Issue 296
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It's less than five miles to Harborne, Stirchley and Kings Heath from the city centre. It's also less than five miles to Sparkhill. But if you're anything like us, you've made rather less trips down the Stratford Road than you have to other Brum 'burbs. Pulling himself out of his JQ home and comfort zone, James March took his camera down the busy High Street he doesn't think people are talking about enough.
I grew up in Hall Green and went for swimming lessons in Sparkhill. It was a shame when the baths closed down and I've been thinking recently about how else the area has changed since I was a kid.

Completing an advanced photography course, a photo essay was our final project. It was suggested we should cover a topic that meant something to us — I instinctively knew what I wanted to shoot.

“You need to watch out”, “Be careful down there” snippets of advice I was given from friends and family when I told them I was going to do street photography in Sparkhill. I had to point out that this is still Birmingham and that I wasn’t exactly venturing bravely into the favelas of Rio.

I made four visits in total and didn't feel unsafe at any point. Not once. Even holding a camera. I got a lot of funny looks, though, but I'm sort of used to that as a photographer. Especially when I got the shot of the onions in the trolley, something you'd see nowhere else in Birmingham. Two guys dressed in Pashtun gear, traditional in Afghanistan, stared at me like I was an exotic plant. When I showed them the shot on my camera, they were no more impressed. Perhaps they felt about me like I felt about the onions — something they just weren't used to seeing. 
I saw the Mr Yummy van at a different Sparkhill spot on each of my visits. I particularly like this shot, with the woman in the head scarf about to eat an ice lolly. In so many ways, an ice-cream van on a hot sunny day is the most British of events, and here you see a fusion of traditions — multi culturalism captured in a single, simple act and a single, simple shot.
When the demographics of an area change, there are also traditions that don't survive. I was sad when The Bear closed down in January — becoming unsustainable in 21st century Sparkhill. But when I told my Dad how I felt, he alluded to the pub having a, shall we say, shady past and I wondered how well-founded my nostalgia really was.

Looking further back, there are some ace ghost signs to spot around the area, like this one on Formans Road, just off the High Street. I find them completely fascinating and want to capture more of them. I'm also keen to get to know Handsworth better, perhaps for my next project. As a city, I think we're great at shouting about how good Brum is, and how the rest of the country has got us wrong, but we're slow to go beyond what we know and explore those areas that don't have a microbrewery or craft coffee joint to recommend them.
I'm not saying Sparkhill isn't without its problems — there are disused buildings, like The Bear, and there were darker moments, times when I could feel a collective community brustle. The boy on his bicycle [pictured top] had actually been startled by two guys on one of those noisy quad bikes, pulled up at the lights — you know the sort. The other shot I wish I'd captured was the bemused look on two elderly men's faces, watching on wondering what all the noise was about.

It's interesting, isn't it, this concept of the death of the High Street? When a nation seems to be universally agreeing that shops are yesterday's news, my overwhelming feeling is how refreshing it is to find a place where stores spill on to the street, colour abounds and people actually stop to talk to each other. Some see Sparkhill as backwards in terms of its retail offering but how backwards is it to major on fresh fruit and veg that isn't pre-packaged and is mostly sold by small, independent outfits? I'd say its pretty on-trend.
In most of the shots I captured, like this one, the subject will never even have noticed I took a picture of them. Though that might sound a little creepy, people's body language tends to change entirely when they realise someone is pointing a camera at them and you lose the frame.

When I reflect on this image — a peaceful feeling shot despite the fact it includes a busy road — I wonder about all the changes the man sitting on the bench has seen. When did he arrive in Sparkhill and what drew him here? Maybe he was born here. Maybe he's got grandkids here. Maybe he loves Sparkhill. Maybe he really doesn't. Whatever he was thinking about, he looks so comfortable just sitting there without a mobile or a book or a paper in his hands, watching Sparkhill do what Sparkhill does.


Aubrey Allen may sound like the civilian identity of a comic book superhero (Beef Man!), but is in fact one of the highest quality butchers in the UK and holder of the Queen's warrant. So if it's good enough for Lizzo part deux, it's good enough for you. Aubrey will be sending one of his best butchers to Opus on Oct 4 to do a masterclass, while the kitchen team will be putting out five courses — four of which will include a different cut of beef, and the fifth — commonly known as dessert — will almost certainly have a clever nod to cattle. Part of Opus' Source series, it's £80 and that includes generous wine pairings and an aperitif. Currently, the menu is hush-hush but previous beef-dedicated nights have included Irish salt beef brisket, puffed spelt, and textures of onion. Yes, bruv. It's to book.


Presumably to the tune of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 'Philly Philly Wang Wang' rolls into the Old Rep in February of 2020. Why are we telling you about it now, you heckle? Because comedian Phil Wang's star is rising, fast, and this stand-up tour packs more promise than a drunken invitation to "just come in for a coffee and I'll call you a cab". Wang, you may recognise, was the genius behind this lolzy send-up of Tom Hiddlestone's bizarre Chinese advert for vitamin supplements, which he followed with a sell-out Edinburgh Fringe with extended dates and rave old reviews. With all the big-name comedy shows under his belt, his next step is surely UK tour domination. Which brings us rather handily back to February 2020 in Birmingham. Book now (£17.74). Next year's you will thank you for it.


Real talk. Monthly art knees up, Digbeth First Friday, is tomorrow and top of the peculiar pops this time round absolutely has to be an exhibition called The Power of Potential. Housed in Cashpot Amusements, the slot machine den you've seen a million times and never been in, the artwork is by Jim O'Raw aka Bonus Prize. In the most "London" of exhibitions to happen outside of London (and this is in no way a criticism — actually it's the complete opposite) Jim will demonstrate the power of potential versus reality. Over the course of a year, Jim has been playing the Lotto, buying over a grand's worth of scratch cards and documenting the winners and, more numerically, the losers. At one point on his lottery of a journey Jim found a fresh scratch card on the floor and decided not to scratch. It sat on a shelf in his bedroom for a while before its significance hit him like a metaphorical meteorite: The act of resistance was empowering. Now he collects them, unscratched, attracted to their bright graphics, finite existence and mysterious power which remains hidden behind the latex. You owe it to Birmingham to attend things like this. From 6pm tomorrow (Sept 6) at Cashpot Amusements next to the coach station


Identity, Britishness and a sense of home. These concepts have arguably never been more contentious than they are today and in his press-off-the-hot memoir My Name Is Why, poet Lemn Sissay addresses the relevance of these subjects whilst talking about his youth. Sissay paints a poetical picture of an upbringing spent in and out of institutional care, and the cathartic power of expression through creativity. Tear (both meanings) your way through Sissay's story, then hear from the man himself, who will read from his memoir which has won all the love from Matt Haig and Benjamin Zephaniah, as well as reducing us to a blubbering wreck more than once. On September 20 at MAC, tickets are £10.


Ale, cider, pizza. This little article could be three words long and you'd be interested. The beautiful Blakesley Hall is putting on this hat-trick of heroes for one day only and they are errantly removing pizza from the Ale & Cider Festival name. It's the typo-flawed, food-flawless Perfect Pizze who are bringing the sourdough, but it's the booze providers that have us clicking at the "book tickets" button with almost frightening rapidity. Check this list: Two Towers Brewery, Church End Brewery, Beowulf Brewing, Dig Brew Co. and Sadler’s, all on beers, while Barbourne Cider Company and Snailsbank are on apples. This whole what-do-you-mcall-it is £5 a throw and happening this Saturday (September 7).
Venue: Cielo, Oozells Square, Brindleyplace, B1 2JB; website
Choice: Scallops (£12.95) Chooser: Andrea, manager

If you're wondering where everyone ever is having dates, the answer is Cielo. The restaurant team is the right amount Italic (they've all got Nonnas) and the menu does Brit-friendly Med(ish) fare in spades: table-for-two safe tempura prawns (£11.95) and the T-Bone (£27.95) are among the best sellers, though you can also have spag bol (£14.95) if you're past those initial polite encounters, where a napkin around your neck just wouldn't cut it. Swerving all of those in favour of the exact dishes we were recommended from Cielo's
recently refreshed menu, the starters landed exactly how starters are supposed to — tasty, on the lighter side and leaving you wanting more. The seared scallops with black pudding, pea puree and salmon caviar beat out the grilled asparagus, poached egg and Parma ham, because, scallops. And there were four of them. On mains, we mourned the loss of the monkfish from the previous menu which has recently been replaced with lemon sole (£24.95). It sounds like a solid swap, really it does, but rather than letting what is a tremendous whole fish do its thing, the sole was filleted, grilled and rolled, which looks great for the 'gram but resulted in a slightly dry end product. Tiramisu (£6.95) happily followed, as did Limoncello. The success of dates at Cielo made increasing amounts of sense as Grappa also appeared.
Join a foraging walk in Stichley on Saturday. At 10am, it's £5 to nab your spot.
Local top dawgs Hampton Manor check in Gogglebox’s Steph and Dom for The Great Hotel Escape. Catch it every day next week at 4pm on Channel 4, or download it on All4 after broadcast.
If you're wondering what the fug is going on around the catherdal, recent arty grads are staging unusual craft installations from today through to Saturday as part of In:Site Festival.
The Arches Project is a creative artsy space in, you guessed it, Digbo. They're open tomorrow (Friday) from 6.30pm 'til 10pm with their rather intriguing new exhibition.
Save the date: the always acesome Connolly's winter wine tasting does irreverent things to the Library of Birmingham on November 21 this year. It's £15 for all the wine. Book

"The Pope is a lot like Doctor Who. He never dies, just keeps being replaced by white men."

Phil Wang (2013, little did he know...)

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WORDS: Katy Drohan, Tom Cullen, Robb Sheppard
PICTURES: Cashpot Amusements — Google Earth

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