Regular readers could be forgiven for thinking I have a melancholy mind. I keep a notebook which I fill with observations from my everyday life in and around my city of Birmingham. From time to time, I share snippets from my notebook here on my personal blog. This year, my observations have been bleak. My latest, a postcard from the end of the world, especially so. My hope is that after seeing these photos, you will see that I am not dressing things up, or rather down, but rather aiming for a truthful portrayal of Birmingham. I love my adopted home town, but it has seen better days.
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.
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.
Turning a conker in my hands I walk my usual loop of Edgbaston in twilight drizzle, passing by the regulars who walk the neighbourhood at the same time as me each evening. Dressed in trousers and coats rather than shorts and t-shirts, the seasons are changing but the ritual remains the same. Deep in the bellies of the Georgian mansions, lights illuminate front rooms and hallways, making the grand homes up long driveways and behind tall gates look ever so domestic and inviting.
Just before 4pm I arrive at the swimming pool to discover that the university has painted new markings beneath the cloisters and up the steps to the front door in advance of the new academic year. For more than 100m, row upon row of neat white circles enclosing tiny feet and the words “stand here” have been stamped on the ground to help organise the queueing system before the students return. Six months into the pandemic, there are still moments that stop me in my tracks and make me feel like I’m living in a parallel universe or that I’ve fallen into the pages of a science fiction novel, and this is one of them.
On my way home, I cut across a silent campus for the first time since March following the freshly painted one way system that’s been put down for freshers’ week and beyond. A group of school boys from the local private school over the road are stood outside the law faculty building bouncing freshly fallen conkers and acorns off the concrete, blazers and rucksacks in a pile beside them, but there’s nobody else around. Staff House sits empty, the Friday Beers tradition abandoned for the foreseeable future.
Stepping down onto the canal, I glue my eyes to the railings in search of late season blackberries, the low golden light flickering through the metal slats and hedgerows as I head home.