Ladywood 1964 by Ingemar Lindahl
In the very hot summer of ´64 (I remember one headline in a London newspaper: “Heading for the 100’s”) I went to England to be a part of an international project, co-organized by Internationella Arbetslag (International Work teams), the Swedish branch of SCI, Service Civil International, an organisation for voluntary projects with the intention of helping cultural meetings for young people from all over the world (sciint.org).
I had spent a couple of days in London, made a brief visit to another similar work camp in Bridgnorth, and came to Ladywood without any clear idea of what the project was about, but the vague description I had gotten sounded interesting enough. I had basically never been abroad before, and definitely not on my own, so even the journey to England as a hitchhiker through Germany and Belgium had been a true adventure.
Sweden was at the time a rather homogeneous society, not too large a gap between rich and poor. We had a growing number of work immigrants (mainly from Southeast Europe) being a part of the then-prospering industry, and almost all well integrated in society. Ladywood was, to me, a new experience.
We were about a dozen twenty-something’s from different parts of the world – Sweden, Holland, Germany, USA and Madagascar – together with a couple of British leaders/camp organizers. The main task was to help with building a playground for the children in the area of St. Marks Street / Alexandra Street, and doing some house decorating and refreshing the facades of some of the houses.
It was very obvious that the buildings had seen the best part of their life. I later learned that just a few years later the major part of the area was demolished and totally rebuilt. But at the time, this was a place full of life and people of all ages. I was told that just in the few streets around, there lived 600 children in and below school age. Many of them came daily to see what we were doing, especially three girls in their very early teens who were our constant support group, obviously very fascinated by these exotic people. When I returned home, I even got a very nice Valentine’s card, which I think I still have somewhere…
It was quite obvious that many of the families had a hard time in many aspects. There were, for instance, at least two mothers in the neighbourhood with thirteen or fourteen children each, trying to manage. Still, there was an unmistakable sense of togetherness and solidarity among the families in the neighbourhood. Some faces stay with me: Mr Wilson with his pipe, not always with any tobacco in it, and his worn but perfectly polished shoes. Mrs Wilson looking out from her window with a face that still to me is an image of having seen all facets of life and being able to keep her self-respect and calm. All the people were very friendly, came to chat with us and invited us regularly to tea. I remember sitting in the back room of Mrs Williams’ little shop nearby, trying to explain the differences and similarities between Sweden and England, and why I was wearing those strange clogs instead of ordinary shoes (all the rage in Sweden then).
The younger children were really nice but a bit shy at first. There were very few open conflicts that we saw (I should perhaps add I’m a father of six intense offspring!) I can still hear the laughter of the two boys sharing a bathtub in the sunshine outside the front door with long-worn paint. The girls dancing around someone in the centre of the ring, singing ”Oh Mary, what you weeping for, what you weeping for on a bright summer’s day”. The little girl, maybe four years old, who didn’t really fit in, trying to be with the others but with an inner distance in her eyes, trying to make us see her by using her rich four-letter vocabulary. Not until I came home did I fully understood that someone, me or anyone, should have been sitting down with her, singing a lullaby and telling her that life was going to be good. Some day.
Then, there was Mr Muller, a very serious retired gentleman with a devotion to photography. He noted my camera, and told me proudly about his own, ”a Pre-War Exacta with a Zeiss Biotar”. I asked him what his favourite subjects were, and he said he liked old English countryside churches best. I didn’t comment on that, and later I have learned to like also the kind of classic photography, but at the time my eyes were focussed on other things. Then he took a closer look at my camera, noted that there was some dust on the lens, an inevitable result of having it with me throughout our workdays, and looked gravely at me, raising his voice a bit: ”You are not worthy of a fine camera!”
There was the park warden who came to see the work going on, and who clearly was very popular among the children and teenagers. I didn’t learn his name then, but found out much later that he also was a rather well-known and much loved local poet, often called Robbie Burns after the famous Robert B.
One day one of the teenage boys came down to the playground with a sizable bandage on his right hand. When asked about it he looked like this was the most common thing in the world: ”Well I was down at the pub, just standing there, me an me mate, and there was this other bloke, and things just happened, and I just happened to have a bottle in me hand, and it just broke and…”
One thing came back a few years later: As far as we saw, there were no open ethnic conflicts in the area. Some of the children obviously had black (is that a word you can use these days?) fathers – who did not come around very often – but there were no signs of ethnical problems, and I was really surprised when just a few years later we heard about riots and street violence, in London and Birmingham and other cities.
On the day when we opened the playground the place was crowded with people. The parish vicar was there, a head taller than most of the others, and there was a lady dressed in a coat and a hat, the blue of the first sunny sky in spring. I could sense that she was not a hundred percent used to situations like this, but she also carried a gentle warmth that broke the barriers. Much later I found out that she was the mayor’s wife, and was much devoted to bettering the social situation in many ways.
Many times in life, these few weeks – I had to go back home before the project was finished – have come back to me as a sort of reference level as to what life can be and how you can deal with reality in your given situation. I still see some very warm and gentle smiles – and some very tired eyes. I cook my food in a nice warm kitchen and see a picture of a thin-walled brick shed with a smoking stove in a street corner. I hear my grandchildren laugh and play – and making an awful noise at times – and I know they are not in any important way different from the children I met there and then. They need someone that sees them and makes them feel loved. I hope the Ladywood generation of the sixties were given enough of that to carry them through life with hope and self-respect. Thank you, Ladywood!