Short Stories

A few weeks ago the Rep theatre asked me to talk about my work for their Foundry programme for emerging theatre practioners. Thinking of myself as a theatre practitioner doesn’t come naturally but a critical aspect of developing a guided walk calls for the journalistic ability to spot a story and then tell it convincingly.

I feel there are vast unexplored vistas when using the guided tour format; a lost plateau between the Blue Badge data-delivery polished standard and the its-behind-you high camp of the ghost tour. Uncharted knowledge, opportunities for new dramatic approaches, content and audiences. Ideal for the Foundry workers to get their teeth into.

I often draw attention to the fact that our urban surroundings are there entirely by design and as such, everything has a story behind it. The layers of adaptions, remakes and human detritus are further chapters or twists to the original premise. I accept that many of these stories are not fully developed narratives and in the context that I work in, they are more usefully thought of as clues. The usual city walking tour can feel like a highlights-of-everything experience: the entire history of the city and the top ten moments of civic, cultural or economic success. That usually means visiting the Town Hall, naming the various Lord Mayors and (in Birmingham) talking about how they’ve done the canals up now. This approach misses the sub-plots of ordinary people which I feel are often more accurate flavour of the city. Threading these together, with the occasional reference to mighty moments in history, is what I do. You can think of the urban backdrop as a stage and the evidence left by people as the story being acted out on it. The evidence can be very subtle.

The basic idea was to walk around Centenary Square and talk about what was there.

One direct way of witnessing the past is to look for plaques. The earliest of Birmingham’s blue plaques are actually rectangular and bronze (such as the one on Baskerville House) and they tend to merge unnoticed into the urban fabric. More recent ones are circular, bold and blue. Birmingham plaques are characterised by referencing something that used to stand here or even “near here.” This phrase alone tells a story: one of a city that is in flux. Birmingham is cognisant of its past but can appear unsentimental about it, as befits a city with the motto Forward. Sometimes an entire building, such as the Gothic fantasy that was Josiah Mason College will receive a memorial in the form of a plaque, which will end up propped up in a window of an unused alley. Elsewhere, utterly unobserved, a CCTV camera spike is dedicated to the memory of a former Labour MP who survived IRA attacks and the harsh summer of 1976. Two plaques independently remember the local radio soap the Archers. Our group takes several steps along Broad Street’s Walk of Stars, sensing the difference between plaques that merely commemorate a local name and those which celebrate a significance of that spot. Revealing the emotional moments of the immediate environment is what this tour is about. (I later confess to the group that I had to google many of the stars).

At the Municipal Bank we encounter more archaeological evidence. Firstly, the architect Thomas Cecil Howitt has signed his building at the lower right: not common for an architect to do this, but there was a fashion for doing it in the 1930s and ‘50s, perhaps influenced by artists’ signatures on their masterpieces. The foundation stone was laid by HRH Prince George in 1933. Now largely forgotten, this wayward ancestor to the current Prince George endorsed morphine and cocaine use and sired a son with local romantic heroine Barbara Cartland (according to Barbara Cartland). His death in an aircrash during WWII is echoed by a row of bomb blast shrapnel damage and patches to the Portland stone across the lower part of the building. Bivalve shells appear in the stone too, representing life from prehistoric times. 500 million years of history.

Into Fletchers Walk: an intriguing place with a faux-mediaeval name (arrow maker) demonstrating the post-war predilection for underground public spaces. Brutal overspill from the Central Library. Shopping here has quietened in recent years, though Zagora is still doing well, and a window display advertises the bottled craft beers available at Post Office Vaults. Both come recommended by Still Walking. On Sundays this useful shortcut to Broad Street is sealed off as it is not civic space. The mall has its own wild flower meadow: in the compact vitality of the city, people require both moments of liveliness and quiet. Weeds reduce aggression. A few years ago Fletchers Walk was rebranded, seemingly stealing English Heritage’s logo in the process. This design, we can see, has been borrowed from the original floor tile layout. At this point, I challenge the group with an apparently Sherlockian mystery: the shop unit behind me is empty and the sign has since been taken down. I ask: “I want you tell me the name of the man who originally put the sign up.” It seems impossible to answer: how could that moment leave any evidence? There is no trace of writing on the shop front. Then the group notices that the space above the window is not blank: the surface undulates in a specific rhythm. Someone sees the letter K emerge… “it’s Karl!” While piping out the adhesive, Karl created a short-lived tribute to himself. The subsequent removal of the sign revealed his name once more, albeit in reverse, and perhaps a testament to his faith in the longevity of his business.

Next door is a gun and body armour shop: gunsmithery is a long-standing tradition in the city but always a surprise for me to see such shops in reality. While I talk about this, I notice two new faces in the group. I’m interested in this moment: members of the public have every right to exist where they want to in public space, so following a guided tour (even if it had been a ticketed one) is well within their rights. One of them looked familiar too: it sometime takes me a while to recognise a face out of context but I later remembered a Flatpack volunteer who had ably facilitated my Invisible Cinema tour a year or two ago. Great to run into him again, and for him to want to be involved.

I then took the group through an unmarked door into the space that exists beneath the former Central Library. I explained I had no motive here other than to experience a lost part of the city centre with its own specific atmosphere. Stalactites formed in the concrete ceiling overhead and vernacular signs and warnings were stenciled onto the concrete walls. Doorways led to long extinct civic departments. I included some local history here: a large space which was build as a bus station but never used. The sheer height is the clue, and the dormant escalator shafts still remain, to take a theoretical public into the beating heart of the library.

We pause at a ventilation shaft to the Anchor Exchange and then we’re back in Centenary Square. The space outside the library is, by design, a wild flower meadow. I’m always on the lookout for seating in public squares in the city: seated people observe their environment and talk to each other. Public seating is a rarity in city centre Birmingham (keep shopping, is the general idea). It’s difficult to see from here but the new public space seems to have a deck chair… albeit made out of flowers.

At this point the tour is done but no-one wants to leave. There are many observations, questions and comments. The walk hasn’t been like any previous experience of studying the narrative form. I usually experience at least one or two people sloping off midway through with an apology but today we ended nearly two hours later with a larger group than we set out with. Without any prompting, people wanted to get involved in Still Walking and further their walking experiences. 20 mins later I head off, thrilled with what might emerge from all this.