Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Birth of the Birmingham Group

The Cabin, Union Passage, photographed in 1911

This week I received through the post, all the way from the Amazon, a copy of Leslie Halward's 1938 autobiography, Let Me Tell You. Unusually for an autobiography of a writer it was his second book and so it mainly focuses on Halward's growing up in Selly Oak, Birmingham. However, the later chapters are concerned with the beginnings of his writing career and in particular chapter XXI recalls the formation of the Birmingham Group of writers. Although the Group would sometimes be regarded as including WH Auden, Louis MacNeice, Henry Reed and even Henry Green, the core were those who met in a pub around Martineau Street in Birmingham's city centre during the 1930s - Walter Allen, John Hampson, Leslie Halward, Peter Chamberlain and very occasionally, Walter Brierley. I have often tried to ascertain exactly which pub it was and I am convinced it was The Cabin in Union Passage, seen above.

below are selected quotes from Chapter XXI of Let Me Tell You (1938) by Leslie Halward:

Now let me tell you about the "Birmingham Group," which, alas, exists no longer. The almost weekly meetings no longer take place in the upper room of a public-house off Corporation Street. Allen and Chamberlain have both gone to live in London; I am here in Malvern; only Hampson remains near the city.

In February, 1935, there appeared in New Stories a story by Peter Chamberlain called "Fanciful," and in the first sentence was a reference to the old Birmingham-Wolverhampton Road. I did not care much for the story, but the mention of the road, which I knew well, caused me to think that perhaps the author was a Birmingham man. At the same time I recollected that in his novel Saturday Night at the Greyhound John Hampson, also a contributor to New Stories, had written of the "good old Bull Ring." Perhaps he too lived in Birmingham. I decided to find out. I wrote to [Edward J.] O'Brien and he replied promptly, saying that certainly both Chamberlain and Hampson were Birmingham men, as also was Walter Allen, a story by whom had appeared in New Stories a couple of months before. O'Brien [editor of New Stories] was under the impression that we all knew each other.

On receipt of O'Brien's letter I wrote at once to both Chamberlain and Hampson and asked if I might meet them. Chamberlain's reply was very vague, intimating that it would not be a bad idea if we had tea together somewhere, some time. Hampson's was much more to the point. It began: "Do you know a pub off Corporation Street...?" went on to give very precise directions for finding the place, and stated that at seven o'clock on the following Thursday evening he and Walter Allen would be there. In order to avoid any confusion a copy of New Stories would be prominently displayed on their table.

I shall never forget the shock I received when I walked into that room and saw first the copy of New Stories and then the two men seated at the table on which it lay. My recollection of Saturday Night at the Greyhound and the opening sentence of Hampson's letter had caused me to expect to see a burly young fellow of thirty or so blowing the froth off a pint. I took one look at Allen, knew that he could not have written Saturday Night at the Greyhound, and found it almost impossible to believe that the other one could. A frail little gentleman he looked, at least forty-five years old, and he was toying with a glass that had a drop of whisky in the bottom. His hand was so small that my own enveloped it, wrist and thumb included, and as he made only a half-hearted attempt to rise I got the impression that he was an invalid or perhaps even a cripple. He introduced me to Allen and I sat down opposite them.

Well, that is how the Birmingham Group came to be formed. We four met more or less regularly at that public house and talked and talked and talked, as diverse a group of writers, as one newspaper has put it, as any part of the provinces can boast of.

Can it be wondered that we disagreed about a number of things, that arguments were inclined to be rowdy, that nearly always the lights were turned out on us before we realised that we were alone in the room and that it was time for us to go home. We never regarded ourselves as a group; it was left to O'Brien to so christen us; we were simply four young men who, having common interests and vaguely similar ideas, met periodically for the purpose of explaining each to the other where he was wrong.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Kings Heath 1960

I came across this super8 footage on YouTube of Kings Heath, Birmingham, filmed in 1960 by Terry Pearson.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Paul Axel Lund

"I am attenuating my relations with Lund and company. Too much of a bad thing."
- William Burroughs

In 1959 a book was published by Secker & Warburg by the prodigious author Rupert Croft-Cooke. Entitled Smiling Damned Villian, it let screwsman, jailbird and raconteur, Paul Axel Lund unveil himself. The author met Lund in Tangier where the latter was running a bar out of reach of the British Constabulary. Croft-Cooke was no stranger to prison, having served a sentence for homosexuality, he was also a writer of detective fiction and was keen to hear Lund's criminal experiences, expanding on the newspaper clippings on the walls of his bar.
Paul Lund had been driven by an insatiable desire to cure himself of boredom. He began early. Barely out of shorts, he was turning over houses nearby to the ten-bedroom Lund family home in Moseley (2 Wake Green Road). Entering the properties by the railway embankment near Moseley station, he made off with jewellery which he fenced at the stables opposite the Bull's Head. Lund evaded capture for thieving, but his first encounter with the law was after an assault on park-keeper Isaac Miles. This happened in a place which seems to have hardly changed since the incident in 1928:

There was a private park in Moseley - may be there still for all I know. Just about typical of that place and time. Imagine the snobbery of it - only approved householders in the district and their guests allowed in. The poor bloody kids who had nowhere to play could look through the railings. The householders had keys and there were two park-keepers to see that no one not approved by the committee should get in.

Later, he was an avid reader in prison - biography, history, and his favourite author, Joseph Conrad, unsurprising perhaps for someone who had spent three years at sea before reaching adulthood. At liberty he was a creator of narrative - one robbery after another, twelve years in the army; a year of which spent in glasshouse. Not even wartime could stop Lund from schemes of thievery. Then after demobilisation came his most notorious crime in his hometown - the snatching of the Ladywood Children's Hospital wages.

It required precision planning if he was going to get away with it, and he did. The rehearsal, the familiarisation with the geography of the crime together burnt a snapshot of post-War Birmingham into Lund's mind to be recalled years later to Croft-Cooke in the safety of Tangier. And now Smiling Damned Villian provides us with his image of the City from its archive.

"It happened that the girl Mac was running around with worked in the offices at the Ladywood Hospital. She was a romantic-minded, dizzy little piece who was thrilled to think she had been taken up by a real crook with a real Jaguar. Dreamed herself up as a big gangster's moll, if you can imagine it, and only longed to be allowed to give any information she could.

"She told Mac that every Friday the hospital sent round to the bank about three hundred yards away to draw the wages. Three weeks out of four this amounted to no more than about £1,500, but on the fourth week, when they paid the monthly salaries, there was about seven thousand smackers in the kitty. All this was fetched on Friday morning by an oldish man (well, about fifty-five) who worked in the same office as this girl. He'd been doing it for years and took no precautions at all. Just went on foot with an old Gladstone bag.

William Rudge; victim of a wages snatch involving Lund in January 1946

"It sounded almost too good to be true but we watched for two or three weeks and found it was just as she said. The old boy would come out of Ladywood Hospital on Friday mornings at about twenty past ten as regular as clockwork. He'd go downhill to the bank at the corner of Ladywood Road and Broad Street, then come toddling back about twenty minutes later with the dropsy. We could watch this comfortably and without being noticed because there was a bus-stop across the road from the hospital from which you could see it all.

Five Ways, 1952. The bank is the spired building to the left of the bus.

"I was to do the snatch in the uniform of an American soldier. Birmingham was full of Yanks on leave from Lichfield and they'd done one or two minor snatches already. Mac had a brother-in-law working out at the Air Base who got me a uniform, then all I needed was a bicycle which we were to knock off on the afternoon before we did the job.

"The plan was this. There was a low stone wall along the front of the hospital and I was to sit on this while the old man went down to the bank. Then, after he had passed me coming back, I was to drop downwards on to his bag, almost like a rugger tackle without a fall. We practised this in Mac's flat and found that even when he was expecting that downward jerk he couldn't hold the bag against it, so I shouldn't have much trouble with an older man who wasn't expecting it.

"Then, with the bag in my hand, I would get on the bike which had been waiting on the kerb, run down the hill for two hundred yards, bend left and take a road leading off to the left called Duchess Road. There Mac would be waiting with a car stolen that morning. I would ditch the bike, get in the car (lying on the floor at the back) and drive with Mac to Edgbaston Park Road where Ben would be waiting with Mac's own car. There we'd leave the knocked-off car and go on our way rejoicing.

"I made the snatch and the bag came away as easy as picking an apple. The rest of it was easy. Mac counted the money and the total was £7,400 and no note higher than a quid. By twelve noon I was sitting in the Kardomah Café talking to as many people as I knew. It wouldn't exactly be an alibi but it would be the next best thing to one."

Kardomah Café, New Street

Lund's story did not end with the publication of Smiling Damned Villain. Croft-Cooke's biography of the thief is an enjoyable read in its own right, and the illumination it gives Birmingham is interesting; significant enough to warrant an entry in this blog, but there's more... so come closer.

In 1955 the American author William Burroughs moved into the Hotel Villa Muniria at 1 Calle Magallanes in the old French quarter of Tangier. One of his fellow residents was none other than Paul Lund, on the run from the police back home. The two started spending time together with Lund entertaining Burroughs with his tales of robbery and jail. Impressed, Burroughs incorporated Lund's stories into the routines he was writing for Naked Lunch. Eventually the relationship turned sour when Lund pointed the finger at Burroughs for alleged drug smuggling into France. Burroughs had moved to the Beat hotel in Paris in 1959. With the publication of Naked Lunch imminent, he received a suspended sentence. His bitterness towards Lund is captured in William S. Burroughs: Letters 1945-59.

Paul Lund died in 1966 and was buried in the Church of Saint Andrew in Tangier.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

That Cemetery Without Walls

'In any real sense of the world I was born at Oxford: I have no more connection with my early life and with Birmingham than I have with Timbuctoo.' - Kenneth Tynan

The year 1927 was in retrospect an important one in Birmingham's cultural history. Henry Green arrived in Tyseley to begin work at his father's factory, Laurence Olivier began his career at Barry Jackson's Birmingham Rep, and despite his denial, Kenneth Peacock Tynan was indeed born by Caesarean section on 2nd April 'in a small Birmingham nursing home, Glenhurst, 319 Shaftmoor Lane, Hall Green', and raised in the city. The first eight years of his life were spent living at 955 Stratford Road, Hall Green, then in 1935 the family moved to 229 Portland Road, Edgbaston, near 'the Smethwick frontier'. The young Ken switched to George Dixon school, then from 1938 until he reached adulthood and an Oxford scholarship, Tynan attended King Edward's Grammar School where he was regarded as a brilliant scholar. They could teach him little he did not already know.

After school he would often read for up to six hours in the Birmingham Reference Library. In the evening he would write up his journal, turn out a theatre review, and the following day produce immaculate school work, which he had completed in the early hours of the morning.

the 'reflib'

I read the first hundred pages of 'Ulysses' in the reflib the other day; it is prob the finest comic classic of our time. [Letter from Tynan to Julian Holland, 16/12/1943]

In reading his Letters, I was struck by the lack of love Tynan had for his father, and for his hometown. They seemed to be one and the same when they received his revulsion. He described Birmingham as 'the ugliest city in Europe' and could not wait to get away. Tynan may have disliked his father for all sorts of teenage reasons, but there was a very good one which Tynan claimed to be unaware of until his father's death in 1948. Peter Tynan was not who he said he was. In reality, only his mother bore the Tynan surname, his father was Sir Peter Peacock, self-made businessman, six times mayor of Warrington, and, on Tuesdays, a Justice of the Peace in the town. Ken's parents were not married as Sir Peter had been refused a divorce from Maria Peacock whom he had walked out on and their five children.

Although Sir Peter Peacock and Rose Tynan had set up home together in Birmingham since 1921, it was not the end of his life in Warrington. Two days a week he continued to travel north to oversee his expanding business empire and his civic duties. He had many fingers in many pies, but the Peacock name was most associated with Peacock Stores. By the time Ken was sixteen, there were twelve Peacock Stores in the Birmingham and Black Country area. Today, there are 900 stores in the UK, and 200 overseas.

The last trace of the fading Kardomah Cafe sign, New St.

The flamboyantly dressed Kenneth Tynan must have been an anachronistic sight as he glided down New Street in the middle of wartime Birmingham; an austere city at the best of times. On the first floor of the Kardomah Cafe he sat overlooking the street below, writing on his typewriter and generally holding court amongst the young bohemians of the day. Home to the Birmingham Group of surrealists, various actors and thieves (including the notorious Paul Lund), the Kardomah Cafe on New Street was the cool centre of young Birmingham.

Tynan once described the most significant event in his early life as seeing Citizen Kane. He did not just watch it, he completely immersed himself.

On 4 March 1942, the day Kane opened in Birmingham at the Gaumont Cinema, the fourteen-year-old Ken was there. He came away, as he later wrote 'dazzled by its narrative virtuosity, its shocking but always relevant cuts... its brilliantly orchestrated dialogue, and its use of deep focus in sound as well as vision'. By the end of the week he had seen the film five times, once with his mother, once with his eyes shut in order to prove that the sound track was expressive enough to be listened to in its own right.

Letter from Orson Welles to Kenneth Tynan, 29-4-1943

Monday, 14 March 2011

Best to keep the first page blank, keep it full of silence and light. Let strips of colour land and reflect. Perhaps some passing beauty or accidental truth will unfold without my clumsy interference. A wonder - a small, undiluted wonder - unworthy of words, will grow out of nothing. If that's your bag. I like the idea very much. It's a wonder that I've spent so much time covering perfectly formed pages with black or blue scrawl. A spider's web to a fly quite content with flight and not in the least need of a seat. Such a bitter little spider with some nerve, don't you think? Still, those webs are so geometrically spectacular that you have to curse those for whom the spider himself is nothing but a wee snack. But I should not digress into the food chain when there are so many other chains to unravel. Like the one that drags the pen forward. Another small wonder, another web, another cryptic trap. Another little golden leaf falls down from the sky. Look up but there's no tree. Another small wonder worthy of not investigating further, in case it's all explained away. Leave the enigmas to be enigmas, so precious and liable to disappear at the first hint of touch. The futility of grasping at them should always be remembered, at least after logic wakes up. We will disappear under the weight of equations with their bastard complex numbers. And any moment now... there are many waiting, and I am waiting to disappear, and while I wait I wonder blankly and wait to be overawed.