LOCAL OPINION: Vera Gilbert – Truth to Tell, Erdington united after football’s less than finest hour

Words by Vera Gilbert / Pics by Ed King

**First published in the August/September newspaper edition of Erdington Local**

Vera Gilbert is a former broadcast journalist and passionate Erdington local; a woman who has worked across a kaleidoscope of high profile regional and national broadcasters and newspapers throughout her career.

Her recent project, Truth to Tell, is organised along with several Erdington groups and individuals, providing an open platform for discussion on race and racism – currently held via Zoom.

Vera caught up with Erdington Local after Truth to Tell chose the recent racism directed at the young, black England football squad players as their topic of discussion.

Our small team which had been doing a series of community Zoom conversations aiming to improve race relations in Erdington hurriedly decided to hold another conversation after the uproar following the UEFA Euro 2020 final game between England and Italy.

I hate to repeat the painful truth that England lost on penalties. But it was not as difficult to conceive the angle for our conversations – the people of Erdington had spoken in our local social media groups. It seemed incredible, but our theme was ‘Erdington United’.

Our local media showed Erdington people pouring out compassion for the team and the three young black players, 19 years old Bukayo Saka especially – also Marcus Rashford, who is 23, and a name known even to me a non-football follower. There was also Jadon Sancho, aged 25, and Raheem Sterling, aged 26, another name I’d heard before was also in there too.

What a thing! One would think that racism was something which involved not the many but the few.  Some people had been worried when we started ‘Truth to Tell’, the name of our Zoom programme of conversations, that we were stirring up race issues.

We the multi-racial team of organisers rooted in the Erdington community said we wanted to make life better. Some of the truths that the black people spoke of their life experiences of racism were hard to hear. Some of the listeners had not heard about such experiences happening right in Erdington.

One thing we have honed, and chalk up as a success, is that sometimes facing the same situation we do not realise we are not sharing the same perspective – e.g. angry black woman is in truth frustrated because she feels hurt and says so. The white person who sees no hurt, or is embarrassed says ‘shut up, you are stirring things up’. So, we reached a point of empathy without argument, just by listening and speaking one at a time without interruption.

People in Erdington, after Euro 2020 finals and the cascade, no, torrent of abuse against the young black penalty takers who hadn’t serve up the goals, showed unprecedented empathy, support, and love for the young players.

We England lost, yes. But our community gained a startlingly massive heart.

Here’s a truth: Erdington was so positive in this matter of race that we the Zoom chat organisers decided fair is fair – this is great news. How did this happen? Why? And could we ensure this positive sprit grew?

Our hurriedly arranged a Zoom conversation just a week after the match was so beautifully lively.  We were multi-cultural and multi-racial. Any hesitancy about speaking out was gone in the first five minutes. People were tripping over each other to speak. The strands of the conversation were varied from the issues of the penalty-ship, like how decisions about who would take it were made, to the agonies the young footballers experienced first over the loss, then over the online abuse.

Some around our virtual zoom table were not surprised at the ‘abuse’ spewed by ‘racist yobs; ‘twas ever thus – they can’t help themselves’.

There was concern over the effects on young people. Another among us just wanted people to focus on the positive and be thankful; wishing for us all to live in peace and harmony never mind if we all thought her a Pollyanna.

Organising team leader, Gerard Goshawk, summed it up to me after the discussion: “The session was powerful, thought-provoking and felt an important conversation. I was so pleased to be part of an event like this, where all the participants contributed.

“There were lots of different perspectives, but I believe that in our own small way it will enable us to move forward and really truly ‘build back better’ as a community.”

I could write volumes about the slights and hurts of racism, but I reserve what little strength and energy I have now to being more direct and choosing my battles.

As a black Erdingtonian, I am not ashamed to accentuate the positive. This is my community too, made up of people born and bred in Erdington, old hands at life, newcomers, all shades of human.

We are mainly people who have invested and are investing too much effort into building good lives and continue to do so.

So, I roar like fans from the football stands; not that I have been on any famous ones… ‘COME ON ERDINGTON… Erdington united we stand and mix and mingle and laugh and cry and work and try not to be afraid.

As I finish this piece of writing in my mind’s eye, I imagine the whole of Erdington singing to each other like footie fans do on the terraces, ‘You’ll never walk alone’.

For more information on Truth to Tell and to join further discussion groups email Vera Gilbert at caribvean@gmail.com or Rev. Gerard Goshawk at everyoneerd@gmail.com

OPINION: What can we learn from Finding Nemo? Andy Winmill – Urban Devotion Birmingham

Words & pics by Andy Winmill – Urban Devotion Birmingham

Outreach and support groups are an important way of shouldering the burdens of any community, at any time. But when does the helping hand hold too tight a grip?

Andy Winmill, Director of Urban Devotion Birmingham (UDB), talks about the precarious balance between ‘heroes’ and ‘victims’.

In the popular animated movie Finding Nemo, Marlin, the dad clownfish, copes with the grief of losing his wife by adopting the role of the over-protective parent, seeking to prevent Nemo from meeting the same fate.

This role of protector becomes Marlin’s primary identity and gives him something to live for, but he inadvertently restricts Nemo’s freedom and pushes Nemo away.

“What on earth does this have to do with Erdington?” I hear you ask. It’s a fair question but stay with me.

Every week I spend an hour on a call with a bunch of brilliant people that make up the Erdington COVID-19 Task Force. They represent so much of what is good about Erdington. They lead organisations that provide housing support, financial advice, food provision and cultural enrichment. They reflect all shades of the political spectrum yet come together for the good of all of us.

Over the past year each and every one of them has gone the extra mile, worked that bit harder and put the good of Erdington ahead of their own reputations or standing.

I have huge respect for them and – full disclaimer – I am one of them. I first came to Erdington in 2004 and began doing volunteer youthwork in Perry Common as part of Urban Devotion Birmingham (UDB). I have lived in Erdington since 2005 and now lead UDB and our staff team of 10 as we seek to serve children, young people, and families in five neighbourhoods across the district.

UDB, like every one of the organisations in the Task Force, exists for the good of the people of Erdington. Most of them – UDB included – are led by local people who serve the communities we live in. Over the past year we have collectively helped source and deliver nearly 18,000 food and essentials supplies packs and enabled almost 21,000 wellbeing activities. Sounds good right?

It sounds good because it is good, but what if we inadvertently become like Marlin? What if we end up finding our identity as the protectors? What if we accidentally contribute to restricting the very sense of community that we are seeking to serve?

Last year I read a fantastic article in this very newspaper that described the great work that one of the organisations was doing but I’ll be honest the headline troubled me. It described the organisation connecting an ‘isolated community’.

The headline focused on the strength of one party and the weakness of the other. I probably overthink these things, but it conjured up images of heroes and victims, co-dependent relationships, Marlin and Nemo.

The mistake Marlin made was to have a deficit perspective. He saw tiny Nemo’s weakness and sought to protect him from being exposed to the dangers of the ocean. When Nemo protested, he shut him down. What if he had instead listened to Nemo, looked at his strength – his bravery, his curiosity, his relational skills – and helped to prepare him to take on the ocean?

The coming months are, just like the ocean, uncharted territory. Just as Marlin didn’t know the depths of the ocean nor do any of us quite know what is around the corner. Perhaps the best response therefore is not to focus on the challenges that Erdington faces but the strengths.

As organisations we are participants in the story of Erdington but we are not heroes and the community of Erdington is not the victim. Most of the organisations that we work alongside will remain deeply committed to Erdington, but it is important that we don’t fall into the Marlin trap.

We do this by focusing on all that is great about Erdington. We focus on the story of Erdington Community Volunteers that exemplifies the community spirit that makes Erdington strong.

We look to Erdington Litter Busters that shows the community care that makes Erdington kind. And yes, we think about the Erdington COVID-19 Task Force that shows the collaboration and ingenuity that makes Erdington effective.

Whisper it quietly, but we seem to be leaving the worst of the pandemic behind. Restrictions are easing, businesses are reopening. Nobody quite knows what ‘normal’ will look and feel like, but change is definitely in the air.

People will still face crises. We need to combat food poverty, stand against the challenges of exempt accommodation, rail against the scourge of youth violence.

Organisations have important parts to play in this, but greater impact comes when we all rise up as one. This is not a time for Marlin and Nemo, for heroes and victims. This is a time for community. Let’s do this together.

For more on Urban Devotion Birmingham visit www.urbandevotion.org

OPINION: Let’s make the ‘new normal’ OK

Words by Ed King – NOT NORMAL NOT OK / Pics by Callum Lees and Phil Drury

NOT NORMAL NOT OK is a campaign that challenges sexual violence – at live music events, clubs, pubs, and bars across country. As venues start to reopen, with gigs being booked and drinks being poured once again, campaign director Ed King calls for an end to ‘rape culture’ in the entertainment industry and beyond.

No one is ever ‘asking to get raped’.

It seems like an absurd sentence to say, but some still need reminding of this fact – no matter if someone is drunk or sober, quiet or laughing. If its late at night or if they’re wearing short fitting clothes. No one invites this monster in.

But sexual violence is such a systemic problem that we have coined an expression and granted it a place in the hallowed halls of society’s self-description. There is now ‘rape culture’. Like ‘gang culture’ or ‘knife culture’, although no one is ever accused of ‘asking to get stabbed’.

It’s prevalent too, dark stains across our social fabric. It’s all around us: at schools and universities, within the workplace, screamed at a stranger from the passenger side of a moving car. And as for the 45th President of the United States of America…

Rape culture trickles into nearly every facet of our society, influencing and excusing the sexual aggressors that hide behind its ubiquity.

It is destroying us; it is abhorrent. It won’t silently go away either, we need to first push it into the light and then out of the room altogether. And we need to do it now.

But how? Well, the vast majority of sexual violence is against women (and the vast majority of sexual aggressors are men) so let’s start there – to achieve any significant change the gender with the most blood on their hands needs to take some responsibility.

And if you want to jump in at this point and tell me that not all men are rapists, I know this. We all know this. It is a point that only distracts us from the ones that really need making. But yes, not all men are rapists. I hear your stamping feet. Now let’s get on with challenging those that are.

On a plus point, within the entertainment industry at least, there has never been a better time than right now – as lockdown restrictions are lifted and music venues, clubs, festivals, and licensed premises start open up and events creep back onto the calendar. Now is a golden chance for change.

We need it too. NOT NORMAL NOT OK launched in 2018, naming itself after a conversation I had with a local singer who had been groped by the man who booked her to perform – behaviour so familiar in the music scene around her that she felt it was almost ‘normal’, that people thought it was ‘OK’ to behave that way towards women.

(By the way, ‘groped’ in a legal lexicon is ‘sexual assault’ – here’s the official definition from the Crown Prosecution Service in case you think you’re too clever to end up in court:‘Sexual assault is when a person is coerced or physically forced to engage against their will, or when a person, male or female, touches another person sexually without their consent.’)

The point that spurned our campaign was that this kind of sexual aggression is not normal and not OK, all we needed after that was a logo.

But the roots of this violence come from an indoctrinated belief that it is simply part of human nature, that sex sells and lust compels. And whilst the most heinous of sexual violence crimes and carry a custodial sentence the rest are merely out-takes from someone’s own personal Carry On film.

So, let’s jump back to those terrible two words and clarify the clarion call that follows them: no one is ever ‘asking’ to get ‘raped’. And no matter how funny you think your actions are, or how ‘harmless’ the ‘bit of fun’ is in your head, it’s not. So, stop.

Find another way to impress your mates and a better way to talk to women. Because with enough clandestine endorsement this behaviour segues neatly into national news alongside words like ‘tragedy’ and ‘victim’.

Mercifully though, the answer is quite simple. Respect others. Be certain about consent. Remember that intimacy is a privilege, not a right or expectation.

And just because you think you are unthreatening, or funny, your actions – to a stranger or someone within your own peer group – can be interpreted as aggressive.

Then remember that each of us is an example to the world around us. So, be a good one.

Let us put an end to the quickfire terms so readily describe the darkness – there should never be a ‘culture’ of ‘rape’, something so inexcusable should not have something so convenient to hide behind. And if you’re still stuck then repeat the name of our campaign: sexual violence is NOT NORMAL and it is NOT OK.

Ever.

For more on the NOT NORMAL NOT OK campaign, or for advice and support if you have been affected by sexual violence, visit www.notnormlnotok.com

LOCAL OPINION: How a community came together and made themselves heard

Words by Estelle Murphy – Short Heath Fields Trust / Pics by Ed King & Estelle Murphy

12 months ago, Estelle Murphy joined a growing campaign to Save Short Heath Playing Fields, a beloved green space in Erdington that Birmingham City Council had earmarked for a housing estate.

A year later, as Short Heath Fields Trust prepare for a meeting with Councillor Ian Ward and the heads of planning, Estelle tells Erdington Local how “picking a fight” with the council can change your world, forge friendships, give you grey hair, frustrate you beyond reason, and fill you with pride.

This time last year I would never have dreamed of picking a fight with Birmingham City Council, but these are strange times we are living in.

When the council decided to build on Short Heath Playing Fields, ignoring alternative brown field sites, our community were outraged. Many generations have spent their childhoods on those playing fields and wanted them kept safe for those yet to come.

Modern day life has seen my community drift apart. Rarely looking up from their own worries to say hello, overcrowded HMO’s, unemployment, and families unable to make the choice between heating or food. My community has been tired and fractured.

But a small group of people decided to stand up for right, against wrong. The fight to stop the council building on Short Heath Playing Fields began with a chance encounter of myself and Stephen Hughes, which within an hour grew – adding a few of our neighbours and galvanising into Short Heath Fields Trust.

Fellow campaigners and I got front row seats as we watched our community break and mend itself all in the same breath. Tempers had snapped, and the playing fields became the final nail in the coffin. Our community had watched their way of lives, and neighbourhood, slowly erode – and frustrated people, sick of being ignored, stood side by side, straightened their backs, found their voices and roared. Together as one.

We are nowhere near the end of the fight to save Short Heath Playing Fields, but we do now have a “seat at the table”, a phrase used by Jack Dromey MP. We have had to learn new skills, write proposals, meet councillors, spend hours researching documents, deeds, and legislation.

Staring at laptop screens into the small hours, day after day. It really is like being in a maze; dead ends, wrong turns, blocked pathways, feeling hopelessness, frustration, and despair. I have got lost only to find myself coming back round another corner. I have cried. I have screamed. All because I have stepped into a world where I do not understand the rules of the game.

But then I open my door, step outside, and realise this is not just my fight. It has shown me that the kind of people who step up and stand shoulder to shoulder with you, who fight as hard as you, each in their own unique way, still exist. This is a community fight.

And this fight bought a community together. From the HMO tenants to their neighbours and pensioners, people have picked up litter, cleared overgrown pathways, and cut back brambles. They now laugh, joke, and work together again.

I have seen a young family living in an HMO grateful enough to ask those clearing the entrances to sign small wooden hearts for their new-born son, then proudly bring him to meet the community who organised a Halloween pumpkin hunt on the playing fields.

I have seen OAP’s picking up extra toilet rolls (when we all went mad and emptied the shelves_ leaving them on a young family’s doorstep. There are now families cooking an extra meal every Sunday, to make sure someone alone has something warm inside them.

I have seen my community stand together in the middle of Storm Eric, protesting the council’s refusal to cut the grass on the playing fields, when we asked for the space to be cleared so we could be outside safely in the middle of a pandemic. They were armed with handheld gardening tools determined to do it themselves if they had to.

Now I can’t walk down the street without being asked: “how are we doing” or “any news?” Despite how hard it has been, we have got through it together, and will continue forward together because we are a community. It is inspiring to see and humbling to be a part of.

And I have learned that when you ignore people for long enough, they come together to stand up, to be counted, and to make themselves heard.

For more on the campaign to Save Short Heath Playing Fields, visit www.shortheathfieldstrust.godaddysites.com – or click here to visit the ‘Save Short Heath Playing Fields’ page on Facebook.

OPINION: Change is coming and thinking about 2021

Words by Ammo Talwar MBE / Pics supplied by PUNCH Records

Ammo Talwar, CEO of PUNCH Records and Chair of UK Music’s Diversity Taskforce, reflects on the past six months and looks forward to a year of action and justice.

“…I’m tired of seeing black men die… like a zebra in the clutch of a lion’s jaw,” so said Run the Jewel’s Killer Mike in the wake of George Floyd’s death last year.

Black artists have always raised their voices while others have stayed silent; Howlin’ Wolf spoke about the Mississippi Blues, Jazz and BeBop defied Jim Crow’s America. James Brown post-Watts Uprising shouted “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”. Hip Hop hit back at Reaganomics.

In the UK, Brum Town stalwarts Steel Pulse were talking about Babylon and a Handsworth Revolution. Bashy heralded serious emotions about Black Boys. Stormzy rapped about Grenfell, and Dave echoed what James Brown knew all those years ago; Black is Beautiful.

As a north Birmingham Brummie – Aston-born and Erdington polished — I’ve always believed in diversity of thought; listened to every sort of different sound. I believe in actions rather than words; perhaps from my Punjabi Sikh background which has strong foundations in Seva, giving back — or as we say in the arts; “philanthropy”. Even in my old Perry Barr record store (opposite the infamous Crown & Cushion pub, now burned down) we were event organisers, artist managers and workshop facilitators and cultural activists, always trying to diversify our bottom line. (And there were some great Jazz Funk nights at that pub).

Napster, Limewire, and all the old-skool illegal file sharing platforms dismantled independent music retail as we knew it. PUNCH Records (bricks and mortar) died in 2004, but we were fortunate enough to diversify into DJ workshops and cross curricular work in schools and youth centres (also now dismantled, but not by Napster).

PUNCH were pioneers on the schools engagement scene and really set a benchmark of how to plan, develop, and execute contemporary participatory work with solid outputs and a whole heap of fun. It was always down to one thing, The Team – E Double D, Roc 1, Mad Flow, Magoo, Ade & Andy, DJ Paul, Juice Aleem and many others. True pioneers who are justifiably in Brum Town’s Hall of Fame for transforming thousands of lives.

When the curtains came down on that era, we had worked in over 90% of the secondary schools, 75% of the primary, and 60% of special schools in the city. Today PUNCH does different stuff; touring, festivals, events and loads of talent development.

I’m also the Chair of UK Music’s Diversity Taskforce – it’s a relatively new organisation, and one that does loads of work behind the scenes; shaping public policy, talking to government and ensuring the UK music industry can grow and influence the world.

We ultimately work on behalf of the commercial music industry, including trade bodies like the BPI (who organise the Brits, the Mercury Music Awards, and co-own the official Charts), the Musicians Union, PRS, PPL and many more. These trade bodies represent artists, managers, studios, management agencies, music publishers, major and independent record labels, music licensing companies, the live music sector and much more. The total music ecosystem.

The tragic death of George Floyd last year triggered a global shift, amplified with the Black Lives Matter Movement and a hashtag revolution: #TheShowMustBePausedUK, #BlackOutTuesday.

More importantly UK citizens began to try to understand why we need to create better opportunities and better representation in our modern-day diverse cities and towns.

UK MUSIC and the Diversity Task Force was already hatching a plan to address the lack of diversity in the music industry workforce, one which closely aligns with the demands of many others who are raising their voices against systemic racism.

Last year we rolled out our plan of action. The Ten-Point Plan was based around issues which have been simmering for years, but right now, today, we need transformational thinking, strategic changes with accountability. As the Chair, I know I have ultimate responsibility and should be held accountable to ensure actions are sanctioned, strategy is developed, and systems are changing.

The Ten-Point Plan takes the music industry on a diversity journey and diversity is stronger, smarter, and more stable when “done with” rather than “done to”. But at the same time there are areas where there can be no compromise. Minority communities, working class people and diverse voices demand and deserve sharp actions at pace with respect.

It’s going to be a long journey, but I believe the UK music industry has reached a watershed moment.

To find out more about UK Music’s Diversity Taskforce Ten Point Plan, visit www.ukmusic.org/equality-diversity/ten-point-plan

For more on PUNCH Records, visit www.wearepunch.co.uk

OPINION: Coronavirus crisis, in crisis – do we have the strength for another lockdown?

Words by Ed King

Christmas is cancelled.

Or being split into three, to be exact.

The parasites of paranoia have carved our turkey into socially distanced servings this year, with support bubbles now dictating the one day my family always did well. And always did together.

It’s breaking my heart. It’s broken my family. The childhood joy I feel around Yuletide has been replaced by limitations and fear – with parlour games and presents being pushed into the cold by social isolation and shielding.

Whilst I understand why… be warned, if someone suggests a Zoom meeting on Christmas Day I’m going to start throwing sprouts (or maybe coals off the fire).

And that was all before Saturday’s announcement.

In case you’ve been living under a rock (not a bad place to be right now), on 5th November England is moving into another national lockdown – lasting four weeks or longer, we’re back to where we were in March and until at least the start of December.

Coronavirus has spiked over summer, and the precarious but pragmatic locally enforced ‘tier system’ hasn’t had the desired effect.

People are still getting sick. People are still dying. Potentially more than we can manage – 661 new ‘lab confirmed’ cases per day (Government, 1st Nov) are being reported in Birmingham, with over a million people across the UK having caught the virus since we started taking count, leading to nearly 50,000 deaths. That we know of.

But whether you’re the Office of National Statistics or Chris Whitty’s pocket calculator, the invisible beast is rampant once again. It’s a worrying and sharp upward curve – the trajectory of positive cases looks like an alpine skier’s Christmas wish.

So, it’s back to the short, sharp, circuit breaker approach to stem the contagion – a method already adopted by both our British Isle counter parts and most of mainland Europe. Lockdown, across the country. Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives. Game, set, match. God help us all.

I’ll be honest, I’m not happy about it. I’m not a lot of things about it. There are other words I could use to flesh out my feelings but I’m trying to stay on the right side of righteousness.

But I get it; I get the need for it. I support it, in my way. If it needs to be done, then it must be done. So, let’s do it as quickly as possible. And do it right.

And whilst the voice of reason rolls around my head, ‘coronavirus fatigue’ is spreading across the country in a way that ironically reminds me of the virus itself. I feel that too.

When we were first told to ‘duck and cover’ back in March, people responded. They shut their doors, they covered their mouths, and we all walked forward together in a show of unity that I never imagined I’d see. It was, despite all the horror, a beautiful sight – the innate goodness and kindness reaffirmed my sometimes ailing faith in the human endeavour.

It was not without its cost, however. To put it into a personal context, I lost £8000 as soon as the first lockdown was announced – by time it took me to drive from Stourbridge to Kings Heath. By the end of the week, I’d lost anther £2000. And I’m not a rich man.

Over the months that followed the goal post shifting cost me more that I can calculate – financially and emotionally, along with most of the country I started circling the drain. And I have not lost as much as many, many, MANY more people I both know and work with. I am one of the lucky ones.

But we did it. We did what needed to be done. And like the end of December dinner I hold so close to my heart, we did it together. It was quite an incredible sight to see too, the sheer fortitude that swept from bus stops to boardrooms was nothing short of miraculous. People showed their true colours and those colours shone bright.

Over the past, ghastly, few months, I’ve been amazed and made proud by people’s resilience during this pandemic – at their deep rooted kindness and adaptability. It’s been incredible and uplifting. It’s been inspiring. It’s almost been worth it just to see such compassion. It makes me want to cry a bit every time I really, truly, think about it. But it’s been awful, a waking nightmare. It’s destroyed lives…

…and now we have to do it all again.

I’m sitting in a pub writing this, my local, squeezing out the last drops of my Sunday and licensed premise camaraderie I’ll be able to enjoy for a while. It’s one of those pubs where they know your name and you can walk in alone. Where you’re always amongst friends.

All around me – amidst the conversations of armchair eugenics and headline politics, despite the sharp end of the stick breaking the ribs of the hospitality industry – I am getting a sense of that end-of-March solidarity. People are preparing for Thursday, for the lockdown, and their doing it with the honesty and humour that I saw back in spring.

So, again, I feel proud. Again, I feel fear. But if we can call on the inner core kindness that we found eight months ago… then again, I feel we’ll get through this.

And next Christmas I’m hiring a marquee, everyone’s welcome.

Ed King is a Birmingham born writer and editor-in-chief of Review Publishing, which publishes Erdington Local  – alongside Active Arts Castle Vale. To follow him (and his stories) on Twitter, visit www.twitter.com/edking2210

For more on Review Publishing, visit www.reviewpublishing.net/

OPINION: Marcus Rashford has played a blinder helping the hungry children of Erdington

Words Adam Smith

If this was any other year, then Marcus Rashford’s campaign to fill poor children’s stomachs might have fizzled out faster than a flaming Turkey Twizzler in a Northern blizzard.

But this is 2020, a year none of us will ever forget, and the Manchester United striker has nutmegged the Government completely and touched a raw nerve with the British public.

Today is the first day of half term in world’s fifth largest economy and there will be children going hungry because our Government will not pay peanuts for dinners.

And in the great scheme of things the £20m needed to provide poor children with dinners for a week in England (Scotland and Wales are providing them) is the equivalent what can be found down the back of the Government’s sofa.

I understand the argument though – it is not up to the Government to provide children with school dinners during the holidays. However, we are not living in normal times.

Millions of people in the North are living under lockdown and are unable to work, those on minimum wage and who qualify for help are not even getting the full amount, so if there was ever a time for the Government to listen to a footballer’s humanitarian plea then this is it.

And considering the story has led the news agenda for six days now, I bet they wish they listened to the 22-year-old and did a U-turn as they did in the summer.

Figures released in the summer revealed the Erdington constituency had the fourth most schoolchildren in England eligible for free school meals, 33.8% of 15,932 pupils.

To put that into context, if you walk down Erdington High Street today, you WILL see lots of children who need free school meals and could be hungry right now.

However, top of the free meals eligibility league was Northfield (35.4% of 16,437 pupils), which is represented by a Kingstanding councillor.

Erdington must be the only constituency in the country to have three MPs in the House of Commons. Labour’s Jack Dromey was elected by the people of Erdington in last year’s election, but in a strange twist of electoral fate we have two more elected voices who could shout for our area in Parliament.

Kingstanding Conservative Councillor Gary Sambrook rode into Westminster on Boris Johnson’s blue wave and was elected to represent Northfield. And Castle Vale Conservative Councillor Suzanna Webb took advantage of the Brexit / Remainer Tory civil war to replace former minister Margot James as MP for Stourbridge.,

A year after the election and both remain councillors, and therefore are supposed to be representing the area the best way they can. Both voted to stop feeding Brum children in the holidays.

From a quick glance at Hansard, it seems both are not raising Kingstanding or Castle Vale issues in Parliament – it is a bit like blagging your mate into a posh nightclub with a free bar and then not getting him a free pint because “it’s not the done thing”.

If you enjoy politics as a spectator sport, then this week has been great fun, seeing a working class Northerner run rings around politicians.

First there was the demand to feed hungry children, then the Parliamentary defeat and then, Britain being Britain, the avalanche of free food being offered by businesses across the country.

Seeing the amount of companies, councils, and charities answering the remarkable young man’s plea was a beautiful bright spot in a morass of COVID misery.

Erdington and Kingstanding did not disappoint either with cafes like Goodfillas and Stockland Café, and chippies like Reed Square, offering free food for children.

Goodfillers Cafe – Kingstanding / Kids can eat free (off the kids menu only and 1 meal per day) from Monday 26th to Friday 30th between 8am -1pm. Eat in only no takeaways

This was Pype Hayes fish bar Reed Square’s Facebook post: “We were shocked when MP’s voted down the motion to give free school lunches to deserving children throughout the October half-term holiday.

“Presently we’re witnessing first hand the devastation that the pandemic is causing to some of our customers finances due to job losses, reduced working hours therefore reducing their household incomes.

“As a proud member of this local community the team at REED SQUARE FISH BAR want to play our part. As such we will be offering each school age child a free meal, each lunch time next week with a choice of sausage and chips, chips and peas, chips and curry, chicken nuggets and chips. (one meal per child per lunch time).”

Have you ever known a chip shop sounding so angry? No, me neither. It was not so long ago politicians were demonising chip shops for causing our little cherubs to be obese – now the chippies are giving kids free food because the Government won’t… we are living in weird times.

Kingstanding Regeneration Trust are giving away 200 free meals tomorrow between noon and 2.30pm at George Road Baptist Church, Erdington – click here for more details..

And then there were the MPs who doubled down on the keep kids hungry policy. A North Devon MP attacked those businesses offering to help by saying they shouldn’t moan about being under COVID restrictions  – then Ben Bradley and Mark Jenkinson claimed mothers were swapping food tokens for drugs.

And now the defense is crumbling, with new Tory MPs feeling the white hot heat of Joe Public’s disgust as the man/woman in the street realised their taxes pay for subsidised meals – but not to feed the poorest children in society during a pandemic.

The Government is safe in power for another four years. But those Conservatives who are facing the ballot box next year are pig sick over the fowl up over these free meals. West Midlands Mayor Conservative Andy Street is a perfect example, he is up for re-election next May and he broke ranks to call on the Government to do a U-turn.

And then this morning, when the story could have run out of steam, Health Minister Matt Hancock did the PR equivalent of pouring petrol on the story and flicking a match at the media.

Hancock told us Boris Johnson had been talking to Marcus Rashford about the situation. Which was news to Marcus, so he tweeted immediately this was not the case.

New MPs usually pile on the pounds when they get elected, an endless round of free lunches naturally expand their waistlines. Then there is the subsidised food and drink in Parliament – a petition to stop this perk has got thousands of signatures.

The sheer disparity of well-fed politicians refusing poor children food is stark; it might not be as simple as that, but that is the perception. And it has enraged people, alongside MPs set for a 4% pay rise and private companies getting contracts worth billions of pounds to fail repeatedly at keeping us safe.

I qualified for free school dinners when I was a kid at Great Barr Comp. But my mom was too proud to claim them so instead of sitting with the cool kids eating chocolate concrete and pink blancmange, I’d be looking longingly from the ‘sarnie tables’ because I couldn’t face another lunch hour eating a drab crab paste sandwich.

I knew hunger as a child, as a teen, and as an adult when I worked in London – but what saved me in ‘the smoke’ was getting a press pass to Westminster.

All the food and drinks in Parliament are subsidised… by you. By the taxpayer. It was the cheapest place to get a decent pint and dinner in the entire city. What would cost £30 in St Stephens Tavern opposite Parliament would cost £7 inside those hallowed walls.

The food was fantastic too. And one thing’s for sure, there was not a Turkey Twizzler on any of the menus in Westminster.

To find out more about Kingstanding Regeneration Trust’s food giveaway visit www.facebook.com/events/2610523112591632

OPINON: I love the Villa (more than my dinner) but I’ll NEVER pay £14.95 to watch a game on TV

Words by and pics by Adam Smith

On 18th October history was made in British football, and for my club Aston Villa.

Not the good type of history, like winning the league with a record number of goals, but the bad kind of history. The kind of history people will remember in the ‘that’s where it all went wrong’ kind of history. Like when an alcoholic remembers the first time they drank hand sanitiser

The Villa‘s game against Leicester was the club’s first ever to be shown on Pay Per View (PPV), at an eye-wateringly price of £14.95. It was not long ago when you could actually go to Villa Park for £15.

The Premier League Ripper-Offer-in-Chief, Richard Maters, justified the price saying: “we believe we have a good product.”

But it’s not, is it?

Football without fans is awful, it’s like watching park football. It’s like decaf coffee, like sex in a spacesuit, like listening to music with only one earphone working. Without fans, football cannot be fantastic.

No matter how many times everyone involved with the English Premier League (EPL) say “it’s the best league in the world”, it does not make it true. The Premier League is not even the best league in England, the Championship is way more exciting. And fair.

As a fan, the EPL is awful, we get ripped off at every turn and turnstile. Tickets are way cheaper in Germany, France, and Spain, and fans abroad can watch their teams play on terrestrial TV. We can’t, not since Sky made us pay for top flight football. In fact, our international counterparts can even watch English football teams on their TV for free… but in the UK, we cannot.

Champions League games used to be broadcast for free on ITV, but then because BT wanted more Internet customers they bought the rights – now, instead of a generation of youngsters watching inspiring English teams’ exploits for free, the Champions League now is the preserve of a tiny amount of people compared to ten years ago.

Even the term ‘product’ turns my stomach, like when football clubs began calling fans ‘customers’.

Calling someone a customer implies there is a choice to be made, but a real fan cannot swap teams. I did not choose to be a Villa fan; I didn’t have a choice. My great grandad preordained it, or maybe my great great granddad – by the time my nan and granddad were queuing for tickets in the 1930s they were both already from Villa families.

And even if I was an orphan, I grew up in Perry Barr, where the club started, and most my friends are Villa. My funniest memories are shared experiences with all them going to, or coming back from, watching the Villa – sometimes even what happened on the pitch is included in my mind’s mosaic of being Villa.

That’s why when a glory hunter tries to wind me up, I don’t care. I feel sorry for them. Yeah, you have your memories of watching a league win on TV… I’d rather have mine of not sleeping for two days after Villa got to the FA Cup Final for the first time since 1957 (when my granddad died two days before the cup final) in 2000, thank you very much.

My point is, I don’t have the choice to watch the Villa or not. But I do have the choice how to watch them, and where to watch them. And I choose never ever to pay £14.95 to watch them in an empty stadium. Or a full stadium, because when life returns to normal the FA are not suddenly going to stop PPV are they? Their Trojan horse/cash cow hybrid is here to stay. 

I would rather choose to stream the game for free via one of the multitude of Middle Eastern based websites, that have sprung up to allow us just this option. I have plenty of friends who do.

The fact that these websites (and somewhat more dodgy streams) exist is part down to the geo-political spat between Qatar and Saudi Arabia makes it even funnier when the ‘global game’ is shoved in our face.

Who usually clinches the top spots in the Premier League? Usually the club whose owners own the most fossil fuels, that’s who. Human rights violators have earnt a seat at the top table of our game. So, if the other side of the ‘global coin’ is easy-to-find streaming sites then it shows the football money men can’t have it both ways.

But now, I can’t even watch games that kick off after 8pm in a pub because I’d miss the end of the match – thanks to video assistant referees (another nail in coffin of football, along with tackling being banned and drop balls mysteriously disappearing) the games last too long and will not finish before the 10pm curfew.

It cannot be a coincidence when pubs had to close at 10pm, and households were forbidden to mix that, PPV was suddenly announced. The beautiful game’s bean counters have been itching to do this for years.

And what better than a national crisis to take advantage of?

When an NHS nurse is risking life and limb to fight COVID-19 and wants to watch their team after a hard shift, the Premier League decides this is the time not let them watch their team for free. This pandemic has shown the true colours of so many people, organisations, and companies. The Premier League have shown theirs.

The Premier League now can be added to the list of wrong ‘uns – along with bog roll hoarders, bog roll price hikers, and that Facebook friend with mush for brains who keeps on sharing those generic “I’m not wearing a mask” statuses.

My friend pays good money for his Sky Sports subscription, and generously gives me his password. (I’m enraged on behalf of his wallet he is now expected to stump up even more money to watch games he would expect for free.) The broadcasters obviously did not mention their plan to charge per games when he or any other customers signed up for a year or 18 months.

So, I don’t blame anyone for streaming Premiership games online ‘illegally’ – part of me thinks those people who show a match on their Facebook Live are cyber freedom fighters.

If a skint dad wanted his Villa mad kids to see the last day relegation decider against West Ham, but could not afford Sky or a trip to the pub, then I will lose no sleep if he finds a way, anyway, to have that bonding experience with his kids.

Personally, I don’t use the streaming sites – I’ve got a works laptop and don’t want it riddled with viruses. The editor might presume I got them through watching porn.

But one thing is for sure, £14.95 to watch a game of football on TV is more disgusting than anything in my search history.

I won’t degrade myself. And the Premier League should have more respect for all of us football fans.

For more on Aston Villa, visit www.avfc.co.uk

To find out more about the Premier League, visit www.premierleague.com

OPINION: Invest in live music, not the pub

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Profile pics by Chris Neophytou

Imagine if the government invested in the soul of the nation.

‘If music be the food of love, play on,’ wrote Shakespeare.

I’m talking about music. From the point of view of a musician and gigaholic.

Music makes the world go round,” sang the Hamilton Brothers.

What I’ve witnessed over the past few months is a series of missed opportunities. ‘Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but foresight is better,’ taught William Blake.

Can we move forward from now, into the festive season, and reengage musicians? We can’t lose this precious part of our culture – live music. A lack of opportunities in the past few months has meant that brass players lips crumble, violinist fingers are stiff. All musicians – the well-behaved ones at least – are struggling.

It’s apparently too dangerous for musicians to be doing what they do, entertaining us all, bringing us all to a higher state of consciousness with harmonious sounds and that. Especially singers (yes, singers are musicians). Singing in groups is considered a ‘higher risk activity’ by the government, because of the potential for aerosol production. Don’t get me started on those pesky woodwind instruments. Ignore the hundreds of people protesting on the streets, Dominic Cummings on his roadshow of potential infection, or the big queue in Lidl – “there’s a flute player in this place! Shoot them! Or open a window for better circulation!”

At least I’ve had some gigs, I guess. I can’t complain, but I think I’m allowed to be somewhat sardonic. I’ve had a few livestreams, a handful of small outdoor gigs paid by the magic Arts Council England money tree of ‘please don’t forget us next year, we’re doing our best.’ Grateful. Honestly, very grateful. Here comes the cold now, where do we go?

Well, pubs are open. Great. And musicians are able to play in them, following some volume-related rules.  But that’s not really the investment in the soul I had in mind. Pubs are a chance for this full time musician to go out with his band ‘Jobe and the Spotify Playlists’ – doing requests for the ‘loud drunk guy at the front’, who shouldn’t be raising his voice anyway, but he’s bigger than me and the bouncer hasn’t spotted him yet/this pub forgot to hire security.

My experience in the pubs has been stressed landlords trying to tame insatiable extroverts and more covid-19 deniers than you can shake a Piers-Corbyn-branded stick at (I could have chosen any number of Covid-19 deniers). It’s a place for extroverts to get their fix, and the amount of antisocial behaviour I’ve seen at 21:55 because it’s kicking out time has been rather laughable. I proudly nurse my pint knowing I can stay past 22:00 curfew – I’m working!

I can see my musician mates disappearing off to ‘retrain’ under the reign of Rishi Sunak. Whether he did or did not say that people in the arts need to go and find a proper job, we’re just generally hot and bothered about the whole malaise of the situation.

Goodbye fellow musicians. Part of me wants to say ‘yey, more work for me’, but losing my band and playing to backing tracks actually makes my skin crawl. “Please!” I plea to my drummer (percussionists also considered musicians), “don’t become an itinerant electrician in Bedfordshire! You’ll be too tired by to gig on a Friday when you get back to Brum. Oh, and I need this amplifier pat tested.”

We’re quite harmless, actually, us musicians. We might complain about not being paid enough, and, no matter how much you’ve paid us, if we don’t get a free drink from the bar your name is besmirched for life. We all keep a spreadsheet of scrooge-oriented venue managers…

Anyway, we’re harmless.

On the 6th of October, there was a protest gathering of over 400 musicians in Parliament Square. They formed an impressive orchestra and blasted Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars’ from The Planets, Op.32 at the politicians, who must have enjoyed a rather delightful evening concert for free. See? We can’t even protest, right! Lorry drivers strike by not driving. Teachers strike by their absence, shutting down a school. Us musicians strike by “ooh come on let’s have a ruddy good jam session, that’ll learn ‘em!”

Just imagine if the government invested in venues over this period, ready for the world to return to normal. Clean, socially distanced, even folk-club style. All people welcome. This could be a chance for people to listen to new music, or old music in a new way. You can actually pay attention to the lyrics for once! Dancing from our seats, doing the sit-down shuffle, and practicing to become the best ‘hummers’ in the world. May I suggest Puccini’s ‘Cora a bocca chiusa’. Or be inspired by the vocal acrobatics Bobby McFerrin.

I guess the only profound quote we can be left with now is that of Jim Bowen, the host of the 80s darts-themed TV gameshow Bullseye. After the players had lost, the curtains would draw back to reveal a speedboat, a car, or a “beautifully crafted Wedgwood Dinner Service set.” “Let’s see what you could have won,” Jim would say.

We’ve invested in health. We’re investing in economy. Let’s not forget the soul.

Let’s see what we could have won.”

To find out more about Jobe Baker-Sullivan, visit www.facebook.com/jobesullivanmusic

OPINION: When someone says rape…

Director of the NOT NORMAL NOT OK campaign, which challenges sexual violence within the music industry, Ed King explores the difficult first reactions to a victim’s cry for help – and the importance to see beyond them.

Words by Ed King

I want you to remember your best sexual experience. I want you to relive, in every detail, the most pleasurable and safe experience you have ever had with a lover.

I want you to remember where you were, what you wore, what you had to eat and to drink. I want you to remember what they wore, until they wore nothing. I want you to remember what they ate, what they drank.

I want you to remember ever step of the sex itself – every physical touch and every emotion that went with it. I want you to remember what they did first, what they did last. I want you to establish a timeline. I want you to remember the strength of their body, if their skin was hot, cold, rough, or smooth.

I want you to remember if, at any point, you smiled.

Now I want you to go into the street and tell the first person you meet, a stranger. Tell them everything.

Now I want you to do the same for your worst sexual experience.

___________________

This is an exercise in empathy I saw the Birmingham based Rape & Sexual Violence Project (RSVP) organisation deliver, to a group of venue operators and licensees at a South Side Pub Watch meeting. It was a ‘tough crowd’, fidgeting through a hot afternoon and a meeting they were obligated to attend. But this stopped the room. This made us think. Can you imagine actually doing that…?

The idea is to put yourself in the position of a victim of sexual assault – to better understand what they would have to go through just to report what had happened to them. Just to start a criminal investigation, to hold a rapist to account, to get justice. To stop it happening again.

It gets worse for victim too, this is only the first step – next is a line of cross examination to see if they would be a viable voice in court, with all the clichés and rebuttals that circle cases of sexual violence like patriarchal vultures.

Did you lead them on? Did you know them? Did you act like you wanted sex? Were you drinking? Were you high? Was your clothing too sexy? Did you laugh at their jokes? Did you actually say the word ‘no’…?

But the RSVP exercise has stuck with me as a powerful way to put yourself in this terrible situation, even by proxy, and to encourage even if only a thin line of understanding – something that can clarify the pain and process a victim of sexual violence will have to go through when they report what happened to them. Just in reporting it. Not the violence. Just the admin around it.

This pub watch meeting was nearly two years ago now, but the exercise came back into my head recently after I saw someone shout rape on social media – receiving a rather immediate and short sighted response, calling for ‘evidence’, from a prominent member of the local music scene.

Now this is not an attack on anyone for involved in this conversation, debate and open discussion is healthy. And there is a side of me that says fair enough, evidence is important. Crucial in a courtroom. As a journalist reporting on anything, not just cases of sexual violence, I would be screaming “facts, figures, and cross referencing,” into my laptop.

Also, to be falsely accused of sexual violence must be a terrible experience – it does happen, you can’t and shouldn’t say it doesn’t. People of all genders and identification, of all ages, of all strata in society, are capable of lies.

But the bigger problem – the much more serious, pressing, and pertinent issue – are all the cases of rape, sexual assault, violence, cohesion, abuse, and manipulation that never get reported. With all the sexual aggressors that continue to normalise their heinous actions because the victim is too scared, too wounded, too vulnerable or unsupported to go through the reporting process.

People of all genders and identification, of all ages, of all strata in society, are capable of causing pain too.

So, what do we do?

Being involved in the NOT NORMAL NOT OK campaign has been, and remains to be, a significant learning curve for me – there was a point when I may have been the one calling for something to back up someone’s claim. Although I would like to think I would have done this at a later stage, off social media, and only if it was relevant for me to do so (i.e. not challenging someone who I didn’t know about something I was not privy to).

Plus, working with RSVP and the sexual violence and modern slavery team at West Midlands Police has helped me shape my understanding – something not everyone gets the chance to experience.

But the first step to take around cases of sexual violence is relatively simple.

You listen.

Start there. Listening helps.

Listening empowers people to recall and recant the most hideous of experiences, and to find strength to do it clearly – explaining the facts, figures, and ‘evidence’ that someone at the appropriate stage will be looking for.

The point of right and wrong, of truth and lies, is a few steps down the line. And we’re only at the first – you rarely know the veracity of what anybody is telling you, about anything, from an opening statement. You certainly don’t know it from a post on social media.

Walking into this conversation immediately asking for proof will not help someone to deliver information, to explain the situation – it will only help silence them and countless other victims who need support and who need to be heard.

So, again, listen. Start there. Don’t shut someone down because you don’t want to hear what they have to say, or because you hold crossed fingers that it will turn out to be untrue.

And if it helps, use the RSVP exercise – put yourself in the position of someone who has experienced sexual violence and has found the strength to talk about. To speak out. To challenge it. To seek help and to seek help for others.

And if you are still stuck, ask yourself this – if you were sexually assaulted, or raped, and you finally found the courage to tell someone about it…

What would you want their first response to be?

Ed King is the campaign director for NOT NORMAL NOT OK, challenging sexual violence in the music industry – from dance floor to dressing room, everyone deserves a safe place to play. For more on NOT NORMAL NOT OK, visit www.notnormalnotok.com

If you have been affected by any issues surrounding sexual violence and want to seek advice or support, visit www.notnormalnotok.com/category/support-advice or email info@notnormalnotok.com  

To seek help, advice, and support from the Rape & Sexual Violence Project, visit www.rsvporg.co.uk