Wednesday, 18 May 2016
The pair of particularly chummy-looking lions bookending this post guard the doorway of a terraced house in Brighton. Their scruffy, neglected air is very typical of the British urban landscape, and I am increasingly interested in such remnants of an older Britain, one where imperial motifs were freely used, unironically, as decoration on the most unpretentious buildings. You expect to see this sort of thing in central London, but it turns up everywhere once you start noticing; at least, anywhere where there are still buildings remaining from before WW2.
Even by the 1930s, the British Empire was not an uncontested subject, and certainly outmoded as a decorative theme. As early as 1926, for example, the Labour Party had passed a motion to end the celebration of "Empire Day" (May 24th), though it was only finally abolished in 1958. However, if you enter "Empire Day" into a Google Image search (and ignore all the Star Wars images) you get a strong taste of what we might call "the old, weird Britain", with Empire-themed dressing up for schoolchildren and rampant union flag fetishisation. I think what intrigues me is the way such a powerful ideology – once so central to our national identity, for good or ill – has faded so completely from living memory, despite the persistence of its relics on our streets, like the symbology of some forgotten religion. Unlike the "Lenin parks" of ex-Soviet Bloc countries, where ranks of redundant mustachioed statuary can find a home, we either sling the stuff in a skip, or just leave it lying around.
There has been a fair bit of attention paid recently to Ian Nairn, and the 60th anniversary of his concept of "subtopia" – the alleged erosion of a distinctive sense of place in Britain by careless, anonymous urban planning – as proposed in his book Outrage, published in 1956. As Nairn's glum, end-to-end survey of England started out here in Southampton, those reviewing or repeating his work have also tended to start here; typically, a recent BBC Radio 4 programme had someone stand on top of a city-centre multi-storey carpark in order to bemoan the quality of the view. Really? I mean, is there a city-centre carpark anywhere that gives onto the sort of vista that gladdens the heart? And even if there is, who cares?*
But, as it happens, I am very fond of our ugly, palimpsestic British streets. If you travel in Europe, you are immediately struck by how uniquely ugly our own town-centres are, with their filthy, multilayered, ill-matched and ill-fitting facades, and "here today, gone tomorrow" acceptance of their own ephemerality. Think of a typical shop: once it was a tailor's – the proud proprietorial sign is still engraved in stone above the door – then a branch of a chain of clothing stores; then it was a series of three unsuccessful restaurants; then for five years an electronics supplies shop, handy for replacement cables; briefly it became a place you could buy tacky mobile phone accessories; now it's an empty, shuttered space, plastered in grafitti and fly-posters, awaiting its next incarnation, or possibly demolition. Vestigial evidence of each of its previous existences still hangs around in the form of bits of old signage, rows of rawlplugged screw holes, traces of paint, and protruding wires and brackets. Yes, it's "ugly", but I really don't mind. I am fascinated by the way older British high streets openly wear their history, like a sleeve of tattoos. True, this fascination is probably compounded by having come of age during that first wave of nostalgia for the authenticity of Old Stuff.
There are a couple of particularly splendid examples of these Empire leftovers on Shirley High Street, Southampton, which I keep meaning to record before they finally vanish. They're a pair of full-on imperial lions-banners-and-Britannia mouldings in a niche situated on the brick facade above the plate-glass of two shopfronts, one currently a cut-price goods market (the sort of cheap stuff that would once have been described as "Empire made"), the other an upscale Indian restaurant. Now there's irony for you! But I think I'm probably going to need a step-ladder to get the picture.
* And if you've ever tried to manoeuvre a large vehicle round one of those labyrinthine French underground multi-storey carparks, you'll appreciate the airy roominess of the British equivalent. Though my kids used to love the way the shiny, grippy texture of the flooring they use down there makes tyres turning a tight corner at 5 m.p.h. squeal like a Hollywood car-chase.