Home Thoughts from Augustów

The most unlikely things can remind you of home and sometimes the reminder is strangely appropriate. We had been in Augustów in North East Poland, a land of lakes and forests. It is a small town with a small railway station situated in a forest a couple of miles outside the town. It was hot and humid. A handful of people waited for the afternoon train to Warsaw. It was quiet. Then the train appeared, you could see it coming when it was nearly a mile away coming down the straight section of track, almost like a mirage as it shimmered in the intense light of an August afternoon.

We clambered on, with the platforms at track level and the steep steps up it is a clamber and found a compartment on the half empty train. We had companions, a Dutch couple who, evidently relieved that they finally had people they could talk to, quickly engaged us in conversation. This was just as well for them as they had begun their journey in Lithuania not realising that the train had no restaurant car. We shared our sandwiches and water with them.

After a while the conversation die away and I started working on some of my poems.

“Could i have a look at your poem?” asked the Dutch gentleman who introduced himself as Henk.

“Sure” I said handing him a copy of a poem describing a visit to Köthen in Germany, a town where Johann Sebastian Bach spent six years and where he composed most of his secular music. He read with interest for some minutes saying nothing.

“I’ve been to Köthen” said Henk finally “ and, you know, you could turn this poem into a song. It reminds me of a singer songwriter.”

He furrowed his brow as he tried to remember the name. Then he said

‘Clifford T Ward.’

In that moment, as the train rattled through the countryside of North Eastern Poland, I was taken back to Bromsgrove where I grew up and to the summer of 1973. The big news in the town that summer was that an English teacher at North Bromsgrove High School was about to became a pop star. Clifford T Ward, originally from Stourport on Severn, appeared on Top of the Pops while still working as a teacher. His autograph was much soght after, even for those who, like me, were too young to go to the High School. If you didn’t you needed an elder sibling or a friend with one.

Actually I had already been reminded of him this year. A few weeks ago I spent a morning in Wolverhampton City Archives reading the Express and Star from the summer of 1973 whilst researching a feature. There I found an interview with Ward. After his appearance in Top of the Pops he had put in his notice at the school and said that he was turning his back on teaching without regret. The rigidity of the education system, he said, was stifling children’s creativity. I wondered what he would think these days of national curriculum, league tables, SATS and so on. To me the school system of 1973 suddenly appeared as a land of lost content. But still…….

Ward never became a big star but built up a loyal following. He was a shy man who did not enjoy live performance and this many argue held back his career. Sadly he died of MS in 2001, aged just 57. But he is remembered, and his music enjoyed, around the world, among others by a Dutch economist from near Groningen who talked about it with evident enjoyment on the train from Lithuania to Warsaw. Clifford would surely have smiled at the thought that his Home Thoughts from Abroad had inspired just that.

Here he is.

Clifford T Ward, son of North Worcestershire, RIP.


Another Great Planning Disaster

Many years ago, in 1978 to be precise, I found a book in our school library entitled Great Planning Disasters. Written in an accessible and entertaining style by Peter Hall, the then Professor of Geography at Reading University it contains accounts of large scale construction and infrastructure projects that went badly wrong, principally in terms of cost and adherence to timetable. He wrote about schemes as diverse as London’s Orbital Motorway (originally proposed in 1905!), the British Library Extension, Sydney opera House and the Channel Tunnel. Some of these schemes had been abandoned by 1975 although only after significant sunk costs had been incurred. Even when completed they had been subject to mind-boggling delays and cost overruns, of which Hall examines the causes. Last year I fancied rereading it only to find that Birmingham Library Service’s only copy went walkabout from King’s Heath several years ago.

Or is there something more sinister here? The point is that we have seemingly learnt nothing from past experience. If Professor Hall was to revisit his work he could add the new Wembley Stadium. He should also add the Library of Birmingham. This is not just a matter of the retention or not of the Ziggurat or whether an overpriced pile of mattresses dwarfing the splendid Baskerville House is a better option but of the whole project going back to the decision in the 1990s to build a new library at Eastside. If this plan had gonee ahead the Ziggurat would already have been gone eight years. It would have been pulled down only thirty years after being built with, presumably, much of the money borrowed to pay for it still owing. As it was, a piece of land was acquired and a competition held to find a design. The architects invited to enter were given a wide band of acceptable cost and, no surprise here, the best design was at the top end. The Council realised they couldn’t afford it. So the planned Eastside Library was moth balled and the Library of Birmingham kicked into the long grass until former Council Leader Mike Whitby, a man whose ego is in inverse proportion to his intellect,decided he needed a legacy project. So Mecanoo from Holland designed a thing looking like a pile of mattresses with metal rings all round it, which will surely be a maintenance nightmare in years to come. Two questions remain unanswered by the Council. Firstly how is this affordable in the current climate of cuts and a decade of austerity? Secondly what is the sense of freeing up land for development in the middle of a slump?

We might ask a further question; what is wrong with the current central library, a building that is only forty years old? It may look forbidding from the outside but inside is light and airy, with a real feeling of space. It is clearly a building designed for the user and not to make an aesthetic statement to the passer-by. What is wrong with that?

So we are going to get a new Library the Council can’t afford delivered ten years late (if we look at the project as a whole) with significant abortive costs incurred while an interesting and usable and still relatively new building is pulled down to make way for bland corporate architecture, if indeed it is replaced by anything at all in the near future. I can already see the weeds sprouting on the ruins. A planning disaster indeed and one for which, as ever, no-one will be called to account.