Our research in the Balsall Heath area of Birmingham has enlisted local residents as participants in walking interviews. Geographical explorations prompt reflections on which places and spaces feature in the cultural lives of interviewees, unearthing layers of historical, contemporary, ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ activities.
Conducting this methodology over the course of a year, amongst other things, means paying attention to the rhythms of the day, of the working week, of the school calendar and of the seasons themselves – after all, few want to walk and talk when it is cold and wet. Then there are the fixtures of the yearly cycle such as religious festivals, holidays and the annual Balsall Heath Carnival, which took place on 5th July of this year.
Established in 1977, each carnival tracks a processional trail through the area before coming to rest in an extended event in Pickwick Park (see map). Thus, in this visit, it was possible to follow the crowd in order to observe and participate in an important cultural event in the community’s life.
The carnival is organised by St Paul’s Community Trust and this year, thanks to a suggestion from pupils at the nearby Clifton Primary School, its theme was ‘Balsall Heath Under the Sea’ reflected in pictures, costumes and activities.
The day was marked by glorious sunshine and a lively crowd although as noted at the Trust’s site: ‘The event was slightly smaller than last year with fewer stalls and attendance slightly down, due to the fact that Ramadan started a week ago.’ Mention of the careful observance of Ramadan suggests how the rhythms of community sometimes don’t always neatly coincide and might temper traditional associations of the carnivalesque (although the local streets are lively once the fast is broken after dusk). Certainly, the aromatic food, tearoom and popcorn stalls were hardly doing a roaring trade as many attendees were in the midst of observing their fast, yet ‘Never the less, the Carnival had a great atmosphere and the thousands of people who turned out had a great day.’
Pickwick Park is deep in the heart of the community, surrounded by the residencies of Balsall Heath, many of them the organised around those older and narrow terraced streets alongside a range of new builds yet to feel fully acculturated. As this was Saturday, the appearance and ambiance of the area was markedly different to the weekday: many were at home, on the street, heading carnival way at their leisure rather than rushing to school of focussed on daily business of business, of work (although many in the area were clearly still at work).
I should add too, that from the researcher’s perspective, seeking to participate as much as observe such activities puts one in a different position from having an appointment with a particular person, changing the power dynamic that is at work in such situations. In and around the carnival, I found myself browsing, buying and interacting as any other participant, announcing myself as a researcher when something, or someone prompted a further interrogative interest.
Central to the park space is an enclosed multipurpose sports pitch and a game of football was in full flow in front of a carnival stage while a bouncy castle did a roaring trade with young children. On stage, singers performed a variety of pop tunes one woman singing to her ukulele, another in soul styles with backing tapes. In around this central focus were the aforementioned food stalls and those that invited attendees to get involved in something creative. Much of this was aimed at engaging children in designing materials around the carnival theme (see images). These activities were managed by local institutions such as Balsall Heath Library and artists associated with the Ort Gallery and Print Works.
Arrayed along one slope of the park were a number of stalls selling clothing familiar from many of the Balsall Heath stores that import fashions from South Asia and indeed make their own styles. There was a stall for a councillor available for consultation on local issues that seemed pretty busy (I waited for a word but of course the needs of others queuing up were more pressing than my research). There was a stall for connecting together Algerians living in Birmingham, for charity’s collecting aid for refugees in Syria and other sites of conflict. Here was reflection of the plurality of the community and indeed the global connectedness of this resolutely local event.
The standard yellow high visibility jackets of the event stewards testify to the underlying organisation necessary and bely the essentially organic qualities of such occasions and the sheer good will required to make such things work on behalf of all involved. That this happens at all is a testimony to the enduring mission and commitment of those involved in the St Paul’s Community Trust: As related in its online history,
‘St. Paul’s Community Development Trust had its origins in the desire of people in Balsall Heath to make a better future for their children, getting together to start a nursery, adventure playground and small school. The three groups joined forces to establish the Trust in the late 1970s, and from these small beginnings in voluntary endeavour it has grown to be a thriving organisation.’
Particular ideas of culture and community are palpable in such instances, manifesting the banal and the profound, reminding one of Raymond Williams’ observation that ‘culture is ordinary’ and an everyday, quotidian thing. The qualities of community appear to be performed in such a moment of coming together. It is there in the woman singing to her backing tracks, the face painting, new conversations and general exchanges between those who realise they belong to this community of people who are rarely gathered together in its name on any one occasion.
I eventually moved on with much to ponder about the meaning of such occasions. One useful item that I came away with from one stall operated by members of a local charity was a free copy of the novel ‘I know what you did last Jum’ah: Confessions of an Englandee’ by Qaiser M. Talib (Emerald publishers). This fascinating fiction is set in ‘Balsall Spark’ (Sparkbrook is the neighbouring area to Balsall Heath) and is told from the perspective of the teenage Suhaib Haider, conveying his life in the area and relationship with his Muslim identity as a native ‘Englandee’. As one write-up has it:
He has loving parents, attends a wonderful school and enjoys his life enormously. He has no complaints against his Lord…but one Jum’ah, he has a major complaint against himself. His usually cheery mood changes as he faces the greatest challenge of his young life so far. As he tries to establish prayer in his life, he becomes embroiled in a battle for the spiritual future of his school: a power struggle between a Muslim, a Christian and a staunch atheist. As Shaythaan continues his spiritual war against the people, will Suhaib manage to correct his own faults? Will he manage to come out on top in this power struggle? Will his uncle, Chacha Conspiracy – member of the notorious political group Al-Death to Al-Kafiroon – dissuade Suhaib from participating? And will the forces of godlessness bring Suhaib’s dreams crashing to the ground?
Fiction clearly, but such imaginative portraits are important artefacts – alongside photographs, poetry, online rap, physical space and so on- for understanding the variety of cultural activities in Balsall Heath. The book also offers an engaging portrait of its milieu – fictional yet clearly recognisable and dramatised around actual locations.
Heading home after the carnival visit (it looked as if it would last a while yet), I took a turn down the deserted Clifton Road. Just by the Clifton Mosque I came upon a signal sign of a different perspective on community.
A Police Notice (captured on my camera phone below) served to remind of the potentially troubling qualities of when people come together. On 2nd July a man was shot on a street in Sparkbrook, at the border with Balsall Heath with two others injured. Media reports suggested that this incident was the result of a clash between gangs who formed part of a 300 strong crowd that had gathered on the Stratford Road.
The full details of the incident are yet to be established and I’ve yet to investigate the background to this order and what it has to say about Balsall Heath. However, its does pose questions about perspectives on the nature of crowds and public life in communities, anticipating that – unlike the Pickwick Park assembly – gatherings are likely to be negative phenomenon. As I suggested at the outset in paying attention to research and the rhythms of the seasons, the particular publicness of community life, of the possibility of such gatherings is at its height at this time of year.