I’m often aware of contradictions, and having concurrent views – probably one of the most annoying things for the human mind. We like conclusions, pigeon-holes, to file perceptions in an orderly manner. However much we know reality is a beautiful mess of light and dark and happiness and melancholy, and that each is as dependable and essential as day follows night, sometimes those contradictions need some explaining. We need unity, to feel the differences reconcile or respect each other.
London through the eyes of Edward Bawden
I’ve been in London for a few days and in separate conversations the type of change we noticed came up. Even after just a few months the city needs relearning, especially when day to day life is against a more rural backdrop. It was with fascination that I then read a post from one of my favourite blogs – Diana J Hale – called ‘Space is the Place’ in which she looks at recent discussions about how we experience our surroundings.
The changing of streets and towns – whether regeneration or gentrification – often comes out of a respect for original architecture. There’s a realisation something is about to be lost and that it can be caught before it goes. A recent BBC series tracked this process and how the 60s generation moved into ignored areas of London and set about removing mid-century modernisation and letting the architects’ visions live again.
There was love in this: a respect for place and time rather than monetary value. This made a stark contrast with the later ‘deluxe’ gentrification of Notting Hill – digging out basements for swimming pools, so much plenty spewing ostentation.
I stand with respect for the originals – with our heritage we can make our mark, change atmospheres and reinvent without erasing. And we can also find spaces to build and be brave with new designs.
But we have shop fronts with acres of plate glass, great height and maximum light, casing gargantuan images of idealised beauty. This is the direction of change in high street scenes everywhere – if they aren’t closing down.
People I talked to, strangers on the train or friends in town, talked fondly of places like Covent Garden and Spitalfields.
Covent Garden in the early 1990s lived side by side with smarter stores cherishing the worn heritage of the buildings. A raddled old second-hand clothes store could live happily, still exhaling the air of the sixties… but 20 years on it’s a hermetically-sealed Marks and Spencer, hemmed in by the new glass frontages. Once, a few shops down, the streetscape seemed to quieten suddenly, like a Sunday morning. Now shop fronts bristle and beat and bars spill open. Theatres are wallpapered with day-glo hoardings. Mouldings that held sooty air are chased away.
Edward Bawden’s Covent Garden
Spitalfields was swept up – the market made into a planning model that didn’t change from its sanitised imagining when brought to life. Elsewhere the ‘something that is passing’ has been shored up against the offices towering on its fringes.
But it has changed Spitalfields from what existed into an articulated re-creation. It can feel like a fetish-ised version of life in a world of independent shops and cultures brought together over centuries, all the happy contradictions of life not-under-the-microscope, that were unplanned and beautiful as an upturned kitchen drawer.
It is not different in country towns. Once they are appreciated and no longer taken for granted, then we have to define what it is that we cherish. Once these things are listed, they seem doomed to be contrived.
One of my favourite small towns I know well is now beautifully preserved and conserved. Where it once offered the typical town-without-supermarket shopping – the stuff of immediate need – it now sells lifestyle and the food and furniture for it: antiques and vintage, artisan and organic.
I love heritage, I love craftsmanship, I love the natural and the independent. I see all these things there, but the sense of claustrophobia is overwhelming. It is so tidy, so antiseptic, so recreated, that I cannot stay for long. I look for the characters (people or buildings) – the unkempt, the eccentric, the naturally aged, and they are disappearing. Here are all the clichés of an art school presentation of suburbia as a stultifying, brittle mask. And yet, some of the energy that is re-imagining this town supposes to be in opposition to that very definition.
This happened again at the weekend, in another previously ignored area of London – messy, noisy, industrial. I’d been warned, but it was a street not too far from the doorstep.
Eric Ravilious – from ‘High Street’
Aesthetically it was everything the antithesis of the plate-glass onslaught should be – a street of small independent shops preserving the layers of paint of decades, the warped windows, the street furniture – a modern day version of a more basic Eric Ravilious’ High Street. Three bookshops, from an art specialist to one packed with stuff that inspires me. Other parts had every disingenuous cliché of the farmer’s or vintage market on display.
We ate in a café whose menu said ‘we don’t encourage the use of mobile phones in the dining rooms’ (although it was a converted pub). It was furnished in the ubiquitous mid-century approximation which is winning yet predictable…
Formica tables; cheap and cheerful wallpaper; Farrow and Ball paint (green); the menu a parody, like Elizabeth David opening a greasy spoon… Print-dressed staff had the dash of tattoos and ironmongery that used to be a statement against everything this scenario represented. In the corner, a mother was explaining to a four-year-old how Hollywood manipulates the emotions of an audience in a film, a deconstruction that should effectively put paid to any joy of storytelling while he’s in the stage of discovery.
All of this was an antidote to the tanning salon and mobile phone shop of the generic British high street. And yet I had that disturbing feeling again: discomfort, an allergy.
The demographic was uniform: an unnervingly similar crowd redolent of Village of the Damned – many sporting retro lipstick (women), or Michael Caine spectacles (men). The boundary of this space was oddly demarcated – like the set of Mary Poppins dropped into present day urban London.
Village of the Damned (1965) adapted from John Wyndham’s novel Midwich Cuckoos
It was undoubtedly a community. It was friendly. Yet something felt wrong… buses with everyday Londoners stopped at the end of the street but their occupants headed off in other directions, like film extras not wanted for this scene. All this seemed to have happened in the space of a year or two.
I don’t pretend to have any defence for my curmudgeonly stance, because I do not understand it myself. Maybe it’s my heritage: generations of northerners, though not one myself, but there are a couple of chartists in there…
Neither is this the space for me to offer half-formed analysis on a Monday lunchtime about what is driving all this. I can only say that I long for the naturalness of the out-turned beautiful mess of a kitchen drawer rather than the kitchen drawer coded, sized, measured and compartmentalised…