Otter.ai is a great transcription tool – but it still converts ‘Moseley Road Baths’ to ‘Mostly Robots’…this made me smile again!

On 29th July, I conducted my final interview, with Karen Leach, chair of Moseley Road Baths. I felt it was useful to provide a broader context to Balsall Heath’s community activism and find out more about local people’s impressions of the campaign and arts activity they may have experienced at the baths. 

Otter.ai is a great transcription tool – but it still converts ‘Moseley Road Baths’ to ‘Mostly Robots’…this made me smile again!

On 29th July, I conducted my final interview, with Karen Leach, chair of Moseley Road Baths. I felt it was useful to provide a broader context to Balsall Heath’s community activism and find out more about local people’s impressions of the campaign and arts activity they may have experienced at the baths.

David Viney 0:01 
Interview with Karen Leach, chair of Moseley Road Baths CIO. Today is the 29th of July 2019. So, Karen, if you could just introduce yourself, and just tell me a little bit about your involvement with Moseley Road Baths.

Karen Leach 0:19 
Currently, the chairman, CEO, I’ve been involved since about 2014, or 15, in an active way, in this capacity, before that I was involved in The Friends group. But not very always just occasionally, very occasionally come to meetings, I went to the AGM when I went to a couple of events. So, I was sort of signed up, but not really very active.

David Viney
Okay. All right, good. So, the first question. My impression of working at Moseley Road Baths recently is that Balsall Heath seems to have a very active community. I was quite impressed in how’s it has Local Area Plan in place, the only one so far in the city, and there seems to be quite a lot of networks, and a lot of activity going on, that all seem to interconnect. I just wonder, what your impressions of the activism in the community there is, the history of it, and why you think that area has such an active community. Or if you agree with that impression.

Karen Leach 1:26 
I agree with what you said about the area. Very much so. And some friends of ours did some research into social capital, in different communities in Birmingham. And it was quite interesting. They were mapping deprivation and social capital and they concluded that various places in the city were deprived and have no social capital, various places in the city were wealthy, but have no social capital. And, here was one of those areas that came up as deprived with high social capital. And it’s just always been quite an interesting, strange area, right from all the stories of the community fighting back against it being a red-light district. And, you know, obviously, there’s some dodgy stuff around that as well. But you know, the here people have done stuff together for a long time. And if you look at the area’s heritage Facebook page and things like that, which are just full of stories of what’s happened in the past. And what happens now and the connections between people. It’s always been a great area for that. And I think one thing that’s interesting to me is that as somebody that was sort of new to the city as a student, after my student years, I became drawn to Moseley because I already saw Moseley, it’s really happening interesting – what’s the word, Bohemian? But, as time went on, I found that Balsall Heath was just more interesting and exciting. And I think that’s partly because Moseley was changing but also because Balsall Heath always had that, that bit of liveliness to it.

David Viney 2:59 
Thanks, I did a little bit of research into the area as well. So, one of the things that struck me was that the area seems to be a go-to for national policymakers, I read in the context of the big society, to see what was done here.

Karen Leach 3:25 
aren discussed the role of the [Balsall Heath] forum and how the influence of its former chair Dick Atkinson, a local character, would have brought David Cameron and the national press to Balsall Heath to highlight it as an example of the Big Society.

Karen Leach 3:55
I suppose I don’t know exactly what the community dynamics were before Dick. I know that there were other strong characters like an Anita Halliday who was involved in the early days of the Moseley Road Baths stuff that we’re doing now. And so, there were a bunch of people who were, who were quite radical and doing some quite interesting things ion Balsall Heath.  

David Viney 4:51 
So, the next question is about local distinctiveness. And, and its importance to place and people’s perception of places. So, what just your impressions on of what’s locally distinctive about Balsall Heath. I’m thinking, you can talk about social capital, again, as well as a kind physical distinctiveness.

And then the second part of the question is, and this came up a lot during the research; People are proud of Moseley Road Baths, and there’s certainly a lot of pride about the campaign. Would you agree with that? And why do you think people are proud of the baths? And what inspires them about it today?

Karen Leach 5:40 
I think what’s distinctive about Balsall Heath has probably changed quite a lot over time, because it’s been such a transient area, back in 1907, when the baths were built, that would have been quite a major thing, that would have been a real source of pride at the time. There were a lot of grand buildings around there. I don’t know what the demographic was and how it’s changed. But you know, it’s so had its ups and downs. And it’s always been somewhere where immigrant communities come in, and, and then things will change, and then they’ll change again, and then they’ll change again. So it is one of those areas where the local distinctiveness is quite transient as well, if you see me, it used to have a really big Irish population, I know that from the heritage Facebook Page and they bought their own, you know, pubs and customs to it, and then it would have changed again after the Afro-Caribbean community came there later.  So, I think it would have, I think that although the buildings remaining the same, and perhaps that’s an important thread, perhaps that’s got something to do with it. So, it’s not like a rural community’s local distinctiveness, where a certain style of five-bar gate is the one that they’d have, and everybody knows that that’s what the footpaths look like, or there is a certain sort of pie that everybody cooks. All those sorts of things aren’t on the sort of local distinctiveness that we have. So maybe that makes the buildings more important.

David Viney 7:29 
Just looking at the style of architecture of the houses, the area feels very working class in some parts with tightly packed terraces and yet there are some streets where there is much bigger housing which you would associate more with middle-class suburbs such as Edgbaston. It may have been a wealthy area at some point and industrial Birmingham grew around – I don’t know, maybe that’s all part of that transition. That is a transition of the city and its wealth pushing out, I don’t know.

Karen leach 8:11 
Good point I have no idea what it was before. 1907 but it would be quite interesting to know.

David Viney 8:23 
So, what why do you think the baths inspires pride locally? If it does?

Karen Leach 8:28 
Oh, it’s just a place that catches people, ins’ it? So, I mean, I think if you if you walk in and have a swim there, you know, you’re somewhere a bit special. I think it’s it is a place that grabs a lot of people and its beauty is a strong factor making people want to come in. In terms of outside the building, it occupies that key place on what you might call a high street and takes up a lot of room there. And the functions of the swimming baths and the library have always been important across the ages to people. So, a lot of people go there with the kids or went as kids.

David Viney 9:43 
So that that function of civic life?

Karen Leach 9:45 
Yeah. It’s interesting.

David Viney 9:47 
So, about the campaign then. The next two questions are about that. So, what were your impressions of the campaign before you got involved?

Karen Leach 10:04 
Karen discussed the formation of the Moseley Road Baths Action Group, which formed out of The Friends to explore alternative models, other than local authority management, to keep the baths open.

Karen Leach 11.28
They [The Friends] have done an incredible job to really raise the profile of it. They’ve done some very interesting arts events about which I could, so mobile, and they’ve been, they’ve been vociferous and raised the profile nationally and locally,

David Viney 13:11 
Okay, I just thinking about the campaign again, what about your impression of its visual identity and how it pushed its message out, thinking about how it raised awareness?

Karen Leach 13:35 
I think it was always a group that had quite a strong focus on comms because there were quite creative within that group, you know, artists and other creative people, like Rachel who is a film filmmaker. And so, so I think they, they understood how to make and make things visually appealing. Yeah, you know, t-shirts and logos and nice, relatively nice printed materials. Yeah. And they make videos as well, things like that. They were also on the internet before some other campaign groups too.

David Viney 14:31 
So, do you think the campaign to save the baths brought local people together? If so, how?

Karen Leach 14:51 
Karen discusses the process for bringing together local third sector groups such as St. Pauls Trust, Moseley District Housing Group, Saheli and others to engage with the Action Group.

Karen Leach 16:10 
Karen discusses local community organisations and some of the difficulties providing services in time of austerity, she talks about how they still found time and energy to support the baths and she hopes that the support can be reciprocated.

David Viney 17:24 
So, what does keep the Baths open mean to you, from a personal, community and political perspective?

Karen Leach 18:05 
I suppose part of my background here is that for the previous, 15-20 years, the campaigns I’ve been involved with have been environmental ones. And so, a lot harder sell to other people. And, you know, obviously, the most urgent thing we can possibly do, but hard for people to, to understand this immediately. So, I found it really kind of refreshing and quite emotive, to be working on that more immediate level of the campaign. You know, that window that you keep going past that is broken, one day is going to be fixed, you know, all those things, you can just see the smile on the faces of the kids when they come out from a swim, everything is very immediate. And I think the local distinctiveness thing is always going to be important to me, because you see so much sort of corporatisation and so much destruction from cuts as well, going on around us.

David Viney 19:16 
So, the final question. So, thank you is literally have you an experience of live arts and culture activity after the baths or around the baths? Or, you know, and that could include the legacy pieces of public art. And, what were your impressions about in those spaces?

Karen Leach 19:54 
Yeah, okay. The first thing I went to, I’m dredging my memory. Maybe before I swam there, there was a strange art installation about sound. I think it was just before the Gala Pool shut. So just before 2003. I went with friends and it was perhaps that was the first time I’d been really bowled over by the baths and got a sense of what this place was. And it was kind of a was kind of eerie, it didn’t, that art installation as they had some technical faults that stopped it from being that effective. But it was still quite eerie and quite strange.

David Viney 21:19 
So, it took you out of its function. So, it changes the space for you.

Karen Leach 21:24 
Yeah, very much. So, I think I haven’t really appreciated before. I hadn’t been there and just taking it in as a place. I’d just been focused on the function of swimming before.

Karen Leach 21:42 
I wasn’t remotely involved in The Friends group then, but Chris became involved a few years later, so I’d get information about events from him as he was on the committee for it. And so, I get a bit of feedback from him. And the next event I remember, which was just post 2008 crash, and I think I was starting to get anxious then about what was going to happen to the baths. So, there was an arts event that involved various things going on and in different spaces. And I think Viv [Harrison] was very involved in this, and there were some videos being shown in the ladies. And I just there’s one with giraffes that I still sometimes view, I found it online, and watch it because it just, it just like makes me smile. But it was just it was great to have all the different things happening in different spaces.

The film was not made for the baths, I think there were five or six short films being screened in the small room where The Friends keep their stuff. And I just stood there and watched the whole lot to finish. Yeah. And it was great. And that was another sort of, it was such an interesting little room to do that with people. You know, there were people like me that were just transfixed and watching it all, while several people were just moving in and out.

It made the building come to life because there were different things happening in different spaces. Rather than just a heritage tour where you get told about the social history, it was just a different way of taking in what the spaces felt like.

David Viney 24:39 
Okay. Thank you, That’s it.