My thanks and a tip o'the hat to the architect Peter Richards who read my earlier blog on my home town, Southend-on-Sea. I signed off with a picture of the Civic Centre's modernist fountain and he got in touch to tell me:
I and my architect colleague Alan Hardy persuded the council to commission Willian (Bill) Mitchell to design the civic fountain. He also designed a reworking of the coat of arms which stands over the mayor's chair in the council chamber. We also commisioned the bronze door to the west face (per mare per ecclesiam)
There was also, he tells me, specially designed wallpaper in the council chamber, based on the coat of arms and designed by another colleague, Tony Miller. The enormous bronze doors are marvellous, in friendly 'Macmillan Nurses' lettering, as I recall. They must weigh a ton and be worth a small fortune - I hope they haven't been nicked by metal thieves and melted down. The whole site harks back to a long-ago time of municipal pride and a bracingly spendthrift approach to civic architecture. Never such confidence again.
Here's another image of the fountain in its time warp 1970s setting. Time has been kind to the main Civic Centre block in the background, which is beginning to look quite stylish, although the adjacent tecnivcal college has been closed for years and is a mess. The fountain's sculptor Bill Mitchell (born 1925 and happily still with us) has a marvellous CV, including a spell working for Mohammad al-Fayed. I hand't realised that he was also responsible for the monumental figures in Salford known as The Minut Men which share with the Southend fountain a Mayan or Incan quality. This had a lot of contemporary appeal - I'm reminded of a now-defunct chain of cheap, dimly-lit restaurants called The Golden Egg (there was one in the town) which had turquoise ceramic wall decorations designed to evoke a night out in Machu Picchu.
|Bill Mitchell fountain|
I don't know whether the Southend fountain has been listed. It should be. There's a wonderful piece on Mitchell here, including newsreel footage on the artist at work and links to other sites:
It was Peter Richards who designed the two attractive red and blue kiosks in the High Street which were perfectly in tune with the festival spirit of a seaside town, and brought a jolly whiff of slap 'n' tickle to the shopping centre. One was 9and I hope still is) a fruitmongers, the other an ice cream parlour. You can see them both in this picture taken in (I guess) the 1980s:
I could find only one picture (below) of the labyrinthine arcades that were once a much-loved feature of the town centre and a magnet for this infant flâneur. I recall sacks of Bonio dog biscuits piled in th gloom, a newsagents smelling of ink and coconut mushrooms, a toyshop full of shiny enamel'd Dinky and Matchbox model cars and an artists' materials shop run by man with a goatee, Lawrie Matthews, There were articulated wooden figures in its brightly-lit window. The arcades were lovely - scruffy, shadowy and aromatic, but were all swept away by the undistinguished Hammerson shopping centre development in the late 1970s.
The whole pitiful Southend fiasco doesn't feature on the sleek Hammerson website, although there's no shortage of plug-ugly malls with preposterous names still being perpetrated by this venal and rapacious development firm in the luckless suburbs - the Centrale (Croydon) can stand for them all. A curse on Lewis Hammerson, the company's founder, his heirs and beneficiaries, his architects and builders.mBy their company website shall ye know them:
Our strategy is to deliver industry leading shareholder returns by maximising income from our retail properties and development pipeline. We develop or acquire to create compelling retail properties in successful locations.
I could hardly have said it better myself. 'Development pipeline' is perfect although 'Industry leading shareholder returns' is rather coy. They mean mind-boggling profits, I suppose. I hate everything about the Hammerson Group - starting with their bumptious prose and clobberingly horrible legacy. They built the Brent Cross Shopping Centre, still going strong, or strongish, in its dingy North Circular way. The gormless windblown rain-stained inelegant poorly-detailed lump they imposed in place of the charming arcades of my home town was within a few years of opening so bleak and run down that ITV used it as the setting for a 1978 television drama about juvenile delinquents called City Sugar, by Stephen Poliakoff.
Paradoxically the image I found which most immediately brought back the pre-Hammerson town of my childhood is this painting. I have no idea who the artist is and can;'t find any copyright holder (so do let
me know if you know who it is) , and it looks to me like it might be the design for a jigsaw:
|Only a fadeograph of a yestern scene|
This view, looking north, shows the railway bridge carrying trains to Fenchurch Street in the City of London. Under it on the right was a cavernous open-fronted fishmongers which gave the shadowy space a sub-marine atmosphere, the pavement permanently wet with melted ice. Shops had faded awnings as shelter for shoppers come rain or shine, an Edwardian hangover, like the large number of functional public clocks (few owned watches) and urinals (which all seem to have disappeared, although we don't seem to be peeing less). There were relatively few private motors (so no need for car parks) and the town's fleet of double-decker buses had an attractive blue and cream livery and looked like something from a children's book. The large building in the background with a green copper dome is the Odeon cinema, the largest in the town. On the left is a branch of Garons (the local equivalent to a Lyons' Corner House) and the two-tone lorry outside is owned by the then-nationalised British Railways. On the right a second, larger Garons (clearly the Starbucks of the mid-century Thames delta).
This is not a nostalgic blog - the town at the time represented in this image was for me as a child a now-town, not a then-town, and seemed perfectly modern. But let me at least stick up for half a dozen things that were certainly better then:
- signage, and especially hand-painted signage. No plastic, no generic franchises, no modish logos
- a variety of small, locally-based family-run businesses (before the coming of Tesco and their filthy ilk)
- a bustling mixed retail environment, not a botox'd, barren precinct without traffic or evening visitors
- civic utility in the form of public transport and other services run by an elected Borough Council
- an architectural coherence and proportion, in a largely low-rise Victorian and Edwardian townscape
- as I recall, some nice sticky-carpet pubs catering for all ages (not the garish hangouts of today)
But I suppose I am being nostalgic, if not actually sentimental. The last time I walked up the High Street from Central Station all the good shops had closed down and what was left were dispiriting hangers-on, and clearly failing. There was no bustle, no sense of being at the centre of things. Much has been lost which we never much appreciated at the time. The townscape is now cruder, brasher, harsher, the businesses almost all franchises - coffee outlets, fast food places, mobile phone stores and stuff like that. These all seemed to me to be struggling. I expect it's the same everywhere. In time the only sustainable activities in any high street will be nail shops, coffee franchises and topless bars - everything else can be had on the internet.