HEART AND SOUL

3 - CopyThey may have been produced as ten-minute fillers to be screened between the support film and the main feature back when a night at the flicks wasn’t restricted to a solitary movie preceded by a hundred annoying ads, but the likes of Rank’s ‘Look at Life’ series now serve as a portal to a lost world arguably more fascinating than the films they propped-up. Running from 1959 to 1969, the ‘Look at Life’ shorts were shot on top notch 35mm film in crystal-clear Eastmancolor and show a Britain we’re more accustomed to seeing through a murky monochrome lens; as a result, they make the era come alive and are a unique archive of everyday life in the UK at the time. Like the rival series, ‘Pathé Pictorial’, there’s a hangover from the old cinema newsreels in that each short is accompanied by an RP voice-over and a jaunty, jolly soundtrack in the Light Programme fashion; but this merely adds to the period charm. By the late 60s, audiences becoming used to the grittier documentary techniques of television no doubt found them rather antiquated in style, though the visual record they left behind is increasingly invaluable.

From the dawn of talking pictures to the beginning of the 1970s (when the small screen had more or less completely taken over the format), documentary shorts of this ilk were a staple diet of cinema-going, though many of the ‘instructional’ variety eventually found an unlikely home on TV as ‘Trade Test Colour Films’ during the early years of colour television, when they were broadcast on BBC2 in the barren daytime hours. Unsurprisingly, as an established cinematic sub-genre, the documentary short wasn’t entirely in the hands of Rank and Pathé; several other studios specialised in producing them. British Transport Films was another company that provided endless behind-the-scenes profiles of industries and trades a well as focusing on the day-to-day experiences of Brits. One such British Transport short is 1962’s ‘All That Mighty Heart’, the title lifted from the celebrated poem by Wordsworth, ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’. This 1802 ode to London at the crack of dawn is recited at the film’s opening as we see the sun slowly rising over the city and follow the morning rituals of those whose professions necessitate an early start.

The London the film portrays is one that wouldn’t be out of place in a Ladybird book; indeed, the colourful clarity of the capital on a summer’s day uncannily echoes the vivid illustrations to be found in such pages. Bright red Routemaster buses are in abundance, as are the Times crossword-studying gents commuting on the Tube and proper Bobbies in the Sgt Dixon mould; even the fact that the first act of the geezer whose alarm clock signifies his day begins at 6:45am is to reach for a fag and cough his guts up is as much a distant sign of the times as his missus collecting the milk bottles from the doorstep. I myself recently re-cut many of the film’s scenes for a video of my own, accompanying its day-in-the-life narrative with theme tunes and snippets from mainstays of BBC Radio that had been the aural wallpaper for a generation by this time. The likes of ‘Housewives’ Choice’, ‘Music While You Work’, ‘Listen with Mother’, ‘Mrs Dale’s Diary’. ‘The Archers’ and ‘In Town Tonight’ all feature, along with snatches of the Third Programme and Network Three before the day draws to a close with the forecast for coastal waters. I guess nobody who appeared in the film could ever have imagined a day without such signposts, yet even though a small handful of those mainstays cling on into the present day, most are museum pieces in the 21st century, distancing now even further from then.

But we don’t simply visit the usual tourist haunts and famous streets in ‘All That Mighty Heart’; we also observe sporting venues like Lord’s and Wimbledon as well as London Zoo. We also see the suburbs as a pretty young housewife’s progress from her newly-built estate to a newly-built shopping precinct is tracked. She waves off handsome hubby to work from the doorstep as the two of them resemble one of those impossibly-innocent kissing couples on the sleeve of a Sinatra Capitol LP. Then she’s shown beginning the washing before dolling herself up to catch the bus and excitedly anticipating the consumerist ceremony sneeringly described by The Rolling Stones in ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ – ‘So she buys her instant cake/and she burns her frozen steak’ – doing so in the sparkling supermarket that constitutes a vital element of the Modernist master-plan of the suburban shopping precinct, one which looks like it was seamlessly transplanted directly from the corporation architect’s drawing-board.

The sight will be familiar to anyone who can recall ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’, the turn-of-the-70s pre-school children’s show that depicted life from a child’s perspective in one of the high-rises of that brave new world; everything is so spotlessly immaculate, from the materials that comprise the houses to the manicured lawns and verges surrounding them. There isn’t a sprinkling of litter or ugly graffiti to be seen. This optimistic portrayal of the ‘homes for heroes’ ideal that characterised the first quarter-century of redevelopment after WWII is never better illustrated than in a film from the dawn of the 60s, a time before corrupt councillors were bribed by bent builders to cut corners and erect their shoddy Brutalist tributes to Le Corbusier prior to their multiple faults being exposed to unfortunate tenants via rising damp and mould, or them simply collapsing of their own accord. Within less than two decades, most were bulldozed from the landscape and the great post-war dream of a Utopian Jerusalem in concrete was erased from the history books as an embarrassing episode we don’t talk about in front of the children. How unimaginable all that is in ‘All That Mighty Heart’ – a long way from the few surviving estates degenerating into the crumbling sinks we avoid today.

It goes without saying that it’s an idealised version of Britain, one that consciously overlooks the grinding poverty and social injustices that many members of the country’s population were experiencing at the time it was produced; but it’s not a film intended to highlight such issues, merely to present the aspirational lifestyle that the incoming age of social mobility was to make within the reach of thousands before the window sealed-up again at the end of the 20th century. In its own way, it apes the similarly idealised images of the American Dream that characterised Eisenhower’s USA of the 50s; those images also obscured numerous uncomfortable truths, but proved enduring as a selling point to outsiders looking-in, and as many of the British cinematic shorts of the 60s were exported to the colonies, it was important to uphold a positive image of the mother country.

In my own edit, I inserted clips from a contemporary public information film that encourages a nascent Neighbourhood Watch approach, as a shifty character in a shabby suit is spotted on one of those shiny new estates whilst he tries a few doors of houses with hubby at work and his wife at the shopping precinct. A vigilant housewife dials 999 and a chain of events is set in motion that concludes with the opportunistic thief being apprehended by a police patrol car before he’s even exited the estate. This in itself is as much an image of a vanished Britain as anything in the original film and offers curious comfort that if crime should be noted and reported it will actually be dealt with. Besides, is the vision of Britain as seen in the likes of ‘All That Mighty Heart’ any less idealised than the vision of Britain as espoused by someone like Sadiq Khan, which likes to portray the nation as a kind of permanent multicultural Pride parade? Both visions contain grains of truth, but neither can be said to accurately reflect the attitude of the country as a whole; therefore, we can look back at ‘Look at Life’, ‘Pathé Pictorial’ or ‘All That Mighty Heart’ and genuinely mourn what we’ve lost, because we have lost something, even if it was merely an ideal.

© The Editor

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THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST

vlcsnap-2022-11-01-10h46m52s939Every innovation in television presentation eventually lapses into cliché – and the documentary genre is no exception. Perhaps because I’ve watched more documentaries than any other TV genre in the past 30-odd years I notice it more, but the tired tricks of the trade do niggle a little and you crave a more adventurous director to look for other ways of visually accompanying the narration. There’s the guaranteed aerial shot as the camera sweeps across the landscape – a trick made all the easier (not to say lazier) these days thanks to developments in drone technology; and, of course, there’s the shot of the presenter strolling down a crowded street, addressing a camera half-a-mile away as bemused members of the public stare at a stranger talking to themselves – although, having said that, we’re more inured to strangers having a conversation with the Invisible Man ever since earpieces and hands-free mobiles became widespread tools of annoyance. A history documentary sometimes resorts to the dreaded re-enactment of a significant historical moment by using unknown actors whose performances are usually guaranteed to secure their anonymity; and I recall around 20-25 years ago there was another documentary cliché that thankfully seems to have disappeared now, that of a past event under discussion being illustrated by fake, shaky Super-8 cine-film – and that technique was used over and over again.

And then there are, naturally, the presenters themselves – some of whom exude an excitable enthusiasm for their subject that suggests the old Saturday morning kids TV shows would once have been their rightful home. In the last 15-20 years there’s also been a rash of female presenters when it comes to history documentaries, almost as though they roll off a conveyor belt somewhere at the BBC and arrive as fully-formed, cut-glass minxes with a Nigella-esque, suggestive twinkle in their eyes – or maybe that’s just me. Anyway, when one becomes accustomed to these familiar factors, the viewer can’t help but be jolted out of apathy when a presenter appears who dispenses with the tiresome tropes and catches you utterly unawares – a presenter who says of presenters, ‘I despise the breed; they wave their arms around all the time and tell you they’re going on a f**king journey.’ But Jonathan Meades doesn’t really have to distance himself from his fellow presenters, for I doubt anyone would ever confuse him with belonging to the same species, nor confuse his programmes with the kind of documentaries they present.

The once-portly polymath who impressively lost seven stone in twelve months following a diagnosis of morbid obesity during his greed-fest as the Times’ restaurant critic has been a semi-regular on the more select TV screens since the late 80s. And although the work-rate has slowed down a little of late (he is 75, after all), it’s amazing what a body of television work he has to his name, as I’ve belatedly realised through revisiting some of his past documentaries via YouTube, some of which I saw at the time and some of which are new to me. Whilst he has made programmes on one of his pet subjects – food – Meades is primarily known for writing and presenting inspired, idiosyncratic and occasionally surreal documentaries about architecture. In fact, I first became aware of Meades around 1990 when he introduced a rerun of archive programmes by Ian Nairn, one of Meades’ inspirations; it was only natural I then began to tune in whenever Meades himself returned with one of his own shows. Yesterday I watched his 1998 film on Birmingham, ‘Heart By-Pass’, and laughed out loud more than I ever do at any alleged ‘comedy’ series produced for TV today.

To make one both laugh and think at the same time is a unique gift indeed, yet Meades manages it with his simultaneously intelligent and irreverent scripts, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering Meades has been a distinctively witty (not to say deadpan) voice in literary circles for half-a-century. But, as good as the scripts are the best thing he brings to his highly original shows is the caustic character of Jonathan Meades he created for television, the plump refugee from ‘Reservoir Dogs’ with the comic timing of Benny Hill; the RADA graduate who decided he didn’t have what it took to become an actor at least put his training to good use in the end – formulating a style he himself compared to a hybrid of lecture hall and music hall, a perfect marriage of high and low art. Moreover, working with a collaborator on the same quirky wavelength – director Francis Hanly – has enabled Meades’ programmes to have a look and feel quite unlike any others on TV made in the last 30 years. One can never drift away watching a Jonathan Meades documentary, for you never quite know what’s coming next; every time you think you’ve got him sussed he surprises you. This is not a man who was designed to host leisurely strolls through nice buildings for BBC1 on a Sunday evening; if a series devoted to the eternally-divisive architectural subspecies of Modernism called Brutalism belongs anywhere, its natural home is BBC4, and its natural host is Jonathan Meades.

The most recent Jonathan Meades documentary that springs to mind was his brilliantly incisive investigation into jargon, as used by the press, politicians, contemporary artists, broadcasters and football pundits, to name but a few miscreants. Such programmes warrant repeated views, as it’s very easy to miss a serious, salient point whilst laughing at the preceding sardonic observation, so overflowing is the information contained within them. Often during his shows, a fantastic word will emerge from his lips – usually a word the viewer has never heard emerge from anyone’s lips before. True, some do pluck words from obscurity merely to demonstrate how clever they are, but one never gets that impression with Meades; you know the word emerged because he felt it was the most expressive word to embellish the point he was trying to make, and he is a something of a sorcerer in search of an apprentice when it comes to the English language, hoping the more curious viewer will be prompted to reach for the dictionary and perhaps may even one day integrate some of his linguistic gems into their personal lexicon. That’s the kind of thing teachers are supposed to do, though few teachers most of us had ever did. This is why Jonathan Meades is a special presence on a medium weighed down by the witless and the intellectually-challenged.

Until catching the date at the end of the ‘Jonathan Meades on Jargon’ documentary – which I watched again a couple of weeks ago – I didn’t realise it was made as far back as 2018. Since then, Meades has produced only one further programme. In 2019, he added to his characteristically mischievous occasional series on the architecture born of Totalitarian regimes by profiling the buildings of Spain that appeared during the rule of General Franco, having already done a similar job on Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Like Ian Nairn before him, Meades possesses a perverse delight in praising the kind of buildings most view with either disdain or disinterest; and in the same way that Nairn was enamoured of the terminally-unfashionable Belgium, Meades once produced a programme celebrating the less chic corners of Northern Europe. And why not? Haven’t we all seen enough travelogues on the obvious destinations?

Meades himself once observed that he and his programme-making team had gradually received less money to make their shows from the BBC, saying ‘We used to be a convoy; now we are a Smart car’, and there’s always the sneaking suspicion that genuinely original voices are pushed further to the margins of television in the desperate rush to appeal to the mass audience. At one time, Meades was the quintessential character BBC2 was created to host, whereas now even his migration to BBC4 is under threat as that once-great alternative is downgraded to little more than a repeat channel. Perhaps we’ve no choice but to accept Meades has done his bit and has earned his retirement, and we can always revisit his best bits online, after all. But nobody is holding their breath that an heir is waiting in the wings.

© The Editor

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NEW CASTLE DIVIDED

So, as one Utopian experiment dies before our eyes – i.e. the United States of America – following the first unedifying debate between two corrupt cadavers (and all those hoping Trump cops it are as much a part of that slow death as the man himself), another kind of Utopia gradually vanishes whilst nobody’s looking. This one is part of an ongoing process to erase a uniquely 20th century concept of Utopia from the landscape, and the latest chapter will be underway once the bulldozers belatedly move in to begin a demolition that has been on the cards for the best part of a decade – that of the perennially-controversial eyesore known as the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. Even if this particular precinct isn’t personally known to the reader, it represents a specific shopping experience familiar to anyone born and raised in any British city during the first half-century of the post-war era.

The Elephant and Castle seems to have specialised in retail outlets for a hundred years or more. Before the Second World War, it was a highly-regarded destination for shoppers, nicknamed ‘the Piccadilly of South London’; it boasted several cinemas, a branch of Burtons, and also had its very own illustrious department store, something which – much like malls in more recent times – no neighbourhood claiming to be a leading shopping epicentre could be complete without. However, as was the case with great swathes of the capital, the Blitz laid waste to the locality and Elephant and Castle was earmarked for redevelopment; along with new housing, the planners intended to provide grandiose leisure facilities which were inevitably dominated by that ubiquitous addition to the post-war urban landscape, the newfangled shopping centre complex.

London wasn’t unique when it came to these concoctions, but it being London, everything had to be on a far larger scale than anywhere else. Belonging to a generation of architects inspired by the futuristic – if impractical – cityscapes of Le Corbusier, the designers of Elephant and Castle’s contribution to the concrete jungles of the New Elizabethan Age weren’t short on ambition, even if predictable budgetary restraints somewhat diluted the drawing-board sketches. Opened for business in 1965, the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre shared similar hopes for housing a dozen old streets of shops under one roof as Birmingham’s equally optimistic Bull Ring Centre around the same time. Both suffered from a scaling down of their original vision. Pre-opening hype at the Elephant and Castle may well have boasted of 120 shop units on three levels, but by the time it opened, only 29 were filled; the Bull Ring faced the same problems, with the high rentals there dissuading the old market traders from relocating indoors.

Even a Brutalist enthusiast – and they do exist – would be hard-pushed to make an aesthetic case for the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. It’s a tatty sow’s ear of a building that no amount of tinkering over the years has managed to transform into a silk purse. It has no real architectural shape or form, with the various tacked-on ‘improvements’ having enhanced its irredeemable ugliness whilst failing to improve upon what photographs show was far-from impressive even at the time of its initial opening. As with the simultaneous decline and fall of the neighbouring Heygate Estate – another product of well-meaning but poorly-executed post-war town planning – the Shopping Centre gradually acquired an unsavoury, rather grubby reputation that deterred the big chain-store names from investing in it. However, the one unintended benefit of the precinct being shunned by high-street giants was that it enabled independent traders to plug the gaps, creating something of a community ambience, especially for the area’s notable Latin American population. So, in a wholly unexpected way, the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre eventually became that which it was originally intended as – a community hub for the community that live in the area.

The motivation behind so much of the 1960s housing and retail stock that is disappearing from view with remarkable rapidity was undeniably laudable; if WWII air-raids could be said to have had any positive impact on Britain’s cities, they at least forced councils and elected representatives to address urban environmental issues that had required urgent attention for decades. Not only was there a concerted attempt to improve the nation’s homes, high-streets and road network, but it was a project in which the lives of everybody were included. As with the political consensus that lingered until the arrival of Thatcherism, this hangover from the One Nation approach required to repel Hitler meant the great housing schemes of the era were built to provide homes for anybody in need of one, regardless of social demographic league tables. That so much of this ambitious and brave concept failed to deliver really is something of a tragedy.

Cut corners, cheap materials, shoddy workmanship, poor designs, diminishing budgets and behind-the-scenes corruption all played their part in the collapse of this admirable Utopian operation, as did the almost manic verve with which perfectly sound streets, houses and civic buildings were bulldozed not because they were bomb-damaged or decrepit but simply because they were old and didn’t fit the master-plan. A blend of old and new complementing each other would have been the best solution, but local councils and politicians became drunk on redevelopment and saddled any Brutalist building with the same undesirable label as those that were the worst, most unloved examples of the school – which is why so many of them have gone in the past couple of decades.

The Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre closed its doors for good at the end of September; the whole area is to be redeveloped yet again, with the ominous spectre of ‘gentrification’ looming over the locals. Many of the traders that served to give the kiss of life to the Shopping Centre have not been offered units in the emporium scheduled to replace it, but I’m guessing the usual suspects will move in to make its replacement just like every other mall anywhere on the planet. Southwark Council have promised 35% of the dwellings accompanying this new retail hub will consist of social housing, but one can’t help but think non-dom Chinamen, Arabs and Oligarchs are probably already top of this particular housing list. At least the 1960s redevelopments, however much they got it wrong, were designed with ‘ordinary people’ in mind. Today, the plebs have to be content with whatever scraps are leftover from the rich pickings overseas investors at the head of the queue get their hands on.

Many similar heroic failures have bitten the dust this century – the old Bull Ring met the wrecking-ball almost 20 years ago whilst Portsmouth’s equally-ambitious Tricorn Centre (described by Prince Charles as ‘a mildewed lump of elephant droppings’) was demolished in 2004. Love them or loathe them, such buildings embodied a vision sorely lacking today. They may have become – like the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre – distinctly shabby within a very short space of time; but they had character, something that 21st century redevelopment does its damndest to smoothly iron out.

© The Editor

THE EYES OF A CHILD

Aged three, I guess the saddest sentence in the English language for me was ‘It’s time for Andy Pandy to wave goodbye now’; it was infancy’s equivalent of ‘I’ve met someone else’, though at least the end-of-the-world dejection was diluted by the promise of a return visit to Andy’s place the following week: ‘But he’s coming again soon.’ And he did, as did all of the inhabitants of television’s toy-box, despite the fact I had no say over my rationed encounters with them. They were my friends before I had real friends, and I regularly indulge in pre-school reunions now that I’m no longer dependent on broadcasters to determine when I can see them again.

As much as I loved the characters when a member of the target demographic, I also loved the worlds they lived in – worlds that seemed familiar, but not quite. Mary, Mungo & Midge may have resided in a 60s tower block, but it was one of those ‘moonbase’ 60s tower blocks as they looked on the architect’s drawing-board before being built – sleek, space-age, analogue erections surrounded by green and pleasant land, as though these buildings had sprouted from the soil like beautiful, synthetic mushrooms; it was a modernist marriage of architecture and nature that never happened, a future that failed to arrive.

The wider townscape of this tower block’s location was a similarly simplistic palette of pulsating primary colours, presenting an idyllic urban environment on a par with those illustrated in the Ladybird books of the era. If a child had designed this imaginary garden city, I wouldn’t have been surprised; ditto Festive Road, address of Mr Benn, or Trumpton. When young children portray their surroundings in the galleries that decorate classrooms, their impressions generally stick to an endearingly primitive template that bears little resemblance to the actual surroundings their parents would recognise as home. Yet, chances are these parents would have depicted the world in an identical fashion when the same age, the age in which the visual is still the senior partner to the verbal where self-expression is concerned. At what point do we cease to see the world through our original eyes? And why, by the time we are in a position to shape that world, are the end results are so bloody ugly?

It was exquisite timing that the shows my generation watched with mother were all produced at the back-end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s; the creations of Oliver Postgate, Gordon Murray, John Ryan and David McKee belonged to a brief moment of English pop culture in which a child’s vision of the world was transplanted from the infant interior to the adult exterior. Amazing footage of the Technicolor boutiques lining the King’s Road from this period bear it out; the lysergic Alice in Wonderland vibe of the shops spills out of the child’s enchanting imagination and onto a grownup monochrome pavement in a way that gleefully contradicts the accepted narrative of maturity; the wares on display also have a childlike charm that adults usually lose and rarely recover.

There’s a distinct difference between childlike and childish, however. The former is the retention of an optimistic, prepubescent perspective on aesthetics that can sit comfortably alongside more advanced attitudes to topics the prepubescent mind struggles with. By contrast, the latter is a thumb-sucking rejection of the childlike, a voluntary regression into the facsimile womb of so-called ‘kidulthood’, a onesie-clad Neverland that refuses to progress beyond the safe space of its own emotionally-retarded playground and responds to any incursion of the adult world with tears and tantrums. Childlike can be compatible with ‘grownup’; childish is wilfully negative and has little connection with the genuine child that is always desperate to be older than it actually is; the genuine child is forever looking forward to a world it has already designed in an imagination bursting with brilliantly bonkers ideas, inventing an exciting adult landscape that is uniquely childlike in its conception.

I have friends whose homes are an Aladdin’s Cave of delightful kitsch and individual eccentricities, decorated with broken old toys and other ornaments with the sole function of raising a smile. But these friends are not intellectual imbeciles; they have merely achieved an admirable equilibrium between child and adult that blends the best of both worlds to form a better one. When governments award multimillion-pound contracts to private companies to take charge of our environment and its institutions, the only beneficiaries are those involved in the transaction. I know if my aforementioned friends were awarded such a contract, we’d all benefit; they’d not only do it for free but they’d transform neighbourhoods so they resembled Pepperland before the Blue Meanies got their hands on it. Most five-year-olds would do the same; their 35-year-old selves, on the other hand, designed what we’re lumbered with.

A childlike side can be a potent aesthetic weapon worth utilising and I only wish more of those who design and construct our surroundings did. Perhaps then the look of our schools, workplaces, homes, hospitals and streets wouldn’t instil such depression whenever we have cause to be there. Our environment acts as a mirror; we see grey, we feel grey; we see ugly, we feel ugly – ulcers begat ulcers. There’s not much knife-crime in Chipping Norton, I’ll wager. Lest we forget, Oscar Wilde’s response when asked in the US why American society was prone to violence was ‘Because your wallpaper is so terrible’. Think about it.

The system drills the childlike out of most children and the adult that emerges as a fully-processed sausage at the end of the conveyor belt has been remade and remodelled to live by an approved script of league tables, life insurance, pension schemes, profit margins, mortgages, and an absolute absence of imagination. He has nostalgic moments of wistful remembrance, recalling his five-year-old self; but his education has taught him he cannot connect with that child and he consequently believes him to be irretrievable. He isn’t, though it depends how far one has been absorbed into the system or how much one has become one’s mother or father without putting up a fight.

Trying not to entirely lose the view of the world when seen through the wide eyes of a child isn’t easy and it is true that some circumstances are more conducive to it than others. Similarly, there is always the temptation to cling to the childlike simply as a refuge to flee into the comforting embrace of whenever headlines overwhelm and enrage. But it can be salvaged; it needs to be. I’ve resisted evoking the Jesuit motto, ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man’, but it’s a saying that retains its relevance if turned round: ‘Give me the man and I will give you a child of seven’. He’s still there in all of us, and he still has a lot to offer. Don’t ignore him. I am he as you are he as you are me – and we are all together.

© The Editor

ARCHITECTURE AND MORALITY

When the Palace of Westminster went up in flames on 16 October 1834, spawning the kind of dramatic blaze the capital hadn’t witnessed since the Great Fire of 1666, the crowds that gathered cheered as the medieval royal residence was swallowed up by the inferno; their numbers were so great they even hindered the efforts of the London Fire Engine Establishment to put out the fire, though the eleventh century splendour of Westminster Hall was mercifully saved. Were the same kind of event to occur to the architectural masterpiece that superseded the old building today, it’s feasible to suggest a similar reaction from onlookers would greet the sight. It’s impossible to separate the Palace of Westminster from its function, and that function is so despised by so many that its aesthetic prestige as perhaps the apex of Victorian Gothic architecture is secondary to what it represents.

We’ve been hearing for a long time that the building is in a dire state of disrepair, but the odd slab of crumbling stonework falling onto an MPs car is merely the tip of the iceberg. Deep in the bowels of the Palace, basements reliant on decaying nineteenth century pipe-work keeping the Thames at bay are in permanent danger of being awash with sewage. Bearing in mind what became of the Palace’s predecessor, fire is another constant source of worry, though warnings over potential disasters have fallen on deaf ears for decades because, again, of what the building represents. It has been the epicentre of British political power for almost 200 years, and its residents are reluctant to vacate it for fear that their power will be diminished, deprived of the symbolic iconography Barry and Pugin’s awesome creation radiates.

Maintenance is largely a rush job dipped in and out of during Parliamentary recess periods, but it’s a case of papering over cracks rather than giving the grand old lady the comprehensive facelift she desperately requires. It seems the Commons and Lords would have to move out for at least a couple of years if this was to be achieved, yet resistance from those for whom the Palace is a workplace is hindering such a plan. The cost of a full repair is never anything less than astronomical on paper, and MPs are concerned that their constituents will not look favourably upon them if they agree to avoid cutting corners and go for the whole restoration, regardless of the price. They’ve evidently not realised their constituents don’t look favourably upon them as it is.

There are many who say the degeneration of the Palace of Westminster can be viewed as a metaphor for the state of British politics and its sloth-like capacity for changing with the times. Some advocate a whole-scale evacuation of the location and – inevitably – a move to the sort of bland glass cathedral that litters every metropolis in England because that will allegedly encourage a less elite approach to politics, as if the Palace of Westminster not resembling a nondescript modern office block is somehow so intimidating that it stifles progression, viewed almost as an aid to eternal filibustering.

It goes without saying that London-phobic professional northerners reckon a temporary replacement should be situated in (yawn) Manchester; after all, the BBC’s relocation to Swinging Salford has immeasurably improved the Corporation’s output. But these suggestions are simply another factor in a debate that has dragged on without resolution for years, the political equivalent of a couch potato intending to clamber off the sofa and head for the loo before he pisses his pants, yet forever putting it off.

The agony recently expressed by some Honourable Members over the fact that Big Ben’s bongs are to be silenced for repair work perhaps emphasises the Westminster mindset that is incomprehensible to outsiders; this can be extended to the Palace of Westminster itself, generating a cynical response to any concerns for the condition of the building, once more seeing it as a symbol of a system that maintains the cosseted lifestyles of the powers-that-be rather than one of the nineteenth century’s great contributions to the London skyline. Of course, this is unavoidable; the Palace of Westminster was designed for a specific purpose, and that purpose experiences perennial crises when those entrusted to serve the nation appear more interested in serving themselves. It is also redolent of archaic imperial grandeur at a moment in this country’s history when such a thing couldn’t be more unfashionable; the capital is already swamped with ghastly Dubai skyscrapers courtesy of Ken and Boris cosying-up to property developers, so why not add another to house Parliament?

Words such as ‘heritage’ and ‘history’ are seemingly fine to evoke whenever there’s a royal occasion that enables the nation’s drones to enjoy a day-off from the grind of cold-calling; apply it anywhere else and you’re in deep water. From silly sods in the Grauniad calling for the demolition of Nelson’s Column because our greatest naval hero was a ‘white supremacist’ to scholars demanding our leading universities remove the majority of the country’s finest novelists from the academic syllabus for the unforgivable crime of being male and white, we currently appear to be at a cultural crossroads whereby we’re in danger of eradicating everything that made us who we are.

Architecture is as crucial to this under-fire identity as the written word, and if we’re not careful we’ll eventually end up living in a hideous parody of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, where nothing has a vintage of longer than a decade and those who are oppressed today will still be oppressed tomorrow, regardless of how they mistakenly believe replacing something old with something superficially new will somehow change ‘hearts and minds’.

© The Editor

PROFIT AND FAITH

Euston StationHistory was made at the International Criminal Court in The Hague today when a man was found guilty of Cultural Destruction. His name was Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi and he was charged with leading the Radical Islamist group that destroyed invaluable antiquities in a mosque and numerous mausoleums at a World Heritage site in Timbuktu four years ago. Some of the artefacts he destroyed covered subjects such as astronomy and were exquisite examples of Islam’s cultural flowering, an age Islamic Fundamentalists regard as a heretical aberration, so determined are they to eradicate any evidence that contradicts their own twisted take on their chosen faith as they present that to both Believers and Infidels alike as the only incarnation of Islam.

The actions of the thugs Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi led mirror those of endless others terrorising the Middle East and parts of Africa in the present day, though they also mirror the schism between Catholicism and Protestantism that took place within Christianity five-hundred years ago, when similarly ‘idolatrous’ images were brutally vandalised by the philistine foot-soldiers of sovereigns such as our very own Edward VI. Unusually, today’s accused vandal apologised for his actions and entered a guilty plea, though this won’t save him from an expected sentence of around 30 years.

Anyone who saw the appalling videos documenting the barbarians of ISIS when they rampaged through the glorious site of Nimrud in Iraq last year will feel little sympathy for Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi when he receives his sentence later this week. The discredited practice of nineteenth and twentieth century archaeologists shipping buried treasure from such sites to European museums now seems quite benevolent in the light of more recent acts of vandalism on the artefacts they left behind, preserving what would otherwise be lost forever when so many of these locations are situated in some of the world’s most perilous trouble-spots. The tumultuous events in Egypt over the past five years have even placed that nation’s prized possessions in danger, so any unlicensed ‘theft’ on the part of western archaeologists can appear considerably less like the colonial burglary that the ignorant and ill-educated are prone to pointing the finger at.

For the ICC to stage such a trial as the one that climaxed with the guilty verdict today is a positive development, a long-overdue recognition that the destruction of the planet’s cultural heritage is as criminal as all the other wanton destruction perpetuated by terrorist groups. Mind you, were those responsible for the similarly senseless erasure of architectural jewels in this country to be consigned the dock, The Hague wouldn’t be able to squeeze in any war criminals due to the town-planners and architects clogging up the courtroom. Their vandalism may be motivated by profit and greed rather than religious fanaticism, but the damage they leave in their wake is no less destructive.

What of men like Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and his Transport Secretary Ernest Marples, who ignored all schemes and suggestions to save London’s Euston Arch in the early 60s, when that landmark monument to the pioneering power of Britain’s nineteenth century railways was dismantled and discarded in favour of a faceless and forgettable facade for the new-look Euston Station? What of Bolton Corporation, who gave the green light to raise the superb Victorian Gothic majesty of St Saviour’s church to the ground in the 70s, an act of desecration that provoked one of architectural critic Ian Nairn’s most impassioned critiques when he stood in the ruins during one of his memorable BBC TV films of the era? Reading Nairn’s London guidebook (published in 1966), I became aware of the sheer volume of churches Christopher Wren built in the City of London, and while the Blitz was to blame of the disappearance of so many, ‘progress’ was equally responsible for finishing off what the Luftwaffe failed to do.

While there is a valid argument for not preserving every single building simply because it’s old, there is a fine line between unnecessary demolition and necessary redevelopment. It was only after the Euston Arch had been torn down, for example, that it was discovered that the new Euston Station would have had the space to simply relocate the monument elsewhere after all. Too late, alas – although there is an ongoing campaign to resurrect one of the capital’s great lost architectural achievements, thanks in part to the tireless investigations to locate the stones of the original monument by TV historian Dan Cruickshank.

We like to think that the worst of the demolition in the UK largely took place in the 60s and 70s, as though we’re somehow superior to our predecessors in recognising commercial interests over aesthetic ones when we see them today; but the sneaky tricks employed by the planners and developers in the twenty-first century are merely more cunning and less blatant than those employed in the twentieth, and they don’t need a Holy Book to justify their vandalism when it rips the heart out of a city centre. If only Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi had proposed replacing Timbuktu’s antiquities with a glass complex incorporating restaurants, cinemas, cafes, shops, bistros and various other ‘leisure facilities’, he might not now be looking at three decades behind bars.

© The Editor

DUBAI-BY-THE THAMES

UntitledPoet he may have been by trade, but John Betjeman’s other passion was for architecture; in post-war London, it was handy having someone with the kind of clout Betjeman possessed as the capital was consumed by a mania for finishing off a job the Luftwaffe had begun. Ironically, many of the historic buildings that survived the Blitz were obliterated from the London landscape within twenty years of VE Day and not a single German bomb was to blame. Horrified by the prevalence of the compulsory purchase order, Betjeman even penned a play in which Westminster Abbey was to be demolished by developers and replaced with a hideous shopping centre.

The disappearance of such notable landmarks as the Euston Arch and the Coal Exchange were condemned by Betjeman and the nascent Victorian Society in the media and the public were eventually brought on board when their own homes began to be swept away and replaced by Brutalist redevelopment schemes such as that in the Elephant and Castle. St Pancras was saved from the wrecking ball thanks to Betjeman’s passionate persistence, hence the statue of him that now stands inside the station, and the intended plans for Covent Garden that followed were scuppered by a movement that emanated from the residents themselves.

However, if the unpopular town planning facelifts of the 60s and 70s are looked back on with a shudder, the fact remains that the merciless march of the developers has continued to this day, albeit free from the negative publicity that plagued each successive scheme of forty and fifty years ago. Concrete is an especially unlovable building material, but concrete was not to blame for past mistakes; today’s redevelopers have learnt from the errors of their predecessors and prefer to coat their constructions in glass – glass, glass, endless bloody glass. When rules were laid down to prevent the vanishing view of St Paul’s dome from the skyline, the luxury of being able to see one of the capital’s great sites from various locations was not applied to similar historical edifices. The commercial pressure upon London Corporation to relax tough planning regulations that were instigated for good reasons has resulted in the dramatic aesthetic transformation of the city when seen from a distance.

According to the ‘Nooks and Corners’ section of ‘Private Eye’ (a column originally written by Betjeman), London Mayor Boris Johnson has used his position to intervene in disputes between developers and local authorities no less than 13 times, with each occasion seeing Bo-Jo favour the developers. While the first flowering of skyscrapers in the capital were congregated in the City of London and Canary Wharf, Johnson and his predecessor Red Ken consistently gave the green light to the erection of several glass hard-ons along the river that have sprung up with worrying regularity over the past decade, usually appearing quickly without much in the way of prior public consultation, and have altered the visual character of the city as a consequence.

The latest proposed carbuncle, coming in the wake of the Shard, is intended to tower 72 storeys above Paddington, even though buildings in the relatively low-level borough of the City of Westminster are supposedly limited to just 20 storeys. No prizes for guessing the identity of the exterior material or the additional features to what will apparently be a residential block – shops, cafes, restaurants, the odd cinema, anyone? London is a city suffering from a chronic housing crisis, though I suspect the product of a hotel-owning firm from Singapore will probably not be intended as social housing. It seems a consumerist society can cope with the constant defacing of its capital city as long as money can be spent. Most discredited buildings in the 60s were office blocks or housing schemes – another lesson learnt.

The common assumption today is that listing a building spares it from redevelopment, but sometimes the tactic is exploited; because a building is listed, nobody can touch it unless it is deliberately allowed to slide into dereliction. Then it becomes regarded as a threat to public safety, a fire often breaks out that does enough damage to leave demolition the cheaper option to renovation, and before you know it a brand new glass erection is earmarked for the site – one containing numerous chain-store retail outlets, naturally.

The world-famous Smithfield Market in Farringdon is not only the oldest surviving wholesale market site in the capital (having being in operation from the 10th century), but since the relocation of Billingsgate, Covent Garden and Spitalfields, it remains the last in central London. This vast Victorian complex has been threatened with redevelopment over the last couple of decades, mainly the General Market and Red House buildings, which have been empty for several years.

As things stand, the future of Smithfield remains in the balance as competing interests jostle for the attention of London Corporation; one scheme proposed in 2012 involved the replacement of the vacant buildings with a predictable package boasting all the usual leisure facilities, whereas an alternative use for the General Market building was put forward by the Museum of London, vacating their site at the Barbican if they can raise the funds by 2021.

While the more famous London locations facing an uncertain future understandably grab the headlines, there are dozens of less celebrated sites that are poised to vanish as the go-ahead is quietly given with the minimum amount of pre-publicity – neglected Georgian and Victorian leftovers alike, situated in unfashionable neighbourhoods and discreetly off the beaten path. It is such odd, cockeyed constructions that have always helped give London its distinctive character, something it has retained against all odds. The Blitz not only saw the loss of thousands of homes, but several notable public buildings; yet, the battle that has raged since 1945, one of commerce Vs heritage, big bucks Vs beauty, The Man Vs the public, has changed the capital in ways even Goering could never have imagined. Our unique and eccentric little London could well be indistinguishable from Brasilia before we know it.


OF MOUNTAINS AND MOLEHILLS

TrumpTrump fails to turn hype into votes during US Presidential nominations! Cameron hails EU negotiations as major success! English football’s transfer deadline day sees no major signings by Premier League clubs! Google pays its taxes – or does it? Dakota Johnson and Leslie Mann (who?) hit on male interviewer in a way that two male Hollywood ‘stars’ hitting on female interviewer would lead to online assassination and public apology! The big question is do you give a shit?

Unless you’re an American citizen, the tedious marathon of a Presidential circus that makes a UK General Election resemble a one-minute mile means bugger all at this moment in time. You have no say, no vote, no influence; it’s the political equivalent of a prick-teasing lap-dancer and you’re the hapless punter who can look but not touch. Not that coverage over here makes that clear, however. It may have escaped your attention, but there was recently an election in Canada, where the son of a former celebrated Canadian Prime Minister was elected as the country’s leader for the first time; yes, America’s neighbours actually voted a new man into office rather than choosing which candidate is going to run for office at the end of the year. Not that the historical triumph of Justin Trudeau received much notice in Blighty, despite Canada’s Commonwealth connection to the Mother Country, something America severed 240 years ago.

Naturally, it goes without saying that the USA’s superpower status ensures its every political move will generate international headlines; but there does seem to be an obsession with US politics on this side of the pond that far outweighs the significance they have here. The ludicrous campaign to ban Donald Trump from setting foot on British soil attributed an importance to the loutish egomaniac with the silly hair that he really doesn’t deserve when he hasn’t even been nominated as the Republican Party’s Presidential candidate; those who launched the initial online petition to ban him were simply unknowing participants in his own PR machine. But we have a full year of similar headlines to look forward to as all of Britain’s media outlets allocate their political coverage to every twist and turn of a race that the British public can only watch from afar.

The non-event of the US Presidential saga, along with the non-event of Cameron’s EU ‘victory’, the non-event of football transfer deadline day, the non-event of the tax-avoiding juggling of a mega-corporation and the non-event of every showbiz story involving people few under 25 have even heard of perhaps demonstrates why this year’s remarkable run of famous deaths has dominated front pages and bulletins. The opportunity to wallow in a little nostalgia for past eras in which colossal figures bestrode a cultural landscape that was crowded with heavyweights whose impact still resonate serves as a welcome distraction from the here today/gone tomorrow teacups gently rattling courtesy of Storm Henry.

The need to sensationalise by elevating minor incidents to major events and thus engineering interest in them is a tactic that the newsprint media in particular has excelled at in recent years. Online competition has also led to TV news adopting similar hysteria when it isn’t warranted by using the methods of the advertising industry; just as the Mad Men can apply psychological trickery to persuade the people they desperately need something they actually don’t, news agencies now sell us stories that our lives would apparently be empty without knowledge of. I don’t know about you, but God knows how I would’ve got through the last 24 hours without them…

© The Editor