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Birmingham: A Long Walk Down The Stratford Road
Just the barest of memories. There's a bridge under which we pass. The other side of that bridge signifies something familiar, like home. And then there's a turning onto a small road with a school at the end. Out on the main road, seemingly miles away, traffic rumbles by in a haze of fumes and danger. But this little side street is my realm. I'm safe here, left to my own devices.
The house is dark, the electric light is permanently switched on, which only tends to emphasise the gloom. The kitchen is under the stairs. I remember my Mom, out there in the kitchen, while I sit at the table. There's a bowl of cornflakes in front of me, which I'm stirring round with my spoon. I used to like them to go soggy. Or maybe it was that I preferred them crispy, and wouldn't eat them once they were soggy.
The road is called Main Street, and it's in Sparkbrook, Birmingham. It's where I spent the first years of my life. I looked it up in the A-Z. It's still there. I decided I should go and pay a visit.
I dropped the car in Sparkhill and took a walk down the Stratford Road. It was an overcast day, grey but mild. I felt like an explorer. I had a copy of Eric Newby's in my pocket. Well it was natural wasn't it? My journey became A Long Walk Down The Stratford Road. It seemed just as exotic, in a banal, Brummie sort of way. The area is predominantly Asian, but despite the A Short Walk In The Hindu KushBalti houses and the shops selling rolls of brightly coloured cloth sparkling with sequins, the scene is still essentially Birmingham. Indeed, what can be more Brummie than a Balti? But there's an air of decay about the area. Many shops are boarded up, and the flats above are universally in a state of disrepair. Broken windows, grimy with the traffic fumes, glare down at you from the gloomy heights.
"Sparkbrook". The name gives an image of a jolly little stream sparkling in the sunlight. Instead of which you have a view of grubby motorcycle workshops and shops selling car parts. The bridge is still there though, an arch of red brick tip-toeing across the road like some prissy giantess raising her skirts to step over a puddle. And there, on the left, is Main Street.
All the old houses are gone, replaced with 60s council housing with gardens. But the view from the top end of the street is the same. I was walking up and down trying to position myself from my memories. The further away from the Stratford Road I got, the more "right" it seemed. And then there was the school, still there, but a school no longer. These days it's a health centre. This is where I'd lived, right opposite the school.
"Sparkbrook". The name gives an image of a jolly little stream sparkling in the sunlight. Instead of which you have a view of grubby motorcycle workshops and shops selling car parts
Afterwards I rang my Mom up. "Tell me about Main Street," I said.
"Oooo, I don't remember. It was a long time ago."
"Was the house back-to-back?" I was remembering that dark view into the kitchen.
"That's right," she said. "There were shared toilets out the back. It was very old fashioned."
"And was the kitchen under the stairs?"
It was, she told me, surprised that I was remembering so much.
"So how old was I when we lived there?"
"From about 9 months till you were three. Then we went to Malta. When we got back you'd've been about four, I think. We stayed with our Mom for a while, and then we went back to live there for about six months before we moved to Yardley."
"We were right opposite the school weren't we?"
"That's right," she said. "You used to get dressed up in your work clothes and go and help the workmen while they were building it. It was your job. I don't know what you were doing. Helping them out in your own little way. I don't suppose they'd allow that now. It would be too dangerous. I can't have been a very good Mother. I just used to let you get on with it. And there was a shop about half way down the road. I would send you down there to get a few bits of things, you know. Fags, probably. That was what it was like in those days."
"I can remember going across the road to someone's house."
"That's right. May. I was working, you see. May used to look after you. She had a little girl you used to play with. And there was another little boy you used play with too, across the road."
I was remembering jam sandwiches for tea. That's what they ate in the house across the road: jam sandwiches for tea.
"I can remember going across to the school. I remember you in bed, saying 'five more minutes.'"
"That was what I always used to say, 'five more minutes'. I said it to your sisters too, and your brother."
"Tell me about cornflakes," I said. "How did I like my cornflakes?"
"I can't remember. Your brother used to like cornflakes. He was mad about them. Used to eat them instead of sweets."
"But did I like my cornflakes crispy or soggy?"
"I honestly have no idea."
"I have to know," I said. "It's important."
"Crispy, I think. Or it might have been soggy. What's the difference? I can't even remember you eating cornflakes."
"That's the kind of journalist I am," I told her. "I can't let go till I know all the answers."
Which is where I am now: still trying to settle the cornflakes question.