As ‘Brexit means Brexit’ rumbles on, and many argue whether May ‘won but lost’ and Corbyn ‘lost but won’, my thoughts keep going back to a conversation I had a couple of weeks ago about migration and acceptance.
I was stood outside The Ivy Bush pub in Smethwick, leaning against a small window and balancing a pint, when Slack told me how, many years ago, the window had previously been used to serve blacks and asians. The landlord in the 60s and 70s wouldn’t let blacks and asians in, and enforced a colour bar. They had to take their drinks and go sit somewhere else.
Slack (Lakhbir Singh Gill) is now the landlord of The Ivy Bush, having owned it for nearly 25 years.
We were having this conversation on the corner of Mallin Street and St Paul’s Road where The Ivy Bush looks directly across to Marshall Street.
If you look very hard at the photograph above (directly above the red transit van), on the side of an unassuming house on Marshall Street sits a blue plaque. For it is here, in February 1965, that the civil rights activist Malcolm X came to Smethwick to see for himself the segregation and racism.
As he walked down Marshall Street he was met with relentless abuse. Accompanied by Avtar Singh Johl, former general secretary of the Indian Workers’ Association, who had invited him to Smethwick, they visited the nearby Blue Gate pub. Blacks and asians were only served in the bar room and given glasses with a handle. Plain glasses were only for white people. Malcolm X had a brown ale.
Smethwick was an eye-opener for Malcolm X. Not only was there segregation in the pubs, locals were actively trying to stop blacks and asians buying houses in the area, and local Tory MP, Peter Griffiths had won his seat with the campaign slogan: ‘If you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour’. I’ll just leave that there.
Malcolm X returned to the US and was assassinated just nine days later.
The Ivy Bush is one of seven Black Country pubs that has a punjabi pub sign. The world’s first punjabi pub signs, in fact. Beautifully designed, they are a collaboration between Smethwick-born visual artist Hardeep Pandhal and specialist pub sign painter Andrew Grundon, who were bought together by Creative Black Country for their Desi Pubs project.
I’m not going to delve too deep into the brilliant Desi Pubs project here, mainly because I’ve already blogged about it here and Creative Black Country write about it much better than I, on their website. It’s had a lot of media coverage which is worth checking out, including the front cover of In a Pub magazine, BBC World Service (listen from 14 mins in) and being part of the Alchemy Festival at the Southbank Centre in London.
As we stood outside The Ivy Bush we also heard from photographer Jagdish Patel who has worked with Creative Black Country and the pubs to create some wonderful portrait photography of the landlords and customers (you can view some here). Jagdish obviously does a lot of historical research as part of his photography projects and he did a great job of painting a picture of urban life for the everyday worker in this part of the world. As someone who’s really interested in photography and our Black Country heritage it was a real treat to listen to him, and over a pint too! In fact, he’s inspired me to pick up my photography properly again!
One of the reasons that we were all propping up the side of the pub is that The Ivy Bush was packed, heaving, rammed. As we were led through the pub to see the photographs in situ, our strange 15-or-so-strong-group was met with a mix of confusion and amusement by the regulars. A bemused man at the bar asked me if we knew where the party was, I told him ‘definitely ere ain’t it bab?’ and he agreed, while explaining we’d just gatecrashed the annual dominos championship.
It’s noisy and hectic. I almost tread on four children in succession, have a fight with an abandoned pushchair, nearly throw my pint over the person trying to win the championship and disturb a couple having a blazing row in the doorway of the ladies toilets. My normal reaction ensues. I love this pub.
I was only sorry that we were in too big a group, and in too packed a pub to stay inside and soak up the atmosphere. Taking a photo is out of the question although I do try to capture something of the tension of the dominos championship below.
I promise to return to The Ivy Bush to sample the food (which is apparently excellent) although it won’t be on a Tuesday.
So talking of excellent food, I’ve sort of jumped ahead of myself a bit here as The Ivy Bush was actually our second pub on this Desi Pubs crawl. The first being The Red Cow, also in Smethwick. You’re not going to struggle to find The Red Cow for obvious reasons.
There’s a giant red cow! Which helped mark the meeting place for our desi pubs crawl. The Creative Black Country team were on hand to gather all of us new desi friends together, and I was rather excited to get my hands on a limited edition print of the pub sign. I have plans to convert my cellar at home into a Black Country pub so this, along with a collection of Desi Pubs beer mats, will take pride of place! A wench dow arf need a cellar pub.
As we waited for everyone we were treated to some of the Red Cow’s amazing food. I’m still thinking about their nan breads, which I think were the freshest I’ve ever tasted. A week or so later I recommended the pub to some friends who were blown away by the food.
As we sat stuffing our faces, The Red Cow video was playing in the background. Definitely worth a watch to hear chef Cyrus Todiwala talk to co-owner Gambi and landlord Bera about the origins of Desi Pubs.
After a couple of drinks we had to move on. Too many desi pubs, too little time. As we left The Red Cow I tried to stuff some leftover nan breads in my pocket. A wench has to do what a wench has to do. Don’t judge me.
Our next stop was The Ivy Bush – which I started this blog post with – and then we arrived at the zoo. Or so you might think.
A strange collection of animals: past, present and maybe never existed adorned a large pub on a crossroads, appropriately named The Fourways.
I don’t think I’ve seen so many animals in one place since that time at Dudley Zoo when I got my arse stuck in the chairlift. Maybe that was why I was particularly drawn to the giraffe stuck in the gate. Something seemed familiar.
If you have kids I can imagine this is heaven and the huge play area was packed with enthusiastic babbys of all ages. Slightly too much excitement for me especially when a couple of mean kids started to give us the death stare. They’re pretty scary little humans at six aren’t they?
In addition to the pub sign, The Fourways has photography dotted around, including the fabulous lenticular which depicts landlord Amrik on a horse.
Our hosts at The Fourways bought over an absolute banquet of food to try. Fantastic fittle. There was almost a punch up over the coriander chips which were everybody’s new favourite.
As we became enemies over coriander chips, we realised we were very late for our next pub visit. So sadly it was time to move. Again.
With the king of the jungle gazing down at me, I suddenly wondered whether desi pub landlords are obsessed with large animal figures. A cow, an entire zoo and now a lion. The Ivy Bush is really letting the side down. Mind you, if they are going down the pub name route it won’t be the first time you’ve seen a massive bush outside a West Brom pub will it?
The lion theme continued with a light-up screen, but what we were really wanted to see were the stained glass windows, designed by artist Stephen Cartwright, and featuring the Punjabi Workers Association and Malcolm X – a reference to the visit described earlier.
You can hear Chef Cyrus Todiwala talk to the artist Steven, landlord Surjit and his son Satnam to find out more about the history, the art and the food.
As we gathered outside for a group shot I did wonder if my chariot had arrived.
Unfortunately 1 LUV had not come to pick me up and whisk me off further into the depths of the Black Country. Bereft, but managing to hold it together for the sake of the group, I gathered my crew up to get us to our final destination.
So, this final destination. I already knew I had a real soft spot for this pub. I have written about it before – one saturday when I had art, love, sex, beer and curry in West Brom. Oh and also when I wrote about desi pubs here.
For it is here where there is music and dancing, and a collection of ‘stuff’ that I like to gaze at as if I were in some museum or gallery.
Here is us giving you a hint.
The Prince of Wales has it all, a little bit of something for everyone. Rather than different rooms, it’s relatively open plan but sectioned so you flow from area to area. Bar to pool room to dining area to music area to bar area.
In the dining area there is a mosaic by artist Caroline Jariwala which she created in response to landlord Jinder’s collection of Bhangra memorabilia. The ‘stuff’ I mentioned earlier. There is also great photography of the regulars and staff by photographer Dee Patel. You can watch Chef Cyrus Todiwala speak to Caroline, Dee and Jinda about capturing the essence of the pub.
My favourite place in The Prince is the room with the 1980’s pink and blue neon glow. At one end a small stage, the other a bar. In the middle a pool table to dance around.
And everwhere Jinder’s ‘stuff’.
Some great music but not enough dancing as I think we were all flagging by this point. But there was just enough time for Dee to capture some of our fantastic desi landlords and friends for a another addition to the collection.
As wench #2, chap and I drove home we discussed our desi pubs love and our thoughts for their future. Now here is a big clue to what I’m about to say next. I drove home, me, wench, lover of beer.
So here, for us, is the opportunity and I think a plea to our desi pub landlords. We love our desi pubs. We love the food, the atmosphere, the history, the music, the vibrancy and the people. But, we hate the beer most of you serve. I don’t want to drink Carling. I know some people do, but we are not those people.
Ok, I can have a gin and tonic or some such beverage, but actually I love my beer. I’d like a good beer. Desi pubs are a real Black Country story of success and where there’s bostin fittle there should be bostin beer. There are many brilliant brewers here in the Black Country so can’t we combine culinary excellence with brewing excellence?
Imagine that. Bostin curry. Bostin beer. Bonkers giant animals.
Welcome to the Black Country. Just don’t feed the animals!
p.s. thank you to the lovely Creative Black Country team for creating such a brilliant project that combines things I love: art, history, heritage, photography, curry and pubs. Check them out because they do some bostin stuff in our Black Country.
There is talk that the desi landlords may try to develop a regular pub crawl. If they do please go along, and meet and eat (just not the landlords).