Summa: diary (July 22-31, 2022)

Those days were one long prayer.

July 22. Several months ago, we’d planned to enjoy an extended weekend in Birmingham. My wife and I arrived at our spacious Airbnb flat in the Jewellery Quarter, mid afternoon. It had three bedrooms; two too many for our purposes (I judged, passingly). But, then again, most rentals have an excess when there’re only two occupying the accommodation. At around 6.30 pm, there was a knock on the door. We weren’t expecting visitors. So, I ignored it; but the outsider persisted. On opening the door, there before me was my younger son and his girlfriend. ’Surprise!’, as it were. (They’d travelled from Manchester.) My heart and mind oscillated between delight and dumbfoundedness. A little later, there was another knock. (I was now of a mind to expect the unexpected.) On this occasion, my elder son and his girlfriend stood in the door frame. (They’d travelled from London.) My life had begun to feel like one of those dreadful 70s American comedy sit-coms, where celebrity guests turn up unannounced at the party to the canned cheers and applause of the audience. This had all been part of a well-secreted plan to bring together the immediate family for a weekend retirement celebration. I’d not twigged to this arrangement at all. And for that, too, I was grateful.

July 23. En masse, we visited the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter. This was the first of the day’s two Marie Celeste-type encounters. The workshop — which forms the hub of the museum — looks the same as it did on the day that the Smith and Pepper jewellery firm pulled down the shutters for the last time. The experience was as close as one can get to time travel without a Tardis. Order ledgers, written in an elegant cursive script, lay open on the benches; electrical adapters, plugged precariously into one another, hung from wall sockets; orders, boxed but left unsent, were stacked-high upon shelves; and hand tools, steel machines, retort lamps, and the shards of shinny metals lay astrewn upon the benches. The die racks reminded me of a multi-part assemblage by Louise Nevelson.

The Coffin Works is, similarly, a business-turned-museum. The Newman Brothers produced metal furnishings and lining for coffins (as well as shrouds for the deceased), using the same technology for die-casting and pressing as we’d seen at the jewellery museum. Both firms operated a significant gendered pay-gap and allocation of tasks. Women rarely had an opportunity to develop more than rudimentary skills. I wondered what psychological effect the day-after-day confrontation with the paraphernalia of death had had on the company’s employees. The factory ceased production in 1998, after 140 years in business. Many of the mechanisms and skills used for manufacture when it ceased trading were exactly the same as those in operation a century earlier.

In the evening, we walked to the Digbeth area of the city for a second celebratory meal. This was formerly the site of Birmingham’s industrial heartland. A number of the old manufactory buildings are still visible. Graffiti covers much of what remains to be ‘rejuvenated’. The muffled bass beat of club music, playing inside several otherwise derelict buildings, reverberated through the streets and under the railway arches. I recognised a relationship between the sound and the imagery sprayed on the walls. Both were inescapable, unsettling (in their own way), and overlaid; they acted in unison upon my senses.

July 25. Having located the two towers that inspired J. R. R. Tolkien’s imagination in his The Lord of the Rings trilogy, we walked to Birmingham’s Oratory (Cardinal Newman Memorial Church), where the author was a parishioner for nine years of his life. The nave’s barrel-vaulting and subdued light imbued the interior with a deathly solemnity that I associate with mausoleums.

I’d not visited the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery since 2019, when I took my Abstraction art history group (plus hangers-on) on what would be my final field trip. During the pandemic, and until recently, the collection had been closed while the building underwent refurbishment. Not all the galleries have reopened. Those that were — along with spaces for shopping and eating — had been spruced-up a treat. There were two engaging temporary exhibitions on show: one about the city’s historic cinemas, and another highlighting its multi-ethnicity and racial politics. The latter was in advance of the Commonwealth Games, which Birmingham would host in a few days’ time.

July 26. Off to the Black Country Living Museum. It’s rather like St Fagan’s National Museum of History, in so much as the place is made up of buildings that have been dismantled, moved from elsewhere, and reassembled on site. The former, by contrast, has a narrower timeframe; the buildings presently encompass a period from the mid 19th century to around the 1950s. As such, this largely fictional village appears coherent and plausible. Underfoot, much of the ground was dark grey — comprising soot produced during the industrial revolution and coal dust from the drift mine, around which the museum has been built. I’d not heard the crunch of this composite beneath my shoes since I’d walked across the grassed-over coal tips of Blaina, Monmouthshire, in my childhood.

June 30. This was my penultimate day of employment at Aberystwyth University. (My final P45 arrived in the post, yesterday.) I’d planned to walk the campus in order to say a fond ‘farewell’ to places encountered when I first arrived in Aberystwyth as a postgraduate student, forty years ago, at 10.35 am on September 26, 1982. My route began at the entrance to the Neuadd Cwrt Mawr residence, through which the van carrying me and my belongings drove that day. I’d been allocated Room 37 in H Block. In my diary, I wrote:

It was a very bare room, with a brickwork interior reminiscent of a prison cell.

This morning, I took a path that had traced my daily walk from the hall to the, then, Art Department (which is now occupied by Gorwelion Day Hospital) on Llanbadarn Road. The route had been schematised for me on September 27 by a third-year art student who was notable for wearing odd socks. (School of art student radicalism has come along way since then.)

Some views along the way are now obscured; new buildings and foliage have grown up in the intervening four decades. (The black and white photographs were taken in 1983.) I passed the Hugh Owen Library (the entrance to which, on Level D, hasn’t changed one bit) and the Aberystwyth Arts Centre, before taking the road alongside the physical sciences buildings. Then, I walked along the path behind the sports hall and swimming pool and the road that’s parallel to the side of the National Library of Wales. Finally, I descended the hill to the former Art Department. I stopped at the window of what was my office, which I’d shared with another staff newbie when I was first appointed as lecturer. Today, the front door of the building (formerly the side entrance) was ajar; it enabled me to spy the magnificent polished-brass Art Deco stair rail that lead from the ground to the first floor.

July 31. An end.

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