Writer and former Queens Head regular, Paul Fulford, revisits an old friend...
Shadows of the past surround me as I walk into the Queens Head in Steelhouse Lane, now reborn under Davenports ownership after being closed for many years.
It was a regular haunt for us journalists from the Birmingham Post & Mail (and other newspapers) back in the 1980s and 90s and into the early years of the new century. We’d mix with lawyers, coppers, councillors, and criminals rejoicing that they’d walked out of the nearby courts with their freedom intact. We’d sometimes drink way into the night, often well beyond the closing time that was notionally in force. At the corner of the bar, early doors, would sit the football reporter Ian Willars – 'The Duke' – who’d occasionally answer the pub phone. If it was his boss inquiring if he was there, he’d pretend to be the licensee, Ray Cox, and say Willars hadn’t been seen in there that day.
The Sports Argus’s affable, knowledgeable editor, Ian Johnson, would often keep him company; his calm, quiet Geordie tones somehow audible through the chattering noise that invariably filled the bar.
In another corner I see the phantom of a hard-drinking Glaswegian football reporter sitting alone, overcome by a mawkish sentimentality that easily spills over into aggression, talking tearily to his signet ring, in which he was convinced lived the Rangers and Scotland legend, John Gregg.
Memories flood back of a woman – again the worse for wear – falling over, semi-conscious, outside the door and coming round to find the pathologist, another Queens Head regular, looking down at her to check she was okay. “F*ck me, I’m not dead, am I?” she asked.
Hacks would gather at the pub from mid-morning, describing themselves as the '10.31 Club', for they would pop in for their first pint within a minute of opening time. Many would remain for hours, talking to contacts who shared their appetite for conviviality and alcohol.
Occasionally, footballers would pop in to chat to the sports journalists who were habitually there. Friendships were forged with useful contacts and stories were found… and sometimes manufactured.
I remember games of poker over which close friends fell out as they squandered that week’s expenses payment on ludicrously optimistic bets. I remember a close colleague grimacing as he bit into a ham cob and pulled from his mouth a short, wiry hair, the origin of which didn’t seem to be cranial.
That’s not going to happen at the new-look Queens Head, which is a far smarter place without lapsing into the identi-pub sterility that blights so many contemporary boozers. The carpet to which feet would stick has gone to be replaced by polished wood and tiles.
The bar is shiny and appealing. The walls are covered with nostalgic prints and a screen plays footage of the brewery’s rich past. There are even sun terraces upstairs and down.
The changes are a big improvement on the Jekyll and Hyde, which occupied the space between the closure of the old Queens Head and the opening of the new. The place is pleasantly busy and buzzy on the Monday lunchtime I visit. A pint of Davenports continental lager is a pleasant tipple as I look at the menu: a selection of unfussy light bites, sandwiches, sharing plates and mains.
The Baron’s Brunch, at £13.45, is brilliant value, not least because the sausages – specially made for the pub by a local butcher – are excellently meaty and deftly seasoned. There’s glazed bacon, a slow-roasted mushroom, grilled tomato, a fried egg, toast and fries. This is a dish that’s satisfying and perfect to eat with a lunchtime (or morning) beer.
Opposite, sausage and mash (£12.95) is eaten with enthusiasm – the spuds smooth and buttery, the red wine gravy rich, the fried onions melting. There are peas to add a little greenery.
This is superior, straightforward pub grub, generous in portion, that I’d happily return to eat. I suspect the regulars of yesteryear would thoroughly approve of the transformation of the Queens Head. Davenports deserve our thanks for breathing new life into the old girl. She’s got a lot of stories to tell.
Anyone who calls themselves crazy ("ooh I'm bonkers, me") tends to be best avoided, but hats off to Crazy Pedro's, the new pizza and tequila joint in the Custard Factory, because there's something charmingly unhinged about them. And if you're not in the market for their Chippy Tea with Curry Sauce pizza then, mark my words, the more routine toppings make for genuinely wonderful slices. With their chunkier, New York-style pie they tick a disc-shaped box that no other Brummie pizzeria has, and they do it with the kind of unadulterated flair you'd normally associate with a silver-haired wrestling hall-of-famer.
So you should go, absolutely, but you should also try and win a year's supply of pizza. The pink-moustachioed Pedro and his people are offering one Instagrammer a pizza a day for the next 365 days, although sound medical advice would suggest skipping a day or six here or there.
To be in with a chance of winning this ludicrous prize, skip on over to our Instagram and follow the simple instructions. The winner will receive this money-can't-buy, entirely unique VIP card, which you'll just need to show on arrival to claim your complimentary pizza. The offer doesn't include collection, takeout or delivery. If you're in the market for delivery, though, you'll find them on Deliveroo, but I strongly recommend stopping by at their new home, where they have taken over all four floors of the old Medicine Bar, reviving another old soul after all these years. There's a big ol' outdoor terrace too, if the sunshiyiiiines. Win
ME 'OL BAMBOO
You thought bamboo was merely the reserve of stoned out pandas and possibly stoned out gardeners? Think again! Bamboo’s had a glow up, and it’s everywhere: sustainable, grown in this petulant UK weather, and pretty darn sturdy. Which is useful, as its structural integrity is pretty key when you’re on a swing made from it. Get acquainted with our structural friend at the Imagine Bamboo Summit, a free, outdoor celebration in the award-winning Sunset Park in Ladywood, from tomorrow (July 1) to Monday (July 4). Led by independent artistic director, Orit Azaz, and presented by live events company, Imagineer, it’s all part of Birmingham 2022 Festival. The team has worked in collaboration with artists, craftspeople, growers and communities from the UK, Bali, India, Australia, Malta and Ghana, plus Nofit State Circus, to create a global affair, right here in Brum.
Artists, designers and engineers, carpenters and makers will welcome visitors to join in with this creative public art project, exploring what extraordinary structures, stories and circus performance can be built, made and imagined with UK-grown borinda bamboo – one of the most sustainable materials on the planet. Make your own models, learn how to plant and grow bamboo, build and ride a flippin’ bamboo bike, even. Throughout the weekend the team will create bamboo structures and shapes, using these to experiment with circus performance – and for the trusting and brave, you can try a giant bamboo swing for yourself. It all sounds a bit mad, and we love it. All completely free, there’s lots more to see on the website. Trailer
THE BEST OF THE FEST
Rejoice: the Independent Birmingham Festival at Aston Hall returns. It’s back this year, over the weekend of September 24 and 25, showcasing the best of Brum and our beloved indies. This is the eighth one of these très popular events, so you’ll know the drill by now. It’s a huge line-up of who’s who in Brum’s food scene, with pop-up restaurants and street food traders serving excellent grub throughout the weekend. Accompanied by craft beers, cocktails and natural wine from the shortlist of the finest bars and microbreweries, enjoy it all in the grounds of the 100% haunted Aston Hall.
Highlights last time included this epic char siu bao bun from bao masters, Tiger Bites Pig; Hampton Manor getting in on the action with Stu Deeley’s BBQ offering; and LA-POP doing bits with customisable gelato lollipops (and total ASMR to watch the pop process). No doubt all the usual suspects will make a return visit, with even more promised to build on the last one. There's only one a year of this Brummie showcase, so the IB team — who presumably get mistaken for us as much as we do for them —go all out to make it worth the modest ticket price. Enjoy all the above with a programme of Hare & Hounds-curated local bands playing live on stage, plus a full-to-the-brim market of independent artists, designers, makers and bakers. All this for just a tenner, with kids under 12 free. Oh, and it’s dog-friendly (also with free entry) so furry friends are welcome, nay, semi-compulsory.
There are three sessions across the weekend, with a Saturday day or evening session: 11.30am to 4:30pm or 5pm to 10pm, plus a Sunday afternoon session: 12pm to 6pm. This festival always, always sells out — more than a quarter of tickets have already sold after last week's launch — so act fast to secure a sesh.
"DO I HAVE SOMETHING ON MY BACK?"
Having launched on Monday and continuing until July 17, the Healing Gardens of Bab is a celebration of queer artists, queer culture and queer history, courtesy of Fierce and the 2022 Festival. Taking inspiration from Babylon’s hanging gardens, the project is both epic and, at times, odd, creating a brand new healing gardens right in the heart of the city. It'll include large scale spectacles and outdoorsy artworks, pop-up performances, drag, pageantry and creative club nights. The nightmare-fuel pictured comes from In Muva We Trust, by the Australian art collective, Club Até. From today Chamberlain Square will be transformed by Até with colossal projected artwork inspired by Filipino folklore. Expect a large-scale installation that'll immerse you in the mythical Skyworld – a place that might remind us that as we move, journey and arrive in this world, we remain connected to our origins, ever-evolving and, just sometimes, giving piggybacks to giant water bears. In Muva We Trust (on until July 9) provides an opportunity for hopeful reflection at a moment in time where, collectively, we feel vulnerable and overwhelmed by both our recent compulsory social disconnect and the deepening climate crisis. It's just one of many events that are far too numerous and detailed to list here, but are listed right here.
"DO I HAVE SOMETHING ON MY CHEST?"
Continuing on the theme of bloody weird is Jon McCurley's Monsters of the World tour tomorrow, Saturday and July 9. Stay with me on this because it might just be brilliant: McCurley asks what you see when you stare at the Commonwealth connections of Birmingham’s industrial past... and answers with headless chest-monsters. A group of performers will recreate the fantasy of the Blemmye, as was apparently witnessed by European imperialists — Google it for immediate nightmares. The performers will enact behaviour and activities which were said to be ‘true’ in maps and travel journals over thousands of years. The so-called ‘edges of the known world’, where mythical monsters were claimed to have existed in previous centuries, appear to mirror today where multi-national companies extract resources, exploit labour, open new markets, and sell products. This one focuses on the global chocolate trade through the lens of McCurley's Irish-Vietnamese roots, and his parents' experience of meeting whilst working for Cadbury’s. The Monsters of the World Tour launches at Eastside Projects (Digbeth) tomorrow, before moving to Bournville for Saturday, and finally July 9. You guessed it, it's part of the programme for the Birmingham 2022 Festival. I'll be the one with a screaming six-year-old. Free
Venue: Fat Hippo, 11 Bennetts Hill, B2 5RS; website Choice: Glaston-Birria Burger (£14.50) Chooser: Front of House team
Now I'm not saying it's cursed, but this particular unit on Bennett's Hill seems, erm, kinda cursed. Where the decent enough Buffalo & Rye blew it and the excellent Fillet of Soul failed, it's the turn of Geordie-born burger bar, Fat Hippo, to try their hand on what should be, geographically speaking, a licence to print money.
I hope they can make a success of it but, on the strength of this visit, it might just be that a 'curse' is the least of their worries. On the positives, their in-house beers are both beautiful and beautifully branded, the sauces were all superb and all the potato-based sides rocked, the tots with cheese and bacon being insatiably moreish. It's also a lovely fit-out job although, reminding me as it did so much of Buffalo & Rye, they could have saved a small fortune by moving in before it was changed from a durrrty burger bar into a chip shop. Only to be turned back into a durrrty burger bar three months later.
Alas, the hero item was a brutal disappointment. If this can be put down to teething problems — and other reviews and social posts seem positive — then I'd suggest they order Bonjela by the bucketful. Blander than Heisenberg's car and stodgier than your average employment lawyer's Ts & Cs, the pile-them-high tactic backfired across both burgers. If my donutty onion rings needed removing for my jaw's sake, then the 'pulled chipotle beef' on top of my guest's burger needed to be booted out and barred for life. His was not so much pulled as slabbed: a hulking great hunk of grey, unseasoned cow going back to the kitchen and taking most of the burger with it but staying, somehow, on the bill.
It's a small thing, too, but if you provide a burger 'dipping sauce' which could well have breathed life back into the weighty special, then serve it in a vessel that allows burger access, not a narrow-rimmed sauce pot made for fries. Meanwhile, I tried to get my eponymous Fat Hippo burger down me because, well, climate change? But it wasn't going.
Comparisons will, of course, be drawn with Brum's existing burger bars. The owner of Meat Shack could literally stab me in the eye and I would still ask him for his autograph, so if that calls into question my neutrality, so be it. But there is no competition here as far as quality goes. The Shack, however, does business only from Thursday to Sunday; so based on its location, and mankind's desire for burgers knowing no opening hours, Fat Hippo's 14th venue might just survive. Or maybe it'll be a chip shop in three months. Menu
GET BACK TO THE BACK TO BACKS
There’s quite the thrill in nosing around someone else’s living room – the dusk-walkers of lockdown will testify – deciphering the people within through trinkets, furniture and decor. So this new, free exhibition at the Back to Backs is right up your street if you’re a Through the Keyhole type. Home from Home: Wassifa’s 50th Anniversary at Birmingham Back to Backs is a new collaboration between the Mykal Wassifa Brown Heritage Foundation, Blackstory Partnership and the National Trust. Launching as part of Windrush Day celebrations across the city, the exhibition replicates Mykal ‘Wassifa’ Brown’s childhood home in Handsworth, sharing the stories of the Windrush generation and the importance of homes as spaces for identity, creativity and resistance.
Mykal’s room prompts us to consider what home means (deeper than Matt Goss’s insight) and the universality of some of the objects shared across cultures and communities (hands up whose grandparents had the pineapple ice bucket): “What I want people to take away from visiting Home from Home is that we have more similarities than differences. We might look different on the outside, but we are all people and, in this city, we are all Brummies.”
The back room tells the story of Wassifa Soundsystem, the longest performing Soundsystem in the UK. Conceived by Mykal and his friends in 1972, aged just 12, his home became its headquarters. Listening to Jamaican music as a way to celebrate and explore their heritage, Soundsystems are a huge part of Jamaican culture. Over its 50-year history, Wassifa has influenced music and fashion and also become a community and heritage organisation, celebrating African Caribbean heritage and ensuring the community’s stories are recorded.
Now reopened after building repairs, the Back to Backs is the perfect host to Home from Home, as a museum of working people’s lives. See a whole new cultural perspective on the rooms within. All free to explore from now until October 29, though if you want to visit the houses too, you’ll need to book.
'Spitting Image Live' will be on at The Rep early next year. Tickets —
Go listen to the fascinating story of Major Harry Gem and the birth of lawn tennis, among others tales. At Warstone Lane Cemetery and £7.89. Book —
God-tier pizzeria, Poli, are teaming up with the Covered Wagon kitchen crew for a one-off night, Monday, July 4. Butter chicken pizza, anyone? Yes please. —
Tonight is pottery night at Morridge, in the Great Western Arcade. A tenner gets modelling clay, tools and a drink. —
Over 3,500 people have taken part in over 100 citywide making sessions to create 4,600 gifts to be given to each athlete at the Commonwealth Games. Craftspace, the organisation behind it, invite you to go and see a selection of the creations at the new Library, June 30 to July 9. Details —
Rally the troops, next weekend is Birmingham Cocktail Weekend. —
You smell terrific.
WORDS: Claire Hawkins, Tom Cullen
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