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 sit in 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.

27 Apr 79
Dear Jenny,
Thanks for sending the cheque – I was in such a hurry to leave that I forgot it was still in the drawer.
Anyway, job seems okay, I have completed the two weeks training – you were right, I hardly ever see the kids themselves, just the staff in the care homes. Most of them do actually care although some are a bit arrogant and cold.

I went to one yesterday really impressive building, central heating and a colour TV in the lounge. The kids were at school except for one lad who had recently moved in and they weren’t sure what to do with him. So they left him in the lounge with a box of felt-tips and when I looked in he had scrawled all over the walls.

The house mother went mad – I mean, I’ve told you about her before – but God, she started yelling and swearing (that shocked me, I can tell you) and said she was going to call the police and then call the local priest to carry out an exorcism (seriously) so I asked if I could take this boy down the road to Wimpy to keep him out of the way while she sorted everything out.

No no! She screamed, I don’t want him thinking that he gets rewarded for this kind of filthy behaviour! And she kept waving her fist at him and pointing at the wall. One of the other social workers turned up for a meeting and he managed to calm her down (a bit).

The kid was really upset by all this – we gave him a sketch pad and said draw in this instead of the walls. So he wandered off into the garden and I helped one of the aunties to clean the wall. Imagine, me doing manual work! The marks came off easily enough.

House mother was still fuming as I prepared to leave, kept saying that the wall was ruined. So I asked if the staff had done the vacuuming yet, and she said no, so I got the Hoover out and used the hose to scrape a long gash down the wall. Before she could start yelling at me I just said ‘Now you can get the council in to paint the wall over, just tell ‘em you tripped on the carpet.

Are you still up for Ann’s engagement party next week? I could use a lift.
Bye for now,

Maintenance Docket 0046118 – 79 – 216
Superficial damage to ground floor interior wall, Zinnia Children’s Home. Refurb 1 wall add to job schedule Jun 21. Staff 2 hours 3 mileage 14. Approved KG 05/04/1979.

 Monthly Review WM Dist 22, Sept 1979
Present: MDH, CH, JJP, RW
Apologies: TL, JS,

Item 6. New resident welfare plan.
CH reported that Child R had joined the house (Zinnia) in April. Initial problems included disruptive behaviour and vandalism of Council property requiring extensive repair work. It has been decided that he can carry on attending secondary school instead of being transferred to the neighbouring college.
JJP asked why Child R had not been removed immediately following the vandalism incident.

CH replied that she felt it appropriate to show leniency towards a vulnerable youngster.
[A handwritten note appeared below this comment, saying ‘CH instructed the maintenance crew to spend just 20 mins repainting the wall, and to spend the remaining 90 mins decorating her personal quarters’]

MDH asked whether the delinquent behaviour had stopped or if further discipline had been required. CH said that Child R no longer showed the earlier disruptive behaviour. However, he was habitually rude and sarcastic.
MDH: For example?

CH said that Child R refused to say grace before eating and showed no interest in cars or football. PH (CH’s husband, and unofficially the ‘house father’) had tried to encourage friendly conversation on these topics but been rebuffed. CH said there were concerns about possible drug use.
RW asked why this had not been referred to her as the regional substance officer. CH said the drugs in question were some tablets called ‘Ginseng’ of unknown origin, and added that these tablets might have caused the child to start writing obscure, indecent poetry.

MDH: What, you mean graffiti on walls and bus shelters?

No, not really said CH, and here she unrolled a piece of plain wallpaper covered with large, energetic script. MDH asked if the walls had been defaced like this, and CH said they had not.
[A handwritten note inserted at this point said ‘R told us that the poems are actually copied out from textbooks. One is the ‘Ode to the Duchess of Malfi’, the other is a pop song called ‘Duchess’] 

Birmingham Post, 19/09/79

A court heard today about allegations of fraud and professional misconduct at a children’s care home in the city. Witnesses described how the Council maintenance department regularly carried out unauthorised work at Zinnia House in return for sexual favours. There was no suggestion that children were on the premises when these activities occurred. Gerard Poulson, prosecuting, said staff at a neighbouring care home became suspicious when they noticed the council van making three visits in the space of nine days. The staff at Mulberry House decided to call round to ask why their overdue repairs had not been carried out, but received no response. On returning to their own building and checking from an upstairs window, they observed several individuals wandering around the building in a state of undress. The case continues

15 Oct 79
Hi Jen,
Happy Birthday for last week, sorry I forgot (again!)
Magaluf was great, will bring pictures round sometime to show you.

Yes, you were right about that item in The Post – it’s the same place I went to in Spring. I never saw anything going on when I was there. Apparently they caught the workmen because one of them was drink-driving at three o’clock.

The home has a pair of new teenagers in, called Rodney and Veronica. They have more toys than the rest of the kids put together – you know exactly how all this is gonna turn out. He wears Brutus Gold jeans and has a Polaroid camera. Enjoys taking pictures of the younger ones in the bathroom – not sure if we should report this. Apparently he was involved with that thing last year at the Chinese Playground.

Anyway, catch up next week.






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