NEWS: From fly tipping blackspot to community garden, clearing the alleyways with Stockland Green Action Group

Words by Adam Smith / Pics by Ed King

A Stockland Green fly tipping blackspot is being transformed into a community orchard and garden after a group of determined residents wanted their area to blossom.

Over the last two weeks, Erdington locals collected more than 60 tonnes of rubbish in the alleyways behind Frances, Anchorage, Kings, and Queen’s Roads – such as old furniture, mattresses, building materials, and dangerous drug paraphernalia including hundreds of hypodermic needles.

Volunteers from neighbouring streets, who are marshalled by a WhatsApp group, have spent hundreds of hours removing rubbish and laying the groundwork for the alleyways to be an inner city oasis.

Despite there being several Birmingham City Council signs warning: ‘NO DUMPING – PENALTY CAN BE UP TO £20,000,’ no-one has been prosecuted for the illegal fly tipping – which has plagued the area for years.

Following the impressive actions of the newly formed Stockland Green Action Group, launched on 20th June this year, Birmingham City Council have been sending compactor trucks to remove the piles rubbish – which have been constantly active in the area over the last few weeks.

The group have been working closely with Birmingham City Council and are hopeful about the ongoing partnership – citing the excellent work carried out by the Waste Management Team.

A member of the Stockland Green Action Group, Kamleish Parfect, told Erdington Local: “We were told nothing could be done about the piles of rubbish in the alleyways – but I love a challenge, so we did it ourselves.

I have counted nine settees and lots of mattresses which was a worry because it is such a fire risk, that’s one of the reasons why were got gates fitted by our house.

The crime rate here has gone up with burglaries happening and drug dealing on the street; we just wanted to do something to improve the area we lived in, there has been a real sense of community since it started.”

The Stockland Green Action Group believes they were kickstarted into action due to the COVID-19 lockdown – with more residents being at home than usual.

The 53-year-old mother of two said: “I have spoken to neighbours on my road since we started doing this that I had never spoken to before – and those neighbours who have been unable to do the manual labour needed have been providing us with food. I have not needed to use my own kitchen in two weeks.”

However, it was the drug needles found behind her home which caused Kamleish serious concern.

She said: “We found needles in the alleyway that runs  in between Frances Road, Ancourage Road and Mere Road, amounting to about a plant pot full. We collected them and hid them away safely, but by the next morning they had been taken. Since then we have collected another box full of needles, which I presented to the police.”

Stockland Green Action Group member Usman Aslam, from Queens Road, added: “Crime seems to have gotten worse, but COVID-19 seems to have brought the community together and made us want to do something together.”

Following the recent rubbish removal, the residents have a plan to turn the land into a community asset – an urban oasis which residents across Birmingham could emulate.

She said: “We want to have an orchard, a raised bed where vegetables can be grown, and a playground. Also some residents would like space to exercise, so we’d like to create an outdoor gym.

This piece of land will be unrecognisable in a few years and everyone’s children will be able to play safely.”

To follow the Stockland Green Action Group on Twitter, visit www.twitter.com/sg_actiongroup

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NEWS: “Furious local parents and residents” stand up against plans to turn Cross Key pub into ‘stepping stone’ hostel

Words by Adam Smith / Pics by Ed King

The campaign to stop the Cross Keys pub being turned into a hostel has been given a boost after top private school Highclare have formally objected to the controversial plan.

Furious local parents and residents” have complained about the Fairfield Fox Ltd application to create a 15 bedroom hostel for homeless people, despite the building bordering a senior school and overlooking two nurseries.

Birmingham City Council is currently considering the application and should either reject or approve the plan by the end of September.

Independent senior school and sixth form Highclare borders the Cross Keys and normally has more than 200 children, whose parents pay £4,410 a term, on site.

Headmaster Dr Richard Luker told Erdington Local his school did not want to have a hostel as its neighbour.

He said: “I can confirm the school has lodged an objection to the planning application and we await the outcome of the due process.”

Osbourne Nursery and Moonstone Children’s Day Centre are both overlooked by the proposed hostel, which could have a large turnover of guests as it will be a ‘stepping stone’ for homeless people before they get permanent accommodation.

Erdington Councillor Robert Alden is leading the campaign against the hostel.

He said: “This will be an absolute scandal if planning consent is given for this hostel which is surrounded by schools and nurseries.

The amount of children walking past the hostel every day alone should be enough of a reason for this to be refused. The prospect of drug paraphernalia and needles on the street is another major worry.

We have had hundreds of furious local parents and residents get in touch about this hostel application, they are rightly worried about the impact on the area and the dangers to local children.

The building overlooks a nursery’s playground, borders another school and is opposite a children’s day centre – the developer should withdraw the application immediately.”

Cllr Alden fears if a hostel is approved then plans for a reinvigoration of the High Street could also be in danger.

He added: “The Cross Keys is surrounded by listed buildings, including Highclare School and the Abbey, the shops opposite are a heritage asset and it sits in the heart of historic Erdington; a hostel is wholly inappropriate.

And the building is on the approach to Erdington Train Station, if it should become a blight then that effectively cuts off half of the town.”

Cllr Alden believes the application for a hostel is due to the loopholes in housing rules which creates massive profits for companies housing vulnerable people.

There is a lot of money to be made through hostels and HMOs and Erdington has enough of these properties. Our opposition is not about stopping the homeless getting homes, Birmingham City Council has accommodation for the homeless, this is just totally the wrong place.”

Fairfield Fox Ltd revealed its plans for a hostel in a document submitted to the council, despite their pleas for it ‘to remain confidential’ details have been made public.

The document reveals the hostel managers will seek regular meetings with local police concerning what happens in the property.

The document states: ‘There will be two full time and two part time staff. All occupants will be of low risk and requiring accommodation due to being homeless. This could be due to being evicted from previous accommodation or being unemployed.

‘The intention is to provide emergency housing and support to individuals and provides a stepping stone whilst more permanent accommodation is sought.’

Prospect Housing and Vanguard Direct will run the hostel on a rolling five year lease.

The Cross Keys’ public consultation closes on June 16 – to object email Faisal.Agha@birmingham.gov.uk quoting the application number: 2020/02902/PA

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NEWS: “Hooligan masks” sold in Erdington pubs, ahead of mandatory face covering measures on 24th July

Words by Adam Smith / Pics of pubs by Ed King – pics of masks supplied by anonymous

Frightening hooligan masks” are being sold in the pubs of Erdington – ahead of next week’s Government deadline for everyone to cover their faces in shops and on public transport.

The “Zulu masks” with the logo of the feared Birmingham City Football Club hooligan group The Zulus are being snapped up for £5 by Blues fans wanting to “look hard” on the street.

However, Aston Villa fans have complained the masks will worry young and old people as they are “inciting violence.”

Steven Lee, aged 53, said: “This is typical Blues. The Zulus are known for hooliganism. If my son, who is a teenager, is wearing his Villa mask, sees someone on the bus with this Zulu mask of course he is going to be afraid.

The fact that hooligans are cashing in on their violent past during COVID-19 pandemic is frankly sickening. They are being bought by idiots trying to look hard.”

He added: “It looks like the Villa are going to be relegated so next season we will be playing Blues, and I bet a lot of their hooligans will be wearing these masks on derby days, it will be chaos.”

Another Villa fan, who did not want to be named, added: “I give it a week before one of masks is used in an armed robbery or some street violence, celebrating criminals is just wrong.”

However, the mobile salesmen who has been hawking the masks around the pubs of Erdington, said: “It is just a bit of fun, I sell Villa, Blues, Liverpool, Manchester United masks and my supplier offered me these Zulu ones and they have been pretty popular.”

The salesman, who refused to be named for fear of recriminations, told Erdington Local: “I was a Zulu myself so I know most the people who are buying them are not remotely hooligans, I should be getting congratulated for helping stop the spread of the virus.

I’ve been in the Red Lion, The Charlie Hall, Church Tavern and the New Inn, amongst other pubs, and will continue selling these Zulu masks until they run out.”

The Zulus were formed in the early 1980s and quickly became notorious. standing out among other firms as they were multi-cultural whereas as others were mostly white – they featured heavily in the 1989 Gary Oldman film The Firm and various football violence documentaries since.

However, in recent years prominent members like Barrington Patterson have become celebrities in their own right – raising £100,000s for charity. Zulu members also organised a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Birmingham city centre earlier this month where the masks were seen in public en masse for the first time.

I was driving past the coach station, turning right onto Rea Street, and got caught in the middle of the Blues-Black Lives Matter march,” describes one eye witness, “everyone was wearing masks, but some of the bigger lads had the Zulu branded masks and t-shirts on.

There were mainly standing at the sides of the procession though, almost like security. I wouldn’t have argued with them, they looked pretty fierce, but they weren’t giving anyone any trouble. I think there was an EDL march happening in Birmingham on that day too.”

Downing Street confirmed everyone in England will have to wear a mask in shops from Friday, July 24 as well as public transport which came into affect in June.

After legislation is passed in Parliament people could get fined as much as £100 if they are found not wearing a mask in a shop or on public transport.

To find out more about the Government’s request for the public’s use of masks from 24thn July, visit https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/face-coverings-to-be-mandatory-in-shops-and-supermarkets-from-24-july

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NEWS: Erdington Local celebrates 100 days and a ‘huge response’ reporting news across the constituency

Words by Ed King / Pics courtesy of Erdington Local

On Tuesday 14th July, Erdington Local celebrates its first 100 days – reporting news, features, and stories from local people from across the constituency.

Launched on Monday 6th April 2020, Erdington Local has had a ‘huge response’ from thousands of readers every week – reaching over 32,276 people in June alone.

Reporting from across all the wards, Erdington Local’s current online readership figures show a projected reach of over 350,000 readers in its first 12 months. A further monthly print edition of the newspaper is planned for release in Autumn this year, with a copy issued to every resident in the constituency – from Stockland Green to Castle Vale.

Originally scheduled to go live in June/July this year, Erdington Local pushed forward its online content by several months to report on the coronavirus crisis.

Whilst other media titles were closing down or culling staff, Erdington Local established a hungry and hardworking news team – publishing articles that explored the affect of the COVID-19 pandemic from care homes to classrooms.

Now a member of the Erdington COVID-19 Taskforce, Erdington Local has been hosting the online address book and database of emergency support services since 7th May – as compiled by the Taskforce and the constituency’s strategic partners.

Offering vital links to food banks, financial services, education advice, housing organisations, and mental health and wellbeing support – the COVID-19 Local Support page alone has reached nearly 30,000 people across Erdington.

A partnership between Active Arts and Review Publishing, Erdington Local was set up to bring reliable local news back into the community.

With the major publishing houses relying more and more on syndicated news, Erdington Local prides itself on first hand reporting – shining a light on the issues that directly affect the lives of its readers, whilst challenging the attention grabbing ‘clickbait’ published by other news titles in Birmingham.

We’ve had a huge response from people across Erdington,” tells Ed King – Erdington Local Editor-in-Chief, “with an immediate audience of almost 1000 people per day. It’s been an incredible welcome. But it also reflects the need for a reliable news source.

Erdington Local is not going to hide from the more difficult stories, honesty and a tough skin are important in a newsroom. But our reporters live in Erdington, they grew up in Erdington. They know the hearts and souls of this community. And Erdington Local is here to represent this vibrant pocket of Birmingham – something that is long, long overdue from local media in the city.”

Claire Marshall, Project Director of Active Arts, adds: ““There has been so much that, until now, has gone unrecognised in Erdington – none of the major news outlets wanted to know.

The chance to launch a newspaper, to provide a new voice to the people of Erdington, was an exciting opportunity. With Erdington Local we now have a prominent platform to celebrate all the achievements from this fantastic area of Birmingham.”

Erdington Local has been publishing stories online since 6th April, with plans to release its first monthly printed edition in October this year – circulating up to 25,000 tabloid sized titles across the constituency and beyond.

Both Active Arts and Review Publishing will be exploring further ‘Local’ titles in neighbouring areas, with plans to develop the newspaper brand across Birmingham in early 2021.

Erdington Local is proud to put local people at the heart of our stories – if you have something you want Erdington Local to know about, or if there is something you think our reporters should investigate, then get in touch.

To contact Erdington Local, click here for full details – or email the newsroom directly on mystory@erdingtonlocal.com

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NEWS: Erdington United – local football heading for the big leagues

Words by Adam Smith / Pics courtesy of Erdington United

Erdington United could be a semi-professional club playing in its own stadium and hosting FA Cup ties within 15 years, under ambitious plans unveiled by its chairman this week.

The club is hoping to create a shining beacon of non-league football in a desolate North Birmingham for semi-professional teams.

Unlike the Black Country, which has a host of non-league football clubs including Stourbridge Town, Halesowen Town, Lye Town, and Sporting Khalsa – Birmingham is chronically underrepresented in the footballing pyramid.

However, chairman of Erdington United – Luke Caulfield – told Erdington Local everyone at the club is determined to put Erdington on the footballing map.

He said: “North Birmingham is crying out for a decent non-league team to get behind and we believe Erdington has got the community to create a thriving football club.

And we have recently found out that we have the history because there was an Erdington United which played from the 1950s until the 1980s.

We formed in 2014, then had a break but came back stronger last season and we have got our place in the Festival League for next season.”

The 30-year-old added: “I told our annual general meeting last week that in 15 years I want Erdington United to be playing semi-professional football on a Saturday, which would mean we would qualify for the FA Cup.”

There is a site on Spring Lane that would be perfect for a clubhouse and our long term plan has to be to have a stadium of our own, I know it will take years and years for this to be a reality but it is something we can all work towards.”

The club is currently finalising where they will be playing next season but one thing is for sure, after each game the team will all be heading to The Kingstanding Inn, Warren Farm Road.

Luke said: “We are really fostering a family feel for the club and the owners at the Kingstanding Inn, near where we played by last season, really looked after us, they put a spread of food on every week and it’s great to all get together after a game.”

Last season, using a squad of local players mostly under 25-years-old, the team qualified for a cup final but their day in the sun was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, due to an innovative and relentless social media strategy Erdington United used the lockdown to increase the profile of the club.

Two Facebook posts about limited edition specially designed kids, Support the NHS and Black Lives Matter, went viral leading to orders from across the country for the strips.

Luke said: “As soon as one batch of kits are delivered they are sold out, people liked our Support the NHS kits but the demand for Black Lives Matter strip has been insane.

We have had orders from Newcastle, Leeds, London, Rugeley and random other places. I spoke to our manager about a Black Lives Matter kit and he was up for it, we have a mixed squad of players and growing up in Erdington I’ve obviously got black friends and family members so we wanted to make a statement.

We asked GB Kits if they could make them for us and they cannot make them quick enough because of the demand. It has been a brilliant way of introducing people to Erdington United.”

Whereas Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham City’s social media accounts all attracted racist and abusive comments under Black Lives Matter posts – Erdington United fans on Facebook were totally positive.

Luke, who went to Edmund Campion School, added: “We want to reflect Erdington as a club so obviously I was really proud how everyone reacted to our Black Lives Matter posts.”

To follow Erdington United on Twitter, visit www.twitter.com/ErdingtonU

To find Erdington United on Facebook, visit www.facebook.com/erdington.utd.7

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FEATURE: Objections to hostel at old Cross Keys pub, amidst fears for neighbouring schools and public safety

Words by Adam Smith / Pics by Ed King & courtesy of Councillor Robert Alden

The battle to stop the old Cross Keys pub being turned into a hostel could be the turning point for the High Street’s future redevelopment, Erdington Local can report.

The developers have been challenged by Erdington councillor Robert Alden of trying “sneak” through the latest application whilst people are preoccupied by the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, instead of being a discreet process, the Fairfield Fox Ltd application has become a touchstone issue with concerned residents inundating the public consultation with objections. The prospect of a hostel being opened so close to three schools has stoked fears in the community that these new residents will spark a crimewave in the area including a rise in violence, theft, and sexual assaults.

Erdington councillor Robert Alden, who is spearheading the campaign to prevent the application, believes children could be at risk if the hostel is approved.

He said: “The area is already saturated with this kind of accommodation and so cannot sustain any more being built in the local area.

The site is close to Highclare School, Osborne School, Osborne Nursery, Abbey School and other nurseries which would mean children could be placed at risk from any ASB from the development. It is inappropriate for a hostel to overlook a school.”

He added: “We do not want to lose a pub and community amenity, this proposal would remove a much needed community asset that could easily be used as a pub or restaurant again.

They have had two different applications for variations of HMO and hostel refused. Sadly, the applicant has obviously hoped they could sneak this through without people noticing in the current climate.”

Erdington High Street is on the brink of attracting transformational investment which could bring back the glory days when it was one of Birmingham’s busiest thoroughfares. However, the loss of a landmark public building at one end of the High Street in favour of the hostel could turn off potential investors in the whole area.

Cllr Alden warned: “The proposal is not in keeping with the proposals from the Future High Street Fund application and the City Council Urban Centres framework, nor the Birmingham UDP, so should be rejected.”

Branded ‘notorious’ and ‘a trouble spot’, the last time a pint was pulled at the Cross Keys was in 2018. The pub was forced to close after a melee resulted in a drinker being slashed across the face with a Stanley knife.

Micky Carpenter, who ran the Cross Keys from 2012-2017, told Erdington Local the pub could be a landmark attraction again.

He said: “I believe 110% the Cross Keys could be a landmark pub again; I know personally the pub made good money.

The place had great community spirit with the amount of money we raised for charity in the five years I was there.”

He added: “Yes it had bits of trouble, like most pubs, but licensing will tell you that we handled the pub well.”

Micky, who now owns The Digby on Chester Road and is preparing to own his own gym, believes it would be a tragedy if the Cross Keys was lost to history due to its unique features.

He added: “It’s an amazing old building, still has the old stain glass M&B windows and the original brown and green tiles in the hallway.”

Tony O’Kereke, who now runs The Golden Hind in Kingstanding, joined the Cross Keys as assistant manager in 1999 – taking over as manager in 2003, he left in 2010. In 2004 the pub was awarded the Brewery trade magazine’s West Midlands Community Pub of the Year.

He believes the people of Erdington would back a new Cross Keys if given the chance.

He said: “There is a fantastic community in Erdington who are crying out for a community pub they can call their own and feel safe in.

Now, all you’ve got is the Charlie Hall, the Swan and the Acorn and all those customers who used to use the Cross Keys are still out there.

All you need is a gaffer who would be strict enough to keep the riffraff out and then people would flock back to the Cross Keys.”

Former patrons are determined to see the good times return at the Cross Keys  too – where Erdington folk have been meeting for a pint for more than two centuries.

Frank Hayes said: “There has been a pub on that site for over 200 years.” And Mark Shepherd added: “There is virtually nowhere to go to socialise in Erdington anymore. Keep the Cross Keys as a pub.”

Residents are also getting seriously annoyed about the number of Housing of Multiple Occupancies (HMO) in the area. Fairfield Fox reject any suggestion their hostel will lead to an increase crime or be full of undesirables.

They argued in planning documents: ‘This site will not be housing at any stage people that are alcoholics, drug addicts, paedophiles, ex-offenders with serious criminal records.

‘It is clear that the supply of social rented property for our group range is insufficient to meet the requirements of homeless people and the site will help the right individuals after their assessments to successfully reintegrate back into the community and become successful in running their lives without the need to rely on government funds or criminal activity.’

The Cross Keys’ public consultation closes on June 16 – to object email Faisal.Agha@birmingham.gov.uk quoting the application number: 2020/02902/PA

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OPINION: Black Lives Matter protest in Birmingham

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Chris Neophytou & Jobe Baker-Sullivan

As far as I’m concerned, the police in America might as well be a terrorist organisation.”

I was spellbound by the thousands of people who gathered in Birmingham for the Black Lives Matter protest. There were people of all ages and races. There were children, and even a few pet dogs. It was in response to George Floyd’s death – which has caused shockwaves in cities around the world. I was proud to be there for Birmingham’s show of solidarity.

Initially, it was a scary experience. On my way to Birmingham Library, where the speeches took place, I was handed a slip of paper from an organiser with ‘advice on arrest’. I became anxious as the crowds gathered momentum – lest we forget, there is also the possibility of being infected with coronavirus.

But the intention of this protest was noble.

People chanted in full voice: “George Floyd, remember his name!” organically, along with other slogans. There were signs containing anti-establishment messages, messages of hope – some tongue-in-cheek, some with wise quotations. The one that resonated with me was the powerful, ‘They want our rhythm not our blues.’ As a musician, I believe that a vast amount of popular music owes a lot to talented, pioneering yet anonymous, often intentionally uncredited, black musicians. And as a white musician, I believe we stole their music but we didn’t alleviate their sorrow.

By chance, I spotted some people I know from Erdington. Pastor Rasaq Ibrahim from the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) joyfully handed me a free face mask, before disappearing into the crowd to give more to strangers.

Feeling fully equipped, having brought my vinyl gloves and voice recorder, I joined the crowd outside the library to hear passionate speakers selected by the Black Lives Matter group using a portable PA, often doubled with a megaphone. It was only audible if you were very close to the action, but people were happy to start chants in their own pockets of activity. I caught most of the speeches, with various speakers commending the multi-ethnicity of the crowd, the fact that this protest cannot be the last, and getting the crowd to kneel as a gesture of solidarity.

The fight is not black verses white; the fight is not black verses Asian. The fight is not black verses any race. The fight is against racists,” one speaker sermonised, followed by rapturous applause.

A couple of hours later, we marched, from Centenary Square, along New Street, to protest symbolically in front of the Lloyd House Police Headquarters.

An acquaintance of mine spotted me in the crowd. Like all the following speakers, she is black and wishes to remain anonymous. She is from Castle Vale: “Everyone’s out here. Black, white, Indian. Fighting for the same cause. It’s like the most peaceful protest I’ve ever been to. The message is clear. All anybody wants to have is an enjoyable life, and some people are robbing them of that.

Me personally, I feel like Black Lives Matter is inclusive to everyone as well. As far as I’m concerned, the police in America might as well be a terrorist organisation. The George Floyd incident was filmed, but it’s like, this has been going on for decades. This protest is saying, stop it. Just stop.”

I too had fear that this day would not remain peaceful, having seen the news of tear gas and looting in America. Trump’s response was to threaten to send in the army to cease the unrest, yet here in Birmingham I see an army of well-meaning citizens mobilizing to bring positive change.

One man, from Moseley, tells me: “As you can see, everybody’s behaving and respecting. Not many police officers. In general, I’m quite blown away because also, nobody with grey hairs like us! The majority of people are under 30. It’s mixed like hell mate! Proper mixed… It’s been an excellent day, a great day.”

We stopped our conversation to admire the marching crowd as it circled around Colmore Circus. Buses had come to a stand-still, and cars sounded their horns as they drove by in solidarity.

This is different from every other one [protest] because it’s worldwide. And it’s unfortunate that the people who commit the crime are telling other people to be peaceful!”

Another male I knew from Erdington was a little more sceptical of the speakers present at the protest: “to be honest, I think it’s just a façade. There was no direction on the mic in what they were saying. There were people on the mic saying: ‘if you’re not down with XYZ then you’re not XYZ’.”

Black Lives Matter itself as an organisation is not without its criticisms. It has been accused of being militaristic, police-hating, and has had a history of confrontation in the public domain – a prominent Black Lives Matter activist and writer, Shaun King, was banned from Facebook in 2016. Although King’s censorship was later redacted by the social media giant and labelled ‘a mistake’.

But whilst agitation can be seen as an important part in evolving debate, it can also lead to messages getting blown out of proportion in a media frenzy – a difficult balance no doubt Black Lives Matter, and many activist groups, will be all too familiar with. And if you need an example of how this can go wrong, just Google ‘Katie Hopkins’.

But the response to the George Floyd murder, for that’s what it is, has been the most recent flashpoint of a whole history of anti-human abuse. Black lives do matter, and as offensive as it is to even need an organisation to clarify that the conversation about race needs to be kept alive, by everyone.

And personally, from my corner of the crowd and community, it was important for me to be part of this historic event in my own city. And as a musician, and a human being, I can only pray that finally a change is going to come.

For more on Black Lives Matter, visit www.blacklivesmatter.com

Jobe Baker-Sullivan is an Erdington based musician and arts ambassador, leading the Erdington Arts Forum and the Active Arts Evenings of Creativity. For more on Jobe Baker Sullivan, visit www.facebook.com/JobeSullivanMusic

For more on the Erdington Arts Forum, visit www.facebook.com/groups/cafeartsforum/

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FEATURE: Death and social distancing – the grief of funerals during lockdown

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Ed King

The UK’s funeral industry is estimated to be worth around £2billion annually, with an estimated 4,000 directors conducting 600,000 funerals each year at an average of £3-5000 per service. Britain’s death economy is big business.

But honouring the dead is also paramount for people’s mental health and society’s social fabric – a respectable funeral is a helpful step in the grieving process, allowing people to say goodbye to loved ones whilst offering the emotional sanctuary of a traditional service.

During the COVID-19 crisis, however, funerals have taken on an even more sombre tone, as death tolls rise whilst places of worship across the country have been closed to stem the spread of the virus – building a backlog that has seen some funerals held weeks, even months, later than normal.

Along with the Government restrictions being imposed on funerals of all faiths, whatever your beliefs the COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed the way this vital part of human society is carried out.

As someone who would play the church organ at funerals pre-coronavirus, sometimes three times a week, I was interested in exploring the drastic changes people now face during this important part of the grieving process.

It feels like their bereavement is suspended,” says Father Simon Ellis, the parish priest at St Margaret Mary’s Church on Perry Common Road, who has officiated over six funerals since the start of lockdown – unable to make two, as he was recovering from coronavirus himself.

It’s been agonising… It feels like people have said, you go, I’ll stay at home. The overwhelming thing I’ve heard is that ‘they deserve more’… Normally there would be 50, 60, 150 people at the church or the crematorium. Now we can only have six,” the maximum number of mourners allowed, at that time, according to Birmingham City Council.

And if someone has died of COVID-19,” continues Father Ellis, “people are not permitted to see their loved ones in the funeral parlour. They’re not permitted to touch the coffin. It’s something that will have people struggling with their mental health.”

The Government guidelines have been put in place so that ‘mourners and workers involved in the management of funerals are protected from infection,’ according to the .Gov website. But this has caused anguish for many families, with some having to make tough decisions about who attends the funeral of a loved one and who does not.

But despite the hardships during lockdown Father Ellis has noted, “generally families seem to be sticking to the rules… All the families have been saying there will be something at a later date – whether that’s a memorial mass, a memorial service, or something followed by a proper reception. There are plans for the future.

I feel genuine sorrow for people. Whether they’ve lost a person through COVID-19 or some other reason, they’ve been hurled into this new world…

It is very hard to experience this extra burden people are carrying. But it’s also remarkable how resilient and high-spirited people are being.”

The coronavirus crisis has also seen ingenuity, as people embrace digital platforms to combat the widespread physical restrictions. “Perry Barr Crematorium did have a system where they could relay the service outside,” tells Father Ellis – explaining a shift in how the funeral is conducted which allows more people to gather outside of the chapel area.

Some funerals are also being livestreamed for the benefit of those who can’t be attend in person, and Father Ellis has taken on the challenge: “[livestreaming] has always happened, but now there are more people are involved. What you’re trying to do in the service, which I’ve never done before is start at the beginning of the service is saying ‘if you’re following remotely, you are most welcome, we are thinking of you’. It’s just something to say, ‘we know you’re there.’”

But for all those who are grieving during the coronavirus crisis, it has been a whirlwind experience; as if losing a loved one wasn’t difficult already, not being able to have a conventional funeral has been a great shock to many mourners.

Steve Lafferty, who lives on Lambeth Road in Kingstanding, lost his brother, Charles, on the 4th April after a seven year battle to cancer. Under normal circumstances, there would have been a ‘receiving in’ ceremony the evening before the funeral, wherein the coffin of the deceased remains in church, St Margaret Mary’s, overnight.

We’d have liked him (Charles) to go to church first, to St Margaret Mary’s,” explains Steve, “for the overnight, and then the service… then the funeral mass, in the church, then up to the crematorium for a little service there.

We’d have had the hymns in church… he wanted certain songs, his kids wanted certain songs, so we’d kept them for the crematorium. But because we couldn’t get to church we give them the songs that they wanted, that my brother wanted, to go out there.”

Part of a strong Scottish family, Charles Lafferty had many mourners wishing to pay their final respects. But with the numbers of attendees restricted, the family he left behind found themselves – like many across the country – having to make some difficult logistical decisions.

He had six grandchildren, so the eldest grandchildren were to go,” tells Steve, crunching the numbers usually reserved for a wedding planner – Sandwell Crematorium, where Charles was cremated, are allowing a maximum of 10 mourners at each service. “Then his three children, his three brothers – his son’s partner, she came. But then my wife came, my other’s brother’s wife came…”

They were quite good actually at Sandwell, they gave us a link,” continues Steve – explaining the digital streaming service Sandwell Crematorium were able to offer, “because I’ve got relations in Scotland and all that there, and they said the link was very good as well.

They give us a code to put in – they set it up straight away, then told us – in a few weeks time – to just click here and it will automatically go through. It was really good. Where the camera was you had the coffin, the priest, the people that were there… it was really, really good.”

For Charles Lafferty, his funeral was to be well and widely remembered – despite all the coronavirus roadblocks now in front of a regular procession. But fortitude deserves fanfare, and whilst working within the Government guidelines the family were still able to say goodbye in their own way.

I went down to the undertakers, Unwins on Rough Road,” explains Steve, “they said look Mr Lafferty, with the circumstances we’re in you can only have this, this, or this… no cars, only a hearse. And because we’re Scots we had a bagpiper performing.

So, what we did… where I live on Lamberth Road… I told all his friends to come, but they must keep social distancing all along the road. Don’t go to the crem, but do it along the road outside my house – and then the bagpiper played him up to my house.

The three bothers and his family there, we walked in front and others walked behind, all the way up. Then they stayed outside my house for about five minutes for anyone who wanted to come up to touch the coffin – it was the only time anyone was allowed to touch the coffin – then I went down in front… You had the bagpiper, me, the lady from Unwins, and the coffin then followed me down the road and we were off to Sandwell (Cremetorium).

I can’t knock Sandwell, and I can’t knock my undertakers down the road, especially under the circumstances. They were very, very good.”

For more information on how ‘births, deaths, and ceremonies’ are being conducted across Birmingham during the coronavirus crisis, visit www.birmingham.gov.uk/info/20016/births_deaths_and_ceremonies

For Government guidelines on ‘managing a funeral during the coronavirus pandemic’, visit www.gov.uk/covid-19-guidance-for-managing-a-funeral-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic

For more from Unwins Undertakers, visit www.urwinsundertakers.co.uk

For more on St Margaret Mary’s Church, visit www.birminghamdiocese.org.uk/st-margaret-mary-perry-common

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NEWS: ‘Nubsters’ play Russian Roulette picking up cigarette butts on Erdington High Street

Words by Adam Smith / Pics by Ed King

Desperate nicotine addicts have been warned they are playing Russian Roulette with their lives on Erdington High Street, by picking up and smoking cigarette butts from the pavement.

The “filthy habit” normally has a tranche of health consequences, but the COVID-19 pandemic could see more deadly results for the so called ‘Nubsters’. And the threat of catching coronavirus is not just confined to those picking cigarettes from the floor but extends to people who share ‘twos’ with their friends.

The warning has come from Erdington nurse, Leonie Smith (37), who has swapped working at her own clinic to be on the front line fighting COVID-19 in a mental health ward.

Leonie said: “I grew up in Erdington and we used to laugh at the old guys who picked up cigarettes from the floor, but now as a nurse it terrifies me the consequences of this filthy habit during this pandemic.

If I walk down Erdington High Street I can’t go ten yards before seeing someone picking up a fag end from the floor, I thought because of the pandemic people would have the sense to stop.

Normally it would be the germs and bacteria on the floor which would cause the health scares to these addicts, but now it is also who smoked the fag before which is the danger. It is a sure fire way of catching the virus.

Every pull on that cigarette is ingesting the previous persons saliva and germs; I still see young people passing one another cigarettes or spliffs of cannabis.”

Government has not released any statistics about how the coronavirus virus has hit drug addicts, but they often have underlying health conditions and low immune systems – a demographic described as ‘vulnerable’ by Public Health England.

We need to educate everyone in society to follow the rules and drug addicts are no different,” continues Leonie. “Passing on a roll up, cigarette, spliff, or vape has to be seen as a dangerous and stupid thing to do – we all have a part to play, to call out friends, family and those who are blasé and do this like they always have.”

Leonie went to Perry Common School and has lived in Erdington and Kingstanding whilst working in the NHS – including the Children’s Hospital in Birmingham.

Before the COVID-19 crisis she had set up her own clinic as an expert in children’s mental health. However, as the call out for support came from Government she immediately volunteered to go back on the front line.

Leonie has now created her own signs, which include the slogan ‘No More Twos’ and ‘Picking up fag butts is like Russian Roulette’ – hoping to help deter the trend of picking up discarded cigarette ends and to further prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Birmingham City Council pinpointed Erdington as one of the busiest high streets outside the city centre and removed on-street parking, as well as widened pavements, to help tackle problems physical distancing.

For further help and guidance on health issues surrounding COVID-19 and the coronavirus crisis, visit www.gov.uk/coronavirus

For help and guidance giving up smoking, visit www.nhs.uk/live-well/quit-smoking/nhs-stop-smoking-services-help-you-quit/

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FEATURE: Saturday night cabin fever – how Erdington musicians are coping in the coronavirus lockdown

Words by Jobe Baker Sullivan / Pics courtesy of individual musicians featured

Lampstands, sofas and surprise appearances from family pets – the new performance stages for musicians as they stay at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Requesting songs from Alexa or re-runs of Glastonbury just aren’t the same as the live-spirit that comes from a craftsman with their tool – a musician and their instrument.

Musicians want to keep the ‘food of love’ in constant supply, and live-streaming is helping feed the community.

Erdington Local caught up with three Erdington based musicians to see how their lives have changed since lockdown.

When she’s not in high profile business meetings or adventuring around Asia, Jo Baldwin (37) is usually gigging 4 times a week with her band The Jo Baldwin Project (JPB).  From pubs, bars and functions of all kinds, Jo’s weekends are often enthralling and exhausting. The JBP tend to perform rock and pop covers from the 1980s-present, and Jo singing for 3 hours with only short breaks.  

“Music has done wonders for my mental health” she says, her beaming, proud smile almost audible over the phone. Jo openly reminds audiences that she went through a dark time and that music was her constant companion.

Now she’s at home, she has found time for her three true loves: her black Labrador, Josie, her one-eyed Turkish cat, Emre, and her music. Her pets are enjoying the attention, and she’s always assured an attentive audience of two whilst in lockdown. Jo has taken to live-streaming regularly, and self-isolation has meant she has found time to work on her own original songs – and the band are finding it good fun working remotely.

But this is not enough to keep Jo occupied. She’s working from home as the key account manager for a pharmaceutical company and she’s gone the extra mile with her company’s “voluntary redeployment position” – she delivers medicine to patients, and she finds it a humbling experience. “Patients are telling me how happy they are. One was over the moon he didn’t have to catch two buses to the clinic.”

The next few weeks of self-isolation for Jo look positive. Sunshine and dog-walks, time for beloved music and to work on her album. She’s also now“into Tik Tok.”

For some, music is their full-time job. In the Chancellor’s speech on the 26th March, Rishi Sunak said:

I know that many self-employed people are deeply anxious about the support available for them. Musicians and sound engineers; plumbers and … through no fault of their own, risk losing their livelihoods.”

Perhaps this will have assuaged musician’s fears?

One such full-time muso is Reuben Reynolds (29), who before the lockdown, was in demand by schools and bands around the country. He spent his professional time teaching in Leicester and Brixton.

Like Jo, his weekends were dominated by gigs – he tends to back R&B artists, pop artists, gospel bands, and it’s not uncommon for him to be performing for 100s if not 1000s of people at concert venues.

So, what has Reuben been up to?

“I’ve been sleeping a lot more,” he proudly states over the phone. The odd hours musicians have to work – not just the gigs and the teaching, but rehearsals and preparing material, can often dominate their lives.

“I’ve found more time for study and rehearsal, as well as working on some recordings.”

Rueben has always used social media to share his beautiful music and advertise his incredible and varied guitar abilities, and he thinks “it’s important to share and connect” with people.

He seems pretty relaxed about his earnings, too: “I’ve been enjoying the lockdown!” he laughs, “initially, we’re just looking at the next few months wondering where the income is going to come from. But the Government seem to have plans in place.”

He explains that one of his schools are preparing for lessons on Zoom so they can continue to teach students following the Easter break, so he hasn’t escaped work completely.

It’s difficult to predict when this lockdown will end, but Reuben, like many musicians, would be devastated if the country is still in lockdown in August – prime festival season.

It’s saddening to hear of all the postponed-weddings and funerals with so few people attending, wakes are not an option. That also means putting the kibosh on musicians like Edwin Podolski (24) from Kraków, who now lives in Erdington.

He’s a violinist/violist who graduated from the Birmingham Conservatoire. He was in huge demand in orchestras, quartets and string-related music groups – and all bookings for his regular groups such as MAKK and Bollywood Strings have been cancelled or postponed. He was especially looking forward to a big concert in London this April, where he was top of the bill.

The lockdown has allowed Edwin to develop his creative side, arranging English folk tunes for string duo.

He’s been trying to teach his private students over Zoom, but he’s not a fan, “it’s so frustrating. The delay, the bad sound”. No replacement for real life!

Edwin’s been rather excited to find more time for exercise. Before lockdown, Edwin would attend a Muay Thai boxing group, although it’s difficult to train without a partner.

There are so many other people who work in the arts and rely on face-to-face business, as well as people who consume it and make these interactions part of their routine. Erdington MP, Jack Dromey has said: “after food and medicine, isolation will be the big issue – and I want the Arts to play a big role in it.”

All these musicians and art-types may yet have a role to play in the weeks to come. Music plays such an important role in human culture, and these Erdington musicians won’t let a pandemic stop them from creating art.

To find out more about the artists featured in this article, click here for more on The Jo Baldwin Projectclick here for more on Reuben Reynolds, and click here for more on Edwin Podolski.

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