Days in the archives.

As this standardly goes, I haven’t written anything on the blog for, lets have a look- a good six months, so what you’ll find below is a rambling train of thought about recent exploits into the archives at the new (ish) and shiny (still) Library of Birmingham. It’s long, so you probably won’t get through it. This is research for The Flat (what the flat I live in has been, and will become) piece, about me finding out what has been archived and stored, what clues I can find.  I was asked, by an academic, recently about my research- how is it shown in my work, and that’s been at the back of mind. I’ve also been thinking about ways of forgetting as well as remembering, but that might be something different. There’s more background to where this comes from in previous posts from last year here

An accidental look

It starts as always does, with an unformed question, an unknown quantity of something to be looking for. Something that may not even exist. A clue, a physical thing. And before I know it I’m being swept away in a series of questions and signings of my name as I stick a pencil in my hair and pretend I know what I’m doing.

I’m in an archive, again. Looking to turn over stones. Pages. It was a brief question, and I am hurried in through a secure door, to a man who knows his business. I’m aware of my inadequacy, in shorts and bright tights. But I’m directed too and left too leather bound books in slanting handwriting.

My favourite place, the land of the past, where decisions have already been made, and long dead hands write information in a studied and important ways. And so the mundane, the clerical, the logged, tells a story. I’m looking through the ledger of building applications on the road that I now live on. This is what gets me going.

I know from photographs, and informal internet chats, facts stolen from websites (it’s the stuff that does not exist online that holds me in it’s thrall) that this, by this, I mean the place I live, did not become a place, a dwelling place, until around the 1930’s. I don’t know the exact date. These ledger’s look like spell books in crackling paper, are in fact the filing systems, internet forms and tick boxes from the last century. Wide in width, an arm span, not quite an arm span, it’s more A1, A2, in paper size, they lay out their stories in lines and correct dates.

In alphabetical order the list of streets where building applications were taking place….streets that I know, have heard of, are familiar, through letters of the alphabet until. Stomach skipping I spot my street. An out loud exhalation of breath.  A first clue, not really, of course it existed then. But such a pleasure to see it in the handwritten word, a confirmation of it’s existence.

It’s not what I’m looking for, but all the same, the applications for buildings, build up on this long lane.

It starts as little more than a dirt track, I know I’ve seen the pictures. The Haunch itself, an old style house, set back from the road. A slight rising hill, more a small incline.

But you start to see it.

Application for one house, by an individual.

For 6 dwelling houses, by a company.

The plots are unnumbered as yet in this fresh land, they are measured by their proximity to the nearest other road that has a purpose. Houses and families.

2 dwelling houses.

4 motor house (applied for separately).

My shop is not here, yet, my flat is yet to live yet. My landlord yet to breath.

I go through, 1930, 1931, 1932. The house are springing up along the lane.

The lane that I walk along some days. And curse it’s length and incline (small incline).

The lane that I don’t look up at the houses. Not really.

The lane where sometimes I recognise the faces, but not always, more likely the cars.  Not an ancient place. The lane itself, the byway is ancient.

But the houses themselves are mostly under 100. A boom town, time. Suburban living on the outskirts of the city. A place to bring up the kids, a friendly estate, a community.

Safely but not far from the bustle of the city. Gun factories and Jewels. Cast iron in industry.

I look back, backwards back in time, see the buildings fall once more to dirt track.

I have a feeling my place, pre-dates some of those house thrown up.

I look to 1928.

An application for a Picture House, off another Lane, at the bottom of the road.

And in the same year. November 1928.

An application for 8 dwelling houses & shops.

There she is.

288. There they are. A number for a building plan. Although I may not be in luck. Tracing paper, grease proof paper, splits and aches with time, turns to fingerprints and rips so the plans of solid buildings are now dust before the fall of bricks and mortar.

Later that week…

I book an appointment to view the building plans. (Pencil in hair, bag in locker, sign away to not republish- behind quizzical looks & explanations of what I’m doing here).

And out they come rolls of paper, shiny and inviting on one side.

They are rolled out in front of me with bean made weights.

Oh. Oh.

It’s the plans of the drainage system. But there is clues on here, ink of the man that designed.

The drainage system.

A clue though, to the architect that built the house, that formed the roof that I sit under. But there is more. The other plans are awaiting my viewing.

Thicker paper, almost material, still transparent, I can see lines and shapes. Slowly, slowly eek out the plan.

Crackle and ache. Weighted down to stop rolling up as a fortune telling fish.

And it’s there: the very conception of the walls and roof’s and doorways. What’s the phrase? A little more than a twinkle in your Mother’s eye…

Planned for: 8 Shops and dwelling houses. On behalf of Mutual Housing Company- (telling tales of the suburbs of this city, this company, selling sales of the suburbs).

There are letters pinned to the top of the plans, notices of City Council.

That old familiar crawl up the back of my neck in delight at the old. In handwriting. Handwritten. The content: standard, in building talk and aspects. But there it is my portal to the past. I read between official lines.

2 floor maisonettes. My rooms were built as bedrooms. The kitchen where it still is now. Before wood panelling. Before repairing TV’s. A family dwelling to run the shop downstairs.

I find from other obsessives in archives online this was meant to be a village; Hollybank Village. A small community surrounding the cinema, a focal point, a modern church. We’ll give them shops to spend their money.

And the architect, he’s pretty well to do. More a builder of the picture houses, than one for shops and dwellings. Harold Seymour Scott, see his name on the page. His signature.  His ink. Birmingham based, designed over 20 cinema’s across the country. Places I know, places I’m afraid of, never heard of, would never go back to.

Trowbridge, Farnborough, Bracknell, Smethick, Mayfair, Newbury. It continues.

All but one, still showing pictures. Giant pictures. Most knocked down.  Some still standing empty, the others suffer the inevitability of a lucky legacy as a bingo hall.

Roll them back up, and put them back into dusty shelves in secure places. And no one knows quite why their saved. Like those bits of paper and bank statement you’re not quite sure you need. But you heard somewhere you need them for seven years or something. Until someone comes looking at the buildings already built.

The Pictures. 

The other things I’ve come to view, photographs hidden away as physical actions of surveys. I can’t take pictures of these, I can’t reproduce them on my iphone or ipad. Just have to remember them. I have to wear rubber gloves. Delicious. To protect the pictures. It makes me feel all CSI. I wish I wore glasses. Or had a magnifying glass.

Scenes of ghosts. Building’s no longer here, A Merlin Garage. I try to draw it. Actually I try to make it larger by the two finger swipe action of technology. It doesn’t work it’s not on screen. I just have to hold it closer to my face. Zoom. I take the pictures out one, by one. As if I found them in a trunk behind a locked door.

The back of the building’s old adverts in paint, that still can be seen on the brick work if you look long enough. And stand in the alley long enough.

And then, heart up to throat, there it is. A picture I’ve never seen before, of the front of the flat, the shop’s in it’s glory days. It’s useful days.

It’s silly this, the feeling that I get from pictures of the past. It’s discovering a whole other life of someone you thought you knew well. As if they kept that hidden, and you knew, you just knew there was something other to them. Something before you. There is always is.

There’s alway been others before. I want to hold this picture to my heart. Is that over the top? Probably. A time I’ll never know. A moment I’ll never see.  A person I’ll never meet.

Stands in the window of Ladds, TV Rental and Repair Shop.

(this is some of where the obsession started…the place I live in, the shop below used to be Ladds TV Rental and Repair shop).

Picture 1

There’s a hole in the top left hand corner as if it’s been pinned or tacked somewhere. A notice board,a pinboard.

An inscription on the back. 21 December 1959. 32 years to the day before I was born. I’m 32 now. Patterns that I want to see. You can always find coincidence if you look hard enough.

It’s a surveyor’s photo. Red crayon stains the front circling around something that isn’t there with an arrow. What’s there now? A burglar alarm. A pigeon roost. CCTV.

Across the roof of the building in the right light you can catch the indentation of a forgotten hand. Paper placed atop the photo and written; a scrawling hand, leaving indents in the image.

I sit under bright lights and scowl at the marks, edge of the photo to the tip of my nose.

‘2362 some and cinema something show…’

I feel like Dick Van Dyke. Dr Sloane, a detective catching out a killer by the imprint on a pad by the telephone. Or something like that. (Diagnosis Murder for those that didn’t waste the afternoons of their youth post lunchtime Neighbours on Watching The Detectives)

And in the photo itself is the same tree that stands here now, flat topped and pruned. A wooden fence no black Iron gates.

I’m trying to store the picture into my memory, look at every last centimetre. Methodically. Earnestly. Like scanning the skin of a lover you are losing, remembering every last mole and indentation. Saving it up.

There are curtains in the top flat, the sectioned windows still the same for me. As Harold, the architect, designed them himself. Curtain’s in the downstairs flat, above the shop. A glimpse of, perhaps, a light in my old bedroom.

288 is a veg and flower shop, chill cabinets toward the back. I think. I’m sure I can see ducks hanging, or something hanging, from hooks. Could be strings of garlic. An awning stretching over. Christmas trees or shrubs, outside amongst the trays of fruit. 21st December. Christmas Trees.

A car parked in front. A morris minor. Perhaps, from the grill.

LADD’s is next door. I can’t tell you if it’s signs are blue & white, the picture is in black & white. Radio & Television written in slopping letters. LADD’s in bold. Stood up straight. Four digit phone number.

Round cornered televisions, the biggest at the forefront. And in that window. A woman wiping across a cloth-you can see the streaks she made. She’s half smiling to the camera, pretending not to see it. But she knows it’s there.

‘His Master’s Voice’ and ‘Regentone’ in banners across the window front. Radios and heaters (is that right?) to the left. A jumble of objects piled up. A portrait of a lady sits beneath the dog listening to the record of HMV.

V.M Jones. Lingerie. Hosiery. Separates. Next door.

And in that glass door, designed in all it’s glory, slightly set back from the shop window displays, a small girl grins at the camera. Nose pressed against the glass.

I can see a man in grey coloured mac, last few days of work before knocking off for Christmas, sent out in the half light of a grey day in December to photograph something or other because there is a gap in the building. He does it methodically, doesn’t notice those inside staring out at his camera, automatically smiling. As you often do with cameras.   Used to.

And then that little girl, she comes out, asks him what he’s doing. And he picks her up gently and hold her eye against the camera that he’s put on a tripod to get a steady picture. He can’t take back shaky pictures. These are for council business. But he shows the little girl the shutter. And tells her that she’ll be in a picture, saved for ever for the council. Tells her that if he remembers he’ll drop around a copy of the picture so that she can have it. It’s against the rules, but it is Christmas after all. And she laughs and runs inside. And he never does drop off the picture. And she forgets. Grows older, moves away, and never remembers that day in her mother’s shop when a man let her look through the lens of a camera, proper big camera.

I look again at the impression in the picture from that pressed down pen.

’23. 3. 62.

S. Carman for sor…

…….blding and cinema.

that show on the….’

Picture 2 

4th March 1963 (4 years later)

Car parked outside. 65 GOB  TP5866.

From left to right. There is still the greengrocers at 288. There are piles of snow in between the pillars of the shop, a faux wall has been erected , between the two shop fronts. In the greengrocers, jars on shelves and a counter. Signs on the window for the price of meat.

The tree, the tree in the background which still stands now, is taller. Perhaps, or at least wider. Curtains upstairs. And curtains downstairs. Plant Pots in the windows.

The sign has changed with nothing slanting in italics. All standing up straight. And the addition in the window of


Phone. Hig: 4802.

Less TV’s in prominence in the window, radio’s taking stance. No women in the window, smiling at the camera.

An awning folds over the underwear shop. There are drips down the paving stones.

For typeset fans:

The 1959 sign is CAPITALS in Times Roman. (or something there abouts)

1963 -Rounder, warmer, Helvetica or Arial.




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