The holiday lights are up on New Street, the atmosphere a strange mix of Christmas Eve and the end of the world. On the cusp of England’s second lockdown, the shops are heaving with people stocking up on essentials from businesses that don’t have an online presence, and the cafés and restaurants are packed with friends getting together one last time before everything shuts again for a month or more. At the Bullring end of New Street, trestle tables have been set up outside Zara and Waterstones, staffed by the devout offering religious literature to those who pass by. Two groups of young men face each other across the shopping square volleying the names of Jesus and Allah back and forth, performing their faith and devotion in public before the indifferent eyes and ears of the final audience of the season. Overhead, a huge digital advertising screen on the side of a shuttered shop flashes the faces, names, ages, and last known whereabouts of Birmingham’s missing people. I cast my eyes down, reach inside my coat pocket for my phone, and refresh the Guardian’s live blog coverage of the US election results. I don’t usually carry my phone with me when I go for a walk or head into town unless I am meeting someone, but I haven’t been able to detach myself from it all week.
What with the state of the world this year I have been seeking distractions, and one of my favourite distractions is botany and houseplants. This is a rhaphidophora tetrasperma leaf cutting I bought to propagate so that I can grow my own plant.
It took me ages to finish Stork Mountain, but only because I have lost my reading habit this year. The library closed for months on end and I have been glued to my phone reading the news, opinion pieces, and other periodicals that are available online. Reading books takes discipline, and my mind has been all over the place this year.
Stork Mountain is a beautiful novel, set in a village in Bulgaria close to the borders with both Greece and Turkey. It’s a novel about identity, belonging and place, and the narrative is rich with folklore – both real and imagined – tracing the history of the land and the author / protagonist’s relationship with his country of origin. I found the folklore quite dense at times and had to check maps and Wikipedia lots to understand the geography and politics of the region, so it wasn’t quite as immersive a read as I had hoped it might be, but that’s just my personal experience as I am unfamiliar with the region. I would love to read Penkov’s short story collection East of the West next.
In late August as the seasons were on the turn and the first leaves were starting to fall from the trees, the final heatwave of summer gave way to cooler days. Stepping out of the Co-op one evening, I unwrapped the white cotton scarf I had been using as a face covering from around my nose and mouth and walked down the steps from the square, passing by the big yellow salt bin that sits dormant by the roadside during the warmer months, waiting for winter. On its lid lay a soggy, misshapen pillow. Abandoned months before, it once belonged to a young man of about twenty who arrived on the streets in early January and took up a nightly residence in the square.
I remember him clearly, because the square lies just outside the city centre, and it’s not a common haunt amongst the homeless. From his age, appearance and demeanour I sensed that he was new to the streets, so I stopped to ask if he needed anything from the shop and if he knew of the places he might seek help, shelter, and hot meals in the local area.
This was before the pandemic, whilst the virus that has altered every facet of our lives was still largely confined to Wuhan in China. I haven’t seen him since April. When the UK shut down at the end of March to bring the national outbreak under control, funding was put in place to ensure that our sizeable homeless population could be put up in hostels and hotels. One day he was sat outside in the early spring sunshine, wrapped in his sleeping bag, dust mask around his neck whilst he rolled a cigarette, and the next day he was gone, leaving his pillow and his sleeping bag behind, draped across the salt bin.