Friday, 13 October 2017

Solent Soul Suite

For some time, I've been intending to produce a series of works that have something to say about Southampton and the Solent region. Now, I have strong emotional connections to various locations – most obviously North Hertfordshire and East Anglia where I grew up, Oxford, Norwich, Bristol, and parts of London where I studied and worked, and various habitual holiday destinations such as mid-Wales and Dorset – but I have actually spent most of my adult life in Southampton. I moved here at the age of 30 in pursuit of a job in 1984, and have been here ever since. In fact, since 2014 over half of my life has been lived in Southampton, and yet I would never think of the place as "home". Indeed, I rarely find myself thinking of "my" city as a place at all.

Why? Because, despite its location, size, population*, and historic and economic importance, it seems to lack the strength of identity that other, comparable cities have. It is certainly no Liverpool or Glasgow, though it probably once might have been; it is not even a Brighton, or a Winchester, smaller places with stronger characters. It has more in common with those large, long-established but anonymous dormitories around London like Reading, Basingstoke, or Luton: endless streets of Victorian housing, 1930s semis, and could-be-anywhere estates and high-rises shading into a town centre ruined by insensitive post-war development and hermetic shopping malls dreamed up in some architect's office in London.

Of course, places like Liverpool and Glasgow are like this, too, but have nonetheless built and kept something extra: let's call it a soul. So why, then, have I stayed here so long? As an old friend bluntly wondered out loud recently. The best answers I could come up with were:
  • Having got a decent job here in 1984, I ran out of ambition when our son was born in 1991.
  • I wanted to give my kids the experience of growing up in one town, something I had (and valued), and my partner hadn't.
  • We could afford a house here, but not in more congenial places within commutable distance of London like Winchester. (My partner's London-based career took off just around the time mine stalled; I usually say her star was on the rise, but mine chose to stay in bed).
  • It's situated within range of interesting South Coast landscapes, and is not Portsmouth.
  • Did I say it's not Portsmouth?
  • Inertia. Inertia. Inertia.

Part of the problem is the isolation of the city as a whole from its main source of prosperity, the port. The docks are like a thin, hard shell, a few hundred yards deep at most, formed around the city like a chemical reaction where it makes contact with the water, and sealed off on the landward side by railway lines and high, razor-wire topped fences. You could be forgiven for not even knowing the docks were there, were it not for the clusters of gigantic cranes that can be seen from miles away, and which loom at the end of any street heading downhill towards Southampton Water. Another clue is the endless traffic of container-lorries and car-transporters heading in and out of town from the motorway (apparently more cars are exported from Southampton than any other port in the country). Oh, and then there's the sudden dearth of taxis at the railway station when one of the big luxury cruise-liners is in port.

So, my self-imposed challenge is to go in search of Southampton's Soul, and render it pictorially. I'm already pretty sure straight photographs like these won't do: few things are as visually unstimulating as hundreds of identical cars parked in orderly rows, awaiting export, although stacked containers do have a certain something, and just look at those amazing heaps of scrap. No, this is going to have to be a full-on digital collage job, triptychs and all.

* Around 250,000, strictly speaking, although the whole "South Coast Conurbation" adds up to about 1.5 million.

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