since I had been to Ladywood. This inner city borough of Birmingham had long been a mythic landscape for me even before I became aware of any sort of Tolkein connection. It was here that my mother grew up in a terraced house on Rann Street with her mother, father and aunt. The street has long since vanished from the map, bulldozed to clear the way for high-rise development in the 1960s – housing that grew old and unfit for purpose before its allotted time, and which later was partly demolished once more to make way for housing better suited to the needs of city dwellers. The city, always a palimpsest, sometimes requires deep archaeology to show its traces. Rann Street is now a place that exists only on old maps and photographs and in the memory of former residents like my mother.
I have vague memories of visiting my Aunt Anne there back in the day – I recall a house redolent of cats, a dozen at least, although my mother insists there were only ever a maximum of four. Does memory always tend towards the hyperbolic? Aunt Anne was eventually re-housed in a modern council flat in King’s Heath at the city’s southern periphery, while Grandad Frank went with his second wife Mabel to live in another terrace house nearby at Leslie Road close to the Edgbaston Reservoir. This I regularly visited with my parents on Sunday afternoons, a reluctant teenager dragged away from Pink Floyd records and surly introspection in a green belt bedroom.
Ladywood had declined in the post-war years and I strongly recall a miasma of urban blight overlaying all of the inner city area: newspapers blowing through the streets like tumbleweed, wan-faced children sitting on steps waiting for parents to come home, soot-stained brickwork, moody wet streets that sparkled with Bill Brandt monochrome highlights. Many of the terrace houses had been recently bought up by newly arrived commonwealth immigrants, Pakistanis mostly, that my grandparents’ generation usually referred to as “blackies” – a generic pejorative that was bandied irrespective of faith, country of origin or even skin colour. These latest incomers, culturally at odds with the long-established white working class community, provided grist to the mill for the anti-immigrant tirades of Enoch ‘Rivers of Blood’ Powell, who was MP for Wolverhampton on the fringe of the Black Country just up the road. If sex, according to Larkin, was invented in the 1960s, then so was casual racism it would seem.
Inside the Leslie Road terrace, the front room, as in all decent working class households, was only ever used for special occasions such as family funeral gatherings and the like. The back room, which faced onto a yard and a galley kitchen, was stuffed with furniture: a bulky three-piece suite with cushions and antimacassars, a sideboard, stiff-backed chairs and a scuffed leather pouffe that never saw service. Grandad, as I remember him, was a short rotund man with thinning hair Brylcreemed into a barcode across his pate. The trousers he wore were not so much high-waisted as halfway up to the armpits as if they came with some sort of integral cummerbund, and defied gravity by means of braces, belt and beer-habit. Like all of his generation, there was no such thing as casual dress. Mabel, his second wife and my step-grandmother, was only ever referred to by her first name. A ‘big-boned’ woman, Mabel, who resembled a spinster straight out of a 1940s photo-nostalgia book, seemed to be all angles. With sharp corners rather than curves, she was an early Picasso demoiselle in pinny and National Health specs. Mabel did not say much, but then neither did my grandfather. The only thing that really seemed to animate him was ‘The Club’ where my grandfather went most nights to drink pints of Mitchells & Butlers beer. The establishment was a local Social Club run by his former employer Lucas, the Birmingham electrical component company. Another of his interests, as I recall, was to regularly write letters of complaint to the Birmingham Post regarding the failure of ‘the corporation’ (Birmingham City Council) in regards to its pavement maintenance.
Our relationship as grandchildren was cordial, a little distant perhaps – a throwback to the stern attitudes of the Victorian era whose final days cusped my grandparents’ birth. My grandfather would give my sister and me two half-crown coins each birthday and Christmas, and always referred to us as ‘the nippers’, which started to irritate me by the time I became a know-it-all teenager as I recall. Grandad Frank meant well but it tended to be his sister, Aunt Anne, who provided most of the fun and warmth, improvising songs and stories for the two of us, spinning colourful, if sometimes dubious, yarns about her own girlhood – a direct link to the gaiety of Edwardian music hall and the carefree pre-war years that led up to 1914. To our young minds it seemed as if Aunt Anne was both ancient and ageless, as if she had always been here, as if they had built Birmingham around her and the machine she operated during her long working life in a city button factory.
Grandad’s working at the Lucas plant has hatched a small fantasy in my mind: a coincidence of time and place that allows an imagined encounter that almost certainly never happened. The end of my grandfather’s career at Lucas must have coincided with the youthful employment of one of Birmingham’s most famous sons, John ‘Ozzy’ Osbourne. Pre-Sabbath, Ozzy is recorded as having worked at Lucas for a time testing car horns, a job that must have helped prepare his ears for future battering by thunderous heavy metal sound systems. Most probably he worked in a different factory (there were several around the city), and more than likely would have been on a different shop floor anyway, but I like to imagine the embryonic prince of darkness creeping up behind my phlegmatic, soon-to-retire grandfather and blasting him mischievously with a car horn. What would he have said? “Oy, you little perisher.” Or something more profane, the sort of industrial language that, as children, we would never hear uttered from his lips? Alas, Grandad’s and Ozzy’s respective Venn diagrams probably never overlapped in any way other than a brief spatial and temporal connection, but this fancy remains my only grip on any sort of Who Do You Think You Are? connection with rock royalty. Ozzy’s subsequent legacy as godfather of heavy metal is inadvertently celebrated in the city centre less than a mile away. Standing close to the neoclassical Town Hall, rising at an angle from the concrete of Victoria Square, is Antony Gormley’s Iron:Man, a 20-foot-high humanoid figure that, while officially symbolising the West Midlands’ traditional manufacturing skills, also references a well-known Black Sabbath song of the same name (give or take a colon).
Rann Street had long gone, redacted from the city map, but Leslie Road still stood much as I remembered it. I had made my way there from the gentrified canal trappings of Gas Street Basin, striking west away from the Birmingham Canal Old Line with the help of a local map. A sign on the traffic-choked Ladywood Middleway had announced the periphery of the borough of Ladywood and I soon found my way to Reservoir Road where the Victorian waterworks stood, its elegant, almost Italianate brick tower supposedly the inspiration for JRR Tolkein’s Twin Towers of Gondor (the other tower was thought to be Perrott’s Folly on nearby Waterworks Road).
Reservoir Road, as its name promised, took me down to the water, and just before I reached the reservoir I found Leslie Road leading off to the left. The house looked to be in decent fettle, freshly painted, with a ‘To Let’ sign on the wall. I allowed myself a brief reverie of memory before retracing my steps back to Reservoir Road and on to the reservoir itself. Just beyond the gate stood the low-rise edifice of the Tower Ballroom, a venerable institution that had hosted dances for rhythm-happy Brummies intermittently since the 1920s. It had started life in the 1870s as a roller skating rink before going on to become a prestigious dance venue. Closed in 2005 in preparation for bulldozing to make way for housing, the Tower received a last minute reprieve and, revamped by a local businessman, opened once more for business in 2008. Just one year later it was taken over yet again to be repurposed as a glitzy Asian wedding venue with a concession for afternoon tea dances and nostalgic 1940s ‘Back in Time’ events.
I made my way around the eastern bank wall of the reservoir. The view to the left across the shimmering water seemed almost rural, a church steeple rising above the trees on the western bank. To the right, peeking, indeed glowing, through the trees was a sight my grandparents would never have imagined witnessing: an oriental temple, the gilded stupa of Birmingham’s Buddhist Vihara. This glimpse of the celestial soon gave way to something altogether more prosaic: the semi-wasteland of half-demolished factories and yards that occupied the area around Icknield Port Road and a varicose kink of the Birmingham Canal Old Line. Beyond, in the distance, towered grey stacks of krushchyovka high-rises and the beacon of the BT Tower.
I left the reservoir’s pastoral embrace to emerge at Icknield Port Road, where Pakistani and Somali parents were picking up their kids from primary school. Passing Summerfield Park I continued north to reach the major thoroughfare of the Dudley Road. My father had been born somewhere along here, above a tripe shop so he had always said. His early life was spent separated from my mother by nothing more than a few streets, a reservoir and a four-year age difference (they finally met after the war at a dance on the other side of Birmingham). The tripe shop went long ago, and Dudley Road, once Birmingham’s Golden Mile, with the densest concentration of ale houses in the city, had since become a parade of curry houses and Asian greengrocers, boiled offal giving way to more modern, international tastes – biryani and brinjal bhaji.
Crossing Dudley Road onto Winson Green Road I took the steps at a bridge at Heath Street to descend to the canal path once more. I would follow this as the Birmingham Canal meandered northwest out of the city. To Smethwick and beyond; into the Black Country, an energy-drained landscape that had yet to learn the knack of being post-industrial, a soot-blasted territory that must have made a deep impression on the young Tolkein sufficient to sow the seeds for later fiction. Mordor?