In the early 1980s, parts of the post-industrial Black Country could seem a depressing place at the best of times. The area had some of the greatest urban dereliction outside of the East End of London, a result of the decline of heavy manufacturing (especially metal foundries) and a legacy of the contaminated land.* On a cold late February morning, the Bus pulls onto the Friar Park estate, the leaden skies above making the place look bleaker than usual. They park up, set up the generator, get the kettle on, and wait for local youth to soon congregate.
The estate had been developed in the 1920s and 1930s to rehouse families from slum clearances in the centre of West Bromwich. Since the 1960s it stood in the shadow of elevated sections of the M6 motorway and was now a mix of semi-detached council housing, low-rise blocks of flats and some tower blocks. Unemployment rates were above the national average, with youth unemployment aggravated with both low aspirations and poor skills and qualification levels. The process of deindustrialisation of the UK was well underway. Many local factories had closed and the nearby Patent Shaft Works had shut down the year before, throwing hundreds more out of work.
The arts workers from Jubilee had developed a relationship with the Youth Club attached to Manor High school, and had been involved in the Friar Park summer festival. Together they planned to run some youth outreach sessions. Jubilee had just purchased a 35mm Pentax camera and the Bus had a fully functioning darkroom for developing and printing photographs. This photograph comes from one of those first sessions.
The lads from Friar Park went onto to be involved in several art projects. They even got over their particular fear of leaving the confines of the estate. Even when offered cash for the fare, they famously said: ‘Yow want us to catch a bus and go up West Brom. Yow’m ’avin’ us on, ai yer?’ You might say that this was a social hangover from the parochial nature of these Black Country towns; why go anywhere else when the factory, the school, the church, the corner shop or the doctor all were (once) within walking distance?
* Even some 20 years later, one American critic wrote of the area: “There is nowhere in the world where it is possible to travel such long distances without seeing anything grateful to the eye. The Black Country looks like Ceaucescu’s Romania with fast food outlets.”
Friar Park is not to be confused with the neo-Gothic mansion in Henley-on-Thames owned by Beatle George Harrison, with its caves, grottoes, underground passages, garden gnomes, and an Alpine rock garden with a scale model of the Matterhorn. For some scenic views of the Friar Park estate we are talking about check this rap video filmed on Friar Park in 1994, with some lads who were involved in Jubilee projects. Or this film made in 2016, looking back on growing up in the area.