Coventry, a City of Survivors

Coventry

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In support of the upcoming Gay Pride celebrations these banners hang in front of Coventry’s city hall.

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“What are you looking for?” a kindly gentleman nearish to 60 has stopped as I stand looking befuddled with my little map of Coventry’s centre held near my face.

“Actually, I’m trying to find myself on the map.”

“I can tell you that! You’re right here!”

Only my 2nd day of driving, I had researched where to park before leaving Birmingham so that I could just blindly follow my Sat Nav (GPS) from Birmingham all the way to a specific car park in Coventry. It’s hard enough getting used to driving with all the roundabouts, I don’t want to be searching for parking when I arrive as well.

I’m getting more used to the commands on the Sat Nav built into the Audi I’ve rented. It’s completely different to how she speaks to me at home, I have the same system but she speaks American English and I guess uses different phrases as well. The one here doesn’t always recognise traffic circles and gives me incorrect directions sometimes. (The one at home probably doesn’t either, but she’s never seen one so has good excuse.) “Turn right at the square,” when it’s actually a traffic circle would have me drive directly into oncoming traffic as I nearly did the first time she told me to do this. It was right after I pulled out of the rental agency at the Birmingham International Airport. She should have told me to enter the roundabout and take the third exit, which from a crows perspective looks like turning right from the original position but is completely different in it’s execution.

Today I also learned another speech pattern that should help me to avoid going in the wrong direction in the future. “Keep to the left and then keep to the right.” I am thinking, go in the left lane, and soon after it exits, then I will need the right lane. Nope.

I left the highway going in the wrong direction on two occasions before I was able to successfully translate this command. What she actually means is, “Go into the lane that is 2nd from the left.” I am sure this is what she tells me in Canada, she has never told me to keep left and then keep to the right meaning to do these two things at the very same time rather than one after the other. Definitely a flaw in the Audi UK system. I wonder what TomTom would say in this situation.

So I have followed her instructions and by some miracle I do find myself having parked in a car park under a raised highway in Coventry. But I really have no idea where I am now, all I did was input the appropriate postal code into the Sat Nav and did my best to follow her somewhat imperfect guidance.

“Well, that is the bus station,” the friendly gentleman tells me pointing in the air, “So – you – are – – here,” he points on the map. “Do you know where you want to go from here, now that you have found yourself?” No pun intended, of course.

“I think I’ll start with the Cathedral, it’s the main sight here, isn’t it.”

“It is. I’m going that way, come with me.”

“This is a sports centre of the university,” he points out, “it’s shaped like an elephant because the elephant is a symbol of Coventry.”

“Not the Phoenix? Why is the elephant a symbol for here? One doesn’t really think of elephants with Coventry?”

“I have no idea why,” he admits, “but it is.”

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A sports complex resembling the iconic elephant.

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Notice the details of Coventry’s football team emblem. (soccer)

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Elephant and Castle.

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Later I went online to look into this interesting aspect that this local did not know the answer to himself. Turns out, there are a few possible explanations and I didn’t find one clearly concise definitely-true one. There is some tie to elephants being so strong as to be able to carry a castle on their backs as well as mythological explanations involving St.George the dragon slayer who was also hero to the elephants. Elephants and dragons may have been equally mythological at the time, neither ever being seen during those ages in the UK. Then there is some tie-in to Adam and Eve and my eyes started to glaze over from the reaching of some historian who I thought may have been reading more into the symbol than could possibly have been the case. Anyway, people like elephants and it’s nice to have one on the coat of arms, whatever the original motivation to include it was.

There is a an intersection in London and hence a tube station as well as a North American chain of restaurant pubs called Elephant and Castle.

(The Queen did add the Phoenix to the coat of arms for Coventry after the city had recovered from the war, as you can see above.)

We pass underneath some halls of residence, “Coventry is a University town now,” my new friend tells me as we continue up the road towards the cathedral. “Well, I’ll leave you to it,” he says cheerfully while depositing me at the entrance to the vast Coventry Cathedral and continuing on his way.

If you are looking for a lovely medieval English town then Coventry will probably not be on your hit list. Through no fault of her own. The walled city of Coventry had been one of England’s most important cities during the medieval period.

By the 1800’s cloth production was Coventry’s main industry. Nearly half the population made their living by weaving. It was a very industrious place indeed, with other manufacturing sectors cropping-up that also included the making of clocks, sewing machines, and other skilled manufacturing. In 1868 the Coventry Sewing Machine Company started making bicycles, marking the beginning of that industry for Great Britain. A motorcar company was established in 1896 and the first motorcars produced in Coventry went for sale in 1897.

The city was a centre for skilled workers and engineering. People came to work in Coventry from all over the country.

The amount of industry and rapid growth meant that Coventry was not a clean, comfortable place to live. In 1838 and 1849 there were widespread Cholera outbreaks owing to the lack of fresh water and open sewers. By 1840 very few homes had a fresh water supply. One in four children died before the age of one from Tuberculosis.

By a thoughtless move of government in 1860, England signed a trade agreement with France making French ribbon cheaper than Coventry ribbon. Overnight a thriving industry went from boom to bust as they were suddenly completely unable to compete. Weavers went without work, many emigrating to America and Australia. Several manufactures went bust. The industry never recovered.

Other industries continued to thrive, however. Regardless, it wasn’t an easy time for the average worker, many did live in poverty despite working very hard and for many hours. The city had doubled in population during the reign of Queen Victoria, leading up to 1901. By this time things were improving, infrastructure for water and sewage and utilities was was getting better-and-better. Some people now had not only water and sewer access, but also electric lights and telephone connections. The first films were shown in Coventry in 1901. This marked the beginning of a decade of unprecedented growth.

Things were looking pretty good for the hard-working citizens of Coventry until their industriousness brought them great hardship. Located near to the Black Country with a ready supply of coal and metal-work supplies and with a skilled manufacturing workforce making cars, machines, and tools, during wartime Coventry was a natural place to make ammunitions. Coventry found itself a very bright target of the Nazis.

During the war, Coventry suffered 41 separate air raids. The raids seemed not to be only in focus of factories but were all encompassing. On one night in November, 1940 the city was terrorised like never before and was nearly completely destroyed overnight. In fact, the event even left an impact on the German invaders who ended-up coining a new verb to capture the magnitude of the event that means “to flatten”, coventrieren.

After the war was completed, city planners of Coventry strategised how to best move their city forward. The city centre was defined into three sections: a pedestrianised shopping zone (“where women and children can go about their activities without the danger or cars”); a university zone; and a civic zone. All this would be encircled by a ring road with car parks so that people could park conveniently for the central area without having to drive into it.

I’ve said before, I love Great Britain’s pedestrianised areas. I cannot grasp why North American city planners do not see the virtues of having these areas, which are so very rare on that continent.

The city was built leaving the traditions of building behind, which took much longer to construct. Instead, modern building techniques were embraced to put people in homes and get the city up-and-running as quickly as possible.

The new buildings are not pretty, plain, concreted boxes and straight brick structures. But, many people were quickly housed and they enjoyed more comfort and amenties than ever before. The medieval city was lovely to behold, but not comfy to endure. The new cookie-cutter faceless constructions were necessary, and anyway, it would have been impossible to replace many centuries of building any other way.

St. Michael’s Cathedral was built around 1300. The destroyed remains have been preserved as a memorial of Coventry’s worst hours and as a symbol of peace and reconciliation. I am much reminded of the Peace Park in Hiroshima as I walk in the open air where once I would have been inside a grand cathedral.

Coventry Cathedral is a massive structure joined to the old cathedral’s walls. It is a very modern style with towers of stained glass windows. A statue hangs on an exterior wall of the devil being conquered by St. Michael.

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Some walls of the original cathedral remain standing creating a courtyard before the new Coventry Cathedral that is attached to the original walls.

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I take some pics of nearby buildings, a few have survived including St.Mary’s Guildhall. Here one can enter a room once inhabited by Mary Queen of Scots who had been ordered detention within the secure walled city of Coventry.

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The doorway into the room supposed to be the temporary home of Mary Queen of Scots is quite low.

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A visit to the nearby Herbert Art Gallery and Museum was very informative and the source of much of my information about Coventry.

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A Jacquard Loom from Leicester’s era of ribbon making. This equipment looks complicated to me today! Very impressive!

Time for lunch, I headed into the pedestrian zone where I chose an open air seating area to enjoy a simple sandwich and coffee. In the open square known as Broadgate, a statue of Lady Godiva stands in the centre and an automated clock tower has an entertaining procession of her riding around the balcony naked on her horse.

The story has it that in the 11th Century Lady Godiva, the wife of a nobleman, rode naked through the streets of the town in protest of her own husband’s harsh taxation on the common people. The phrase, “peeping Tom” is said to have come from this event, and in the clock tower a peeping Tom takes a good look from the window above.

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Coventry has a lovely little downtown. After exploring it to my content I made my way back to the car where I programmed the location of my Warwick hotel into the Sat Nav and away I went continuing my journey. Warwick will be my home-base for the next few days while I explore it and some other areas nearby.

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The Black Country town of Walsall

Visiting Walsall, near Birmingham, May 2013

When traveling, especially for as long as I am, it is a gift when a local extends their friendship with a personal invitation to see their town. So it was I ended-up visiting the unlikely destination of Walsall, essentially a suburb of Birmingham now but born in the days when such an idea was not conceivable.

Situated 35 minutes by train from New Street Station in Birmingham, the town of Walsall is a destination in it’s own right. “I was wondering if you might like to meet me in Walsall to visit the Art Gallery and Arboretum,” I received as a text from a sweet woman I have met at meet-ups twice before.

“It’s disgustin'” “It’s alright, cud be worse.” “There’s just nothing there.” Similar commendations from Brummies who have never been to Walsall as I heard from Southerners who have never been to Birmingham. “Have you been there?” “No.” Well then, your opinion must be very accurate I’m sure.

I take a photo of the approaching train comparing the sight with the trains that approached me in India. India has left such a strong impression on me, I still think of her often. (I think most Indians consider India a “she”.) The gleaming structure approaches the platform VERY slowly, leaving me holding my camera up to my face for much longer than I would have expected. So slow that it could easily stop very short if someone were to do something stupid, incredibly safe approach. “Quite a contrast to Indian trains,” I share with the girl beside me, “the ones I rode were not able to close their doors and people hung outside.” “That does sound quite different.” “People were jumping off the train before it even came to a stop,” I added.

From Nottingham, this girl with long, curly cranberry-blonde hair moved to Birmingham to do her PHD. I sit closely enough on the train as to be able to chat with her from across the aisle, I had hoped we could continue our discourse and she was happy to do so. Two other gentlemen join in the conversation. A student of the Birmingham Conservatoire is going to Walsall to try-out the pipe organ at Walsall’s Town Hall before being part of a group performance there tomorrow. He has never been to Walsall. Another gentleman sitting behind me overhears me explain how it is that I come to be where I am today, on a train from Birmingham to Walsall. Sometime after becoming single I sold my business and my home and now completely untied I am traveling the world. “I’m trying to start a development business,” he starts, “oh no, this is my stop.” “Look-up Launch48,” I tell him, “It could be useful to you, it’s a weekend conference where people form groups to brainstorm and set-up businesses in the course of 48 hours. It could be a really good start for you. . . .” and he is away.

The lovely PHD student exits where the University of Birmingham has a suburban campus and the young organist and I chat until the end. “What are you playing tomorrow?” “Something nasty, I really don’t like it.” He tells me what it’s called but I don’t recognise it. I guess something modern. For a pipe organ. One doesn’t really think of modern and pipe organ together, but I suppose why not. “How did you choose it?” “Oh, I had no choice, they told me what I have to play.”

We exited the station onto the high street 20 minutes early. After he gets directions to the Town Hall from a friendly local we part ways. There is more than one exit and we did not decide where to meet because texting makes one lazy that way. “Where are u?” “I’m at . . .” “Okay, walk to your left see you in a minute.” That’s what usually happens.

“I’m here, where should we meet?”
“Unable to send.”
“Unable to send.”
“Unable to send.”

I enter the Carphone Warehouse located right at the exit where I am standing. I don’t have any signal but I know I have credit on this pay-as-you-go phone that I got from ee. “Do you work with T-Mobile?” I ask. “We can top-up T-Mobile.” “My phone isn’t working, can you take a look?” An Indian woman accepts my phone, “You have no connection.” She then goes through the very highly-technical process of removing the battery and SIM card, replacing, and repowering the phone. “It’s back now, I don’t know why it disappeared. Do you want me to check your balance?” “Sure.” She presses some buttons and an automated voice tells us, “You – have – 8 – pounds – 68 – pence. For – more – information – press – 1. To – hang – up – press – 2” or something like that.

“I might as well top-up, can you add £20?” “Certainly, Sir.” “You should take your phone to ee if you continue to have problems, they are just down the high street, just turn right after you go out.”

“Thanks very much.” “You’re very welcome, Sir.”

Outside I run into Clare who is climbing the steps towards the entrance of the Shopping Arcade in which the station is located. “Hi Ya!”

Well that was good, I guess I must have come to the most obvious spot. “Shall we go right to the gallery?” she asks. “Absolutely.”

I really like pedestrian high streets in Great Britain. People walking and lingering and meeting-up on lovely cobbled spaces without the noise and intrusion of vehicular traffic. I cannot understand why these areas are so rare in North America, would it kill traffic to close off one central street to cars? Imagine the feeling in Toronto if Yonge Street was a long pedestrian park, still lined with the streets and shops, but closed to vehicles. Places to walk and sit and relax, all on lovely paving stones with the occasional sculpture, statue, and arrangements of flower gardens and shrubbery. Of course, there would need to be infrastructure on either side of the street to allow it, and at some intersections traffic would need to cross as it does here. It may be impossible for most of our cities as they are now, but imagine the warm and pleasant feeling it would create and does create throughout many cities of Europe and many places in the world. Birmingham has a great pedestrian zone. And so does Walsall.

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The rain was really coming down as we walked along Walsall’s pedestrianized high street, but it was still a lovely time.

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The New Art Gallery Walsall.

We enter the New Art Gallery Walsall which sits at the top end of high street. A tall, modern structure it stands proudly in front of of a canal pool. Completed in 1999, the gallery was designed via an international competition and has become the largest building in the UK that was designed by a British architect under 40.

“What a pretty puppy!” Clare exclaims when I remove my scarf. I’m wearing one of those horrendous but fun and cheerful t-shirts that have life-like oversized animal faces on them. It’s hard to be looked at too seriously when wearing one of those. I feel like I must look approachable with such a silly shirt, will people judge me as someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously, or will they just assume poor taste? I find that I get both reactions.

“Is it a girl or a boy puppy?” I hadn’t thought of this. Spot decision, “He’s a boy!” “What’s his name?” I look down to my chest in consideration. “He needs a name,” she informs me. His eyes, enormous from the enlarged reproduction, look very bright. “Sparkles,” I suggest. “Sparkle Pop!” Clare corrects. “Ahhh, cute little Sparkle Pop! Are you ready to see some pretty pictures?” she asks as we exit the lift to start the exhibition from the top, 4th floor.

David Rowan’s display of photographs will be shown here until July 21st, 2013. Although I would not call his collection, Pacha Kuti Ten, pretty, they are intriguing and I relate to them. I would want to take these kinds of photos myself were I a photographer. He is showing us the bowels of Birmingham. The underground facilities that are rarely seen by the public. I find this kind of thing fascinating. Below this lovely paving stone walkway with trees and flowers, beyond your view, is this dark sewer tunnel system. Is this former coal mine. Is this underground vault. Is this hidden canal.

The Tenth Pacha Kuti is an Inca prediction of apocalypse and translates as being when the world turns upside down. In this collection, Rowan shows us the subterranean world that lurks below us, just out of view as we go about our lives in Birmingham. To me, the message feels sort of like: your world does exist, but at the same time this also exists.

You can see a few of these images by clicking on the following link.

http://www.davidrowan.org/work/pacha-kuti-ten/

One level down we are greeted by a sculpture by Patricia Piccinini. This looks like a deformed animal made out of chicken flesh wearing a hat and training hair. “It’s not pretty!” Clare screams. It is very, very not pretty. Clearly it is not supposed to be. You really must click on this link to see the sculpture I’m referring to.

https://www.google.ca/search?q=patricia+piccinini&client=safari&hl=en&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=XeyUUY_nCcXChAfL-oD4Bw&ved=0CDgQsAQ&biw=1024&bih=672#biv=i%7C46%3Bd%7C5PHAhK6oH8-UEM%3A

Her other sculpture present is of a “sphinx”, also looks like a chicken-flesh blob. Her work is unique, interesting. I would recommend clicking on this link to see some more of it, I have never seen anything like it myself. (If the link doesn’t work, just Google Patricia Piccinini, this is a link to the Google Images.)

https://www.google.ca/search?q=patricia+piccinini&client=safari&hl=en&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=XeyUUY_nCcXChAfL-oD4Bw&ved=0CDgQsAQ&biw=1024&bih=672

Hanging on the wall in the same gallery are life-sized paintings of bulls by Mark Fairington.

http://www.markfairnington.com/page26.htm

These are part of the exhibition, “Nature of the Beast” which is on until June 30, 2013.

An installation piece by Tessa Farmer, a Birmingham-born artist who now resides in London, involves mostly insect taxidermy. Ants of various sizes on the open floor consuming a dead snake. Very creepy. A food chain of shell fish to insects. Hundreds of flying wasps, very unsettling to stand at, all dangling from invisible thread within reaching distance. Her piece de resistance, she has made little people using insect body parts.

Definitely worth a look by clicking on this link. If the link doesn’t work, just Google Tessa Farmer and you will see lots of images.

https://www.google.ca/search?q=tessa+farmer&client=safari&hl=en&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=efCUUYyDPIeK7Ab6-YDgAQ&ved=0CDcQsAQ&biw=1024&bih=672

Polly Morgan creates very disturbing works with her taxidermy. But I like it. “It’s creepy! I want to touch it!” says a distressed Clare, who now realises that she has not brought me to Walsall to see some pretty art. It is all fantastically interesting though. Pretty pictures can only capture my attention for so long.

A small fox intertangled and pierced by octopus tentacles, a tentacle goes in one ear and out the other, a tentacle protrudes from an eye socket. Some taxidermed birds are involved as well.

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View more of Polly Morgan’s work by Googling her name.

This very cool video shows the amount of work that it takes to put-up such an exhibit. Less than 2 minutes, take a look, it’s interesting in a general museum way.

http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=Nonk2-KWkkQ&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DNonk2-KWkkQ

Perhaps the main exhibit was anatomy works by Damien Hirst. A photo of him when he was 16 provides a good introduction. At that time he used to visit the anatomy department at Leeds University where he worked on anatomical drawings. This photo is of a happy, young, smiling Damien with his face posed nearly touching the severed head of a cadaver that sits on a table. It is astonishing to behold. I don’t want to violate copyright, so again here is a link to the photo rather than the actual image:

http://www.damienhirst.com/with-dead-head

Overall I was very impressed with the New Art Gallery Walsall. If you live in Birmingham or somewhere nearby, it is definitely worth a visit.

http://www.thenewartgallerywalsall.org.uk/

Following our artistic appreciation we stop for lunch at the Costa location within the gallery. It’s a nice open space with windows onto the canal pool.

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A view looking out the window of the Art Gallery.

Outside we walk down the high street and past a statue of Dorothy Wyndlow Pattison who was a hard-working and highly respected nurse in Walsall. When she died in 1878 she became the first woman in the country to have a statue commemorating her who wasn’t a member of the Royal Family.

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Near Pattison’s statue stands a more modern sculpture of a Hippo (See photo of me riding it.) and another of a head with tools of the trade in his/her very ample hair, or falling towards them, I’m not sure. This is not one of my favourite statues.

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Continuing our tour of Walsall we walk past the lovely Town Hall, a library and another museum, as we make our way to the Walsall Arboretum. We enter the park through the gates of a lovely brick structure that sits across from the school where Clare attended with all girls. She had earlier recognised her former uniform on a group of grade 7 girls who were drafting some of the sights in the animal exhibits in the museum as we wandered about.

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Walsall’s Town Hall.

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The entry gate to Walsall’s Arboretum.

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Fortunately, today’s rains had completely abated by the time we were walking about. Colours really come out just after rain too.

The arboretum is a gorgeous park surrounding a boating lake. Occupying 80 acres, it includes more than 200 species of tree and shrub. It also has a play grounds, a bowling green, a playhouse, and a children’s park. We enjoyed walking the circumference where we chatted and met some friendly dogs. And dog owners.

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When one thinks of Walsall, one thinks of the lovely central boating lake surrounded by trees, flowers, and fields where one can take a country walk very near to downtown.

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Okay, perhaps one doesn’t, but I do.

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It’s a perfect picnic spot also.

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This is not a headless swan, he/she was grooming and each time his/her head came up I missed it.

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“Ma-ma, are you able to have guests?” Clare asks into her mobile phone. “You could make us a nice cup of tea?” Clare’s parents live nearby the arboretum. Wandering in their direction we meet a wonderful pit bull. Snoopy has a limp. Turns out that 3 years ago he was running full-throttle with a stick in his mouth. He’s a very heavy dog and when the stick suddenly caught on the ground it went right into him through the back of this mouth. Sounds like it was touch-and-go with some major surgeries and they needed to borrow a leg muscle as part of the reconstruction. Poor little guy. He’s as happy as could possibly be now though, he loves his cuddles!

We greet a welcoming retired school teacher upon entering Clare’s home. Clare’s Mum taught young ones, primary school, before keeping herself active with various different activities. Today she had been shopping in Birmingham, bought some clothes. “Don’t tell Father,” she jokes, kind-of, to Clare. She seems young for her age, the high activity of being in the classroom every day has done her well. Running around with children must be better than sitting behind a computer all day when it comes to one’s well-being. “One had to be high energy,” she offers as way of explanation. So true.

Clare’s Dad returns from playing snooker and after some friendly banter retires somewhere to listen to organ music. “He usually plays it much louder, ” Clare tells me. “Guess what Darren’s new name is,” Clare tells them, “Blossom.” Yes, she has decided this to be my appropriate nickname while we were sauntering through the park where there were lots of apple and cherry blossoms. Mostly it was in response to me telling her that in Scotland some of the girls at the office called me “Petal”. The guys called me “Daz” or “Dazzer” (pronounced da-zah).

Our teas long gone Clare walks me back to the station to catch my train back to Birmingham. A lovely day.

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A Brummie from Blackpool

Trevor

“Is this seat taken?” With a egg and bacon bap in one hand, a small coffee in the other, I am hoping to sit for a few moments at the outdoor market below the Bull Ring in Birmingham’s central shopping district. I’ve usually been taking my morning coffee at Costa on New Street, but meeting folks for 10-pin bowling soon, I decide to find somewhere nearer to the Leisure Box. This way I can take my time knowing that my destination is less than 5 minutes away.

Below the major shopping zone of the impressive Bull Ring, on the lower side of St.Martins Church lies some very grass-roots level indoor and outdoor flea markets. Vendors sell discount home items, clothing, luggage and shopping trolleys, cell phones, sell-off bric-a-brac and the like as well as fruits and veggies and inside a fish and meat market. I approach a vending caravan near to the pavement to order my late breakfast. They have a collection of tables and chairs nestled under a tarp.

We’re having a rainy week in Birmingham. Of the next 7 days, only one is not calling for showers to some degree. It’s raining now, as I try to find a space under shelter.

“Don’t sit on that chair,” an older gentleman replies, “this one is dry.” The chair I had indicated towards was at the periphery of the shelter and had been permeated by moisture. He stands for me to be able to get by to the chair he has offered, which is behind a table and sits between him and another, less talkative, customer.

“Thank you very much. Another lovely day we’re having.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Do you live in Birmingham?”

“Yes, I live 30 minutes outside though.”

“Do you come into the centre quite often?”

“Aye, about 3 times a week. I wouldn’t come so often if I had to pay full fare, but it’s very reasonable to come in, there’s a scheme for pensioners.”

“The government does some things right, don’t they.” It seems to me that providing seniors with affordable transportation not only improves the lives of pensioners, it also has benefits for NHS (National Health Service). Active people stay more well than do non-active people. If seniors can afford to get about easily, they will get about more often and this increased activity level helps them to maintain their mobility, it keeps their minds more active, it benefits their mental health, and overall it is very good for their well-being. I have no doubt that giving them access to public transportation not only improves their quality of life, it also saves money for public services.

“You’re not from here, are you?” he asks.

“No, I’m from Canada. I’m just passing through. I’m spending 10 weeks in the central UK. Are you from Birmingham?”

“No, I’m from Blackpool. I moved here 12 years ago.”

“I might visit Blackpool, it’s on the water, isn’t it. What brought you here then?”

“I retired when I was 65. I have no family and I thought, now is the time to move if I ever will. I knew a church minister who had just moved to Birmingham. With only him as a contact, it was more than I had other places and it was enough for me to decide to move here. I knew it was a bigger city so it would have lots of things to do and lots of people. So I did.”

“Was it a good decision?”

“Oh yes, I had no reason to stay in Blackpool. I like it here. I miss the water though, and the fresh air.”

“I grew-up on a river near to the ocean, and you always do have a draw to it, don’t you.”

He looks me in the eye. “Yes, you do.”

“Do you come to the market area often?”

“Oh yes, every time I come into town.” This market area for sure has the cheapest offers downtown. He sits here watching the comings and goings of people to the Bullring sipping a 50p coffee. Nearby, coffee starts at four times that in most shops.

He points to a table on the walkway where an Islamic group preaches and offers pamphlets to passers-by. He makes a comment that I don’t quite hear. “I don’t remember noticing Muslim recruitment groups other places,” I add, “They also have another location nearer to New Street with loud speakers. Do you think some people become Muslim from a recruitment drive?”

“I suppose so,” he answers, “there are Christian ones too.” Yes. I know this, I’ve noticed a few crazy ones yelling at the crowds brimstone and fire and such. Not a positive representation going on for Christians. I’ve seen the same kind of representation at Dundas Square in Toronto. I would think these representers are an embarrassment to most Christians, not to mention they are certainly are a deterrent, they tend to have a repellant nature. “YOU HAVE TO ANSWER TO GOD,” a black man angrily yells down New Street in the manner of a lunatic. Finger-pointing and judgemental, his hostile rantings will help no one. Pedestrians cross the street to keep a wide birth, he seems more like a time-bomb than a missionary.

“Are you Christian?” he asks me. Funny, just yesterday I wrote about my disagreement regarding the doctrine of Jesus being the only way to God. I tell him of this and explain that I am too well-traveled to accept a mono-cultural religion as being the only way. Agnostic, I believe there are many ways to God. I just cannot accept that one group is correct and all the others are wrong.

“I can’t explain why,” he tells me, “but there are a chosen people, and they are the ones who seek Jesus. I can’t tell you why if someone has never heard of Jesus they won’t go to heaven, but I know they won’t. There are a chosen few, anyone who looks for Jesus is chosen.”

Of course I cannot go for this. Any God who would choose people and put the chosen above the unchosen, is a God who is unfair and unjust and I cannot accept that as possibly being true. The people who came-up with these written ideas were misguided and lived in an era when humans were not considered equal to one another. Not to say that humans are considered equal to each other now, but they should be.

A little gust of rain lifts the tarp sending a pocket of water splashing onto the seat I nearly sat in from the start.

Time to move-on to my bowling meet-up, I thank Trevor for his sharing and for welcoming me to sit with him. “Traveling Mercies,” he wishes me as I depart. “My Mother always says that when I leave!” “Well, remember me to your Mother then,” he adds.

I will. I will remember him to lots of people.

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St.Martins at the Bull Ring stands between the major shopping centre and the market area below. Trevor and I were sitting just a few metres from St.Martins on the outdoor walkway.

Black Country, Home of England’s Industrial Revolution

Black Country

The Black Country is situated in Central England in an area of the West Midlands. This area may have been the earliest industrial area of it’s size and scope in the world. Industry from the 18th century onwards included coal mining, tube manufacture, anchor forges, ironwork, chain making, making locks and keys, and more. The three anchors and chains used on the Titanic came from this region, the entire collection weighed more than 100 tonnes. The heaviest piece, one 12 tonne anchor, took 20 horses to transport it to the ship.

The term “Black Country” is seen to have been used since the 1840’s. Heavy industry in the area polluted the air with soot and darkened the skies, hence the term. Industry situated here naturally due to the existence of Britain’s largest coal seam running through the area.

The coal industry contributed mostly to the creation of the vast canal network to ship this heavy, cumbersome commodity in great bulk on barges pulled by horses. The horses were tethered to the barges and walked along the “tow paths” which are now fantastic areas for cycling and walking all throughout Great Britain.

Today Black Country is no longer black. The heavy industries and mining that created that dark environment have all but gone and anti-pollution laws control discharge from the little that does remain.

I have also written separately about my visit to Walsall to be posted soon, and this is one of the main towns in the Black Country. I did not notice that this town had an industrial past, I did not know that until after my visit. Today, it seems a quaint, modern, nearly-suburb of Birmingham.

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A replica of the world’s first steam engine. The original was built in the Black Country in 1712. It was not very efficient in it’s coal usage so it was only feasible for use near a coal mine source, which it was. In fact, it’s original use was pumping water out of coal mines. Sometime later it was improved upon to the point of being mobile and more efficient to be able to create the locomotive.

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Some artefacts from the entry of a coal mine.

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A little Black Country home.

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Another little home in the Black Country.

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I’m not sure, I guess it’s a scrapyard for scraps of centuries past.

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I stopped for a lunch break in a civic hall.

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The recommended Black Country dish to be tried was quite hardy. “Faggots and peas”, the peas mushy and in that too-green colour. Faggots are essentially meatballs made from pig’s heart, liver, and belly or bacon with added spices and cooked in a gravy. To me it tasted like a spiced meatball that had pate mixed-in. I don’t know how these got their name. I understand the term faggot used for cigarettes in the UK, because it refers to something that is burned. It became applied to gay people when the Nazis decided that homosexuals were also something to be burned. Alive. Little trivia for you.

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Although we may think of this as a more modern development, the movement towards equality was long and of course still continues.

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High street shopping as it was before the advent of the supermarket, a change made possible by the common use of motorcars. (More people can travel from further away to one large store, and they can carry more items away from it.)

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It was raining all day and all these places felt cold and damp. I think life might be a bit more comfortable now than it was.

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This is the inside of a traditional pub. (Public House)

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A raising bridge over the canal. Notice how the platform lifts completely up rather than tilting.

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The creation of canal networks facilitated the industrial revolution making transport of coal and finished goods much more feasible. Later there was very strong competition between the canals and the railroads for the transportation of goods. Railways eventually operated much faster than barges which were pulled by horses and were very much slowed by land gradations (many labour-intensive and time-intensive locks needed to take a boat uphill or downhill). Canals were eventually rendered obsolete.

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Canal-side workshops.

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It is still popular for amusement park features today to be decorated in this style.

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I love the sound that came from this automated air pipe music maker. It must have been quite a marvel in it’s time.

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Although much of it is no longer in operation, the auto making industry of Britain naturally centred in the midlands.

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The previous photos were taken at the Black Country Living Museum. This is a large open-air museum set in Dudley, 35 minutes from Birmingham. Covering 26 acres, the reconstructed canal-side town with costumed inhabitants is a fascinating place to visit. Plan to go in the morning so that you can enjoy having lunch there as nice break.

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Birmingham Canals, More than Venice!

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Once used primarily for the transport of coal, Birmingham’s canal network provides lovely waterside areas all over the city.

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Not being a flat city, there are lots of locks. They open like a door, on a pivot. It looks like it would take a very long time to make much progress in a boat in some of the areas where there are multiple series of locks.

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There are lots of bridges overhead. City roads continue unhindered by the waterways, often it is not apparent that it’s a bridge at all from the street perspective.

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These long, narrow boats are refered to as “barges” and many have been retrofitted to be residential, I assume for recreational use.

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Here you can see my folding bicycle that I brought with me from Canada. I had imagined using it every day but it has rained very often. On this day I cycled in the intermittent rain anyway.

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I wasn’t kidding.

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At this time of year (May) there are many young families along the canal.

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I think a helmet is extra important canal side where the paving stones get slippy in the rain.

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Not just geese but ducks as well. Not shy either, I’m sure they are often fed by humans.

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This is when it all went wrong. I had to retreat to the nearest street access behind me and continue my journey by road.

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After passing one family, I was brutally attacked by Mother Goose. She took flight and went for my head, banging her heavy body into mine as I raced to cycle away. I was not hurt whatsoever, but I did learn my lesson to keep my distance. If not possible to pass with a good birth, leave the canal. I had to retreat the next time I tried cycling on the canals also. It should be their space first but it would be nice to be able to use them more. I’m sure I’ll be able to use the canal network more freely when I come back in July, before flying home to Canada from Birmingham.

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Here are some views in the more central district where restaurants and pubs make use of the lovely water views.

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Here a fellow has set-up tables of things for sale, like a car boot sale but from a barge.

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I’d recommend visiting the central canals at night as well as during the day. There are canals alongside the nightclub and entertainment district on Broad Street.

If you visit Birmingham, make sure you make some time to enjoy a stroll along the canals as they are a wonderful feature of this city.

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Meeting Friendly Locals in Birmingham

This posting consists of a series of stories that took place over the past few days here in the welcoming city of Birmingham, UK. It also contains personal sharing and personal opinions that I hope you will find interesting. Thanks for visiting PersonalTravelStories.com !
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The Mailbox is a stately-looking structure that stands in Birmingham’s central district. Upon entering the large edifice, which does indeed have resemblance to a British Mailbox, I was unaware that the building is actually an enormous centre and that it opens on to the lovely canal network on the other side. In fact, being built along these waterways is probably the main asset of the building. They have done a lovely job capturing the urban outdoors well-viewed by numerous restaurants and bars.

I may not have ventured into the Mailbox having previously read it’s description on a shopping map of Birmingham. “A premier luxury destination, with designer stores including Harvey Nichols, hotels, waterside restaurants and bars.” It’s not a bad description by any means, it just did not pull my attention since I only took the map for street navigation rather than for shopping. Additionally, I wanted to repair the grammar of the sentence. Correct it so that it does not contain one incongruent list. Here’s a better example of the same grammatical weakness in case you missed it, “I like to eat cheeses including Brie, red wine, and baguettes.” It’s just wrong. Sometimes we do choose imprecise grammar in lieu of brevity though, so it likely was an intentional overlook.

I had found myself early to a meet-up across the street. I don’t like to be late so when venturing to an unknown destination for a scheduled meet I tend to allow too much extra time. This usually has it’s pay-offs though, there is nearly always something to happen upon that will fill the time in an unfamiliar place. So it was that I found myself stood on a street-corner face-to-face with this large, red, windowed box.

I was not feeling interested in dropping large sums of money for designer duds that I have no space for in my luggage, so I was very pleased to come across a “pop-up” shop claiming two temporary spaces. “Birmingham Made Me” is a fantastic collection of all manner of hand-made items created locally. Lots of one-of-a-kind crafts and art works, as well as a bit of manufactured but of original design and using the creators artwork. Unique hats, jewellery, lampshades, paintings, handbags made from records, ceramics, t-shirts printed with original images, pottery, nik-naks, art cards, and more. A really fun set of shops.

As I was exiting the first one I entered, I thanked the hosts. “What do you think of it?” a woman near to my age, friendlily inquired. “It’s fantastic,” I replied, “I especially loved the stuffed animals.”

These little animals have been created with such great care that I found myself paused in front of them, reading their faces like one might a person. I’m not sure why, they had typical-looking eyes and details, but they were put-together in such as way that they conveyed personality. They were really quite impressive.

I could not have guessed that I was talking to their creator, Angela. “Did you pick one up?” Of course not, I think. I used to be an artist myself some years ago, I know not to touch things, to be respectful of people’s creations which are often intended to be looked-upon only. Angela comes over, “Pick one up!” Stunning. These little creatures were life-like to look at, now that I have one in my hands it’s uncanny. She has used some sort of filling that gives them a life-like weight. A baby-sized bear weighs nearly as much as a real baby. It’s actually hard to explain the experience, my senses are being fooled into feeling like I’m holding an animate creature. I’m not a doll collector or an appreciator of stuffed-bears, or anything of the sort, but these are very impressive.

“When I was little, I remember feeling so disappointed every time I picked-up a cuddly toy, that it felt completely unreal. That it didn’t weigh anything. They looked cute, but they felt like nothing.” Even as a little girl, her creative mind saw things in a unique way. Remarkable.

“I saw you noticing (Brooks?) things as well,” Angela adds, gesturing to the bags made from vinyl records (LPs) and lamps made from cassette tapes.

“I did. Those bags look really-well made. It’s a shame that guys have a much stronger attachment to records than do girls. I used to have a shop where we sold clocks made from records, the LPs were definitely more popular with guys. Girls tended to prefer the covers made into clocks, with the imagery. I wonder if guys tend to me more tactile and girls more visual.”

“The ladies really like them though, they’re very popular.”

“That’s great, they should be.”

A few more minutes of conversation and I am on my way, back-tracking to the other location of “Birmingham Made Me” I had earlier passed-by. The time for my meeting comes and I leave the Mailbox leaving more to return for later.

The “Birmingham Made Me” shops located in the Mailbox will only be open until the end of June, so don’t miss your chance to find some unique arts and crafts pieces. Angela has plans to open in another location as a joint venture, so be sure to check-it out.

To see Angela’s fun artistic cuddly creations and find out where you can see them, click on this link:

www.burmanbears.com

Birmingham Made Me has a Facebook sight you can visit, hopefully they’ll be an ongoing concern and perhaps you can find their latest activities by looking up their Facebook page or by clicking on this link:

www.ideabirmingham.co.uk

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The Street side entrance of The Mailbox in Birmingham. Don’t be fooled, this square building is only a small part of the entire structure, fully attached.

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Interior hallways of The Mailbox are open to skylights far above.

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The rear exit of The Mailbox is wonderfully set-up to appreciate Birmingham’s vast canal network.

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Looking back at the restaurants and bars lining the canal as part of The Mailbox.

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The Cube has been built to add to the success of The Mailbox and feels like a continuation of the centre. Completed in 2010, this mixed-use world-class structure is much larger than it looks having 25 floors.

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The Blend is a modern coffee bar with lots of fun drinks. The main feature being coffee martinis, I don’t mind if I do. I order a delicious B and B (Brandy and Benedictine) coffee martini, it is served on ice in a stemmed glass more sizeable and of a different shape than a martini glass. I am the first to arrive to this meet-up, but being at a largish reserved table for 8 I will be easily found.

I am soon joined by a conscientious Brummie who is also early. She had rushed away from attending a Jazz concert at the nearby Symphony Hall. “I love Jazz,” she tells me, “they’re giving free concerts every Friday. If you like Jazz, you should go next week. It’s great.” When it comes to listening to Jazz music I only listen to classics, I’m not a fan of the repetitive free-flowing improv type sometimes found in Jazz bars. But a performance will tend to be of the ilk that I do enjoy. I probably will. Except I leave on Thursday, my hotel is only booked for a week and I arrived last night. Only 24 hours so far in Birmingham and I am already planning to extend my stay.

Four of us have already arrived by the appointed meet-up time. A very polite gentleman from Walsall who reminds me of the accountant in the tv programme Ugly Betty sits beside me. He has come in with a nice girl originally from Stratford. A young lady starting her PHD in Environmental Structures has moved to Birmingham from Sweden. A woman who “has Scotch and Welsh blood” joins behind me, pulling-up a chair to join the then-crowded table. Others have filled-in the rest of the 8 seats but I meet those at the other end by name only, as is generally the case when seated at a large table.

The ladies are talking about something that is sometimes vended out machines in ladies rooms. Maybe one of them is wearing perfume from a sampler, I don’t remember. “The only thing we can buy in a men’s room is condoms,” someone comments. “But they do come in various flavours,” I add, helpfully. “I remember the first time I saw flavoured condoms,” one of the ladies reminisces, “I looked at the shop keeper and asked, “Why is it flavoured?” I had no idea!” “If you like, one of us can show you, luv!” the guy had replied to her great embarrassment. “Just chemicals, aren’t they,” I offer, “not good for you probably.” Lately, I have been given much attention to the fact that more and more edible products are not real food. Edible oil products flavoured by chemicals, highly-processed and manipulated food products altered to such a degree that our digestion systems work overtime processing food items that are not really even food in the strict sense. Genetically modified, chemically-enhanced, structurally-altered items that are being marketed as food but offer little or no nutrition. If it doesn’t nourish, can it really be considered food? Anyway, to this she asks, “Have you tasted one?” I don’t want to answer either way and instead I reflect the question. “You are a dirty girl!” I tease, “I’m going for another drink. How is the wine you’re drinking, what kind did you get?” “Red.” We both laugh at her answer. “Honestly, they have red, white and rose, those are the choices.”

Back at the cash I look at the bottle that contains red wine. Looks like it has been labelled for use in pubs and such, it is from Spain but that essentially is the extent of the information presented. “It’s Spanish Red,” I declare returning with a flute. They must have run-out of generic wine glasses and they have served me red wine in a champagne flute. No apologies for serving in this narrow glass, I only assume the outage but it is actually presented as being normal. I like this complete lack of pretension, it speaks of an unsophistication that is refreshing. I dump my Spanish Red into a tumbler someone did not use for their beer. I like wine in a glass tumbler. Reminds me of Italy.

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“I started to realise that I really enjoy cultural things,” a woman in her thirties explains, “but none of my friends did. I love classical music and looking at artwork and going to live performance. I started this group so I could meet with other people to share those things with.” We sit in the Edwardian Cafe within Birmingham’s Museum and Art Gallery waiting for others to arrive. It’s a beautiful structure that stands on Chamberlain Square in the city centre. Like all museums in the UK, admission is free.

A varied group assembles to take in the current temporary exhibits, two modern shows. These meet-up groups have really caught-on in Birmingham. Most of the attendees today have come into the downtown from outside the city, including the organiser.

It seems to me that over the past century people have lost their trust in strangers in most places. Meet-up groups are partially reclaiming that lost aspect of society. It wasn’t that we used to trust everyone, but we did trust those who were in our group. Perhaps this meant people of our clan or of our village. More people attended church and there was a feeling that one could trust another in their church, whether they had met or not. I think this still tends to be the case in churches, they provide social communities for their members. Maybe we trusted those of our class, people who had a similar standing to ourselves. “We’re in this together,” strangers or not. There was more kinship, more seeing others as oneself. Would you steal from your brother? Surely not.

I think there was even an innocence that my parents generation had during their early years, growing up in the 50s and 60s in small town Canada. This sociological aspect may have been earlier concluded in more metropolitan areas, I don’t know. There was greater civility, stronger politeness, more adhered-to rules of behaviour, and an assumption of good will. Perhaps one had to be somewhat guarded on the streets in large cities, but they’d create pockets of safety in their own communities. Neighbours were friends or friends not yet met. There was an assumption of goodness of the other rather than mistrust. I’ll happily share with you and I know you would happily share with me. Perhaps some of the trust came from naivety, television destroyed any of that. Now, instead of having a realistic viewpoint of knowing what kinds of terrible things people sometimes do to each other, we have an exaggerated viewpoint of it. The most violent crimes are talked about and repeated and we are taught to be guarded for our own protection. Before we would have heard about something that happened to someone in our circle or in our community, now we can hear about violence on the opposite side of the world nearly at the very same time it happens. Lost innocence of an entire species.

More and more we lead hectic, separate lives. In the West many of us will live entirely on our own, not sharing our living space with anyone. We did not evolve this way. In our separateness we crave connection with our fellow man.

Some of us may have strong groups of friends but as life changes so do we. Sometimes our friends don’t change at the same time and we outgrow them. Or they outgrow us. Perhaps our friends are dear to us but we also need something new. The introduction of new friends can bring new life. Most of us get set-in-our-ways and some of us want to break-out but may not know how. How do I meet someone outside my circle? How do I live my days differently than I do now? Where do I go if I want to go somewhere other than where I do go? It can feel impossibly difficult to break routine. The routines of what I do and where I go and who I talk to and when I talk to them and what we talk about and how we do and how we go and the list goes on and on.

I met two nice ladies standing by the canal. They were sight-seeing. I was sight-seeing. I chatted briefly with them and we had a friendly exchange. But we didn’t go sight-seeing together. It wouldn’t be normal, would it. For them to trust a complete stranger. Even if they thought I seemed friendly and fun, they have been taught caution. There are places where this kind of interchange is possible though, such as when young people stay in hostels. This situation provides the context of sameness, I’m in this hostel and you are in this hostel and we are both traveling so why don’t we go out and wander the streets together rather than separately.

That is what online meet-up groups do. They provide the introduction. The fact that we both signed-up to go to the same place and do the same thing provides just enough sameness for us to be able to trust each other and interact as friends. When I worked in coffee shop at the end of university the aspect I liked most was having permission to be friendly with strangers. My interaction with the customer was defined and in friendly Fredericton the locals welcomed familiar-type conversations while they were collecting their coffees.

If I just went in to the museum surely I would find other people who had the same interest of seeing the museum but it would be socially odd for me to try to join with others to share the experience of the exhibit. It is not the behavioural norm, one is supposed to keep to oneself and respect the autonomy of strangers. By myself I am likely to share a comment with someone looking at the same thing or even strike a conversation with another patron, but the chances that we would end-up going through an entire exhibit together or chatting over a coffee afterwards is very low.

I do meet strangers on my travels in all sorts of situations but having the ability to join online meet-up groups gives me an in with locals that was previously not possible.

Birmingham’s Museum and Art Gallery has a formidable permanent collection of historical and significant works which I briefly take-on on another occasion. Today we are gathered for the temporary exhibits.

New Art West Midlands is a collection of “The best new art by emerging West Midland graduates.” (New Art West Midlands Brochure as created for the exhibit.) The works have been created by recent graduates from five art schools in the region and the represent a variety of media including paining, installation, ceramics, film, sculpture, and photography. Art comes down to personal preference. When I have to stand and stare at something and wonder why it can be called art, that kind of thing I do not have much appreciation for. Sometimes a creation that displays no skill can still seem artful to me for it’s uniqueness, it’s originality. The famous straight line drawn across a canvas I still think is just stupid, no matter how many high-brow art experts argue differently. Certainly there was a little of that ilk displayed, they want to provide a wide variety and that includes artwork that “pushes the barriers”.

My hands-down favourite collection was created by Rafal Zar. He found his own formula that works for him. Paint something cute in such a way as to be disturbing. His write-up makes his work sound a bit more sophisticated than mine does suggesting that he deals with controversial issues and such. But really it looks like he just uses some cliches in his paintings that are guaranteed to be richly interpreted. A half torso of a nun who has double pupils in each eye stands behind a tree growing in an incubator. A cartoon rabbit hovers over her right shoulder and something comparable hovers over her left. I like it. It’s fun, it’s playful, but it seems to me just silly. The odd cross is thrown in to quite a few of his works and it really does just seem to be for the purpose of adding a religious element rather than some deep thought-out metaphorical statement. The only statement I hear him making is, “Look at me, look at your symbols, pooey on your symbols. They mean nothing to me.”

Speaking of poo, there is quite a substantial collection of faeces sculptures sitting on a table in front of his paintings. I like these too, they’re mostly quite colourful. The majority are rings of poo, round-and-round-and-up-and-cut. Some of them are quite realistic sculptures, others are wool, still others are painted into little characters with cute faces.

His paintings are pretty and ugly at the same time, I quite enjoy them and I would buy one if I lived anywhere. Definitely check-out his blog though, you can see photos of this actual exhibit in the Museum as well as other fun works. This particular exhibit is only on until May 19, 2013, so if you are in or near to Birmingham, don’t wait to go visit!

www.rafalzar.blogspot.co.uk

The second temporary exhibit was “Metropolis: Reflections on the modern city”. This is an international contemporary exhibit that was jointly collected by this gallery as well as The New Art Gallery Walsall, in partnership with Ikon. I found this exhibit generally more appealing in that I appreciated most of what was on offer.

I am definitely biased being a lover of travel and having a preference for cities. The overall feeling I am left with from this exhibit is of it being more a portrait of the people who live in the cities, their struggles and the reality of average everyday lives.

A 6-minute video of an abandoned apartment complex in Frankfurt with the windows being smashed from the inside is oddly mesmerising. You don’t know when and where the next window will smash, one by one until there are no window panes remaining. (Front Windows by Jochem Hendricks, 2009)

Click on following link to view the video. Try to project it onto a large wall and use good speakers to recreate the effect experienced at the museum.

www.jochem-hendricks.de/_englisch/2011_frontwindow/non_index.htm

I appreciated the very large scenes by Semyon Faibisovich who showed us some portraits of real life in a poor district of Moscow. He takes photos on his mobile phone, blows them up to mega proportions, and paints overtop. Two men lean against each other to keep from falling-over drunk, a bottle between them, and in “Take the Weight off Your Feet” a woman sits on the road as if having fallen but with items placed to show that she actually sat down. You can see these images with this link:

http://www.artfund.org/what-we-do/art-weve-helped-buy/artwork/11569/1-sick-on-the-way-2-take-the-weight-off-your-feet-3-repose

A video room with a view of Shanghai’s main pedestrian shopping street on on side, a view with sound of a woman blowing, as in blowing out candles on an enormous birthday cake, on the other. Every time she blows the view of the street scene retreats to create the feeling that she is blowing the street away. The view pauses in one spot between her breaths showing the hustle and bustle on the busy street and as she blows the image moves further away from us, as if her breath has propelled the viewer further backwards down the street. I recognise the street, it’s a very unique district for China that looks more like a Western beacon of consumerism with all the familiar Western brands. Perhaps it represents the future of China? It certainly represents only a very tiny segment of Chinese life today, perhaps of the top 1 percent to be generous. I still have Adidas track pants I bought on that street. I had forgotten to bring gym clothes with me.

Another representation of China, a large street scene showing buildings, a construction site, buses on multiple lanes of traffic, and a pedestrian walkway with some people walking. It is a very ordinary scene but it captures my interest for a long time. After looking at it I read the placard which explains that the photographer has created the large scene using multiple images. Not readily apparent until after reading, now I can see how he has manipulated the sizes of objects so that things far away are of similar size to those close-up. The effect is of looking of a model rather than the real thing. Additionally, there is story in the people on the pedestrian walk, they are interesting to look at and stir my curiosity.

Jerry cans linked together on a rod sit on the floor. It really is just a kebab of ordinary gas cans. I learn that portable gas cans with handles were invented by the Germans in 1939 but still this falls into my category of the unimpressive. Nonetheless, here I am writing about it, so there you go.

Really the entire exhibit was quite interesting so I’m not going to write about it further. It will be open until June 23, 2013. Again, if you happen to be in or near Birmingham, I think it deserves your attention.

After taking in the two fun and interesting modern art exhibits with a group of 7, three of us ventured to a pub together to enjoy the afternoon a bit longer before parting ways. I hope to see some of them again while I’m here, but if not, it was still a perfect day.

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The Stately Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery stands in Chamberlain Square by the Paradise Forum and the Town Hall.

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Inside one of the stairwells of the museum.

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This lovely space sits between the gift shop and the Edwardian Cafe inside the Museum.

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The cafe was not open when I went back to take a photo so I could not show the vast open space. But, here is a view through the door, which was open (but a meeting was taking place inside).

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Some of the stained-glass windows located in one of the stairways of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

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At New Street Station I met one of the nicest groups of people I could have imagined. Kind, thoughtful souls, every one. People who have suffered either become hardened or they develop a greater sense of understanding for others.

There are those people who fit comfortably into round holes. They may have an average temperament, a middle-of-the-road upbringing, main-stream tastes and experiences. Some of these people do not have the ability to comprehend that their experience of the world can be different from someone else’s. They will assume that what they have felt and experienced is the very same as how others feel and experience. They will equate someone’s debilitating depression with their own experience of sadness. “Oh, I know how you feel, ” they may be fond of saying, followed by something completely incomparable. They also don’t understand that even without a major life event, without a traumatic experience to point at, people can slip down a spiral. Depression is the most often thought-of spiral, but Social Anxiety is another.

“Why did you join this group?” one of the younger members asks as we walk between venues, “You clearly do not have Social Anxiety.” I do know that how I experience it is invisible to others. I tend to be diplomatic and I am not shy in groups. Naturally a leader, I tend not to appear socially anxious whatsoever. I can fill the role of host without much thought.

I am by no means any kind of expert on Social Anxiety (SA) but being one who experiences it, let me tell you about it from my experience. I have experienced it as a spiral, in that the longer it pervades the stronger it gets. It gets harder and harder to break-out of.

I think that SA can stem from numerous causes. For me, it developed partly from being highly-sensitive in an insensitive world. Too much noise creates anxiety. Too many people. Too much light. Too much activity and commotion. Think of the enjoyment most people get attending a busy party with music and dancing and lots of people. I’m good up to a point, but beyond that point I become overstimulated and that triggers my fight-or-flight response. I panic to escape. I had many such nights during university, I’d reach my threshold for having fun before anyone else. “I’m going now.” “Don’t go, stay, we’re having fun!” Eventually I just realised that when it’s time for me to leave, easiest was to just bolt. “You disappeared last night,” I’d hear the next day. “I guess I got too drunk,” I’d lie, easier than saying I became overwhelmed by the crowds and ran away. Drinking helps though, my tolerance for stimulation is much higher when drinking. It likely is for most people, that’s why average people happily listen to ear-blowing club music for hours, they probably would not withstand it either when completely sober.

Eventually anxiety can be experienced in anticipation of an anxiety-causing event. These events tend to be social. This part of my anxiety is really pre-overstimulation anxiety and it is very explainable from having an oversensitive nervous system. I don’t know if it really has a name, I just made that up, but it is what it is.

Generally I can keep this at bay by being in-control over my situation. When I was a shop owner I often used to work Saturday mornings at a mall kiosk location. I would only work for 2 or 3 hours, very short. I did this shift because the mall on Saturdays was open 9:30-6:00, which was too long for one person but too short to schedule two. It seemed to me unfair to have someone come in for only 2 or 3 hours, so I did it. It was perfectly fair for me because I wasn’t making a wage anyway. But the mall tended to be noisy. Trapped in the middle of the hallway alone at the kiosk, I came to really hate it. Because if it became too much, I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t just abandon my kiosk and leave it unmanned in the middle of a busy shopping centre. After many times of having the experience of anxiety caused by the noise, I learned to dread working in the mall. Sometimes I would be completely fine, the more I distracted myself from the commotion the better I was. Or sometimes the mall would be dead-quiet anyway. But once the anxiety became a conditioned response that game was over. Not that I should be complaining, my partner and I had four retail locations and I probably only worked at a location two or three short times in a week, often not at all. I was able to mostly create the job that I needed, which was working from home and visiting from store to store without actually staying at one for any duration.

I tend not to experience SA with strangers or with new people that I am meeting. Clearly this is unusual and makes me look like an interloper when mixing with others who experience SA. I am not socially awkward and I find it easy to start conversations with strangers. I can generally hone-in on something that is interesting for them to talk about. I am not shy, I am an outgoing introvert. This label goes in the face of what most people know about introverts and extraverts. It just means that I do not recharge in the company of others or in social situations, unlike extraverts. I recharge by being alone or by doing solitary activities such as cycling, reading, or writing. Introverts recharge introspectively, extraverts recharge extracurricularly. That’s not exactly the correct usage of those terms, but you know what I mean.

My Social Anxiety holds me back mostly with people I know. I’m fine with people I don’t know, I’m not worried about disappointing strangers or of not living up-to stranger’s expectations of me. In this way, strangers are very safe. It’s probably part of how I thrive on traveling and how I can enjoy doing so for a long time by myself.

I know exactly what this issue stems from but I’m not going to write about it today. I will explain how it plays-out though. When back in Toronto I procrastinate on meeting-up with friends. I’ll reach for the phone to call and put it back down letting anxiety win-out. “How was your trip?” someone will ask. I don’t know how to answer that question apart from it was good or it wasn’t. How do I sum-up the myriad of travel experiences into a conversation? My somewhat scattered-mind does not focus in on travel tales to readily share. I generally come-off as well-spoken, but I often feel tongue-tied. I have very high expectations for myself that I cannot live-up to. I will do the same thing when I visit my parents in my hometown in New Brunswick, Canada. This is a place I have not lived-in, apart from a few summers early on, for 22 years. I will like the idea of catching-up with people before I visit, but once I’m there I may or may not let anxiety cancel plans.

What if I’m not interesting enough. What if they want more from me than I can give. What if they end-up calling me too much and invading my space. What if Im just not good enough. I’ll call them later. I’m tired.

And the dreaded phone. It rings, I panic, I ignore it. The first thought that flashes through my head when my phone rings is, “What have I done bad now.” I do not have memory of a specific telephone call that would explain this reaction, but my main feeling on answering the phone is guilt. I am in trouble for something. I have let someone down. They are calling to tell me that I did something bad, or said something wrong, or made some unfixable mistake. After arriving to the UK last week a UK friend posted on my Facebook, “call”. What did I do? I avoided Facebook for days. Did I call? Not yet. His little message exasperated my issue too though. “Please call, can’t wait to catch-up!” may have put me at ease to pick-up the phone. The one word command had me think, OMG what’s wrong, have I offended him? Is he upset with me?

This phone thing is irritating and I am decided that I will “feel the fear and do it anyway”. Eventually I will answer the phone enough times and have enough pleasant, rewarding conversations that the anxiety will disappear. Call display does help, I nearly always feel completely comfortable answering to my Sister or to my Mother. But that’s it. Most other people I am more likely to miss the call, build-up some courage, and call them back a few moments later.

Separately there is the noise factor, I do not have a good filter for noise. If I answer the phone when walking down the street I cannot hear very well, it makes for an awkward conversation. In my car is fine, the blue teeth connect to each other or something (BTW, bluetooth is a Canadian invention) and the speaker is clear. Also, I’d be embarrassed to be “that guy”, the one who is yelling into his cell phone at the coffee shop.

I am not going to accept my phone limitations anymore, I am just going to answer it. When just doing it, anxiety decreases over time. When avoiding it, anxiety increases over time. But it’s easier said than done. It is a flight or fight response, heart rate increases, some people sweat, for me I feel short of breath. I just want the feeling to disappear and the easiest short-term way to do that is to remove the trigger.

I think a common tie of those to suffer from Social Anxiety often involves a past assault to their self-esteem. This can happen simply from being a square peg trying to fit the round holes and finding it impossible. Our culture does not value uniqueness the way it should. “I’m different from the others. There must be something wrong with me,” is a common, completely false, conclusion. How dull would our planet be without the richness of variety that comes from those who do not fit the norm. Architecture would all be straight and box-like. Clothing would still be grey, beige, and dull. Music would never have evolved the way it has. I cannot imagine what the world would look like if it were not improved by those who didn’t fit-in. These are the trend-setters and the record-breakers when they are adults, but their school years can be tragic.

Another common cause to self esteem issues comes from one’s peers. Bullying and teasing can leave scars that causes an innate fear of others. These abuses are generally tied to the school yard years, but their impact on one’s sense of self cannot be overestimated. Again the square pegs are the most targeted, those who stand out as being unique. Too tall, too thin, too fat, too smart, too slow, too awkward; all these are comparisons against the average. People even become embarrassed by their medical conditions, of which they have little or no control and which should not be cause for embarrassment whatsoever, but they feel judged for nonetheless. Acne, skin discolouration, hair loss, mobility issues, speech impediments, a limp, a hump, even having the need for spectacles; again, anything that sets one apart. “Fatty”, “Four-eyes”, “Skinny git”, “Retard”, the list of hurtful taunts thrown about is endless. Individuals may even attach shame to their condition, which is disgusting. Society has failed them. Shame on society.

Racism, sexism, elitism, homophobia; these are things people should be ashamed of. People should be ashamed of judging others, yet the practice is often reinforced. As arbitrary as these types of characteristics are to the value of a person, they can make the person fell like an outsider, or be an outsider, in certain environments.

I was pretty young when I had this realisation. “If I was born into a Muslim family, I’d be Muslim.” “Yes, but the Bible says that you can only go to heaven through Jesus Christ.” “But what if I had never heard of Jesus Christ?” “That’s what the Bible says, so . . .” I had asked my Mother and she had me ask an inter-denominational minister for these answers. I think part of her must know this doctrine is wrong on a moral level so she hoped a minister would have some special deeper interpretation, but he didn’t.

So it would have been my fault if I had not heard of Jesus Christ and I would not go to heaven. Most other world religions are more inclusive. The Christian Church has also loosened it’s stance to allow it’s members to have more liberal views than was allowed when I was a child 30 years ago. They had to, they’d have almost no membership left if they hadn’t. Many do not take the Bible literally anymore, so, what can you take it for? It can be interpreted in many ways to suit the beliefs of the day, and it has. I still don’t understand how a book that can be ascribed opposite meanings on many topics, can be used as an authority. During slavery, verses were quoted to consider having slaves as biblical. Later, verses were quoted to prove that slavery was unbiblical. If it can be interpreted that loosely, how can it be consulted for truth?

Does it not enforce racism to say that one person will be rewarded with heaven and another won’t? Does that not say to a child that one person is better than another? Is there not an understood implication to the little white Christian child that he deserves good things like heaven and his friend Mohammed doesn’t? Even if Mohammed has heard of Jesus Christ, should he not be rewarded for being faithful to his own beliefs, those of his family and of his community? “Not according to the Bible.”

Fortunately, most Christians today seem to believe that there are many paths to God and no longer strictly adhere to their faith’s elitism. Again, what choice do they have living in a modern, multicultural world. I am happy for people to have their beliefs but I am not up-to having a religious debate. Insofar as one’s beliefs do not hurt others, I think they should be respected.

Shyness tends to also be linked to SA. Behind it may be fear. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of being judged. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of not being heard. Fear of not sounding smart enough. Fear of rejection. If I don’t speak, nothing will happen. If I do speak, something bad could happen. People will laugh at me, I will be told I am wrong, people will disagree, people won’t care . . . . . I have little doubt we have some dissatisfied teachers to blame for some of these cases.

I was a very distracted confused little boy during my first few years of school. I remember Mrs.Perkins screaming at me in fury, and I never knew what for. It was always about not paying attention. I was diagnosed with ADHD 25 years later. Luckily I was smart enough to get by without having full attention. And I learned to focus over time. In my last year of Uni. I had career testing in the guidance department. The head of guidance was shocked that I had the aptitude for university based on my scores. “You’re tolerance for study is the lowest I have ever seen for a university student. If you were in first year I’d be suggesting that maybe uni is not a good fit for you.” I took a programme that didn’t require much study, Business Administration. It was mostly just understanding concepts which simply made sense to me. Easy-peasy. Science, history, engineering, not a chance.

It didn’t need to be a teacher’s harshness that caused someone’s shyness, it could be anyone. Parents, peers, siblings, nannies. . . Shyness could also be an innate quality, some babies are shyer than others and grow up to be quieter as well. But is it different wiring that causes a baby to be more shy, or is it earlier experiences? I think certain personalities will have a greater propensity to become shy, but I don’t think it’s tried and fast. Given these circumstances vs. those, one is likely to become shy. Combine that with one’s innate characteristics would compound that likeliness. But I don’t think that shyness is fixed for most people who experience it. It definitely feel like it is fixed though.

Shyness is another condition that can spiral. The more you don’t speak-up, the harder it becomes to speak-up. And when you do speak, your anxiety is so high that you cannot properly find the words or think straight. This makes for another bad experience and the shyness is reinforced. It is so much easer to speak when you are feeling calm, or at least secure. I had my years of being shy but something happened that I broke out of it. I’m not going to write about that right now, another time.

So it was I found myself walking towards a pub in Birmingham with a group of people who suffer differing forms of Social Anxiety. Yes, I am one of you. Don’t judge me by my appearance, my struggles may just be more hidden. (Originally I wrote “my flaws”, which is how SA tends to feel, but “my struggles” is more accurate.) This is not a flawed group, this is a gifted group whose struggles have given them extra compassion and empathy. These are people who make the world a better place.

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My next meet was an organised pub quiz at a worn-in neighbourhood pub. This group are in their 20s and 30s, so I am at the very limit of inclusion. The pub is located in the Jewellery District so it’s also a chance to venture into that central district to see if it will be a good place to continue my stay after my hotel. The hotel is fully booked from Monday, May 13th so I will have to make a move whether staying in Birmingham or not. There is a flat-share near to the pub that is on my consideration list.

A fifteen-minute walk from Victoria Square and where I am staying at present, I encounter very few people on the streets. Except for in specific pedestrianised zones, which are plentiful but concentrated in the city centre, this is not a walking city, at least not from what I can see. When going any distance at all, walking is a bit cumbersome. A sidewalk ends and now I need to illegally cross a thoroughfare to continue on the other side. Or I could back-track to use a pedestrian subway or an overpass, but I won’t. Some narrow streets have no pedestrian space whatsoever. Sidewalks are called “pavements” in the UK, but I won’t use that term in my writing because to North Americans it sounds like it would refer to the street surface, which is pavement, rather than the sidewalk, which is cement.

I stand at the full bar counter waiting my turn to order a drink. The crowd moves slowly because this pub offers cocktails that look pain-staking in their preparation. Six or eight pints could be dispensed in the time it takes to prepare an elaborate beverage of 5 or so different measured liquids, shaken with ice, and then strained through a sieve into a glass that was just chilled by first filling it with ice water for a moment. The crowd intently watches the slow progress of each drink in anticipation of their own turn. A tall slender woman approaches the bar from outside. She is clearly scanning the room for a group so I ask her if she is here for the meet-up. She is.

Hana settles at a table so we don’t lose the last one available while I wait for our drink order. Back at the table another fellow arrives, a 20-something guy who is very good at pub quizzes, so it turns out. Four more guys trickle-in and the quiz has commenced. A page of faces we are meant to identify, I do not even recognise the Canadian, Alanis Morissette. A page of word puzzles, name-that-tune from looking at some written Lyrics, name-that-record looking at album cover artwork. “Those three must have been CDs because they are completely unfamiliar to me,” is my only feedback. I saw so very many record albums when my former partner and I would visit record shows and sort through thousands while buying hundreds for making clocks and melting into bowls that we sold at our stores. Not an interest, I only learned what I needed to so I could recognise our hit-list when sorting through boxes and crates of vinyl. But, there was a different hit-list in Canada so I may have been incorrect in my helpful advice.

The group holds-it’s-own, placing among the top few groups. No thanks to me, I was not key to a single correct answer. Any answer I did know, others also knew. I’m not a fountain of knowledge when it comes to trivia or pop culture. I share with the group that I used to co-own some pop-culture stores. I express my surprise as to how many people bought things like Angry Bird pillows, t-shirts, hats, games, pens. When I finally tried the game on one of my niece’s iPhone, I was shocked. Really? Why do people buy all this crap? Most of the games and such I never did try or see so I can only assume I would have been riveted. No, probably not.

The game ends and we have tied for third. I take my leave and walk out onto the street and make my way home. Back at the hotel I get a message, “Hana has your money.” Apparently after I left there was some sort of re-judgement. People with their smart phones verifying answers and questions using google had found a discrepancy and I guess we were right somewhere previously considered wrong. “I have £15 for you,” Hana enotes to me through the meet-up system. Not really deserved, I’m thinking, I did keep a seat warm at the table but I cannot possibly take any credit for being part of the winning team. If I make it to the next one I can use my winnings to buy a round for the first few people who arrive. That’ll be fun.

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With less than half of my time in Birmingham now completed, this will be continued. My next positing will be much more focused on the sights and will contain less introspection.

Below is a short video of some pics I took around Birmingham. If you receive this posting by email, click on the image and it should open the story in a browser where you can see it play.


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Thanks for reading!
Darren

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