Back to Back

Here in Birmingham, UK, we have a restored set of ‘back to back’ houses. These were tiny houses built in many cities for the less well off although some included shops beneath or in-front of them. These started to be built in 1806 and were built literally back to back with a shared yard, outside plumbing, toilet and washing facilities. Lived in until 1966, they were condemned unfit for living, but were then granted listed status in 1988. They have been open to the public since 2014 and are well worth a visit if you are in the city. This piece is written after a visit to them.


Ghosts of previous high hope, such schemes and dreams
are found now only painted on posters and wan-a-be themes
for we gawkers to re-live, what was obviously hard,
in the now lifeless spaces, down to the stone cobbled yard.
It might be good that they sit high, on the rolling tourist track
sadly it’s the warmth of long lost families that they obviously lack.

In bulls eyed windows stand ranks of sweet and sour confection,
taunting small soldiers, queuing, no longer paying attention
to the teacher or the parent absorbing all this history,
all these little mites really want, is a but of tommy foolery.

But the line soon moves on and the temptations alter
as up steep steps and narrow isles we stumble and falter
here aged nic-nacks are cat nip to a child’s wavering finger tip,
all it would take is one crash to invoke a tiny quivering lip.

All around, gnarled, knotted, knowledgable wood
stands stark and scuffed, longing to tell you if it could
of the diverse times it must certainly have seen
through the decades, no doubt, not so pristine.

Its basic regurgitated décor, designed for the masses
living its life plain and simple, alongside those, the lower classes,
daubs of paint around tiny floral representation,
stains, once part of life recreated now, for our inquisitive delectation.

The tour runs on smoothly if in places a little bit slow
and then the crowd disperses once more and off we all go
to lives much more different to the one that we have just seen
our modern houses all shiny and much easier to clean,
more spacious, warm, luxurious, with almost every mod con,
A world apart from back to back lives, thankfully, long gone.

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Birmingham Back to Back Houses

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