And so we come again to the last month of the year. I’m not the biggest fan of November or December, but beautiful moments can still be found in amongst the dying of the light, mass consumerism and prescriptive bonhomie that the season brings.
In the late summer of 2018 construction work began on two high rise tower blocks north and west of our flat. As seasons passed I watched as planning permission was granted, the old buildings on the two sites were demolished, foundations were filled and the steel skeletons of the two towers climbed ever higher. By the spring equinox I was worried that the tower to the west of us was going to block golden hour.
A Sunday afternoon visit to Winterbourne. We’re lucky as there are two botanical gardens in Birmingham, and both are walking distance from home. Each of the gardens has a different character, and Winterbourne is the quieter of the two. I love visiting Winterbourne year round, but especially in late autumn and winter as the glasshouses are a peaceful, bright and warm place to sit and watch the world go by. All that’s missing is a resident cat. A couple of summers ago the caretaker at the private school next door to Winterbourne had a cat, and they would frequent the terraces on busy days, but I haven’t seen them in a long time.
A woman in her sixties angles her phone camera up at the brick wall of the sports centre as students dressed in an array of pastel hued, skintight sportswear come and go around her. At first I can’t see what’s caught her eye, but then I follow her gaze and spot the patch of dappled sunlight illuminating the brickwork two floors up, and smile. I’m not the only dreamer out today.
Outside the Guild, a group of students gather around a trestle table collecting signatures to petition the Vice Chancellor to declare a climate emergency. All earnest nods and youthful self-belief, they manage to draw a small crowd. In stone washed denim and an oversized Jurassic Park themed Christmas jumper, a floppy haired teenager passes by on his way back to halls from afternoon lectures, phone in hand, eyes glued to the screen.
On the corner of Carpenter and Church as the sun begins to set, a white van eases out into the nose to tail traffic of the school run. In the passenger seat a young boy of eleven or twelve reaches his fingers into a packet of fries, the red of the cardboard matching the shade of his school blazer.
With rain hammering on the corrugated roof covering the vegetable market, two little girls run between stalls, coat pockets stuffed with handfuls of fun snaps. The fruit trader on the end by the bus stop jumps as the girls detonate a snap by his neat greengrocer’s display of apples, oranges and nectarines. Between half-stifled giggles, the girls insist “it wasn’t us” before scurrying away to play the same trick on another trader at the other end of the market.
Framed by plastic sheeting torn away from the unglazed windows on the ninth floor of a block of flats, a lone construction worker watches Saturday morning unfold at the market on Upper Dean Street.
The canal towpath is lined with rusty hunks of metal, abandoned after someone’s uninspiring game of canal lucky dip. I’ve seen him a few times recently, swinging his blue rope out into the murky water, sometimes on his own, other times accompanied by friends with cans of beer on the go who help him haul his treasures to dry land. A broken, twisted bicycle frame, minus the wheels, road signs, and other sharp pieces of metal line the banks of the canal, presenting an obstacle course and puncture threat to my bike as I cycle to the pool.
Fireworks night on the evening parliament is dissolved. The Jack Russell brothers downstairs can’t stop barking as the city skies are transformed by an enthusiastic display of light and sound put on by every amateur pyromaniac within a 5km radius. Launched from rooftops, alleyways and the canal towpath, the rockets are so close they make the building shake and windows rattle.
After dark as the working day winds down, a homeless man sits on the pavement outside the station with his sketchbook open to a detailed drawing of BMAG in Victoria Square. On New Street a team of construction workers, balanced on rooftops, assemble the wooden huts of the Frankfurt German Market. Opening earlier each of the fifteen years I have lived in Birmingham, this year’s start date is so early the trees above the huts are still in full leaf and decked with poppies for Remembrance Day.
In Tesco, a young woman of no more than twenty stands in the doorway rolling a cigarette from a newly purchased packet of tobacco, the envelope hanging open to display its unheeded warning: ‘Smoking kills. Quit now’. Office workers form a long queue which snakes through the shop. Hunched over phones, they tap, swipe and slowly shuffle baskets forward as a single organism, lost in their own individual worlds.