See the palm trees swaying way down Summer Lane,
Every Saturday night there’s a jubilation,
See the folk’s a singing at the ‘Salutation’,
No snow in Snow Hill,
There’s no need to catch a train,
To your southern home where the weather is warm,
It’s always summer in Summer Lane.
Written in the early 1920s by two local chaps, Elijah Berry and Howard Gines, ‘See the Palm Trees Swaying’ was a song about our own home town and was a reaction to the popularity of the songs about ‘Dixie’, the southern states of America. Its verses highlighted the city centre but its chorus joyously focused on Summer Lane, the quintessential Brummie working-class street and neighbourhood. London may have had its East End, Glasgow its Gorbals, Dublin its Liberties, Sheffield its Attercliffe, and Liverpool its Scotland Road - and they may have been well publicised nationally - but Birmingham had its Summer Lane. The only part of Birmingham to have its own song, Summer Lane ran the long way uphill from Snow Hill to Asylum Road where Alma Street and Aston began. Packed with shops, factories, workshops, back-to-backs and some better quality houses, it was not just a main road – it gave its name to a neighbourhood that encompassed those streets of Hockley and the Gun Quarter that ran to and fro it.
Like The Lane itself, these streets have been drawn into stories and legends that abound about Summer Lane. It was reckoned that there was a pub on every corner, but only one on ‘The Lane’ itself – the ‘Vine’; and it was reputed to be the toughest part of a tough city, down which the coppers had to walk not in twos but in threes.
Unhappily, outsiders too often denigrated The Lane as a place of drunken rows and rough people. In response to this unfair stereotyping, Pauline and Bernard Mannion wrote an important book called The Summer Lane and Newtown of the Years between the Wars 1918-1938.
Pauline recognised that 'lots of tales have been told about Summer Lane, some true, some fanciful', but stressed that she and her brother were genuine Summer Laners 'who want their memories of life in the Lane in the 1920s and 1930s to go on record for all to read about'.
Deeply researched and informed by two people who belonged, the Mannions’ book recounted the shops and industries of Summer Lane, everyday life and what children got up to, and highlighted the roles of the Settlement, the Copec Housing Society, and Bridge Street West Police Station. Importantly it also encompassed the local cinemas, theatre and dance halls, drew in High Street Aston and Newtown Row, and brought to the fore the importance of schools and churches.
The Mannions did not shy away from the problems of drunkenness and violence, but such problems were not confined to Summer Lane and nor indeed were they confined to working-class districts; but most importantly their down-to-earth approach emphasised the neighbourliness of the people of Summer Lane and their pride in their street. These were qualities that they shared with all those who lived in the poorer working-class neighbourhoods of urban Britain.
Like the folk of Ladywood, Garrison Lane, Rea Street, Duddeston, Floodgate Street, Balsall Heath and the all the other working-class heartlands of Brum, Summer Laners were not rough, instead they were rough and ready. Tough they may have been but caring they were too. Bonded together by hard times and shared experiences as much as they were tied together by kinship and neighbourliness, the families of Summer Lane are rightly proud of where they come from and to which part of Birmingham they belong.
Overlooked in most histories of Birmingham, they even had their name taken away in the post-war redevelopment of Birmingham when the Council renamed the area Newtown. But no-one can take away memories, feelings, and an identity. The Mannions’ book has long been out of print and unavailable, but thankfully their mantle has been taken up over the last few years by Brian Harding, the Summer Lane kid and the poet of the Old End.
The power and vitality of Brian Harding’s poems lie in his innate understanding of the old end and what it means. He was born in the old end. He grew up in the old end. And though he may have left the old end and though the old end itself may have gone it lives still in his soul and his very being. His words are those of one who instinctively knows who he is and to whom he belongs and they will reach out to generations yet unborn so as to make them harken to the speech of the people of the Old End.
But Brian is not someone who wallows in a nostalgic image of what things were in the old days. He does not shrink from the poverty and the hardship. He fetches us with him on an errand that was no joke – fetching coke in a barrow from distant Avenue Road; he has us shivering with him on a cold winter’s morning and eating with him dripping on toast for his tea; and we are crestfallen with him as he realises what he has done in giving his coat to a rag and bone man for a chick that will not live longer than a day.
But throughout his evocative poems, Brian leavens the hard times with fun and laughter – just as did those hard-collaring Brummies of the old end. Fighting as they did against poverty and having to rough it so much as they did, yet still they laughed and sang, whistled and larked about. So when Brian and his brother, sisters and cousins traipse off happily to Perry Barr Park so far away from his beloved Summer Lane, we walk and run with them; when he has a trip up the Bull Ring we are with him, drawing in the atmosphere and enjoying the banter; and when he mooches round the town we mooch with him, savouring the aroma of Barrow’s and the Kardomah and seeing with amazement the toys in Lewis’s.
Then there is the sense of loss and the anger at what has been swept away without our say. He shouts out at those who just want to come in and knock it all down, and we are as disconsolate as he when he goes back down the old end and wishes he had stayed away because there is no trace of the recent past. The people whom he knew have disappeared across the town. No kids are a playing in the street. Jelf’s coffee houses and other familiar shops have gone and there is nothing to remind us of how it was.
But yet there is. We have Brian’s poems.
Through him Our Moms, the forgotten heroes, will be remembered for ever. Through him the gas lamps will still splutter in the street. Through him we eat spotted dick and semolina and drink home-made ginger beer. And through him the Old End will always reach out to us.
Thoughts Of Summer Lane
Winters come, summers too.
Oh Summer Lane I think of you,
Of the women talking in the street
With the babbies playing at their feet.
We wasn’t rich from monetary gain
But we were happy down the Lane.
Was it the Council’s guilt and shame
Of the way of life in the Lane
When they decided it had to go,
Did they ever consider the pain and woe?
In new houses the people had to settle down
As they were dispersed across the town,
Neighbours and friends split up and gone,
Friendship gone, forever with some.
If only we could go back in time
We wouldn’t consider it a crime Just to go back and say ‘Hello’
To our old friends we used to know.
This article appeared in the Birmingham Mail 26th April 2008 and appears by kind permission of Carl