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





Anal JourneysDavid Warner, Bernard Cribbins, Nichelle Nichols – they’re dropping like flies again; and in tandem with the passing of familiar famous faces whose finest performances evoke inevitable nostalgia, a purely unrelated excursion on my part has involved delving into a retro-scented environment as redolent of a disappearing world as those dearly departed characters were. Over the past month, I’ve followed a route carved-out by navvies more than 200 years ago and ended up at a landmark George Orwell immortalised in 1937, despite the fact even he arrived too late to catch the decrepit remnants of an old music-hall gag. A lengthy post-war restoration of our man-made waterways has perhaps neutered their industrial origins, yet a wooden jetty erected to assist the loading of coal onto working barges was labelled a pier as an ironic dig at a town sorely lacking in the gaudy glamour that the coastal escape routes offered the colliers whose booty the vanished edifice was once weighed down by. The fact a functional construction was jokingly compared to a seaside stalwart highlights how the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, upon which the actual Wigan Pier stood, was very much a workplace for the majority of its existence, something it’s easy to forget when one strolls beside it today.

The Canal cuts a sublime swathe across the Pennines for 127 miles, and almost half-a-century ago a small segment of it provided yours truly with a picturesque playground during seemingly endless school holidays; back then, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was on my doorstep, and improvised summer outings along the towpath left a lifelong love of the location it’s been nice to revive. This time round I’ve followed that path on the other side of the geographical divide, however, with the starting point being the West Lancashire town of Burscough. Although less than 10 miles from Wigan, walking all the way using the Canal as a route is a method of getting from A to B that consciously makes journey’s end something to prolong. Unlike the internal combustion engine – rendering the journey itself an inconvenience to be got through as quickly as possible – when one walks along a canal, it’s all about the journey rather than the destination. In terms of reaching the finishing post, it’s far more tortoise than hare. Leisurely is the word.

Indeed, the leisurely pace of a canal trek is something that again emphasises the changing purpose of this country’s waterway network. When barges are sighted on canals today, nine out of ten times they’re either pleasure cruisers or alternative dwellings for the eccentric; the former come and go as must-have accessories, with the barges belonging to some of the more faddish wannabe shipping magnates betraying their sell-by dates via their shabby, neglected state as they sit permanently moored and gathering dust. Of course, if the more zealous members of the green lobby get their way, a century from now we may well see road vehicles as we now see canal vessels; perhaps a visitation of future transport-for-all came courtesy of the occasional cyclists along the canal path that required rather tiresome standing aside at certain points of the route. At least some cyclists had bells on their bikes to warn pedestrians they were creeping up from behind, whereas others exhibited the same entitled arrogance the revamped Highway Code has misguidedly legitimised on the roads. Either way, the mess that tyres have made of the path is something that a drop of rain can exacerbate, making the journey on foot one in which veering too close to the edge is even more ill-advised.

Actually, any rainfall that took place didn’t occur whilst I was walking the towpath; I was fortunate that each leg of this journey was staged on days when the sun had got his hat on. As if to underline the prosaic nature of the trek, the walk from Burscough to Wigan was undertaken in isolated episodes spread over several weeks. Also, a pattern was established whereby the end of every stage would then see the immediate retracing of steps after a drink and bite to eat; for example, stage one was from Burscough to the village of Parbold, though once this said hamlet had been reached it was then followed by backtracking to Burscough (where the car was parked). Stage two on a different day began at Parbold and went all the way to the commuter village of Appley Bridge; when that was achieved, a return visit to Parbold was then in order – and so on. Stage three: Appley Bridge to Gathurst, a district of the township of Shevington; and stage four consisted of Gathurst to Wigan. The inspiration for this undertaking was the late, great Ian Nairn, whose 1972 trilogy of documentaries for the BBC saw him travel from London to Manchester by road, Manchester to Leeds by canal, and Leeds to Edinburgh by rail. The canal seemed the more economic option in these cost-of-living crisis days, not to mention providing a suitably serene travelling experience.

Certain sections of the route were marked by blissful vortexes of natural quiet, often spanning a good ten-fifteen minutes without sight or sound of another human being or the noise pollution of traffic. Indeed, it was these sedate passages that most evoked childhood memories; there’s something inescapably calming about a location with an abundance of wild flowers on one side and water on the other that taps into an impression of summer as seen through a child’s eyes as much as the mellifluous commentary of John Arlott transmitting on Long Wave represents the season’s sound in the imagination. Other than cyclists, the only interruption would come via the occasional fisherman positioned by the side of the canal or the odd dog-walker and his/her canine companion. Long periods of untouched nature would be periodically intruded upon by affluent settlements – old tied cottages refurbished for the nouveau riche and new-builds attempting to blend in to the surroundings, with the regular incursion of archaic coaching inns remodelled as gastro-pubs making the most of having survived both the smoking ban and lockdown. All of these somehow seemed integral to the landscape, however; even a motorway bridge that crossed the canal during the stage with Gathurst as its finishing post could be admired as a feat of engineering as impressive as the canal itself rather than an unwelcome 20th century gate-crasher.

When the end of the line was eventually reached, I experienced a similar sense of anticlimax as Eric Blair himself must have felt 85 years ago; where be Wigan Pier? Well, the site that bears that famous name today largely consists of several expensive-looking ‘luxury apartments’ or work units that sadly stand unoccupied. In a way, this serves as a melancholy metaphor for the town of Wigan itself. A cursory online exploration reveals a settlement that Ian Nairn particularly praised in the 1960s as a fine example of a thriving Northern enclave that had transcended its industrial roots once boasted a characteristic Victorian market hall that embodied the spirit of the place. Alas, like many such locations during a period in which town councillors became drunk on the unrealisable visions of town planners, Wigan suffered from over-ambition, and even the ‘Casino’ that put Northern Soul on the map in the 70s has long since fallen beneath the dubious wrecking-ball of progress.

My previous visit to Wigan – only in the dying days of 2021 – found the old market’s replacement still open to the public, even if most of the shops housed in it were closed for business; seven months later, the entire area has been boarded-up and blocked-off; ‘1989’ is the giveaway year of its erection imprinted in the architecture, though the fact the town’s beating heart was swept away to accommodate a misguided attempt at urban regeneration was mirrored in the plethora of lunchtime pissheads and mobility scooters for the clinically obese that left the saddest impression on the visitor. Thankfully, the established order of my canal trek meant a dispiriting Wigan was followed by a return to the less-depressing environs of Gathurst. Overall, though, the lingering impact of an impromptu journey was of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal itself as opposed to the town at the end of it. The timeless appeal of this country’s unsung waterways remains unpolluted by ‘progress’, and as a method of seeing the country in a refreshingly alternate light, I can’t think of anything better.

© The Editor





Nairn 1Retracing the steps of the late, great architectural critic Ian Nairn is a tricky proposition that one has to plot carefully; take it too far and you’d end up drinking yourself to death as the man himself did at the age of 52 in 1983. His fondness for the public house, about which he wrote with such eloquent verve (especially in his classic 1966 guide to the capital, ‘Nairn’s London’), proved to be his downfall, bringing to a premature end a career that illuminated both the printed page and the television screen in the 60s and 70s. A superbly witty, poetic and passionate writer on architecture and environment, Nairn had sprung to prominence in the mid-50s with his acclaimed ‘Outrage’ edition of the ‘Architectural Review’ magazine, establishing the concept of Subtopia as a dreary development on the post-war landscape and adding his name to the list of the decade’s Angry Young Men.

Although the criminally few books he authored are worth investing in as an example of his skills, the majority of his writing could be found in the Observer in the 60s and then the Sunday Times in the 70s. By this time, he’d also begun a TV career, presenting several idiosyncratic, eccentric and thought-provoking series for the BBC that showcased him as a highly original and refreshingly individual voice. Nairn as a presenter is not a television natural, but his emotional response to the always-intriguing and never-obvious locations he chose to introduce to the viewer can be a compelling experience. His often lugubrious demeanour depended upon whether or not filming took place before or after opening hours, but when his hackles are raised by a depressingly predictable piece of ill-advised town planning characteristic of the era, it regularly appears as though he’s poised to burst into tears, so incensed is he by the loss of a building he evidently adores.

Buildings like the quirky Emporium Arcade in Northampton, which he praised and regarded as worthy of preservation, were swept away despite his pleas; and perhaps the most moving moment of his TV output came when he stood in the gutted carcass of Bolton’s St Saviour church and railed against the men responsible for its imminent demolition. ‘We talk about football vandalism,’ he says in quivering tones. ‘I don’t quite know how you would categorise the vandalism of the yobbos who did this; it makes me ashamed to be part of the same branch of biology.’ It’s as though the ruination of what he describes as one of the town’s ‘most noblest churches’ is the final blow to any hope he still harboured, reducing him to a tragic, Lear-like figure, close to breakdown as he roams from one wasteland to another. It’s rare to see a man’s soul laid bare in such a manner, and when it seemed so many of his heartfelt pleas to the developers to think again constantly fell on deaf ears, it’s reasonable to theorise – as many have – that his weariness with fighting a losing battle accelerated his slide into terminal alcoholism.

The segment in St Saviour church was part of a series Nairn presented in which he visited six unfashionable destinations more familiar as names on a pools coupon than for their architecture; each programme was a game of two halves as he contrasted a pair of ‘football towns’ by selecting places in them that he regarded as notable and interesting. The Bolton edition was coupled with a visit to Preston, with Nairn beginning at the North End home of its historical football club and then working his way into the town centre. Having watched this edition numerous times over the years – and so few of his TV programmes are available that one tends to view the same small number – I found myself in Preston last week, and it was inevitable I sought out the locations he had highlighted, wondering whether or not they’d improved or deteriorated in the half-century that had elapsed since his visit.

Although Preston is now officially a city, it still has the feel of a classic provincial town built on 19th century industry, albeit one with the ambition that eventually resulted in its promotion to that of metropolis. That ambition can be seen in the Guild Hall, a modern (1972) building Nairn singled out as a fine example of Preston’s refusal to rest on its Victorian laurels. Much of the original redbrick exterior of the Guild Hall has subsequently been clad in wood to perhaps bring it into line with contemporary tastes, though the confidence the building exudes, one that so caught Nairn’s eye, remains. Nairn’s judgement was never clouded by simple nostalgia; he was just as eager to celebrate the best of the new as he was to preserve the best of the old, and his enthusiasm for Preston’s modernist bus station is typical of how he could see the good in an edifice many traditionalists might have greeted with disdain. Bar one or two alterations to the outside, the dramatic sweeping concrete curves housing the multi-storey car-park above the bus station are intact.

Amongst Preston’s ‘heritage’ buildings to have happily survived is its distinctive market hall, which Nairn rightly praised due to its half-in/half-out appearance, with the cast iron roof protruding out into the street and open to the elements; a collection of market stalls which stood on the pedestrianised square in front of the town’s impressive slice of classic Victorian civic pride, the Harris Art Gallery and Museum, has now gone; but the square itself – including a towering cenotaph – seems largely untouched. When Nairn was there, the town centre was undergoing the introduction of a frustrating one-way system, which appears to discourage the sightseer from travelling around it as a motorist; the best way to really explore the place, as Nairn discovered, is on foot. And one of the best things about Preston from the point of view of the pedestrian is the fact that all the areas Nairn visited are within a short walking distance of each other. A side-street off the main shopping thoroughfare, which is now wholly pedestrianised, leads to a unique public square – a ‘sunken’ one.

Rather than the flat, neat Georgian squares one associates with London, Winkley Square was deliberately not levelled out and left as nature intended. A tranquil little oasis that provides office workers with a bucolic interlude from the urban hustle and bustle, it serves as a prelude to what is probably Preston’s best-kept secret just round the corner – and this was a location Nairn only gives a brief glimpse of on screen. For all the current (and clueless) fashion for portraying the Victorians as one-dimensional imperial heathens, there’s no disputing the lasting legacy they left on Britain’s best towns and cities, none more so than one of their most necessary innovations intended to be enjoyed by everyone, the public park; and Preston’s Avenham Park is one of the finest in the land. Outside of the capital, it’s quite unusual to find such a vast green space smack bang in a city centre rather than out in the suburbs, and the mere snippet that appears on Nairn’s ‘Football Towns’ series gives no real indication of the sheer scale of that space when one actually sets foot in it. It’s also clear from the 1970s programme that a good deal of loving restoration has taken place since the great man took a look at it; an imposing statue of three-times 19th century Lancastrian Prime Minister the Earl of Derby is included in the roll-call of sights to see, and the longest-serving leader of any British political party (22 years) did set me wondering if statues of any current party leaders might one day grace such a space. Somehow, I doubt it.

Ian Nairn ends his summary of Preston and Bolton by recommending the viewer makes the effort to visit these neglected towns and I’m pleased to say that, 30-odd years after my initial viewing of the programme, I finally made the effort. I may have been standing on the shoulders of a giant, but I did so sober, and the Gods shone down on me with an early burst of spring sunshine that made the jaunt all the more memorable. I can think of worse ways to spend a weekend.

© The Editor




Along with Burnley and Blackburn, Bolton is one of those old industrial towns whose name is impossible to pronounce without slipping into the kind of antiquated Lancastrian linguistics that nobody under 50 in the vicinity probably uses now. For an outsider of a certain age, it’s hard to resist saying the name of the town as ‘Bowl-ton’, as was a hallmark of the ‘Coronation Street’ character of the 1960s and early 70s, Jerry Booth – as well as the much-missed steeplejack Fred Dibnah. I often do so as a means of gently ribbing my 14-year-old niece, who happens to be a native of the town. She doesn’t speak that way herself and I suspect few do there now anyway. When the late great architectural critic Ian Nairn visited Bolton in 1975 as part of his ‘Football Towns’ series, he opened his programme on the terraces of Burnden Park, original home of Bolton Wanderers, the football club that helped put the town on the national map. Three times FA Cup winners and until relatively recently a solid Premier League presence, the club has experienced tricky times of late, almost going out of business last year and currently languishing in the basement tier of English football, League Two (that’s the Fourth Division in old money).

Ian Nairn’s journey around Bolton town centre saw him give the thumbs-up to the newly-pedestrianised area in front of the Victorian Town Hall and the recent addition of the Octagon Theatre, though he was less impressed with the Arndale Centre, a bland new shopping precinct characteristic of the era; he did conclude, however, that in comparison to other town centres, ‘the twentieth century has treated it quite kindly’. Nairn reserved his ire for what Bolton had done to its architectural heritage in terms of houses of worship; his incandescent sermon in the ruins of St Saviour, a 19th century church in the process of demolition, is perhaps his finest and most moving moment on camera as he struggles to contain his distraught fury at the wreckage before him. ‘We talk about football vandalism,’ he says. ‘I don’t quite know how you would categorise the vandalism of the yobbos who did this. It makes me ashamed to be part of the same branch of biology.’

Ian Nairn made the short trek to neighbouring Preston after his emotional sojourn in Bolton; his programme captured both towns in transition. As with his similar examination of Northampton a couple of years previously, he found places that had been built around a profitable industry that was now in terminal decline, places that were desperate to catch a piece of the contemporary action without really grasping the potential of urban renewal. In the case of Bolton, a town that was once the international epicentre of cotton spinning, Nairn was visiting just as the entire industry was winding-up for good. He had missed its peak years by a good five decades, with 1920s Bolton boasting over 200 cotton mills. For such towns that grew on the backs of businesses that were effectively redundant by the 1980s – and I’d include those fuelled by mining in that – finding an identity and trying to stop the rot has proven to be a difficult task ever since.

Bolton has followed a familiar path in the wake of its traditional industry’s decline, embracing the intellectually-stimulating world of call centres, IT companies and so-called service-based businesses; perhaps the sole old-school business remaining is the Warburtons bakery, a firm that has looked favourably upon Brexit; this stance places it in tune with Bolton West, which voted Leave in the 2016 EU Referendum, but out of step with the Remain constituencies of Bolton North East and Bolton South East. A prominent pro-Brexit business at least gives the town something of its own personality when, having been swallowed-up into Greater Manchester along with fellow Lancashire towns like Oldham, Rochdale, Wigan and other pools coupon names, Bolton could otherwise have the feel of yet another faceless suburb of the metropolitan behemoth on its doorstep.

However, the main reason I use Bolton here is as an example of a town that is today suffering more than most under the draconian restrictions brought about by the Government’s ineffective and doomed strategies to combat Covid-19. Lockdown tactics were intended to be eased in Greater Manchester last week, though this has been abandoned in favour of reintroducing all the tougher measures that made life such fun earlier in the summer. A rise in reported coronavirus cases was inevitable as soon as the more severe rules and regulations were relaxed, yet this is evidently a pattern that will endlessly repeat itself from now on with no end in sight. Pubs, cafés and restaurants in Bolton are back to offering a limited takeaway service and the good folk of Bolton can no longer socialise beyond the borders of their own homes once more.

Matt Hancock lays the blame of Bolton’s high number of Covid cases at the door of those in their 20s and 30s; apparently contact tracers cite several public houses where the spread of the coronavirus has been significant. The Health Secretary has now imposed strict opening hours on Bolton hospitality venues whereby they will be forced to close between 10pm and 5am; visiting restrictions where care homes are concerned will also be revived. Bolton Council had pre-empted Hancock’s announcement at the weekend, proclaiming it would be reverting to the previous measures with immediate effect, informing the citizens of Bolton they can no longer mix and mingle with people from other households either indoors or outdoors and should avoid public transport unless ‘essential’ – and this coming at a time when the Government is now telling everyone they need to return to the workplace ASAP; what – an enclosed space full of strangers from a different household that one has to get to by travelling on a bus full of strangers from a different household? No wonder a population successfully terrified by Project Fear isn’t buying into it.

One could say the decline in the death toll in recent months has proven that the lockdown and all its subsequent spin-offs have worked; but the death toll was never medieval Black Death levels, anyway. Those who were at risk in the beginning remain at risk now, and that was always going to be the case. Of course they need to be protected and the focus should to be on the most vulnerable in the event of a ‘second wave’ just as it should have been at the start of the pandemic. Apparently, the average age of the majority of actual fatalities related to Covid-19 is 82, and the average life expectancy in the UK is between 79 and 83, depending if you’re male or female. Therefore, the appalling failure to prioritise care homes back in the spring remains the best example of how the response from Government has been wholly inadequate.

It should be possible to question and criticise this without being instantly bracketed alongside serial conspiracy fruitcakes like David Icke and Piers Corbyn. It should be possible to question and criticise the mixed messages of social engagement in ‘the new normal’, the dubious wisdom of mask-wearing, and the incalculable damage to both the economy and the future mental wellbeing of the populace without being shot down. Placing hopes in the rushing through of a barely-tested vaccine feels futile, and what Bolton is currently being subjected to will surely simply keep on happening over and over again in different parts of the country if we continue to pursue policies that are clearly unsustainable. At the moment, we appear to be trapped in a Groundhog Day of a nightmare it seems none of us are ever going to wake up from. We all in live Bolton now.

© The Editor


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


1956A culture that appears to have its best years behind it can often be defined by its anniversaries, and every twelve months now brings a glut of them, each serving to remind the observer of the present day’s cultural impoverishment. Take this year’s line-up: forty years since ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and the snotty eruption of Punk; fifty since ‘Revolver’ and the genesis of Psychedelia; sixty since rock ‘n’ roll went over-ground with the chart debut of Elvis Presley. Perhaps 1956 stands as a more significant year than either 1966 or 1976 for it was, in many respects, the lift-off moment of the culture we are forever marking the respective anniversaries of today.

The impact of John Osborne’s ‘Look Back in Anger’ at the Royal Court Theatre, debuting sixty years ago on this very day, was a bombshell that can easily be (and regularly has been) cited as the turning point away from Britain’s immediate post-war malaise, though its impact isn’t always put into context. Too often in an era that can only judge the past by contemporary standards that are irrelevant to it, Osborne’s ‘angry young man’ Jimmy Porter is portrayed as a ranting, nasty misogynist. That Porter takes no prisoners – particularly when the claustrophobia of his grubby rented flat transforms his wife into a manifestation of everything he regards as wrong with the state of the world outside his window – is today held up as something that dates the play, whereas to me there is a refreshing squeamish-free honesty to Porter’s vitriol. Any objections to it now say more about 2016 than 1956, highlighting the new limitations upon what can and can’t be said in polite society that have simply superseded the ones Osborne railed against.

The influence of ‘Look Back in Anger’ spread way beyond the cosseted confines of the theatre and acted as a lightning rod for other cultural earthquakes in a country that Osborne himself later remembered as akin to a sleepy village in the mid-50s. 1956 also saw both the last disastrous hurrah of the old Imperial Britain with the Suez debacle and the introduction of Premium Bonds, a pointer to a future Britain that chose consumerism over colonialism. Between 1950 and 1960, the average wage trebled to £14 10 /- a week, and by the end of the 50s, three-quarters of British homes had a television set. The retrospective rose-tinted memory of 1950s Britain as a quaint little Ambridge theme park, one nostalgically evoked by the likes of 1990s Prime Minister John Major, was certainly not the 1950s Britain of Harold Macmillan as the country’s first true consumer boom took hold.

The democratised affluence that appeared to be changing the country for the better required a neat sound-bite to summarise it, and in July 1957, Harold Macmillan made a speech that contained one of the most paraphrased political slogans of all time, one that served to encapsulate the mood of the moment in a way few politicians’ utterances have before or since.

‘Let us be frank about it,’ he puffed. ‘Most of our people have never had it so good. Go around the country; go to the industrial towns; go to the farms; and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime, nor indeed ever in the history of this country.’

However, not everyone was impressed with this view of the country. There is a montage sequence in the 1962 film of Alan Sillitoe’s short story, ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’, in which the lead character’s mother embarks upon a spending spree when the insurance money following the death of her husband comes through. As she and her younger children excitedly blitz the shops, Tom Courtenay’s Colin looks on with thinly-veiled contempt. Indeed, when he is handed his own share of his father’s legacy, he proceeds to burn the money. When Arthur Seaton, the antihero of Sillitoe’s 1958 novel, ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, was memorably brought to the screen in 1960 by Albert Finney, the character’s response to the superficial benefits of the consumer boom was sneering disdain, especially at how it had impacted on his own parents – ‘Me mam and dad have got a television set and a packet of fags,’ he snarled, ‘but they’re both dead from the neck up.’

That these observations on the zeitgeist emanated from the North of England was no coincidence; the new affluence of Macmillan’s Britain was not regionalised as Mrs Thatcher’s would be, but time-honoured traditions were more cherished and held dear in the old industrial towns, and any dramatic alteration in everyday habits could often be viewed with suspicion. The intellectual Left had a particular gripe with the way in which commercial television and the rampant consumerism it had inspired was changing the character of the country. The same year as Macmillan declared the nation had never had it so good, Leeds-born academic Richard Hoggart published ‘The Uses of Literacy’, a landmark study of how the authentic urban British culture that had defined each region of the country and given it its own unique identity – a culture that celebrated the dignity of labour, one in which financial security was a reward for a good day’s work and the Church still governed social morality in the best possible sense – was being eroded.

Hoggart viewed ‘Americanised’ popular culture as dictated by the likes of broadcasting newcomer ITV, or the elevation of acquisitiveness encouraged by Premium Bonds and Green Shield Stamps, to be a damaging dumbing-down process long before such a phrase had even been coined. Hoggart believed the imposition of a certain kind of popular culture on the public by the mass media was in danger of homogenising the nation, an opinion that was a remarkably visionary one to air as far back as 1957.

But Hoggart was not alone. Passionate architectural critic Ian Nairn published a scathing attack on the post-war British landscape in a 1955 edition of ‘The Architectural Review’, titled Outrage! Nairn invented ‘Subtopia’ as a derogatory description of the new urban town-planning he saw as robbing towns and cities of their individual identity, making every corner of the country resemble the other, a ‘massification’ of Britain’s visual makeup as corrosive as the new popular culture Richard Hoggart railed against. Both Nairn and Hoggart’s prophetic critiques were violently at odds with Harold Macmillan’s viewpoint; but more than half-a-century later, in an age of indistinguishable, identikit towns crammed with the same chain-stores and home to an enslaved populace whose tastes are dictated by a select few controlling the mass media as well as their creature comforts, these prescient warnings from the past have remained criminally unheeded.

1956 may be a long way from 2016, but the desperate need to make people sit up, open their eyes and think seems more important now than it did then. Where be the Osbornes, Sillitoes, Hoggarts and Nairns, though?

© The Editor