Monday, 18 July 2011

We can grow beards (if we want to)

ROWHEATH Pavilion, in the heart of Bournville, is a sports pavilion and function complex, built in 1924 by the Cadbury family as a clubhouse for the recreational facilities they made available to their workers. In the 1970s, ever stricter health and safety regulations saw the demise of its lido, and over time the building fell into disrepair. Successive attempts to manage the building failed and it was eventually closed down. It was re-opened in 1985 by a local management group, who struggled to keep it afloat. One of their building users was the Trinity Church, which had previously met in a house in Selly Oak. With financial troubles at Rowheath continuing, Bournville Village Trust asked Trinity to operate the Pavilion under a management agreement. Trinity would later sign the lease on the building, and over time Trinity became the Pavilion Christian Community, which would assume full day to day running of Rowheath Pavilion. Trinity’s ambitions for the building differed to all previous management groups of the building for it sought not to run the building for profit but for the local population, to restore Rowheath to its central role in Bournville as clubhouse, venue and community centre. Little did they know at the time that in 2011 it would be invaded by 17 strange, voluntarily hairy Australians with a penchant for harmonising.

Over time the Pavilion has grown and strengthened. Parts of the building have been improved, and a small army of volunteers and staff not only maintain the only bar in Bournville but a venue that houses not only a church but dozens of sporting clubs, classes, services and social groups. When I first visited in 2008, I inconveniently managed to attend the one service you ought to try to miss – the discussion of the year’s finances. But instead of being bored to tears by the fine details (as I had been at several previous churches I had coincidentally managed to first attend on annual finances week), I was struck by the heart of the group: their desire to reach out to the community was immediately apparent, significantly more so than anywhere I had come across before. There was talk of creating a cafe for parents of children attending classes or for users of the extensive park and lake, not for the creepy Christian habit of luring people into uncomfortable conversations with the offer of tea and biscuits, but as a genuine facility to provide for the community. Deep conversations would not be obligatory, it was enough to make it known who ran the building. A year or so later, when I permanently returned to Birmingham, both Rachel and I adopted the Pavilion as our church. By this point, the cafe was now open and going strong.

Since, the church has grown, as have the capabilities of the building. It is now a licensed wedding venue. The park can now support outdoor events. The congregation has expanded immeasurably and so too, I believe, has its reputation. Improvements are being made to the structure, with a new patio due to be started soon, new seating and an outdoor playground. But this year has really seen the building flourish. Several hundred people crammed into the Terrace Room to watch the Royal Wedding (flying flags and cheering at all the crucial moments), and then went outside to enjoy the lawns in the sunshine (the hog roast and bouncy castle helped). The Pavilion Open Day saw local bands playing on the terrace. Open Mic nights are now held regularly. Finally, this weekend, two further ambitions of the building were realised: a full concert, complete with merchandise stall, and today: Shakespeare in the park.

On Friday night Rowheath welcomed The Spooky Men’s Chorale. Hosted by Sounds Allowed, a Birmingham-based singing co-operative, two hundred people crammed into the Terrace Room to hear first a folk duo who sang very pretty songs (I regret I did not note their names), followed by the Second City Strummers, a ukulele orchestra who injected much fun into the room, before the main act. I’d never heard of the Spooky Men, and being sold as ‘one of Australia’s best folk groups’ rang both with intrigue and concern, but we took a risk and bought two tickets. We were not disappointed.

“THE VAST, RUMBLING, BLACK-CLAD BEHEMOTH RETURNS: Hairier, bigger, better, stupider, the Spooky Men’s Chorale return to the UK this summer to hammer hapless audiences with their now famous blend of dropdeadpan stupidity, magnificently cavernous manchords and hairy, gilt-edged beauty. It is unclear what is most dangerous to your well being, missing them, or not...”

The Spooky Men are a 16-piece choral ensemble, clad in black and wearing silly hats. They began with a Georgian chant, showing off their technical ability, and followed it up with something rather different. I cannot write much, because much of their appeal is in their ability to surprise, but suffice to say you have never seen a choir quite like this. The show was baffling, surprising and hilarious in equal measure. Part music, part amateur dramatics; the Spooky Men were brilliant. It was the first night of a two-month intensive UK Tour, and I urge you to get tickets to see them. They are playing a number of smaller venues, as well as the Cambridge and Sidmouth folk festivals.

We had chance afterwards to talk to a couple of the Spooky Men. The group comprises talented individuals from both Western and Eastern Australia, chosen for their voices, their complex emotions and their ability to text one another when a concert is coming up. Some of them have beards. A couple of Spookies are currently in England, including the first that we spoke with, who was taking a gap year before university and living just down the road from The Only Way is Essex. It was his first performance as a Spooky, having once supported them in his hometown choir at a concert in Port Macquarie. He got talking to Chief Spooky Stephen Taberner after that show, and on mentioning that he would be in the UK this summer was invited to join the group. Friday was the first time that they had all been in the same room together, so they stuck to old favourites, but it didn’t show on the night. We also got to speak to Chief Spooky himself, about chocolate, vocal workshops and our pastor, who couldn’t stop roaring with laughter all night.

Forty-eight hours later, I was back in the same room, listening to the 'All the World’s a Stage' monologue from As You Like It. As part of the RSC’s Fiftieth Anniversary, their Outdoor Events team came to the Pavilion, taking over the Terrace Room (it was raining so the play was relocated indoors). Rowheath took gladly to the occasion, providing refreshments and ice cream, our pastor Paul’s booming voice announcing the arrival of some culture to the building. What with the Merchant of Venice a few weeks ago and now this, I fear I may be coming across as cultured and civilized, but be under no illusion: I didn’t understand the first half and embarrassingly had to have it explained it to me. The second half was good though.

And this morning, the Pavilion made me very proud. In response to the East Africa Appeal, the church’s Micah group, of which I am a part, held a collection. The congregation responded with such generosity I cannot begin to explain how happy they made me. They’re a good bunch.

It has been a good summer for Rowheath, and long may it continue. It is a building and community with its heart in precisely the right place.

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