Author Archives: Catherine

Summer of Love

Some notes on Latitude 2008.

Standing outside the back of the Uncut tent. It’s too crowded to go inside. On stage are ‘Black Kids’. I stand behind the opening for the sound desk – lots of other people stand around me. None of us can see very well. It’s almost completely pointless standing there – we are experiencing the group live in the smallest possible way. In front of me is a black, rubber covered ramp leading up to the sound desk. Behind the desk are various people – technicians I guess and other people connected with the band. Lying on the dirty ramp is a baby – maybe 18 months old – I don’t know, not old enough to walk. She is sprawled on the ramp, shuffling slowly on her belly up and down. She’s filthy. She looks very vulnerable amongst all the feet crowding around. Occasionally a stringy woman with dreadlocks comes out and checks that she’s still there and, I guess, that she hasn’t been trampled on. I have bad thoughts about this woman. I can’t concentrate on the band, I find myself getting more distracted by the baby and the woman. The woman may well have nothing to do with the baby. I don’t know. I’m not really getting much from the gig, I walk away.

On another occasion I’m watching another band, I can’t remember who, inside the tent – but still at the back. There is a tall man nearby who appears to be drunk. He shouted something when the band first came on and lurched forwards. Now he addresses comments directly into the ear of whoever happens to be near him. Some move away, some smile and nod. One woman enters into conversation with him, perhaps not realising how drunk he is. The music is loud and so he has to shout right into her ear. I can see bits of spit flying from his mouth and landing on her ear. She instinctively leans her head to one side, away from his mouth and he moves with her, keeping the distance between his lips and her ear at just a couple of centimetres. She is stuck now with her head at a painful angle and this man shouting into her ear. I don’t notice what the band are doing. I can’t watch anything but this man. I leave the tent.


Waiting for my man

I seem to have lost the ability to cross the road. Historically I was one of the great road crossers: adventurous, brave and with split-second timing I would run out in front of oncoming traffic, always just making the far curb. The horns might blow, motorists might hurl abuse from their windows, but I would be on my way. Now I am a sorry shadow of my former self – cursed with extreme timidity, unable to take that decisive first step.

I blame travel for this. Earlier in the year I visited the US, Canada and Australia in quick succession. I knew that in one of those places, motorists drive on the left, but I was never able to recall if it was Canada or Australia (it was obviously somewhere that still had the Queen knocking about in some capacity). This combined with the presence of trams in some of the cities I visited created some kind of heightened disorientation when crossing the road. I became entirely dependent on the green man – a figure I had previously always disdained. I spent a long time waiting for him. I waited for him in Toronto during a snowstorm. I waited for him in New York while the north wind blew grit in my face. I waited for him in Sydney where the sun burnt me through grey clouds, and I waited for him in Melbourne whilst I tried to avoid being hit by a tram.

On returning to England, I regained my former devil may care attitude and was once more striding purposefully into the carriageway, but then I went to Amsterdam, where as well as traffic coming the wrong way, as well as trams gliding silently around corners, there are of course thousands of cyclists just waiting for an opportunity to use their bell. I gave them plenty.

Since then I’ve been a broken pedestrian. One of those pathetic creatures who presses the button for the green man even when there isn’t a car on the horizon. I am dependent on him even in my own country and this pains me greatly because he is essentially a deeply unendearing character. He takes his time and when he finally does arrive it’s with a self-aggrandising fanfare of bleeps or clicks. I sense the smugness in his glow. He looks on me as a sinner returned to the fold. I despise his sickly green embrace.


I seem to have spent a lot of last month writing about Birmingham. I think this was more due to the coincidence of receiving two different commissions about the city, rather than anything in the March air. The first piece was for the BBC’s Made in England project and has more of a personal angle, the second (reprinted here in the Post) was for The Art of Ideas and was concerned with the cultural profile of the city. Both really were reworkings of the piece I wrote here on qanik years ago about taking photos of Nechells.

James (Yarker – of Stan’s Cafe) was with me on the panel at the latter – and so here’s his talk as well. And for anyone with even a passing interest in faded utopian visions (three words I tend to use with tedious regularity when speaking about Birmingham), and who hasn’t visited yet….welcome to Euphoria.

Hicks from the sticks

I went to the offices of The Guardian newspaper yesterday. In the course of the visit I was given a copy of today’s Review section. Pete and I spent the rest of the afternoon in London. We sat in various busy cafes and bars ostentatiously reading the next day’s paper. At no point did a confused and frightened crowd gather around us and cry out ‘They must be time-travellers – burn them!’ Londoners are so jaded.

Candy Girl

I’ve started doing a monthly column for The Birmingham Post. It’s just a way really to legitimate the various tragic day trips and explorations I carry out in and around the city. I wanted the column to have the title ‘Afternoon Safari’ – which captures the armchair-intrepid nature of this research, but they weren’t so enthusiastic about that. Anyway the first one came out last Friday, and as I don’t think it’s online anywhere I guess I should post it here….though the tone somehow doesn’t quite fit.

I’ve been investigating the mysterious disappearance of the sweet shop. Mysterious insofar as no one actually seems to have noticed. Whilst TV chefs and broadsheet columnists may lament the loss of local butchers, grocers and bakers the stoic sweet shop owner quietly put away the jars of pineapple rock and pulled down the shutters for a final time entirely unremarked.

Yes there are still shops that sell sweets – a few bags of anonymous Euro-candy from the Haribo corporation, or endless and baffling mutations of Kit Kats and Dairy Milk bars slugging it out for shelf space in the eternal battle between Mars and Cadbury – but real sweet shops, that sell pear drops by the quarter and foam shrimps individually… have you seen one lately?I’ve been trying to work out when this silent purge began. It’s surely too egotistical and fanciful an idea to believe that sweet shops died out at exactly the same point as my life stopped revolving around them – and yet the early 80s seems to keep coming up as the last time anyone can remember a flourishing confectioner culture on the streets of Birmingham.

I suppose in that upside-down time when greed was good and the voice of Tony Hadley soothing – what hope did the unassuming Rhubarb and Custard chew have of convincing anyone of its charms?So I went in search of ‘proper’ sweet shops. I wasn’t too pessimistic, even though I knew most had gradually turned into general convenience stores with ever-decreasing shelf space for candy, I was sure I’d still find a few hidden gems dotted about the city. I had some some vague idea of an outer circle of hope – a conviction that places like Acocks Green, Erdington and Hall Green would harbour treature troves of Sherbet Dip Dabs and foam bananas. I was wrong. Everyone I asked answered in the past tense. The situation was more grave than I’d feared.

The one sweet shop that everyone did mention was the candy shop on Hurst Street. Here you can still choose from the vast range of Sela sweets by the quarter alongside Sherbet Fountains. It’s a great place – but it didn’t make me any less concerned about the death of the sweet shop. Its connection to a National Trust property, its ye-olde cash register and shop fittings seemed to say only that sweet shops were now part of the nostalgia industry and none could survive in the wild.

I heard rumours of sweet shops still flourishing in parts of the Black Country and Worcestershire, but I carried on doggedly searching around Birmingham. Days passed in a dispiriting blur of pre-packed ‘Starmix’ and glossy pick and mix with a street price per gram higher than crack cocaine.

Then – as in all classic tales of quest – the break through came. An anonymous tip off pointed me in the direction of the Post Office in Rubery. There behind the counter was a vast array of jars – 2 deep – containing just about every esoteric item of confectionery you could hope to find – dolly mixtures, assorted toffees, cola cubes, pear drops… On the counter itself were foam bananas, candy bracelets, original small drumstick lollies and then…. the holy grail – tantalising white paper bags with the words ‘20p mix’, ‘30p mix’ and for the executive diner ‘40p mix’. Yes – the 10p mix-up updated for the new millenium – I had hit the mother lode. This was clearly no exercise in nostalgia either – but a living breathing shop as evidenced by the increasingly disgruntled queue that was backing out the door, held up by my slack jawed awe and insane mumbling of long forgotten sweet names at the front.

As the exceptionally patient and genial lady eventually managed to get some sense from me and weighed out some pear drops, I asked her about the popularity of the jarred sweets. She seemed puzzled that anyone would ask such a thing, she told me that they had to do a complete reorder of stock every 5 weeks, and whilst herbal tablets were the overall best seller, all sold very well. It felt like the end of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and discovering that Pottersville had all been a bad dream.

Sadly the illusion didn’t last beyond the borders of Rubery, but in that small space the ‘proper’ sweet shop is alive and well and only by donning pith helmet and venturing there on an afternoon safari will you learn the mysterious contents of the deluxe 40p mix.

Festive Road

I drive along the city’s arterial roads. I see nail parlours, pound shops, chicken disposal units, mobile phone unblockers, and then I see balloons – a blossoming of red and yellow fluttering from the crash barriers and lamp posts. This means there is a flooring shop.

I’m not sure why they do this. Is it that these dismal smears of retail culture aren’t depressing enough without somehow adding the extra poignancy of festive balloons. Sometimes it’s not balloons, sometimes it’s one of those big, disturbing half-man, half-windsock creatures who jerk erratically and sometimes collapse on the pavement in front of you making you yelp and feel foolish.

I suppose it’s easy to understand the logic – people see balloons as signifiers of fun, they walk trance like towards them, they discover it’s a flooring shop, they feel no crushing disappointment but instead are filled with an overwhelming desire to buy strips of plastic with photographs of wood stuck to them and then glue them to the floors of their houses. The shopkeeper smiles.

In every dream home

The burning of effigies is one of those things that I’m only aware of through news stories. I’ve never done it myself, or seen it done, but it seems to go on somewhere out there. I don’t really dislike anyone enough to want to burn a 3D representation of them. To be honest the people that seem to inspire my fiercest hatred, are the people that I tend to have the most fleeting contact with – drivers who don’t give the courtesy thank-you wave, or people who walk in front of me and then stop – and I rarely get a very good look these people. So even if I knew where to get effigies from, there would be the worry that the effigy wasn’t a good likeness of the person that I hated so much. I mean I’m not sure how much burning a very accurate effigy would really assuage my feelings of anger and contempt, but I’d imagine burning a bad one – basically a big anonymous doll – could possibly make me feel even angrier at the hopelessness of the world and my place in it.
Anyway I see it’s been happening in India this week, with demonstrators in Mumbai setting light to effigies of Richard Gere. But I wonder about the accuracy of the BBC news report. Were they really effigies of Richard Gere? The realities of the effigy vending business make me sceptical. I could just about imagine a 24 hour turnaround on your key range product (I’m thinking back to my days as a buyer at HMV here) – Bush, Blair, Uncle Sam etc – but surely Richard Gere – outspoken though he can be about Tibet – would not be in your core range. I like the idea of a vast warehouse somewhere in the middle of a desert with miles and miles of shelving and every single person in the public eye represented in effigy form. The staff constantly fearing that Michael Palin will insult the followers of some major world religion and thus expose their perilously low stock of the one man they thought was a safe bet. That’s how it should be, and that’s how lazy BBC journalism tries to fool me into thinking it might be, but I bet it’s not. I bet the effigy was just some crudely contorted pillow – with not even the gender, let alone the distinctive Derek Hattonesque ratty features of Mr Gere – clearly defined. I bet it was so bad that the men burning it had to keep saying things like ‘Down with Richard Gere.’ Maybe even resorting to scrawling ‘Richard Gere’ on the malformed head of the doll. Another beautiful dream bites the dust.


Nuns have recently discovered the arts centre where I work….now we can’t keep them away. We were showing a film called ‘Into Great Silence (Die Grosse Stille)’ a 3 hour silent documentary about Carthusian monks. How I laughed when I read the description. Silent? Three hours? Monks? Who’s going to pay to see that? All showings sold out within hours. I felt I’d entered some alternative universe where tickets for quiet, contemplative arts performances were fought over on e-Bay and Take That concerts had to be subsidised by the Arts Council.

Anyway the vast majority of the audience turned out to be nuns from different convents across the city. I was concerned that there could be a rumble between the different factions – but I guess they’d brokered some kind of gang truce before coming. In the event no knives were confiscated.

Since then the nun ball has been kept bouncing with regular, well-spaced sister-pleasers like ‘Miss Potter’ and ‘The Queen’. I’m quite enjoying this new audience. I’ve always been on the side that finds nuns very funny rather than terrifying. Three of my dad’s sisters were nuns – they rocked with the Marist massive – sporting French navy. All three of them were tiny – much shorter than my dad and the rest of his siblings. I could never work out if their lack of stature was somehow linked to their vocation – and if so what came first? Was it something about being tiny that allowed them to hear the voice? Or, more sinisterly, did marrying Jesus stunt their growth? I should add that this isn’t just true of my aunties – most nuns are minute. Never trust a tall one.

Anyway, sadly my dad’s sisters are no longer alive and so I’ve lost touch a bit with the whole scene in latter years. It was interesting to see how things have changed. The average age still seems to be about 79 and average height 5’1’’, but some things are different. I noticed that a lot of them now have mobile phones. I hope they remembered to turn them off during the film and didn’t keep texting each other big LOLZ throughout.

Dispiriting and pointless

This is not a real post, but when you are as lazy as I clearly am, you have to shout about whatever tiny content you manage to generate….. so anyway I wrote an article about shopping in Birmingham on a funny site. It will have limited appeal if you’re not familiar with Birmingham. Actually it will probably have limited appeal even if you are. Here it is.

This is a message from Futura

This could work in Birmingham, we have quite a lot of dirty underpasses. It could also work well in Barcelona which is similarly filthy….though, to be pedantic, Barcelona is more smelly than filthy. If you were a very clever conceptual artist, particularly the type that likes to do something incredibly technically difficult for a barely perceptible result, you could perhaps conceive of a way to etch clean air designs into the atmosphere of particularly smelly barrios. Stringy-haired Catalan youth would have to pass up and down the narrow streets, many times, sniffing constantly, before the true complexity of the design would become apparent.

If I was a socially aware, edgy, clandestine, reverse-graffiti-artist operating in Birmingham I would collect all the litter that is stuck in bushes around the bottom of blocks of flats. Then I would re-attach it to the bushes, but in such a way that it spelled out the phone-number of the council’s waste collection service. This would be a scathing attack on the council’s apparent neglect of run-down areas. But I suspect that litter isn’t very cool – it’s probably a bit suburban and small minded to worry about it – I’d probably get kicked out of the reverse-graffiti-artist gang tree hut (which is where I like to imagine they hang out – I really hope they do).