As a child living in Winson Green, Handsworth seemed like a magical place to me. It had a swimming baths, a library, not to mention a beautiful park with a boating lake, tennis courts, a cricket pitch and tearooms.
At the time I was too young to remember have first hand knowledge but I was often told of the Endwood pub (on the far side of the park). According to folklore, my father defended this establishment from a German invasion when he was a member of the Home Guard. It would seem the defensive plan was simple: Drink the place dry, leaving nothing for the invaders to plunder. I'm led to understand that the operation turned out to be one of the most successful of WW II, with the enemy not daring to venture within rifle-shot of the place.
In my early years, I remember Sunday morning trips into Handsworth. My (much) older brother, (he was the oldest of seven, me the youngest) would take me swimming at Grove Lane baths. After the swim he would treat me to a cup of hot Oxo, or Horlicks. Then we'd walk through the park and take a rowing boat out for an hour (or was it half hour). By this time the pubs would be open for his refreshment, so on we'd go to the gardens of the Endwood. He'd have a pint, or two, and me; pop and crisps. Strange, isn't it how the sun always seemed to shine in those days and particularly in Handsworth? I suppose, with hindsight, on miserable days we wouldn't have gone there.
Other early excursions into Handsworth were with my big sisters who introduced me to the library. After school, we'd make our way along Handsworth New Road, up Boulton Road and onto Soho Road. Libraries weren't as child friendly as they are now, but I was fascinated by the amount and diversity of books - I loved browsing the shelves to make my selection - usually the latest Biggles or something similar.
On Saturday mornings we would regularly make our way through Black Patch Park, up Queens Head Road and to the Regal cinema, to join in the fun with all the other ABC Minors, and Uncle Len. As I recall, if it was your birthday, you'd receive a luminous badge and a voucher to get in free the next week - a saving of 10d. (I must have had ten birthdays a year in those days. No wonder I've aged so rapidly!)
There was an `usher' (I suppose that's what you'd call him), who, because of his prominent ears, the kids nick named Dumbo. He'd never leave us alone, `.queue up properly. be quiet. put your feet down. pick up that orange peel.' he'd never stop! We hated him.
Many, many, years later, I recall him applying for a job where I was working with another ex-ABC Minor. Dumbo actually wound up labouring for us. The first day he turned up my colleague challenged him about his true identity (apparently he hadn't used the name `Dumbo' on the application form). Well, the poor old fella nearly dropped through the floor.
Shopping was another good reason for trips into Handsworth. My mother reckoned there
was the best selection of shoe shops in the city along Soho Road. And, of course, there was Fosters'. Annually, towards the end of the summer holidays, my mother clutching the Provident cheque would take me to Fosters'. It was the same every year: New grey trousers (probably shorts), navy blazer, grey shirt, and new underwear, ready for the coming school term. I'd stand around there bored to tears, watching the receipts and cheques being transported around the shop by a strange sort of monorail system.
Growing up meant going to the Regal on a Sunday afternoon, rather than Saturday morning. The plan for us `scallies' was to select seats behind a clutch of girls, flick popcorn, or something at them, to attract their attention. Once we'd built up enough courage, we'd move in. If you didn't come out with a girl on your arm you'd be rated a right dork. In the darkness of the cinema, desperate not to be seen as a dork, I can recall often pulling some right strange looking ones. (Hammer House of Horrors had nothing on some of the ones I wound up with!)
It was this interest in girls that led me to two youth clubs on Soho Road, both held in large houses opposite St Michael's Hill. I think the one was associated to the church, the other to the YWCA. It was an eye-opener walking girls home from them. They all lived in the area, most in houses the size of Buckingham Place, or so they seemed compared with what I was used to. This was about the time I experienced my first pint in the Beehive pub, just down the road from the clubs. I must've been all of fifteen.
This ever-increasing attraction to girls eventually led me to the Plaza, which had been the old Rookery Picture House on Rookery Road. I was initially introduced to this dance hall and live music venue by my (slightly) older sister. I think we went to see Joe Brown and the Bruvvers, although the biggest attraction for me was one of her friends!
Within a couple of years, the emergence of the Swinging Sixties brought some of the top acts to the Plaza: The Searchers, Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Freddie and the Dreamers, The Four Most, Long John Baldry, Showstoppers etc. etc. I have heard it said that the Beatles appeared there in there early years. Well, if they did, I missed them!
Some of the most popular acts were the local groups like The Brumbeats, The Beachcombers, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, Carl Wayne and the Vikings. And then of course there was the chart topping Move and The Fortunes, whose drummer, Andy Brown, lived in Handsworth's Maxwell Avenue, a stone's throw from the venue.
Every Friday, or Saturday night, or both, we'd be there, checking out our gear, from giraffe collar to Beatle boots, in the full-length mirrors of the toilets. Again, some of my sorties on `the pull' turned out less than wonderful. Not because of the lighting - now it was the excessive amounts of alcohol, which induced me into taking home more than the odd girl with a face like a bag of spanners.
I also remember that flight of stone steps at the entrance being a death trap when you'd had a few. Many are the times I've seen the whole lot shifting about in an attempt to trip me up on the way out (often succeeding).
When there was no one much good on at the Plaza, just down Rookery Road there was the Farcroft. There was a dance there every Saturday night. They never had anyone famous on but it was always live music from a reasonable band, and the beer was cheap. Best of all, if you paid a couple of bob into the dance, you got the benefit of the bar extension. In fact, we sometimes called in there before carrying on to the Plaza, getting a few cheap pints in us, before topping up with the more expensive stuff up the road.
During this period, I was knocking about with several work colleagues who lived in Handsworth. Besides the dances, our other haunts included The Endwood, The Grove, The Uplands and the posh, new, Garden Gate. In fact one of them held the distinction of being introduced to Handsworth pubs by being left outside The Grove in his pram. His father had taken him there for a Sunday lunchtime drink and forgotten him. It was only when he reached home and the mother asked, "Where's the baby?" that her husband remembered his charge.
It was through one of these colleagues that I met and married my wife - his sister. They lived in Millfield Road, in a comfortable semi with a garage, integral plumbing (including hot water) and a cocktail bar (like Del Boy's) in the front room. Did I take some ribbing from my Winson Green mates about courting the gentry? "Handsworth ain't good enough for `im. Oh no! He only goes on the pull in Handsworth WOOD!".
There was one Christmas at Millfield Road that sticks in my mind. As I've mentioned, there was this Del Boy cocktail bar. Well, what amazed me was the displayed bottles of whiskey never seemed to get drunk. That was until this particular Christmas when relatives were visiting. The whiskey was taken down and a drop poured out for the male visitor. He took a sip and left it to one side. A short time after one of my girlfriend's (as she was at the time) brothers appeared, half steamed. He helped himself to about four fingers of the whiskey. He took one gulp and he spat it out all over the place, with the exclamation: "What the bloody hell is that? It tastes soddin' tea!"
Mother clamped her hands to her face with embarrassment and blamed her husband: "You didn't give Eddie that stuff, did you?"
Father: "Er. yes. Why?"
Mother: "It IS cold tea. I only keep it there to look good."
Father: "Didn't you notice, Eddie?"
Eddie: "Oh yeah, but I didn't like to say."
I can tell you, I was in bits and thankful I'd chosen a beer.
Despite similar incidents, like most other couples of that time, we went through the traditional courtship rituals - coming back to her house and struggling to suppress our frustrations while we waited the old folks to go to bed so that we could.
Then followed the engagement and the inevitable wedding at St Augustine's church in Avenue Road. We then settled down to married life in our nice little Handsworth house (we couldn't afford the `WOOD').
The house in Uplands Road cost us £2,900. I was picking up around £24 a week, my wife was working and the mortgage repayments were £21 a month and I was concerned about affording the payments! However, the inevitable happened and within ten months we were parents.
An oil crisis loomed its ugly head when our daughter was barely two. Redundancy and short time working was becoming a sad fact of life to many people in the manufacturing industries. Believing I'd seen the writing on the wall, I jumped at the offer of a job in the west of Ireland - a staff position in a thriving new company, which appeared to offer a more secure future for my family in a very pleasant environment. The whole concept seemed ideal for raising children. So, we sold up and shipped out.
Only three years into our marriage, we found ourselves with another daughter, and me with the onset of arthritis. Such was the rapid progression of the disease; within another four years I was having both knee joints replaced. I did manage to resume work for a year or so after the operations, but eventually I had to call it a day. At that time, there was no suitable employment for my wife in that part of the world, and because my income had exceeded the minimum to be eligible for free medical care, I had to pay for private treatment. To cap it all, the only hospital that could administer my specialist treatment was seventy miles away. With two young children, a mortgage and a car loan, life was far from easy for any of us.
We eventually realised it was time to rethink our situation. After lengthy deliberations, we decided the only course left open to us was to return to Birmingham. At least here, there was a chance of my wife getting a job, suitable free treatment and our extended families. Once again we sold up and shipped out.
On our return, we lived in rented accommodation in Ladywood until the money came through for the house we'd sold in Ireland. Anyway, the upshot is, we eventually bought a house in Stockwell Road. Since then my health has deteriorated dramatically. And, due to a stroke I am now confined to a wheelchair, which has meant us having extensive adaptations to the house, but we're still here in Handsworth. Our two daughters, now thirty-three and thirty also have houses in the area, St Anne's Close and Windermere Road.
In my view, Handsworth has changed a lot in the last few years and obviously not all for the good. But, when regarded objectively, it still has many of its old charms: There is no heavy industry in the area, no high-rise flats and no massive thoroughfares carving up communities. There are plenty of amenities; almost every house has a garden, most front and back. There is plenty of open space, tree lined roads, fields stretching all the way to Sandwell Valley, the golf club, and of course the park. I do feel the only thing residents lack these days is a sense of pride in their surroundings and its history.
What really incenses me are media descriptions of the housing stock in Handsworth as being `substandard'. For god's sake, if it was good enough for Matthew Boulton and others of his ilk, it should be good enough for those who do the most complaining about it.