Chinese Playground Smethwick

Smethwick metal sign

Just a few weeks ago the trees outside my room were bare; now they swarm with large green feathers, waving happily at the bright blue dome. Here I my flat, part of a six-dwelling conversion. I see almost nothing of my housemates. Do they exist? Certainly I have seen two on pushbikes, and one drives a black MR2. Perhaps I should get a copy of Scott Walker’s concept album about the residents of such a house…

The Chinese Playground was not an elegant walled garden, complete with willow trees and wind chimes; instead, it was a grim concrete accident designed for use as a car-park. Although it had a Grammar school and a Shakespeare garden in Victoria Park, Smethwick in the seventies wasn’t the sort of place where many people had cars…so the desolate grey walls played host to delinquent teens sniffing glue and drinking cheap cider.

The team which designed the car park (Wilkins, Ross and Mayhew) had originally envisaged a four-storey construction with enhanced security for the upper floors – in case any visitors wanted to park a 3-litre Capri or a Jaguar, for instance – but the corruption scandal of the early seventies meant that materials and labour became unavailable. Eventually, as a compromise, the two-storey design was approved, but without the secure gates or electric lighting originally proposed.

The walls of the unit included rectangular panels of reinforced concrete bearing abstract geometric designs, which led to the nickname ‘Chinese Playground’ although the various motifs were not actually oriental, but had been copied from a handbook of dentistry.

After several instances of theft and damage, nobody was willing to leave vehicles parked in this grim fortress, and the council decided to install a children’s slide and a roundabout, to use up the remaining funds in the Parks and Leisure Department budget.

The inside of the car smelled of Brut 33 and Embassy No 10; there were discarded chip-papers on the floor of the back seat, together with a jar of petroleum jelly and two Bay City Rollers records.

From a nearly maisonette a gentleman watches proceedings through binoculars, taking notes of the cars which drive slowly in and leave after twenty furtive minutes. Of course, the sodium light makes it impossible to discern the colour of the motors with any degree of confidence; but the registration plates are clear enough for him to catalogue.

One of his friends in the planning department says that the Chinese Playground will soon be demolished to make way for the new arterial road leading to the dual carriageway. This news leaves him sad; with no television or books or radio to keep him company, the imaginary narratives he builds around these silent puppets are his only pleasure.

When his wife walked out on him she left behind a letter saying: “Compiled a beautiful report about our trip to Smethwick – analysed the numerous defects in existing formulations and why they would give rise to our problems. Suggested putting missing driers into concrete, grinding the primer instead of the skybolt, reduce the pigment level in the quartz topcoat, and increase the plasticiser.
Where am I? It’s a bright cold day in April and the clocks are striking 08:44 while I’m listening to ‘Turn of the Screw’ and flicking through this morning’s Independent (David Beckham, Lou Reed, George Bush, the BNP and SARS in Asia and Canada). It’s a warm dark night in August and I’m listening to Jethro Tull, an LP which was found among some rubbish piled up in a corner of the Chinese Playground.”

The journey from the car to the edge of the playground was like a trip to the moon, something that other people might accomplish in a hundred years or so in a world so very unlike this one we take for granted. One day the papers will not be full of bad news, depressing tales of kidnappings and murder and robbery and industrial disputes. But that one day belongs to someone else, for I am here – will always remain here, in a place where no horizon beckons full of hope.

Perhaps I never really left that place; sometimes it feels as though I have been waiting there for thirty-five years, sheltering from the light rain as I watch a plastic carrier bag chasing its tail in a windy corner, while empty beer cans rattle in this Brutalist Shangri-La.

A large advertising poster depicts a speedboat bearing the ‘Durex’ logo, and the neat slogan ‘Crowd Stopper’.
An abandoned Triumph Dolomite is sometimes occupied by bored girls. Their boyfriends always promise to stop the crowds. Talk is cheap; the squeaking car seat and the athletic grunts give her something else to remember when life becomes awkward in the years to come.

Occasional cars would pass; workers on their way from the GKN factory down the road, or people heading to the foundry in Halfords Lane.  The factory and foundry have always been there, will always be there overlooking the patches of derelict land. Nothing will ever change; harsh diffracted poverty will continue to illuminate the empty streets. Her letter ended:

The warm curve of your voice Is part of the architecture of desire
Which grabs my arm as I approach The steps, or the door, or the night.
Her memory remains, a few brief Encounters between her shadow and her self,
No vanity allowed to interrupt The light that holds the mirror fast.
Upon the arm of another chair Your jacket hangs; I capture something
Of its curves in oil, as static shadows drift Towards the echoes I give to your words.
Like windows searching for a Landscape to betray, your eyes
Light up the mountains of the moon.



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