Monthly Archives: March 2013

Burning down the house….

It would seem that living in this part of Birmingham is rapidly becoming a hazardous business.  Going way back, the old Indoor Market in Kings Heath burned down under suspicious circumstances and only a year or so back, the old Kingsway cinema went up, yet again under similarly dodgy circumstances.

Now, a landmark of the Birmingham music scene, the former Ritz Ballroom in York Road;  most recently a branch of grasping pawnshop chain Cash Converters has also pretty much burned to the ground under – you guessed it –  the proverbial ‘suspicious circumstances’.

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You say ‘Hello’, I say ‘Goodbye’ – the Ritz goes up in flames

So is Kings Heath now ‘Arson Central’?  Should we go to bed with a bucket of water and a fire blanket?  Just what is going on?  As far as I am aware, neither the Indoor Market fire or the Kingsway fire were ever adequately explained and though the local Fire Department are talking of ‘suspicious circumstances’ no-one seems quite sure what they mean.

Did they find an empty firelighters box and a trail of spent matches in the vicinity?  Perhaps some shellsuited denizen of the  wretched Stalinist banlieues further out of the city loudly and publicly threatened to rain down doom and disaster on Cash Converters because they would only give him £3 for his extensive collection of PS3 games or maybe it was just some dodgy wiring in an old building which, I suspect, was never terribly well-maintained.

Whatever the case, the BBC were quick to dig up some rentamouth Brummy social historian – though not Carl Chinn for once – who deplored the city’s lack of care & attention where its musical heritage was concerned.  This bloke suggested that both Manchester & Liverpool have been much more adept at preserving their musical heritage.  Hmmm, well I’m not sure about Liverpool and that whole ersatz Beatles thing in Mathew Street, but I do know that Manchester has been equally careless with the Electric Circus, the original Factory/Russell Club and the Haçienda all now demolished.

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Hooky at the site of The Haçienda; from yacht showroom to iconic venue to a block of yuppie flats……is nothing sacred?

Ho hum, sic transit gloria swanson, but there is a certain irony in the fact that the people behind the (ahem) ‘Kings Heath Walk of Fame’ – first to be honoured, Toyah Willcox, next up (apparently) The Move’s Trevor Burton – had staged an event in Fletcher’s bar opposite The Ritz in February to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of The Beatles playing The Ritz.

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The Ritz as it was back in the day. Note bizarre multi-coloured plastic checkerboard tiled frontage.  Groovy!

The Ritz was one of 4 ‘ballrooms’ owned and run by the Regan family in this area.  In addition, there were 2 Plazas – one in Handsworth and one in Old Hill plus the notorious Garryowen club in Small Heath.  I can recall visiting the ‘Garry’  a few times back in the 80’s and it was pretty wild.  As far as I know,  it, too. was either demolished or burned down a while back .  Hmm, bit of a pattern developing here……

According to  ic Birmingham back in 2005:  “The Small Heath club, a cornerstone of Birmingham’s Irish community since 1946, was labelled by police as a hot-spot of crime, disorder, alcohol abuse and anti-social behaviour….Insp David McCrone  said there had been 223 call-outs to the club in two years, even though it was only open two nights a week, and closing time deadlines were flouted.”  That sounds about right…my strategy in the Garry was keep drinking and keep your head down.  How bad things got in there generally depended on the respective results for the Blues (Birmingham City) and the Villa (Aston Villa) on any given Saturday.  A win for Villa and a defeat for the Blues meant maximum aggravation and you might be wiser to spend your evening in an alternative cocktail bar unless you were ‘in’ with the central core of drinkers.

Anyway, the Regans are gone, the ‘Garry’ is gone and now so is The Ritz.  As I stood at the corner of York Road yesterday surveying the still-smouldering remains, an old dear next to me said ” I met my husband in there ; we used to go dancing there nearly every weekend”

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The Fab Four – allegedly taken out the back of The Ritz in 1962

There is a sense of loss locally; after all it wasn’t just The Beatles who played at The Ritz – the place also played host to the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, the Rolling Stones and even Pink Floyd.  However, I think it’s dubious to start moaning and groaning about how poor this city is at preserving its musical heritage – apart from Manchester, a quick look around will show that the Rainbow (née Finsbury Park Astoria) became a Happy-Clappy Church in the 1980’s and now seems to be closed/derelict.

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The former Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park

Maybe the USA does this kind of thing better;  Harlem’s  ‘Apollo’ is still open for business whilst there is a ‘ Fillmore Club’ on the site of the old Carousel / Fillmore in San Francisco.  However,  CBGB in The Bowery is now a clothes shop and whilst long-standing  jazz clubs like  Birdland and the Village Vanguard are still around,  none of them are in the same premises where they began.  Seen from this point of view, the whole thing just becomes a kind of franchise and authenticity becomes a question of branding rather than geographical  location.

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The original Carousel Ballroom / Fillmore West in 1970…

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…and the same intersection today

When I lived in Copenhagen in the late 1970’s, I can recall witnessing a plethora of top-flight jazz gigs at the Montmartre Jazz Club, a venue known – by reputation at least – to all European jazz fans.  In just a couple of years I saw some fantastic gigs featuring the likes of the nascent Pat Metheny Group, Freddie Hubbard, Dexter Gordon, Dollar Brand, Gil Evans and perhaps best of all, the 1977  McCoy Tyner Sextet.  However, I knew well and good that the club on Nørregade was by no means the original Montmartre location.  Earlier in the 70’s I had been to Montmartre on Store Regnegade to see Ben Webster, but even that wasn’t the club’s original location.

So, what does it really matter?  I guess we only really miss these places when they are gone.  After its heyday, the Regans turned The Ritz into a bingo hall and it then stood derelict for quite a while before it was tarted up by Cash Converters.  Can’t say as I noticed the doyens and doyennes of Birmingham’s music scene trying to reclaim it for posterity at any time during this period.  The Ritz now joins the long and honourable roll-call of venues we have loved and lost.  And maybe they are best preserved in our memories rather than being regurgitated via places like the formulaic Hard Rock Cafés and their ilk.

Ironically, Montmartre closed down in 1995, but has now reopened back in the same Store Regnegade location it occupied for nearly 15 years.  Wonder if they have revived the red-check tablecloths that were the club’s trademark?  Doesn’t seem very likely…..

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Dexter Gordon, Lars Gullin and Sahib Shihab plus rhythm section  filmed at Montmartre in 1962

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Back in the UK freezer…..

“Flew in from Colombo Beach with Emirates                                                     Ev’rything was snowy white
Nearly froze my ass off waiting for a cab                                                                                  Why is UK weather shite?”

(Thumbs up to Macca for this one!)

Over the years I will admit to having some difficult entries and re-entries whilst travelling; arriving in New York City on a scorching, humid day in July was difficult, flying back into  freezing Manchester drizzle after a November break in sunny Tenerife was no fun,  but my recent arrival back in Birmingham after two weeks largely spent in 30+ degree Sri Lankan heat was the worst ever.  Stepped out of the terminal building in the warmest clothes I could muster and the wind just cut through me like a knife.  Hideous, and it only got worse later as I battled my way through driving snow to get some emergency supplies from the local Asda.  After that, the snow kept drifting imperceptibly down until it amounted to a considerable fall.  And there was I thinking that we would be coming back to gentle spring breezes and daffodils……oh well.

The Sri Lankan trip was quite an ambitious one, inasmuch as it featured a travelling entourage of 7 people – the Princess, the Partner and 4 friends.  The first week was spent doing a whistlestop tour of some of the island’s ‘must-sees’, so escaping from (frankly)  dull Colombo ASAP and off to Dambulla, then up to Kandy, further up to the tea plantations and cod-British eccentricities of Nuwara Eliya, then the long train journey down from temperate tea-clad slopes of the highlands to the banana and coconut trees of the coastal plain.

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‘Drunken’ pines at Peradeniya Botanical Gardens near Kandy – something in the soil makes them grow at these weird angles

Finally, off to the sybaritic glories of scruffy Unawatuna on the south-western coast, all bohemian shabby chic and sub-surfing atmosphere for a week of glorious indolence on the beach.  Finally, I could lay down my Tour Leader’s baton, I thought, but even then there pockets of unwanted excitement.

We stayed in a careworn but atmospheric guesthouse cum hotel right on the tideline, with the waves ending their long journey northwards from Antarctica just 10 yards from our bedroom doors.  However, there were other unwanted guests who frequent the beach zone and found their way into the ground floor rooms; the Princess seemed to get the worst of this – just 30 minutes after our arrival,  she discovered a large black scorpion in her room and also got a visit from its baby brother (or sister) later in the week.  There were also occasional large cockroaches, though thankfully not too many of them as my mate Adrian is phobic about them.  Those of us located in the first floor rooms had none of this and just smugly sat out on our non-infested balconies enjoying the view and the sea breezes.

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Sunrise at Unawatuna Bay from my scorpion-free balcony

Actually, the unwanted wildlife was really a minor issue and even I know enough about scorpions to know that the larger black ones can only deliver a sting equivalent to a British wasp.  Apparently, lethally-poisonous Indian red scorpions are now routinely being found in the northern Sri Lankan city of Jaffna,  having somehow made it across Adam’s Bridge,  so trouble may be just around the corner.

And so our week passed with lazy days in the sun and the occasional trip into Galle, just 10 minutes by one of the onomatapoeically-named tuk-tuks.  On one baking hot Galle day, Adrian and I strolled into the cricket ground – rebuilt since I was here in 2005;  it got wiped out by the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami – and spent 4 slow hours in the shade watching an under-19 college game where the ball was turning at right-angles and we saw only two overs of non-spin bowling.

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A slow day at Galle Cricket Ground

The batting side accumulated runs with glacial slowness – just 60 off 40 overs – and the fastest mover on the ground was a 3-foot monitor lizard that strolled casually across the outfield on his afternoon constitutional.

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Galle is a slightly schizophrenic town; the heat, traffic, commerce and noise of the New Town is all South Asia whilst  on the other side of the cricket stadium, the Dutch Fort area behind its ramparts is a total contrast.   No tsunami damage here worth the mention as the 40-foot high walls of the Fort largely kept the sea out.  Lots of chilled cafés and arty shops with an unsurprisingly European feel to it given that most of the buildings here were put up by either the Portuguese, who were followed by the Dutch, who were followed by the Brits.  It reminds me a bit of the backstreets of Seville, a little bit of Essaouira in Morocco and (inevitably) of Cochin in Kerala.

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In the Fort area of Galle

My 60th birthday was marked by the hotel staff with flowers all over the bed and the breakfast table.  I marked the day with regular dips in the ocean, a slow walk along Unawatuna’s Beach Road to do a bit of shopping – fake (but convincing) Ray-Bans for about a fiver,  nice scarf for Lyndsey the Greatest Barmaid in the world at my local, stopping off for a wonderful Peach Lassi at the Juice Bar on the corner where the stereo was blaring out Dylan’s ‘Shelter from the Storm’.  Then, in the evening, we went up to the other end of the bay and (for me) a sentimental return to Sun ‘n’ Sea, where my Dad and I stayed in 2005.  I was heartened to see that although the hotel’s founder and guiding light, Mrs Pereira, is gone (she died in 2006), her family have continued to run the place in very much the same spirit and any changes are superficial.

We had a nice meal at Sun’ n’ Sea, but didn’t linger as one of my birthday ‘treats’ involved a 5 am start the next (and final) day to go whale watching.  We were driven to Mirissa, further along the south coast and were out on the ocean waves very early.  The  waters here are like the M6 for whales,  who commute between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea on a regular basis.  The guys on our boat told us that they had been out the previous day and had seen only one whale in 6 hours, however having taken us about 10 miles south and east of Mirissa, we quickly saw several Blue Whales – about 5 in all, in multiple sightings – so everyone was pretty happy with that.

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Thar she blows; along with parasitic remora fish along for the ride

I’m not going to go all ‘Jon Anderson’ about the mystical nature of my encounter with the largest creature ever to have lived on this planet, but having only previously seen a whale (or part of one) on a plate in a restaurant in Honningsvåg in northern Norway, it was definitely preferable to see one ‘on the hoof’, so to speak.

Less than 24 hours later, I was plunged back into the freezing nightmare of the UK’s late winter cold snap…..the horror, the horror….and what an unpleasant contrast.  This kind of weather definitely makes me feel my age…..

When I return I’ll be ancient…..

Off to Sri Lanka shortly to…. ahem …’celebrate’ my 60th birthday.

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Back at the end of the month…..