@ 18/09/2014 – 00:22:33
@ 17/08/2014 – 23:51:53
The Premier League Gods have returned. Look on their works, ye Sky subscribers, and despair! Their summer of shame and anti-climax is forgotten; like the half-filled Panini Brazil 14 sticker albums, that miserable display has been abandoned to the past. Soon we'll have the advertisements where John Terry bashes one into the back of the net by booting the ball across the Thames, ricocheting it off a smiling urchin along the way, and Stevie Gerrard (ey! ey! kalm down!) lashes one between the posts when he takes a free kick from the moon. And obviously keeper Joe Hart will be fretting about his dandruff again. All while earning more money in a week than most families struggle to pay off on a mortgage throughout their lifetimes.
I often think that English footballers who achieve prominence - either by being selected for the national side, gangbanging their best mate's wife with the rest of the midfield, or starring in a Lucosade commercial (or a combination of those distinctions) – are like pop stars in the Soviet era Russia. Back in the USSR there were millions and millions of comrades who were desperate to get hold of pop music, but the Politbureau said net to Western decadent pop like The Beatles and the Stones. And so those home grown lads with their electric balalaikas probably shifted an obscene amount of records, were paid by the skip load in rubles and deified by the adoring fans. It's the simple economics of supply and demand. But they only achieved success – got the gold plated stretch Lada Riva and a dacha on the Black Sea coast – because there was no one decent to listen to except the home grown beatski boys. And so, similarly, comparing Wayne Rooney to the likes of Lionel Messi is like equating Anatoly Bumski (guitarist and vocals with hit makers Razmakhivaya Tovarishchi) to John Lennon – they're playing the same game, but not with the same result. Or the same flair. In fact, I bet some of those Red Rock Stars were taking rifles themselves to the fans trying to leg it over the Berlin Wall. Peristroika? Sod that – it will kill sales, comrade. I should imagine that there are several Premier League megastars who feel the same way about the Bundesliga.
@ 18/07/2014 – 22:52:42
@ 30/06/2014 – 22:42:21
Of all the country pubs in all of the country, this is my favourite. Perhaps. There’s always a disclaimer, always a politician’s certainty when it comes to lists, always the pesky mutability of subjective context; whether it’s favourite albums, favourite films, favourite time of the year, favourite sexual positions or favourite confectionary. And this is especially so with favourite country pubs.
That said, to call the Dog & Gun a country pub is a slight misnomer, as one of The Dog & Gun’s attractions is that it’s a country pub in the middle of town. But Keswick is a country town and perhaps also the best town in the country; if that makes sense. It’s a sentence that works on many levels. Perhaps. And this functional dichotomy is maybe one of the reasons why The Gun scores so highly on my mental list of heavenly hostelries. It has all the attractions of the country pub in the middle of nowhere – it welcomes dogs, it has old stone floors, it does simple food – but is without the concomitant disadvantages of the country pub in the middle of nowhere; the primary of which is being in the middle of nowhere. It’s easy to revel in the rural delights of The Dog & Gun – to talk with strangers about the route you walked. Or about your dog(s). Or the beer. Or the chances for the weather the next day – and then wobble/hobble (depending on your outward bound activities and alcohol intake) back to your bed and breakfast for the night, past the usual conveniences of fish and chips (the Old Keswickian around the corner at the top of the Market Square – highly recommended), cash machines, all the time enjoying a decent(ish) mobile telephone signal.
The Gun’s memorabilia has been assembled in the best of ways – it has evolved. There is no affected, frilly-wristed interior designer’s hand here, no flat pack MDF laminated history direct from an industrial estate in Dudley, no fake beams glued to the ceiling, no anonymous meaningless black and white photographs of random places. There are a pair of old fell running shoes and the promotional beer mats from the previous guest beers, there are yellowing photos with the colour damaged by UV light from so that everything have a blue tint – bleached by yon rolling years, as Coleridge observed in his poem ‘Afternoon: Dog & Gun’, dashed off here while slotting away a pint of Loweswater Gold (he favoured the table just opposite the bar) – showing a bloke climbing a sheer rock face in wellies. And this is exactly what memorabilia should be – something that captures a moment, which is relevant to the place. Because moments are what make life worth living. Life is like jazz music – loads of noodling around aimlessly, or boring, or time-serving, or discordant crap with the odd flash of bliss when all the planets align, the sun is shining, the cash is flowing and we are happy. Take a photo, write a sonnet, knock up a review for Tripadvisor, present your walking boots to the barmaid, send a text message your best friend, check yourself in on Facebook, do something. And if you have done something, let them stick it up in the bar.
A note to the uninitiated who visit The Gun – they won’t serve food unless you have a table, and tables aren’t easy to come by. But it’s worth the wait. Especially for the Goulash. Hungarian Goulash is The Gun’s signature dish – if the phrase isn’t too poncy for such an honest pub. And after a trip up Catbells or Skiddaw or along Walla Crags and across the damp heather up to Bleaberry Fell, or even a jaunt up Latrigg (an outing that tops the easiest walk/ best view category in the Lakes) it doesn’t disappoint. As my boy Bertie will testify. Sit down with your legs aching, your feet swollen, your back creaking, and your face stinging with the fresh air, and that first pint of Loweswater (cheers, Coleridge) will slide down like Castrol GTX lubricating a rusty engine, easing the Goulashes journey into your hungry belly, and then you will be rejuvenated. Bliss.
NB. If The Gun has any failing, it’s that it could do with another room. The tables in the right hand side of the bar are spaced out with an eye to capitalism as opposed to comfort it has to be said. Especially when you have a couple of Boxer dogs with you that have a greedy eye on your pint and plate.
@ 31/05/2014 – 09:18:09
It's 10:00PM on Friday 11th April 2014, and looking at the largely empty space inside Warehouse 23 in Wakefield you have to wonder about the future of music.
As you get older, as sadly we all must, time – like the Euro – gives less return. It goes quicker; again, like the Euro. Twenty years ago – twenty years! – Oasis unleashed Definitely Maybe. Two years after that, Ocean Colour Scene released Moseley Shoals. This was at the height of what was Britpop. The scene was massive. There was Blur, Pulp, The Bluetones, Supergrass, The Super Furry Animals, and on and on and on (which reminds me – there was also The Longpigs). The movement still is massive in the hearts and minds, trainers, polo shirts, desert boots and field jackets of those who passed through it – and it doesn't seem like twenty years ago. And nothing much has happened since. Apart from The X-Factor and Coldplay. Neither of which I imagine will inspire much reverence twenty years hence.
Steve Craddock, of Ocean Colour Scene (and Paul Weller's band) is in Wakey to play a set made up of material from his solo albums. As mentioned, it's now 10:00PM, Steve has yet to show up on stage, and the place has less than a hundred punters in it. It's a long trudge north with the mellotron and the rest of your kit to play to so few people. I last saw Steve in December 2013 at the Academy in Leeds, when he appeared with Ocean Colour Scene, charging through the Marchin' Already (1997) album in full. It is perhaps indicative of the scene that many of its disciples seem unable to move forward – because that night the Academy was packed. Tonight Warehouse 23 is insultingly empty.
Blame the promoters? Or the fact that Steve's target audience are now mostly over forty and rarely venture out of a Friday night, unless there's a pub quiz on at the local… or a 1990s greatest hits night promised…? Who can say…? But whatever the reason – the people who loved Ocean Colour Scene in the mid-1990s missed a treat.
Steve eventually got tired of peeping from back stage, waiting for the crowd surge that never came, and delivered his set with ease. Though I did get a slight feeling of resentment coming from him, which was mis-directed at the people who had tipped up, rather than stay at home with the Sky box and last week's telly. Still, the gig was faultless and the tunes suitably 60s/90s tinged.
I met him briefly afterwards when he signed a copy of Travel Wild, Travel Free (2013) that Bernard Docherty gifted me. It's becoming routine at these gigs – like the ones at The Duchess in York, where I've seen Chris Helme (who also supported Steve tonight with a brilliant set as usual – despite a drunken fan forcing a drink on him; which remained, strangely, untouched), Johnny Marr and Tim Burgess – for the artistes to hawk their wares personally (Johnny Marr isn't at the point where he has to stoop so low as to actually meet real people yet). Steve seemed affable enough, despite my half-cut ramblings and the long journey to play to an empty(ish) room.
But the lack of attendance had me pondering. Where is music going? There have been times lately when I've felt that popular music – in the form we've known it since the fifties – has lost all relevance. That it is a historical medium, like the sonnet or comic opera. Or the motion picture. No one is interested in anything new. Nothing new sticks in your mind. Like Steve's stuff, it can be pleasant enough, but somehow doesn't smack you in the face. The envelope is not being opened anymore – the huge rise in the prevalence of the ‘tribute band' on the live scene is evidence of that. John Lennon was wrong when he spoke to Maureen Cleave about pop music outliving Christianity. It didn't. It hasn't. Less than fifty years since Lennon uttered that pronouncement, pop music is dead. The missing congregation inside Warehouse 23 tonight showed that.
@ 20/04/2014 – 10:43:32
The Crown Coffee House and Patisserie
4 Waterhouse St, Halifax, West Yorkshire HX1 1UQ
The Crown Coffee House and Patisserie (the extended name and italics are all beautifully at one with the place - as will be detailed below) on Waterhouse Street in Halifax, West Yorkshire, is an old fashioned delight. In the days when Starbucks, Costa Coffee and their ilk are choking the world of hot beverages and a muffin like Virginia vine creeper, and even independent shops seem to have the same funky ubiquity – boutique is perhaps the compromised future of independence; boutique coffee shops, boutique bed and breakfast, boutique vinyl LPs, boutique bookshops, boutique beer, boutique children's names, boutique relationships; all which seem to share the same studious quirkiness - the traditional homeliness of The Crown is like a breath of freshly percolated, steaming hot chocolate and newly baked bread scented, air. Now don't get me wrong, when I say 'old fashioned' I don't intend the term pejoratively; I mean old fashioned in the way that The Beatles and handshakes and Dualit toasters, Belstaff jackets, Rolls Royce, good service, good manners, quality and value for money are old fashioned. And this is not the olde worlde reproduction of the Ann Hathaway Coffee Shoppe or Ye Olde Queene Bess Tea Rooms - all lace doilies and fake antiquity (though doilies wouldn't necessarily be out of place at The Crown). This is the old fashioned utilitarian decor of Ivy's café from Last of the Summer Wine, which was perfectly modern and ideally fit for purpose circa 1976, and, as it's been kept wonderfully clean (though the stairs carpet could do with a once over) and looked after, and is all still very serviceable, there is no reason to change it.
But any place - whether it's a trendy boutique coffee house with fair trade vegan-friendly fruited bagels (it will always be bagels in these places, never tea cakes), or even the taupe soul of a Costa or a Caffè Nero - can be made or broken by the staff. And the service offered at The Crown matches the decor. Genuine politeness (as opposed to the corporate 'have a nice day' plastic civility delivered by glum-looking robots whose circuits are steadily smoking due to the cack-handed re-wiring job the management has insisted on inflicting on their personalities in the name of a corporate identity), a willingness to go that extra locally produced sausage to make sure customers have not just a reasonable experience but a full-cooked English one, came as a shocking surprise in this emotionally passive and strictly mercantile age, where increasingly our interactions are becoming more virtual and less personal - even when (supposedly) real people are involved. The star of the show is the lady who acted as maître d'hôtel. Sadly I didn't ask her name, but she is marvellous, in a moderately over-bearing kind of way. Her ebullient personality and obvious love for The Crown is expressed in such a distinct and colourful manner that I'm sure Victoria Wood must have been here at some point and taken some inspiration away with her (plus a packet of butterfly buns). 'A savoury chicken wrap? A good choice, sir,' she complimented me as I gave my order. 'Those are a very popular luncheon option with our gentlemen. Perhaps the most popular choice next to our extensive range of jackets...' Before bustling off to discuss at length the digestive merits of a homemade steak and kidney pie with a couple at the next table. ‘One will do, won’t it? Yes, one will most certainly do… Now, that said, I’m sure you’ve got a little bit of room left in there somewhere… Can I tempt you to one of our delicious desserts…Ice cream...? I've just been up in the freezer now digging a few scoops out... Most reluctant it was and I think I may have pulled a muscle in my arm...' she remarked, rubbing her elbow. 'But I'm more than happy to rejoin the fight if you fancy some vanilla or perhaps our always in demand chocolate...’ Her enthusiasm (it feels almost blasphemous to use the pronoun), made me feel like I had earned her (sorry) respect by making a sensible lunching decision. In a world where most jobs seem intent on bleaching the character out of people, this lady (the harsh epithet 'woman' would be inappropriate somehow) should be set as an example of the triumph of personality over uniformity that all four star line-managers and desk-piloting executives ought to be forced to study, instead of lumbering us with lean processes (which usually means redundancy) and continuous improvement (which usually means quantity over quality), and other such quasi-metaphysical nothingness. The Crown’s cast of equally attentive and cheery staff who support this Dame of the All Day Breakfast are worth their weight in gingerbread men and Yorkshire Parkin - even the teenagers who work there give the impression they were fitted at the same time as the industrial milk frother and the Anaglypta wallpaper. The entire experience was as comfortable and as comforting as the past - the good, the bad and the half-forgotten - generally is. I leave it up to you to spot Victoria Wood's 'Mrs Overall' as you chomp on a coconut macaroon; she is there, believe me - I saw her as I lounged back, escaping the harshness of the modern world for half an hour, and crunched into my tasty wrap.
@ 25/03/2014 – 17:06:27
Fame, George Harrison, from the lofty crenulated tower of his three hundred and seventy thousand acre, two hundred bed-roomed, moated castle estate, complained, ruined The Beatles. There is a danger with the Lamb & Flag on Rose Street, Covent Garden - like the Fab Four - as with many of London's other 'hidden' pubs, that it gets (even more) discovered; and, like Brian Epstein civilised The Beatles, tourists will destroy what they came to experience. Because in this post-modern, post-antiquarian, post-historical age, authenticity is an endangered species. As Dear Oscar said: ‘each man kills the thing he loves.'
The Lamb & Flag is tucked down one of those living alleyways that London – Olde London, that is; the London of ochre bricks and York stone flags, of Henry Mayhew's Coster Mongers, Donkey Boys, Lumpers and Muffin Men, the London of Phossy Jaw and Cholera; the Great Wen inhabited by the grotesques of Fielding, Smollett and Dickens – seems to have just for the sake of the sheer romance of them. Most guides describe the Lamb & Flag as hard to find, but Google Maps - despite the worst intentions of the latest upgrade - has made everywhere findable; Narnia takes only five minutes by bus from Victoria Station on the 170, road works permitting. I personally think Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is harder to locate. Just keep your eyes peeled as you walk along Garrick Street and you can't miss it.
Approached from Garrick Street (as directed), the initial delight of the wooden frontage with its bi-folding windows (there's nothing new) at ground level is quickly tempered by the incongruous upper facade which looks recent - the bricks a shade of orange favoured by reality TV stars, and un-aesthetically too well aligned - in contrast to the much yellower and slightly wobbly bonding that flanks it. It's like Meg Ryan's facelift - good in isolation, but somehow at odds when viewed a couple of paces backwards as a whole. To flog the simile of Hollywood cosmetic surgery further – the bricks look like a shoddy filler job; too clean, too sterile, too perfect for the rest of the aging setting. That said, the sign looks like it's been rescued from the past (rightly or wrongly – it was probably knocked up last week and ‘weathered in') and nailed up on the new wall, being suitably worn and semi-religious in a way that the sits well with the philosophical conundrum that the best pubs promise. You can imagine it being carried to Jerusalem by a regular back in the mists of time and then brought back, a pint of London Pride as reward. Plus some sponsorship money.
The interior, which you reach after you've jostled past the smokers congregating behind the roped area keeping them from the cobbled roadway, has that seventeenth/eighteenth Century dark wood on the floor and walls that is so evocative of warm lighting, open coal fires, rich food, strong drink and convivial company. Together with the ceiling beams, it's as if the pub is made out of Bourneville's 75% cocoa chocolate. The Gents and Ladies are marked up with lettering that must have looked glaringly modern a hundred years ago (prompting outraged letters to The Times and all that), but now gives the pub a certain sense of temporal continuity. Further to this, the Lamb & Flag is wedged smack bang in the middle of Theatre-land. Ta-dah! You can hear the tap dancing and waves of laughter as you stand at the bar waiting to be served. Due to this, the pub's shadowy regulars are drawn from the world of greasepaint and spotlights. In December 1679 the playwright and poet John Dryden took a right hiding by street ruffians (allegedly) hired by the Earl of Rochester (if you haven't read the saucy poems (very much in keeping with the spirit of the Restoration and Charles II's libido), you'll probably have seen Johnny Depp play the Earl in the film The Libertine) in the alley that runs down the right-hand side of the pub. Three hundred years later, in 1979 Larry Grayson kicked the smoke out of John Inman in the upstairs room of the pub for ripping off his act, and tried glassing the Are You Being Served? star, until he was restrained by Isla St Clair. And in the backroom with its odd, strategic little mirrors, where I enjoyed a very tasty helping of fish and chips washed down with two pints of George Gale & Co. Ltd's ‘Spring Sprinter' – light, refreshing and bursting with zesty hop flavours. 4%ABV – there are memorial photographs (generally their old promotional stills) to the actors and musicians who have quaffed in the pub – mostly in the last fifty years of C20. Other regulars have been awarded small brass plates screwed haphazardly into the bar and its fittings – often cryptically; who was ‘Nobby' and why did he come by such a salacious soubriquet? The pub (as most guides will delight in telling you – ghouls) was formerly known as the ‘Bucket of Blood' – due to the bare knuckle boxing bouts (like those depicted in Robert Downey Jnr's Sherlock Holmes and described by William Hazlitt in one of his finest essays ‘The Fight') that used to take place in the back.
But to return to what George Harrison, the Quiet Beatle – the Spiritual, shagging Beatle – had to say about fame. Pubs like the Lamb & Flag have become another tick in a box on the tourists' itinerary. Clearly many of those in the bar were passing through (either that or the locals were exhibiting their cultural superiority and innate Southern sophistication over a Northern Monkey by speaking French at the table next to me), and initially I found the mood fairly bland and somewhat uninspiring. So what can be done? It is times like this that you realize that it's not the Hansel and Gretel building materials or the age of the building that (necessarily) make a pub – it's the people. And if the punters who have come to drink are spectators in the drama as opposed to players (see how I'm dialling in the pubs acting associations? Clever stuff), then the importance of the staff in historic pubs becomes immense if the experience is going to be something other than a trip to a licensed museum piece. If I were to run one I'd wear an eye patch and have a trained cat that sat on my shoulder. I'd employ the most curious and outgoing staff – classic punk rocker hairdos, people from Tribute Bands (imagine getting your steak and kidney pie brought to your table by Marc Bolan or Diana Ross), and employing at least one that had Tourettes. And it was the staff that rescued the Lamb & Flag from the apathy that was starting to spoil my first pint. The bar manager is a portly middle-aged Australian who serves (sic) as a chatty mein host. He chivvied the slightly bewildered (but friendly) barman, and took an interest in people (me) who took an interest in the pub. If only he had a wooden leg (lost to gout, or in a bet), he would have been perfect. Still, even with both his legs and no eye patch, and not even a cat in sight, he made me want to sit and drink there all afternoon. And he made me want to go back. Perhaps the past has a future after all.
Visited Saturday 22nd March 2014
@ 03/03/2014 – 14:19:35
@ 28/02/2014 – 12:51:03
Jonathan Meades’ latest TV essay, Bunkers, Brutalism, Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry (2014), is a textually dense, loquacious blizzard of vertiginous verbiage that acts as a provoking manifesto for that especially unloved – if not loathed – architectural form that dominated townscapes between those two appalling catastrophes for humanity – the Second World War and the reign of Margaret Thatcher – BRUTALISM. Or at least seemed to dominate. The presence of Brutalist buildings is perhaps overstated by their bullish personality. They are the loudest of the drinkers congregated in the pub. They are the raconteur who will stridently spiel stories regardless of whether you want to hear them – or you don’t. You remember them where quieter wallflowers pass unnoticed – either laughing or cringing at their jokes. Or being repulsed and insulted. Or confused. Or annoyed. Or cheered. Or amused. Or… something. They are, above all things, determined – they’ll get a reaction out of you one way or another. It is the woman with the biggest cleavage in the tightest top – who will either attract or disgust, depending on your proclivities. It is not just their perceived (by some) ugliness or carbuncle-ness. It is their deliberateness that grabs our attention. They’re poseurs. They want to be noticed. For better or worse. Like the ASBO youths (more of which later) they often provide a habitat for – they crave attention, and even negative attention is better than no attention at all – to paraphrase Oscar Wilde (not for the last time).
But first to establish what Brutalism is. It is this:
According to Meades is comes from this.
And it is, unfortunately, this.
It may even be this.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that people who preface their own thoughts by clambering over Jane Austen in such a way are about to say something stunningly commonplace. But it is a truth that has become passively accepted as gospel that most Brutalist buildings failed. Failed, at least, in their ostensible purpose – the one stated on the planning application. As shopping centres, or libraries, or hospitals, or apartment blocks, or schools, or whatever. After the initial promise of… what? Modernism? Progress? The Future? They slowly became the townscape’s grumbling appendix; their lack of fitness for purpose making them gradually redundant (shops moving out, the heating/lighting being inadequate, pedestrians avoiding their dim, dank and dripping tunnels and gantries, areas being cordoned off for safety reasons as the concrete failed), until slowly they became a niggling inconvenience, that steadily deteriorated, untreated, until the social peritonitis of ASBO youths (as promised), drug and alcohol addicts and opportunistic muggers poisoned the entire urban corpus.
But that particular failure – one of utility – is the result of bad maintenance; of these buildings being un-loved. Like a marriage that has shattered on the rocks for lack of an anniversary card and the absence of mutually gratifying sex. Or any sex. Or so the apologists and/or champions of the oeuvre will disclaim. Well, perhaps. To an extent. But some places (like some people) almost invite you to piss on them. Brutalist buildings don’t weather down well. Particularly in Britain’s climate. Concrete - in the form favoured by most Brutalist architects and their penny-counting backers - doesn't smile back at you. Concrete of this type invites the spray can. And urine. And flemmy saliva. It sucks all the light in like a psychic sponge of despair. It doesn’t help that the movement was hijacked by the spivs who moved in to make quick profits – the John Poulsons and T. Dan Smiths (fictionally depicted in Our Friends in the North) were the smallest tip of this huge shitty iceberg; town planning authorities the length and breadth of the island have their own examples – most of whom got away with both corruption and poor imitations of the genre. Such is the way with movements and bandwagons. For every T. Rex or David Bowie there will always be a glut of Chicory Tips and Alvin Stardusts. But still, neglect is the word – or similes of that word – that is used to excuse or explain the failure – the ultimate failure – of places like Portsmouth’s Tricorn Centre (built in 1966 and pulled down in 2004) and Gateshead’s Trinity (opened 1967, demolished in 2012).
But if they failed, then the perhaps the buildings failed in the same way that George Best would not have been best used by Sir Matt Busby by playing him the goals. Because in other ways – in other positions – the buildings succeeded tremendously.
Buildings can serve many purposes - not least in the emotions they elicit from us. South Yorkshire’s greatest Brutalist structures were the Gog and Magog twin cooling towers that loomed over the M1 at the Tinsley Viaduct. In West Yorkshire they have – still – the Emley Moor television transmitter. Tinsley’s power station cooling towers and Emley Moor were (are) massively (literally) successful in punctuating the landscape. But neither offered any interaction with humankind beyond the ocular spectacle of awe. The Scammonden Bridge strides the M62 where it crosses the bleak Yorkshire/Lancashire boarder is - if not a thing of beauty - then something that inspires astonishment. It is magnificent. It – like the cooling towers and Emley Moor – show the best of what mankind can achieve with the cutting edge materials and latest thinking to hand – where the Medieval stonemason moved building forwards with flying buttresses and hammer beam ceilings, the engineers of the 1950s and 60s applied reinforced concrete to their ideas. And concrete is a marvellous material – it can be worked, polished and bear loads that engineers like Brunel would have killed a hundred navvies to achieve. But it is often misused – for instance, the exterior of the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield looks disconcertingly unfinished. But like most building materials – it is of its time. The 19th Century mill owners didn't make their huge factories out of stone because it was pretty - they used it because it was locally quarried and cheap. Similarly in the South Yorkshire towns and villages – where there were less stone quarries or they made cheaper bricks - the colliery owners didn't build row upon row of red brick terraces because they wished to make working class architectural icons - it was a question of economy.
But if Tinsley’s cooling towers, Emley Moor and Scammonden Bridge – not forgetting its reservoir – represent Brutalist triumphs, and a zenith of a society’s engineering achievement (of its day), anyone who shuffled nervously through the piss-reeking hallways of Barnsley's Metropolitan Centre (built at the height of the movement in the 60s in a typical provincial planner’s destruction of the town centre) back in the 1980s got a peek – a nervous peek – into the dark recesses of what urban geography could descend to. Here Brutalism brutalizes. Even now with better lighting and the white tiles that clad the concrete, the echoing acoustics and the lack of natural light, make it a negative experience of space. You're not drawn to the place. You don't want to spend time there – with its brown bricks, clumsy concrete and a feeling of claustrophobia. To mangle dear Oscar (again), there is no such thing as a moral or immoral building. Buildings are well designed (and built) or badly designed (and built). That is all. And yet… these buildings do not invite you in. And the same instinctively negative response that I feel when visiting Barnsley’s Metropolitan is prompted when I see the Trellick Tower – a building broadly lauded as a Brutalist gem. In images the Trellick certainly has an aesthetic that is particular to the mid-20th Century, but as a building for people to use…?
Meades has commented previously that 'interiors hold no interest' for him (Father to the Man (2007) – possibly my favourite of his programmes), which perhaps goes some way to help understand his love of Brutalist architecture. In Brutalism the outside of the building is everything. This is architecture as sculpture. The interiors of these buildings are largely a mystery - do an internet search for Brutal interiors and your results will bring a welter of results, very few of them to do with architecture. Maybe Ernst Stavro Blofeld could find – not comfort – but solace (of a kind) by living surrounded by raw concrete, but, by and large, few Brutalist buildings have the warmth and beauty of San Diego's Geisel Library by William Pereira or the friendliness of Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse in Marseille (where, incidentally – or not – Meades presently lives). Brutalism’s biggest failures are where people are involved. Its biggest successes when it is… well… biggest. Because Brutalist architecture is all about exteriors. Big exteriors. MASSIVE exteriors. But similar to those wonders of the world – the pyramids of Ancient Egypt and the pyramids of the Mayans in Mexico – the best Brutalist structures are astonishing spectacles – but not necessarily the first choice for habitation.
It is telling that most were built to accommodate not people but cars. Or in the case of those proto-Brutalist edifices that made up the Atlantic Wall of Hitler’s Festung Europa, heavy calibre machine guns. And Nazis.
But after the decades neglect and lovelessness, suddenly Brutalism is being re-discovered. Meades programme is only one of several re-appraisals. And many of those that have survived the dynamite (they do blow up dramatically) and the wrecker’s ball, are now cult buildings – Preston bus station, for instance, was recently awarded listed status by English Heritage after public campaign. Others, like Owen Luder's Trinity car park at Gateshead which acquired kudos by appearing in the film Get Carter (1971), reverberate with the generations who adore all things ‘retro’. Because there's a feeling that it is the very anachronism of these buildings which is now drawing fans. They want to live in that long sixties of Get Carter and A Clockwork Orange. Because the past is always twee. Always controlled. Because we only ever choose the best bits to remember. We forget that Jack Carter was a pornographer and professional bully who chucked Alf Roberts – a slot machine owning paedophile – from a building that was chosen as a location for its very sense of hardness and corruption. It's like the pop music of yesteryear. The charts were full of the Beatles and The Small Faces and Motown... Weren’t they? No one remembers Jimmy Young’s chart-topping abominations or Ken Dodd’s. It’s similar to how you can recall that trip to the dentist when you had your molars dragged out and the anaesthetic didn't kick in - but you can't really recall the pain. Images of Pompey’s Tricorn gives to some the same sense of comfort that a thatched cottage brings to others. Get yourself in the right frame of mind and these buildings are as cosy as a Sunday morning lie in. As cosy as yesterday.
This renaissance – of thought, if not always physical presence – of Brutalism highlights – yet again – that progress, not just in architecture, but in all culture, feels to have halted. As the architect Rem Koolhaas stated: ‘When did time stop moving forward, begin to spool in every direction, like a tape spinning out of control? Change has been divorced from the idea of improvement. There is no progress; like a crab on LSD, culture staggers endlessly sideways. Regurgitation is the new creativity.’ Like it or loathe it, Brutalism was at least an idea. But then again so was National Socialism. And Thatcherism. And nouvelle cuisine. But what have we now? The future looks like yesterday – only rendered in breeze blocks clad in Scandinavian pine. Today we give the world One Direction and a new Tesco Extra for every town. The future won't thank us for them. If it recalls them at all.
One of my own favourite quasi-Brutalist buildings is the water treatment centre on the Manchester Road at Tintwistle. It’s a relatively small concrete building (which obviously goes against most of what I’ve just said) that's accented by glass, wood and stone cladding - it would sit well as the abode of some film star in Laurel Canyon in California. Once you got rid of the sludge and filtration tanks, obviously. And excavated the sedimentation basin. Or perhaps adapted them into a swimming pool and/or water feature.
@ 27/01/2014 – 23:11:38
Thursday evening, 31st October 2013. We were at Scunthorpe when the codeine kicked in. But pulling off the M18 and sweeping into the neon subtopian sprawl, through the usual sentries of traffic lights and the ubiquitous bland utilitarian landscaping amongst light industrial sheds, we could have been anywhere. The darkness making the sense of dislocation even more pronounced. There was Tescos (obviously), Toys R Us, KFC, McEtc McEtc. The only things that differentiate between the different parts of the country these days are our accents (where the neo-urban patois hasn't taken over, innit?) and mortality winners and losers in the NHS treatment lottery. Otherwise everywhere is the same. No more architectural or cultural differences. Cancer and dropped aitches are all we have left to mark out our topographical differences. And proudly so. You're dying of ball cancer and can't pronounce ‘there’ without it sounding like ‘dare’... You must be from Sheffield... It's a dead giveaway. So to speak.
To allow them… (or ‘it’…? Is Tesco a sentient entity like some sci-fi conglomeration of souls?)… to allow Tesco their due, they at least try to give each store its own individuality by putting all the items in a different aisle at each branch. The cynical, conspiracy obsessed, might carp that it also entices disorientated impulse buyers, in a way reminiscent of labyrinthine Las Vegas casino architecture, so that the suddenly befuddled shopper ends up lobbing shiny nothings into their trolley as they search desperately for milk. It's like the horror film, The Man Who Haunted Himself, with Roger Moore, where everything is familiar yet strange. ‘But I’m Pelham!’ I don’t give a shit who you are. Just tell me where the bloody Uncle Ben's rice is! But other than that each is belligerently the same as any other. It's architectural Mogadon. A landscape chemical cosh to soothe the individuality that disfigures us all. To make us feel like we're all getting a piece if the action. The South might have better schools and they're not all dying of rickets, but at least the shops look all the same. Can't they give one of the fuckers a thatched roof or put a mullioned window on the Bureau de change? I've been to the Tesco in Ryde on the Isle of Wight and the one in Perth up in bonnie Scotland. They are exactly the same, apart from the hospice sellers touting for different ailments in different accents by the automatic doors, jostling with the bloke from the AA.
The Plowright Theatre to where I was headed is located curiously alongside the Magistrates Court, Police Station and Fire House. And nothing else. Gold Taps in the Gents give it a touch of the West End. Myself and Bernard Docherty are in town to see John Cooper Clarke. Cooper Clarke… How do you pronounce his name? Is it double barrelled or is Cooper his middle name in a way similar to Taylor in Samuel Taylor Coleridge? Anyway, however you slice it, John is a professional malcontent. It is - despite the obligatory persecution complex - a privileged position. We have a few of them doing the culture circuit. Mancunians and Scousers seem to have a surfeit. And in many ways, Clarke is St John the Baptist to Ian Brown's messianic indie saviour. Or Johnny Marr. Or Lee Mavers. Or Mick Head. Or Noel Gallagher… Or… [FILL THIS SPACE WITH YOUR OWN NORTHERN INDIE ICON]. He wears the same post-Coronation Street Northern chic as Morrissey. I can imagine him – and Stephen Patrick Morrissey – nursing a Sweet Sherry with Emily Bishop in the Rover’s Return, and reciting a Haiku about Len Fairclough being wrongly accused of fingering a pre-teen at the local swimming baths (Victorian, beautiful brown and white tiles – gorgeously evoked with a simple juxtaposition of everyday images such as a floating verruca patch and the stench of Chlorine). A combination of Alan Bennett, Simon Armitage and Elsie Tanner. Which makes JCC's association with Nico from The Velvet Underground all the more natural. Though how she ended up in Salford is another matter.
There is a sense that JCC - like Ian Brown - is living inside his own legend. Preciously conscious of being lauded like the Queen Mum of performance poetry and Indie thought respectively. He’s obviously proud of his Sopranos connection (his poem ‘Chicken Town’ was featured in the final series – I think they should have chosen ‘Twat’, which is far more lyrical). Why shouldn’t he be? But there’s something which jars. And to some extent there’s an attitude that sails close to tipping the skinny rhymer into the dangerous waters of cultural poseur. Though at least he isn’t designing his own Adidas trainers. Yet.
JCC’s cultivated appearance and mannerisms create something that is a cross between an anorexic Lily Savage and Wayne from Auf Wiedersehen Pet, with the profile of Ronnie Wood (sharing Ronnie’s same expression of cheery confusion when something doesn’t go according to plan). Initially it’s like an aging Bob Dylan tribute has taken to the stage. A sixty-odd year old version of Dylan but with the suit and back-combed hair like Bob on the cover of 1966’s Blonde on Blonde or the same look with permanent sunglasses, during the 1965 UK tour – at one point JCC’s Ray Bans dropped off, it was like that first sight of Davros when he’d been stripped of his metal carapace. What we get is a cross between performance poet, stand-up comedian and raconteur. JCC’s delivery of his poetry is similar to a horse race commentator; the words machine-gunned out, the prosody punched into the crowd, the poem tearing to a finish. Then there’s the some banter between the set pieces – conversational and indiscrete – like you’re chatting to him in the Black Lion on Chapel Street in Salford over a pint of Marble Real Ale. Pam Ayres was referenced (funnily, but not unkindly) - Pam a stalwart of 1970s TV and a rare exception from those days not to come under the branches of Operation Yewtree - no women so far have been happy to assist the police all they can and help with enquiries. Though it's only a matter of time before some middle aged boy scout claims he was fingered by I£££ S£ C££££. Coincidently, Pam was appearing live that same evening in Shanklin on the Isle of Wight. I get the feeling - rightly or wrongly - that she probably didn't say 'cunt' as many times. (NB. I find it peculiar how middle-class, culture-vulture audience – which is what was largely out tonight – embrace the word ‘cunt’ in a way they never do when it appears in general day to day conversation).
He was supported by Mike Garry (who looks like Robbie Savage and sounds like Shaun Ryder, and drops names like Shaun used to drop acid – despite which I thoroughly appreciated his work) and Luke Wright (Mondeo Man – recommended). I enjoyed the night. I came away richer for it. My thought process prompted, the internal rhythms given a shake as I trekked back home through the yellow and black night. Which is what a good gig should be about.