Life Begins after Normal

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Let me introduce you to Monkey Man, who is well known in Kings Heath.

I had never heard of him until a couple of days ago, yet he appears to be a much loved character in Kings Heath (a suburb of Birmingham UK). As he was waiting to cross the road drivers pipped their horns and pedestrians called out ‘Hey Mr Monkey Man!’ His response was to treat us all to a little dance.

I think we need more people like this in our communities to bring some happiness into our lives. He certainly brought a smile to my face. I guess there are some that may make some derisory comments about how it is not normal to behave like this, yet what is normal?

We are programmed into being a one size fits all society. Go to school, pass exams, go to uni, get a job, get married, get a mortgage, have kids and work till you are too old to enjoy your pension if you are lucky enough to have one. We are defined by the job we do. And if we haven’t got a job that is a bad thing. The government want us all working, and punish those that can’t work and make life a misery for job seekers.

I am not saying that working hard and wanting a home and a family is a bad thing. It just seems to me that when you choose to live differently, press the stop button on the treadmill of life and decide that a walk in the woods is more your thing, you may be treated as if you are a little bit odd. And if you don’t know which path you will take till you get there, those who are pressing the go faster button on their own particular treadmill, seem to be threatened by what they consider your alternative lifestyle. They (as I was in the 80’s) are consumed with worry that if they don’t toe the line, they won’t get the promotion to afford get into more debt to buy a bigger house to fill with more stuff to show the world how successful they are.

When I begged to be made redundant in 2011 my boss just didn’t get it. I could have extended my job for another 6 months. This is the same boss who when he met me for the first time asked what pay scale I was on. He was baffled that I didn’t know or care. So it was no surprise that he could not understand why I would leave all this ‘success’ behind in exchange for a rucksack and a plane ticket. I suspect if he saw the Monkey Man he would run in the other direction.

Earlier this week I discovered that there was a Loch Ness Monster Man. Steve Feltham set up home in a campervan next to Loch Ness after selling his home in 1991. His mission is to spot Nessie. I am determined to go up and meet him. He lives in a converted mobile library, how cool is that?

In Santa Cruz I came across a man who lives in this.

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Of course I had to meet the person who owned this weird and wonderful contraption. Never got to know his name, so I call him Campervan Man. He was so interesting to talk to. As his van proclaims, ‘Life Begins after Normal’.

Works for me.

Far sickness part two and why some things in Bearwood are less than awesome

Bearwood Interchange

Bearwood Interchange (Photo credit: tim ellis)

I chose to live in Bearwood because almost everything I needed was in walking distance including schools, a range of shops, green space, a library and a swimming pool. When I moved here about 25 years ago I could buy lovely bread from The Old Bakery, get almost every type of fruit and vegetable from Mike Drapers and meat from a number of butchers. We had a book shop, a music shop, a toy shop, a post office. Now most of them have gone. Slowly Bearwood is changing. Our high street like many others across the country is dominated by pawnbrokers, multiples, fast food and charity shops. And empty shops.

And I hardly noticed that this was happening.

Three things made me realise how bad it really was.

  1. I went around the world.
  2. I took part in the 4am project.
  3. I got involved with the Portas Pilot bid.

I had enjoyed vibrant neighbourhoods in Melbourne such as Brunswick, Armadale and in St Kilda I volunteered for Lentil as Anything. I visited fantastic markets with an amazing range of produce. Bearwood is closer to Birmingham than most of these Melbourne suburbs are to the CBD and equally well served by public transport, yet they each seem to be able to support a thriving and unique high street. They were social spaces where people met, worked and shopped.

I photographed Bearwood at 4 am and the bleakness of the high street at that time shocked me. Litter from the fast food outlets, lights flickering in empty shops and battered litter bins. This is Bearwood.

The Portas Pilot bid was an opportunity to transform the high street into one that reflected the community that lived in Bearwood. The vibrant, musical community who organise brilliant concerts in Lightwoods Park and Warley Woods. The crafty community who transform a church hall into a bunting strewn lively craft fair. A community that makes Bearwood a destination. A community full of hope and optimism.

And that was reflected in The Bearwood Blog post Has West Norwood got it right?

Yet somewhere along the line it has all gone horribly wrong. There is now a community hiding behind keyboards, determined to jump on any suggestion of an independent coffee shop where home workers could network. A community that believes that artisan bread and organic produce is not wanted ’round here’. A community that believes farmers market are a threat, not an opportunity. A community that doesn’t seem to want change. A community who wants it like it was when they were children back in the good old days. While I miss some of the old shops, I believe we have to look forward and not back if we are to bring the high street back to life. We need to be realistic that the high street is changing. And we can influence this change by developing a Neighbourhood Plan.

We need to capture aspirations and ambitions to ensure we all contribute to the function, liveability, economic advantages and environmental credentials of Bearwood. And I admit I have borrowed those words from here. They were good words! I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, just Bearwood.

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