Tuesday, 23 February 2016
Southampton city centre has suffered badly from several rounds of brutal attention.
First, from the Luftwaffe, when the town took a pasting in the Blitz of 1940. Then, from the post-War town planners and developers, who – unlike their counterparts in France and Germany – decided not to restore the glories of the city's former mercantile architectural heritage, but replaced everything with the sort of boxy, cheap, half-hearted concrete structures you will find in any British town centre anywhere.
Then, when these brutalist constructions began to rot and the neglected pre-War buildings became expensively dilapidated, the planners came back for a second pass, bulldozed everything between the blocks of high-rise flats, and filled the spaces with high-density housing, multi-storey car-parks, and shopping malls, with the result that the few surviving mediaeval and Tudor buildings now look oddly out of place, like Disneyfied theme pubs on a housing estate.
Finally, in recent years the heritage ironists have moved in, putting "fun" installations into any remaining windy public spaces, and fixing interpretation boards onto the brooding remnants of the mediaeval city walls. Walls where few tourists ever walk, because although many tourists arrive in Southampton by boat, most stay no longer than it takes to catch a taxi or a train. Why would they? What is there to see?
The British may be rightly accused of many things, but an excess of civic pride is not one of them. And the curious thing is, that's just the way I like it. What is more sterile, or more stifling, than one of those prettified European city-centres beloved of tourists, with their hanging baskets and quaintly-animated chiming clock-towers, and oppressive sense of orderliness? The French may have no word for "entrepreneur", according to at least one authority, but they can lay fair claim to "bourgeois".