I was delighted a few weeks ago to find out about Brownhills Bob’s Brownhills Blog. Quite the twongue tister. So delighted that I decided to interview Bob. It’s taken me a while but I’m finally blogging it…
Having been heavily involved in The Lichfield Blog for quite a while and generally being quite interested in the development of the hyperlocal scene, I was curious to know why Bob started the blog. I wasn’t surprised at the answer;
“It was an experiment, really; I wasn’t expecting to feel as comfortable with it as I do, and I thought it would probably wither on the vine before a timely, lonely death by apathy.”
It’s great to see JFDI is rearing is beautifully straight forward head yet again.
Bob, who wants to be anonymous, has been living in Brownhills since he was five. Now in his forties he can recall living in a rented house at one end of the town before moving across town to a council property at the other. He loves “it’s idiosyncrasies and contradictions” and says “It’s a town in the West Midlands that thinks it’s still in Staffordshire; it behaves like an urban town, but is really a relatively small, semi-rural dormitory on the very edge of the conurbation. It’s post industrial, post retail and, quite honestly, post mortem.”
That’s when I got a feel for the real reason behind the blog. Bob loves Brownhills but you get the sense that he is concerned for it’s future. It’s still got it’s character but for how long. He continued;
“The place is nearly, very nearly dead and that’s a crying shame. We’ve got generally excellent public transport, a handful of superstores, choked roads and loads of recent-build pattern estate housing. We’ve hosted the now demolished fifth most deprived council estate in Britain, and had some of the grimmest, most poorly engineered highrise flats the 60’s could throw up. The town was built on furnace, foundry, canal, coalmine and rail, and now has only one of it’s major manufacturing businesses still extant. We’ve got a 30 foot statue of a coalminer that few wanted yet everyone now loves, beautiful commons and waterways, and one of the most important sites for birdlife in the Midlands. You can walk for five minutes from anywhere in Brownhills and find yourself in open, rolling countryside. Badgers wander round my neighbourhood at night, eating bedding plants, bullying cats and shagging noisily. It’s a weird place. You get red deer on the main traffic island at the Rising Sun…”
It’s clear that Bob is yet another resident who feels like his neighbourhood is falling foul of the local political elite. He is detached from the very people that are supposedly carrying out his will. Enter the internet which has given Bob the outlet he, and others, needed.
“That’s what’s behind BrownhillsBob. Our town – like many others – has a thoroughly useless system of governance, consisting of LNP’s, committees, pressure groups, a couple of really scary single issue fanatics and self-interested politicos. This has led to some really poor decision making on high, and consequently we’ve had some really nonsensical things happen. Most of our social housing has been demolished, and we have nothing to replace it – for 5 years, great swathes of the town have been wastelands, housing nothing but weeds. The once thriving market has been run into the ground and 50% of our retail space is empty and unloved. I’m not a political animal, can’t stand meetings and would be crap at representing people on a council, so I looked for other outlets for my feelings of irritation and abject amazement at the state of the place I call home.”
Bob took an interesting route, actually. He started out with photos…
“After some unsatisfying experiments with the web, samizdat and other sub-culture stuff, including graffiti, I discovered Google Earth. What a revelation that was…
“Google Earth, as I’m sure you’re aware, has a community layer, by default it’s visible and overlays user generated place marks over the satellite imagery. These manifest themselves as little blue ‘I’ symbols, which when clicked, open a comment. This was really engaging – I quickly set up an anonymous user account in the name of BrownhillsBob and issued a slew of place marks on an unsuspecting Brownhills… I think probably about 12 or so. I immediately got slapped by a moderator, but within a couple of months, all but one place mark appeared, and they’re still there today. Proto-Bob.
“Then came Panoramio.
“Panoramio is the same thing with photos – when I signed up as BrownhillsBob in 2007 it had less than a million users, and most were dormant test accounts. I discovered that you could upload photos, they got manually reviewed for acceptable content, and hopefully appeared as a blue dot on the map a month or so later. Being a committed geek, I got to work and photographed loads of stuff in the town that energised me, and rooted out some pictures I’d taken of the town at it’s best, to give light and shade. Within a year I had 100-odd photos scattered over the town and south Staffordshire, with increasingly bizarre labels and each with a comment attached – sometimes angry, sometimes humorous, most often banal. I never lose sight of the fact that I’m not very good at this…
“Two years later, there are nearly 600 photos from Brownhills to Staffordshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Shropshire and of course, my beloved Brownhills. They’re generally scenic, sometimes ugly, sometimes just documentary. They still have odd names (it attracts the curious, but the title is always relevant if oblique) and mostly have some explanatory comment – sometimes with a long conversation developing between viewers. BrownhillsBob had engendered a response, and I was surprised and encouraged. I got quite a bit of mail that said I was an idiot for painting the town in a bad light, but I got plenty of interesting responses, too. Check the gallery out. The oldest picture, and most popular, is an odd little winter sunset I took at Stowe Pool in Lichfield.
“The best thing about Panoramio for me is that if you look at Brownhills in GE now, my photos have encouraged others to open accounts and post theirs, too; Brownhills is now peppered with blue dots to an extent not generally seen outside tourist spots. I regard that as an achievement – I certainly encouraged users like Howmuch, Facade66, 7rin, Brownhills Champ and Woodbeast. Not directly, but they clearly saw my work as a challenge. Dawntreader recorded an early morning trespass walk along the disused railway between Brownhills and Lichfield. People were looking at the town, their pictures of it and showing what interested them.
“Panoramio has been a huge success, with 22 million photos worldwide and 8,000,000 users. I wish I’d had that idea…
“Writing little potted comments for each photo got tedious. Getting an engagement had encouraged me – I’d been aware of blogging for years, but tired of the people who recorded their every dump as if it were breaking news; that put me off for ages. I fiddled with Blogspot, Blogger and then… Found WordPress. A local councillor to whose blog I subscribed used it, and I enjoyed the ability to comment on his ramblings. I decided to have a go. I didn’t know if it would work, whether I’d be interesting or if anyone would notice. 4 weeks later and here I am… The postings enable me to wrap up bunches of Panoramio photos together with a more fulsome explanation. They allow me to indulge myself by rambling at some length about things that interest me.”
It’s hard not to notice the passion that Bob has for Brownhills and it’s yet another example where normal folks who are passionate about where they live have turned to the internet to give themselves a feeling of belonging and connectedness with their home. It’s clearly not coming from anywhere else.
Not just that, he’s also a person who you can relate to. Apparently, us people have this thing we call a “non-person” in our subconscious – people like waiters/waitresses, couriers, supermarket till operators, politicians, and I think, web site owners. These are people we don’t know, have no connection with and don’t consider to have feelings and thoughts of their own beyond those of the institution they are associated to. Bob is an actually person with hobbies, interests and lateness.
“Local History, the environment, wildlife, countryside, the cold war and social geography engage me massively. My partner and friends would accuse me of being permanently late, creative, ranty and hyper. I’m observant and hate the way most people never look upwards, particularly in towns. There’s much going on above the first floor. I’m concerned that we haven’t, as a society, recorded much social history on a local level since the war.
“I know what it is to be a carer and feel for the suffering of the vulnerable. The Changing Lives farce in Staffordshire makes me very angry indeed, as does flytipping, bad driving, bad cycling, racism and the madness of crowds.”
I’m sure Brownhill’s Bob will be around for a while yet. He’s clearly enjoying himself and he’s formed a nice little community for himself.
“I don’t know what’s in the future for BrownhillsBob. He’s recently experimenting with Facebook and Twitter, but not very competent at either. He’s bemused by a lot of new media social networking web 2.0 shit.
“I’ve hopefully got articles coming up about the atrocious state of Brownhills’ one remaining towerblock, a lost peace garden in Walsall, Hoar Cross Church, a streaking incident in Brownhills in 1975 (genuine quote from one observer ‘My, he was well blessed…’) and some more stuff about the South Staffordshire Waterworks co. I’m toying with some ideas about an old doctor’s surgery in Brownhills (Combes House, in the 1920’s, long since gone), A lost isolation hospital near Barracks Lane and some history of St Matthews Asylum. I’m not sure how much of this will get done. I’ll continue to document Panoramio uploads and anything else that floats my boat, pisses me off or tickles my sense of the absurd. Spotting that terrapin at Chasewater was a godsend.”
I certainly hope he does stick around. This kind of grass-roots passion is the best kind in my opinion (and yes, I’m biased) and should be welcomed with open arms. I say that not just to you but to the politicians and the media because, afterall, they do seem to be the ones who play catch up most of the time.
My thanks to Bob for allowing me to ‘interview’ him and for waiting patiently. All the best for the future!