Frivolous Monsters

Three Towers, Five Ways – Part 02

When I lived near Five Ways in Birmingham through ignorance I missed out on seeing the local tower Perrott’s Folley, which was immortalised by JRR Tolkien in Lord of the Rings, although when Bill Clinton moved in just down the road to the towering Swallow Hotel – the whole of the Swallow Hotel, pictured in the Google image – I set off to visit him. Five Ways 500

Standing outside the hotel at Five Ways – with my carrier bags of dehydrated vegetarian mince, bake beans, and Swiss Rolls from the adjacent supermarket – I stared up at the high floors hoping to spot old Bill, our local celebrity, although I didn’t see jack through the recently-reinforced bullet-proof windows. To satiate my curiosity I asked a question of the old Bill, as to whether they could confirm that the you-know-who resided within. They gave me a none-committal answer with a nothing-to-see-here manner that flew in the face of the large crowd of onlookers milling about and the heavy police presence.

Despite the official word-on-the-street it was widely known that this was where he was staying, which amused some as they thought the name of the hotel sounded vaguely sexual, as my neighbour Bill was the toast of the town. Nobody cared about the rest of them, not even Tony Blair. Local radio stations were awash with growing rumours that he was going to put in an impromptu appearance with his saxophone at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club (he didn’t) and local paparazzi were there to capture sight of him enjoying a pint by the canal in a man-of-the-people story which set tongues a wagging when his bodyguard proceeded to publicly smash his pint glass when he’d finished with it.Bill Clinton PintOther widely reported G8 Summit stories included that Birmingham painted its grass green, to give a good impression to the visitors; that local prostitutes had to be “officially” procured for the Russian delegates; and that a local radio reporter was so keen to get a word from Bill’s dollybird wife Hillary, whilst she was doing a touristy walkabout, that the police had to have a word to tell her that there were marksmen on the roof and that: “If you lunge across the barrier with that microphone one more time they WILL shoot you!

But despite all that going on, with surely the biggest thing to happen to Five Ways in its 433 year history, since Calthorpe road was added anyway, and I didn’t catch so much as a glimpse. Two towers: two fails.

I will have returned downbeat from this second tower, to the third, to my tower, just down the road from Five Ways where dreams go to die and stories end.

Although, I now realise, they don’t. My tower was seventeen floors high and as Tolkien’s tower was also just down the road from Five Ways I considered that it was entirely possible that I should have been able to see it from where I lived. So I had a think about angles and directions, and then completely failed to dig out a photograph I thought I took out of the window, but in the end I did manage to find some photos on the internet that were taken from the top of Perrott’s Folley.Perrotts Folly PanaramaAnd in this picture, pointing in the right direction, it shows you that if you look carefully, as I imagined, you can indeed see my dark tower from Tolkien’s, so the converse must also be true and as my tower was facing in the right direction I’ve somehow gone from “never, ever” having seen Sauron’s tower, to the fact that I “probably saw it every day” for three long years, out of the window. Result.Perrotts Folly Chamberlain HallBut back in 1998, unaware of evil towers on the horizon, a few days after I failed to spot Bill Clinton, I was suddenly awoken on the Sunday morning by possibly the greatest example of “If Mohammed won’t go to the mountain…” since the day when the Islamic figurehead declined to go rock climbing. As when I peered out of my fifth floor window I found that the horrendous noise was the Presidential helicopter buzzing me – at eye level – about twenty metres away. Seriously. How many people can claim that they were once woken up by Bill Clinton? OK, that’s possibly not the most exclusive boast there…

The helicopter carried on and landed on a sports field for a nearby posh school. It was the end of the G8 Summit and it had come to collect the President from his nearby Five Ways residence and to transport him to Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country house. Over a hundred of us forewent breakfast and rushed to get a good vantage point on a grassy green bank and even though we were a hundred metres away we even got our own police babysitters to make sure there were no troublemakers and that we didn’t get too close. I don’t know why as there was a railway line and a canal in-between us, but I gather that there is precedent for American Presidents having trouble with people on grassy knolls.

And after an age old Slick Willy himself finally appeared. I found a picture claiming to be from the event on the internet. Believe it, or not, that’s Bill Clinton waving at me right there. Tony Blair was here too, but in Bill’s showbiz shadow, nobody cared about him. Not even in 1998.Bill Clinton BirminghamSo as I’ll go on reading the works of my former radio hero Stuart Maconie, not that he’s ever likely to know how grateful I am to him, and I hope to be further intrigued as he finds good reason to tour the country, to places that you may have once been, and throw in interesting things you just didn’t realise at the time. But it’s reassuring to know, that if I ever do get enough to fill a book of my own, that I do have some stories that he hasn’t.

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12 thoughts on “Three Towers, Five Ways – Part 02

  1. So is the tower still there or has it been knocked down? I must admit I’ve never seen anything that looks like Orthanc in Birmingham, although if you look with sort of half closed eyes at that gothic thing (Queen Anne’s Tower?) that you can see in the distance from New Street, then maybe its a bit Tolkienesque. Although not really. Thanks for the read.

    • Yes it’s still there, in fact both of the two towers that were thought to have inspired Tolkien are still standing as the other one is just down the road as part of the reservoir works, or something. Stuart Maconie got to go up it when writing his book, as it’s been open a couple of times to the public briefly, although it needs restoration and the hope is that it will be open again.

      Apparently there’s one stairwell all the way up with little cubby holes as that’s the only way you can get past someone if you meet them coming down!

      When I wrote this I tried very hard to get a picture of the right LOTR tower, but I found that even from the start there was confusion (in the story, with the publishers) about which were the two towers referred to. I think Tolkien did a drawing, or a map, and this has been taken as the right version defining them as Minas Morgul and Orthanc.

      If you are in Birmingham then you can find them not far from Five Ways on Waterworks road. Here’s a link to the Google picture, with their new funky, low-level, not-quite-aerial shot that shows off both towers, which are about 100 m apart.

      Somewhere else on the internet I found a photo of both towers, although I can’t quite believe it’s entirely real as I don’t think they’re THAT close. Who knows, I could be wrong.

      And, despite all this, the third tower in this story where I lived – supposedly the biggest halls of residence in Europe (?) – is now empty and derelict. It’s fifty years old now and a wiring nightmare, which makes me a little sad. If I ever get back to Birmingham I’m sure to have a look at all three. Thanks for reading.

      • Do you mean you lived in High Hall? I had mates there in the 70s. One of them blocked the lift doors with a mattress, filled it full of water and then pulled the mattress out. The next person to call the lift had an unexpected bath.

    • I had to look that up then, but apparently there have been name changes along the way and that was where I lived, although it was known as Chamberlain Hall then, and now. It was at the top of the Vale and had 700 of us in there. It was nice having a lake and geese to walk through every morning.

      At the time it was known as a problem, electrically, and I think this is what killed it off all of a sudden a few years ago. Facilities, compared to modern-day halls, were poor (one shower, one cooker, between 29 (?) of us) but it was a proper halls of residence. And it was character building, I guess.

      My other blog post about living there, much later than your friend in the nineties, can be found here: http://frivolousmonsters.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/lust-for-glory/

      If you’re still in touch with your friends you can now let them know that once, much after their time, Bill Clinton came to visit!

  2. I’m so envious of you guys and your towers! We really have nothing cool like this here. We do have Clinton, and grassy knolls, but nothing like Minas Morgul and Orthanc.

    Another great read, FM!

    • We do have towers, but as I said it’s the stuff you take for granted at the time.

      You do have Clinton, and you might again… I think I shudder at the thought. You should be happy at the thought of a woman as President but then as a toss up between Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin… No… And then we had Margaret Thatcher.

      As Douglas Adams wrote in the Hitchhiker’s Guide: “Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

      Sadly Australia seemed to get a “decent” female Prime Minister (Julia Gillard) and she seemed to have been hounded out by a sexist parliament.

      • I agree with Adams, and really, the though of a female president doesn’t exactly fill me with warm fuzzys, especially those two females. Though if the two of them ever somehow ended up going face to face, it would make for some damn funny youtube videos.

      • ..and a sexist opposition leader who is now PM, God help us. Nineteen in the cabinet and only one woman but “There are some very good and talented women knocking on the door of the cabinet and there are lots of good and talented women knocking on the door of the ministry,” said the PM, but he’s managed to keep the door firmly locked. Acting Labor leader Chris Bowen said there were more women in Afghanistan’s cabinet. (report from Sydney Morning Herald) How far backwards can we go – well, to the re-introduction of knighthoods apparently.

        Glad you managed to see President Clinton and thanks for the fascinating posts about the two towers.

        Here’s a wonderful book about your cat, by the way. The man in the story mistakes the cat (not his wife) for his hat http://www.penguin.com.au/products/9780143504368/three-legged-cat

      • Your leader was much more visible to us when it was Julia Gillard. She came across well. Although the treatment of her by politicians and media didn’t.

        Saying that David Cameron here is known to have a “woman problem” to the extent where now he’s refusing to get rid of one of the few even though public opinion is dead against her after she was found to have been helping herself to tens of thousands of pounds. That story rumbles on.

        I see the cat has a little peg leg. I saw a cat or dog on TV a few months ago who had a similar arrangement. Wouldn’t work with Pod as it has nothing to hold on to. And after all this time of adapting I’m not sure he’d like it.

        p.s. I think it’s probably easier to explain away mistaking your cat (as apposed to your wife) for a hat. I imagine the character in the book wearing it like a Davy Crockett hat with the tail dangling down.

      • True, and it was a happy swap. The cat achieved his dream and managed to see the world, and the original owner was very content with the Davy Crockett hat on her lap as it sat still. There is a beautiful video of the book somewhere. Your cat looks happy with the 3 legs.

      • My cat is happy, I hope. His health is like constantly spinning plates still, I have to keep adapting his diet, but both him and me forget he has three legs. To introduce a contraption now, or to screw in a wooden peg leg, would only cause distress now.

  3. From four to three legs must be easier than two to one. I can’t imagine a peg leg on a cat in real life, they are too fluid and floppy. Animals seem to be very adaptable so I’m happy your cat is happy :)

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