The Church in the Marsh

Street sign: Chapel Street

Dead in my tracks, I look up from the street sign and along the deserted industrial estate back street: what chapel?

St Philips in Bristol is industrial and has been industrial for a long time. Marshland reclaimed for railways and factories, now turned over to great sheds in corrugated metal and red brick – car dealerships, waste recycling plants, garage door salesrooms and the like.

There’s not much evidence that people ever lived here which is why Chapel Street, which I’ve never noticed before, grabs my attention.

Then, almost opposite, I notice Victoria Terrace, too, where there is no terrace – only brambles, vans and vicious anti-climb fencing.

Chapel Street.

Chapel. Terrace. Here?

In 2021, there’s no need to wonder. I take my phone and call up a map from 1902. It turns out I’m standing at the centre of a crowded neighbourhood. Short Street, the main artery, has terraced houses wedged together on either side.

Victoria Terrace has houses on one side, opposite the gates of the Saw Mill.

York Street and Aberdeen Street, are gone, homes and gardens lost beneath workshop buildings and car parks.

And, sure enough, there’s a church. St Silas’s. It once fronted onto the Feeder Road and was hugged by its own terraced streets – St Silas Street and Arthur Street. You can see it here in an aerial photo from 1926, round-tailed and imposing.

St Silas Street is sort of, just barely, still there, as the main entrance to Auto Choice, a huge dealership in a space-age box. Arthur Street, cut in half, is its side passage, with garages and parked vans.

St Silas’s wasn’t around long – it didn’t even make a century. Built on a bog in 1868, it was already falling down by 1872, and had to be rebuilt on new foundations. In 1941, it was blitzed, and never reconstructed. What remained was knocked down in 1959.

Although it was that street sign, Chapel Street, that led me to St Silas’s, it turns out the reference was… what’s the opposite of a red herring?

Chapel Street was diverted when the trading estate was built and didn’t originally run as far as Short Street. Its chapel is a Methodist one which, astonishingly, perhaps, is still there, in body at least. One of a handful of reminders of when this was a place, not a space.

Haunted by St. James’s Square, the square that isn’t there

St. James’s Square – an entire piece of the Georgian city of Bristol that simply doesn’t exist in 2021 – intrigues me.

My current novel project is set in Bristol in the 1950s when much of the city centre had been destroyed or damaged in the Blitz and post-war rebuilding was just getting underway. I have my protagonist living in what remains of St. James’s Square which means I’ve had to try to get a feel for this stolen place.

It’s not only that the buildings have been demolished – the pattern of the streets has fundamentally changed, like the site of some atrocity everybody wants to forget. What is there now? A chain hotel forecourt and a dual carriageway, pointedly cutting across the old lines.

Making my way to work from Horfield to the city centre for several years, I walked over the grave of St James’s Square most mornings and often stopped to see if I could find any trace at all. 

Cumberland Street, behind St James’s Square.

Cumberland Street, which runs behind the brutalist slabs of the Hilton and Holiday Inn, is the last connection. Enter it from Brunswick Square, pass the surviving red-brick Georgian terrace and you’ll eventually reach a pedestrian footpath that goes under and through the hotel. It always feels to me as if, on the right day, at the right time, that footpath might lead to St James’s Square, as in H.P. Lovecraft’s 1925 story ‘He’. It’s never happened yet, unfortunately.

The passageway that ought to lead to the square but doesn’t.

The surviving Brunswick and Portland squares also offer hints of how their missing sibling might have felt. Laid out in a line, the three were constructed one after the other, St James’s Square being the first, with houses in place by 1716. Enclosed and private, clamshell hoods over every door, it perhaps felt more like a relic of the 17th century than its larger, grander siblings. But squint, catch the right angle, and there’s surely a family resemblance. Look into the corners, away from the garden and eccentrically designed church, and Portland Square in particular catches something of the feel of the photographs of St James’s Square I’ve seen.

Ruined buildings.
Portland Square – is this Blitz damage?

Yes, there are photographs. Old Bristol was particularly well-photographed compared to some cities and between Know Your Place, the Bristol Post archive and the comprehensive works of Reece Winstone, I’ve harvested quite a few images. Two of my favourites, though, are in Walter Ison’s book Georgian Buildings of Bristol, first published in 1952.

A Georgian square.
SOURCE: The Georgian Buildings of Bristol, Walter Ison, 1952.

Other pictures online capture St James’s Square in its later years, approaching its doom. As happened in many British cities, Georgian houses built for gentlefolk became workshops, warehouses and institutional buildings. There was a large YMCA hall, for example. From the 1920s onward, Ison says, “its disintegration was rapid”:

During the late war more than half the total of houses, including the forest and least spoiled, was destroyed, and only the mutilated and disfigured ranges on the north and east sides remain… The surviving north row consists of two double-houses, Nos 6 and 7, and two single houses, Nos 8 and 9… These fronts have been suffered greatly in appearance by the partial removal of the crowning cornice, and by the brickwork having been rendered and generally defaced by painted signs.

This is the St James’s Square in which parts of my novel are set – a square that is no longer square, facing demolition. Portland Square, again, helps catch a little of how that might have felt, with half of the west side of the square still occupied by miraculously extant tottering ruins.

A little further away, across Stokes Croft and up the hill towards Kingsdown, there is also King Square – formerly genteel houses, sign-covered commercial properties and discarded strong cider cans piled around the wastebins.

St James’s Square, the square that isn’t there, disappeared for good in the 1960s, making way for new roads and a roundabout suitable for mid-20th century traffic. As local historian Eugene Byrne has written, “As you wait at the traffic lights where Bond Street joins the St James Barton roundabout, you are on the spot where the YMCA Hall used to be.”

I hope that reading my book will bring the Square back from the dead, even if I’ve taken some artistic licence to create a single surviving townhouse in that post-war period where my lead character lives, surrounded by dusty Georgian furniture and faded paintings, soon to be displaced.

Modern Buildings in Wessex by Stewart Brayne, 1968

Modern Buildings in Wessex.

Here’s the story: I like rummaging through boxes of ephemera in bookshops and antiques markets, which is how I came across my original copy of the 1968 booklet Modern Buildings in Wessex by the architectural critic Stewart Brayne.

I bought it for 50p because of my interest in post-war buildings but soon discovered that there’s a lot more to it than that.

Here’s a scan:

Among notes on schools and civic centres, there are entries concerning the work of émigré architect Hälmar Pölzig who built extensively in Wessex:

Gordon House Higher Brent, nr. Tonborough Hälmar Pölzig, 1957 The first of the nine and by no means a great work. A domestic house built on commission for the Scottish artist Cecil Gordon, it must have felt like a relic when new, its suntrap roof, white rendering and banded windows speak of Mitteleuropa between the wars more than Britain Today! as the newsreels used to call it. There are distinctive touches, however, such as the abstract stained glass dividers that break up the single large room on the ground floor. Designed by Pölzig himself, they cast colourful, moving shadows that play thrilling tricks on the eyes. If you can stand in that room at sunset without spinning on your heels to see who’s standing behind you, you’re a better man than I.

And that’s just the start…

* * *

I really do like ephemera.

UK Atomic Energy pamphlets from the 1970s

And I really do like post-war buildings, especially as described by Ian Nairn.

Nairn’s London from 1966 is one of my very favourite books, especially this entry:

I also love the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James, Universal horror films, folk horror and all that eerie Scarred for Life TV from the 1970s and 80s.

I first wrote a version of this story 15 or more years ago, with a character inspired by Nikolaus Pevsner exploring the buildings of a backwater Somerset town. It was a rewrite of ‘Shadows over Innsmouth’, essentially, and didn’t quite click.

Somehow, though, it must have been locked away in the back of my brain, evolving and ripening, until a few weeks ago, I suddenly thought, oh, yeah, that’s how to do it.

It’s not just a short story – it’s an object, a work of pastiche.

I’m really happy with how it’s turned out, from the typography (like Nairn’s London, the body copy is set in Plantin) to the photos to the cover design.

I’ve only had 50 copies printed because, honestly, when you draw a Venn diagram of people who like Ian Nairn and those who like creeping horror, I don’t think the overlap is huge.

If you want a copy, get in touch. It’s got 20 pages and costs £5 delivered. Email me (raymondnewman@gmail.com) or DM via Twitter (@MrRayNewman) to sort out payment and postage.

River of Orchids: the M32 in Bristol

M32 sign.

A version of this piece appeared in The Modernist magazine for spring 2019 which had the theme of ‘Infrastructure’. You can buy a copy here.

Throughout the 20th century, Bristol’s civic leaders bet everything on roads.

First, they ran a dual carriageway through Georgian Queen Square in the 1930s, bending it around an equine statue of William III.

Then in the 1960s, “it was decided to provide for UNLIMITED CAR ACCESS to the City Centre”, as Dorothy Brown explains in her 1975 booklet Bristol and How it Grew. Planning was dominated by road engineers who were allowed to create out-of-scale 6-lane throughways, enormous roundabouts and motorway-standard curves, right in the middle of the city.”

In 1967 they installed a flyover near Temple Meads, simultaneously dominating and pathetic, resembling a rollercoaster as much as a road.

Plans for a grand Outer Ring Road, with a projected completion date of 1975, were abandoned, but parts did appear – stuttering into existence at the Cumberland Basin and Hotwells, and at Lawrence Hill roundabout.

Everywhere pedestrians were shoved into underpasses, herded along streets in the sky, or forced to wait at at anxiety-inducing crossing points.

The M32 was part of this unfettered road-building strategy and one of few parts that was completed, and that remains in place. The first stretch of motorway opened in 1966, then a second in 1970, and the final length in 1975. It is generally spoken of as a scar, an eyesore, or even a ‘dagger into the heart of Bristol’, reflecting the trauma of its birth.

Cars on the M32

To enable its construction, families were forcibly relocated to new estates, houses were demolished, streets cut in two, and communities broken apart. The new borderlands, bristling with brambles and dead ends, attracted graffiti, fly-tipping, muggers and caravan shanties. In 2018, the outrage might have died down, but resentment lingers.

Puschchair by the side of the motorway.

Infrastructure is usually intended to be invisible, or hidden, or at least ignored. Accordingly, pedestrians are held at arm’s length from the M32 for much of its four-and-a-half miles, as it cuts through Bristol, up the Frome Valley, and out into the Gloucestershire countryside.

Frome Valley sign.

It grows out of a dual carriageway in the city centre, like a river taking on tributaries, finally bursting into full being at Junction 3, in a frothing tumble of looping slip-roads and subways.

Land of Hope and Glory.

This is where the fences and walls go up, grey blocks and corrugated metal, protecting walkers from the roaring road, and the road from the strange behaviour of pedestrians. LET BRISTOL BREATHE reads repeated graffiti; LAND OF HOPE & GLORY says a banner on the bow of a concrete bridge, promoting a YouTube channel.

Twisted old trees.

Between St Werburghs and Easton, the motorway is pushed down into a deep cutting, and the path is pulled away from the road’s edge. Through black branches in buffering parkland there can be seen the odd glimpse of grey, the blue shimmer of overhead signs, the roofs of lorries whipping by. But the sound – the waterfall rush of rubber on asphalt – is swallowed.

Then it rises again, shooting above the rooftops, launching traffic into the sky, and pedestrians are allowed back, this time into the void left beneath the road. The space is extraordinary, a world of monumental columns and holy reverberation. People live here, in permanently parked caravans or converted vans, or curled up next to shopping trolleys full of possessions.

Trolley under the motorway.

Thin men in broken trainers conduct urgent, secret business in underpasses. In the deepest shadows, children, teenagers, young adults, and adult adults, send skateboards scraping and clattering, up and down graffiti-covered ramps.

The M32 cafe.

And then a symbol just too on the nose: the River Frome emerges from its man-made tunnel, following the course of the motorway for a few hundred metres, fenced in and covered.

Subway at Eastville

At Eastville roundabout it reaches a crescendo of on-ramps, off-ramps, levels and layers. Pedestrians are directed to hostile above-ground crossings, or channeled into subways where leaves and litter drift. One one side is the landscaped anti-wilderness of Eastville Park. On the other, soot-soiled suburban houses, and Pur Down, with the ever-watchful telecommunications tower like something from a Simon Stålenhag painting.

Caravan and Purdown communications tower.

As Eastville becomes Stapleton, the motorway curves off across Bridge Farm, where trespassers are not welcome. It doesn’t appear again until the bridge at Heath House Lane where parked vans advertise breakdown services and fly-tippers ignore ‘No Fly Tipping’ signs.

The motorway below.

Scrambling up to wind-battered Stoke Park reveals the stroke of the motorway laid out almost in its entirety, headlights like tracer fire connecting the city with its target.

Even if the Queen Square carriageway has gone, even with the Temple Meads flyover demolished, the 20th century at least left its signature here – careless, but with a certain elegance, and distinct vigour.

Bristol Without Cars

BRISTOL WITHOUT CARS.

Bristol Without Cars (#BristolWithoutCars) is, I suppose, what you’d call a Project.

The idea is to capture images of the city without any motor vehicles in shot – not parked, not moving, and it’s been brewing for months, ever since I saw this Tweet:

It resonated because it made me realise how often I’d been frustrated at cars blocking my view of a landscape or a beautiful building when I went to take a picture.

Is anything less romantic than a 2015 Honda Jazz occupying a quarter of the scene?

Here are some embryonic attempts to capture urban scenes in a similar light, snapped with either my FujiFilm X100F, or just the camera on my phone, in the early part of 2019.

An empty road with billboard.
Wormwood Scrubs, London, April.

A shop on a side street.
St Andrews, Bristol, May.

Houses and main road.
Eastville, Bristol, in June.

Totterdown in June
Bath Road, Bristol, in June.

Empty roads in Birmingham
Empty roads in central Birmingham in early July.

That Tweet also stimulated my militant pedestrian tendency. Why should we put up with all that scrap metal littering the streets, blocking pavements and penning us in?

When I was a kid, there used to be an advert which warned against crossing between parked cars. These days, there’s no other option – almost every street is lined with them, bumper to bumper.

And on more than one occasion recently, cars have mounted the pavement to overtake or perform some other manoeuvre, leaving me no option but to leap out of the way making noises like a frightened chicken.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to click your fingers and make them go away?

Well, that’s what taking these photos feels like.

Industrial wasteland.
Netham Road, Wednesday, 21:15.

A pub.
St George’s Road, Sunday, 15:34.

I started taking this really seriously a couple of weeks ago, going out on hunting expeditions along the M32, and keeping my eyes open on the various routes to and from work.

I wasn’t sure of the rules at first – I knew I didn’t want cars in shot, obviously, but what about people or bicycles?

Sharing my photos on Twitter, I got some instant feedback: shots of completely empty streets were more striking than this…

People in a street.
Queen Charlotte Street, Wednesday, 13:33.

…which looks a bit like the kind of CGI rendering a property developer would plaster across a hoarding.

So I decided, rule two: no humans either, just empty streets.

A city street.
Stokes Croft, Tuesday, 18:05.

Responses to this lifeless world were interesting. On the one hand, there were people who saw it as I intended, as a sort of Utopia – ‘River of Orchids where there was a motorway’. The world as a pedestrian friendly playground.

But others said it looked bleak or post-apocalyptic, which it absolutely does. For all my frustration with them, cars are, it turns out, a symbol of life and humanity.

I like the idea of these photos being a kind of Rorschach, with paradise/hell in the eye of the beholder.

I wonder how responses map to the old idea of introversion and extroversion?

With that in mind, one interesting development is how impatient I’m becoming with other pedestrians. When my frame is almost clear and someone takes so long dawdling out of shot that someone else wanders in, I feel something close to fury.

People walking in and out of shot.
Corn Street, Friday, c.12:55.

I’ve also learned that people often wander back and forth when they’re on the phone, presumably because they’re almost where they need to be but can’t hang up quite yet.

I’ve had a few suggestions for ways to remove cars using digital editing techniques, e.g. taking three photos of the same location and then averaging them to remove anything that’s different from one shot to the next. This would clearly be against the spirit of the thing.

So, there’s rule three: no cars or people to be edited out, although I will allow myself a bit of cropping and straightening.

Suburban street.
Bishop Road and King’s Drive, Sunday, 12:33.

Another convention that has begun to emerge (rule four) is around labelling: for the past week or so, when I share these photos, I’ve been saying where they were taken, on which day of the week, and at what time.

That’s because a couple of people asked if I was going out with my camera at 5 am which made me realise that a photo of, essentially, nothing, needs context – a few words so that others can hear the sound of my magical finger-click.

Hill without cars.
Constitution Hill, Sunday, 15:18.

These photos don’t show the cars that are parked just out frame on either side, or the lorry that passed out of view half a second before I hit the button.

I cannot emphasise this enough: there’s hardly been an easy shot yet.

Fumes on a quiet street.
Feeder Road, Wednesday, 19:14.

Even on quiet backstreets or industrial estates which ought to be quiet, there is always – always – a car idling, turning or speeding through.

But that does help me zero in on what looks most unnerving or impressive. We expect motorways to be busy, for example, so a shot of the M32 in momentary blankness has greater impact and, yes, is actually harder to achieve, but not much harder.

Empty motorway
M32, Friday, 18:40.

There are certain images I’m especially proud of because I know how long they took to achieve. This one was like torture but when it came together I literally punched the air, even though the reflection of a car crept into one of the windows.

Empty city centre street.
Wine Street, Friday, 17:58.

In general, the waiting is pleasant. I stand there with people brushing past me or ducking beneath my lens, feeling the sun or rain on my head, listening to birdsong or the sounds of the suburbs, and enter into something like a trance.

When the viewfinder flashes clear, CLICK, then a moment of absolute joy, as if I’ve actually achieved something.

It can be frustrating, especially when I go out on my lunch break from work and know I can only wait so long for the shot to come good. That haste is why the angle is sometimes off, or a finger slips into shot.

The ideal shot shows a long stretch of road to the horizon but, in practice, those are almost impossible. But perhaps that’s the big game I need to be going for. If I get ten in a year, it might be worth it.

Tricks and techniques

Here are a few things I’ve learned so far, feeling my way.

  • Start by looking for a section of road with no parked cars – everything else is a matter of timing.
  • Junctions are good – it seems counterintuitive but there’s usually no parking.
  • Road markings are fun – they add interest and irony – CAR CLUB.
    Use the camera grid for alignment – minimalism looks better with straight lines.
  • Be patient – the frame will clear, the shot will come, even in the busiest spot.
  • But be realistic – on a busy street, go for a head-on shot of the road and buildings opposite, or a slight angle, rather than the full panoramic sweep. (Unless you have all day.)
  • Frame with your feet – if there’s a car in view, shuffle left, right or backwards until it disappears behind a wall or hedge.

Art Deco Bristol

The protagonist of William Gibson’s 1981 short story ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ finds himself pulled into an alternative reality in which the streamlined modernist design of the 1930s never went away.

Spotting surviving examples of Art Deco architecture in Bristol can feel rather like that – the shock of a sudden glimpse into a time before the Blitz and the ensuing austerity, when buildings soared, waved and curved into ever blue skies.

The term Art Deco derives from the French Arts Décoratifs and arose in the early part of the 20th century. It was a self-consciously modern movement that drew on diverse inspirations including industrial design and Egyptian art, and employed bold colours, geometric patterns alongside expanses of black, white, pale grey or cream to sell a vision of clean, bright living.

Bristol didn’t go all in on Art Deco, preferring the more conservative neo-Georgian style in many cases, and much of what there was was destroyed by war or progress. Most of the city’s lavish Art Deco cinemas, for example, have been pulled down (the Orpheus at Henleaze) or allowed to decay to their concrete bones like the Ambassador in Bedminster, now a climbing centre. There is still plenty to see, however, if you know where to look.

Central Health Clinic.

Bristol’s surviving Deco tends to be in the vaguely totalitarian Ministry of Information style, intended to project an image of business-like modernity, not leisurely decadence. The Bristol Central Health Clinic of 1935 by C.F.W. Dening is typical, and easy to miss unless you catch it from the right angle and pay attention to the details. It is composed around a central tower that barely towers, and has geometrically formed text over its defunct doorways – WOMEN PATIENTS and STAFF.

Queen's Court.

Alec French was an important Bristol architect whose firm is still trading today. His work includes the twin office blocks, Eagle House and St Stephen’s House, that take up most of one side of Colston Avenue. One oddity is French & Partners’ St Nicholas House which looks like pure 1930s Deco but was actually built as late as 1959. Queen’s Court, a block of flats built in 1937, is particularly striking. It resembles an ocean liner in red brick, its prow cutting into the road junction, with balconies turning its flats into seaview cabins. Halifax House on St Augustine’s Parade was built for the building society of the same name in 1937 before becoming once Alec French’s own HQ, and most recently a branch of Toni & Guy. It is quite plain but with distinct Deco touches around the balcony and in the black stone fascia.

Electricity House

The Centre has more yet. Electricity House is a former showroom of 1937 by Giles Gilbert Scott, perhaps best known for designing Battersea Power Station and the famous red telephone box. Northcliffe House, a former newspaper office built in 1929, has streamline details and a clock tower which states thrusting modernity without subtlety.

Odeon cinema.

The Odeon at Broadmead is one example of frivolous leisure Deco, decked out in polished green and white tiles, and with a flying saucer canopy over what was once the grand entrance. The Merchant’s Arms at Stapleton, currently closed pending refurbishment or redevelopment, is a rare pub built in the streamline moderne style. In Stokes Croft there’s the former Blundell’s department store by W.H. Watkins at No. 77, much-altered but still unmistakably of the 1930s. The junction of Zetland and Gloucester roads has two minor relics: the former Morgan’s department store (lately Maplin’s) with its minimalist clock-face; and a Sainsbury’s supermarket which, if you look at the details, reveals itself as a branch of Burton’s the tailor dating to 1938.

Briavels Grove.

The very humblest examples can be found in residential suburbs. Subtly streamlined semi-detached houses crop up here and there in Westbury on Trym, while Briavels Grove in St Werburgh’s is an entire cul-de-sac of houses with bold geometric door surrounds and sun-ray garden gates. It’s all enough to conjur the sounds of Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra from a distant radiogram:

“It’s just the time for dancing/ Tomorrow is today/ Go where the music’s calling/ And dance the blues away…”

Brutal Bristol

Prince Street car park.

Brutalist architecture isn’t so called because it is harsh or bullying but because it emphasises the use of raw concrete, via the French: béton brut. Bristol’s brutalist buildings, as well as being a pragmatic response to the post-war need to build quickly and cheaply, are powerful, sometimes even beautiful presences in the cityscape.

At first glance the Shot Tower on Cheese Lane might be mistaken for a Cold War watch post. Its actual purpose was the manufacture of lead pellets. Designed by Underwood and Partners in 1968 it succeeded the world’s very first shot tower which occupied a nearby site. It demonstrates how varied and interesting concrete buildings can be, the chunks from which it is constructed given texture by the casting process, and used to create futuristic forms. It reminds me of the Discovery from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but it is perhaps also somewhat, just to the tiniest degree, phallic. It is now part of an office complex.

Shot Tower
The Shot Tower.

Concrete fetishists are about the only people who get excited by multi-story car parks which offer plenty of opportunity for bold design and abstract forms. NCP Prince Street, designed to serve the hotel next door by Kenneth Wakeford Jarram & Harris in 1966, is a much-admired example, made mesmerising by the saw waves and diamonds that cover its bulk, brough alive by the shifting of light and shadow. Another of note is NCP Rupert Street, the first multi-story car park in the city, designed by R. Jelinek-Karl in 1960, which sits above the street like a coiled concrete python.

Repeating concrete patterns on a car park.
NCP Prince Street.

Car park at night.
NCP Rupert Street.

Among Bristol’s most exciting buildings of any style or vintage is the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Clifton by Percy Thomas & Son. The thrusting spaceship-like spire can be seen for miles around and the more-or-less hexagonal church was apparently unpopular with conservation-minded locals and worshippers when it arrived from its home planet in 1974. It was built using especially fine, pale concrete and so hasn’t aged as poorly as some similar buildings.

A modernist cathedral in concrete.
Clifton Cathedral.

Nobody can have missed Castlemead, the tower that rises over Castle Park. It is part of the last gasp of brutalist building, conceived by A.J. Hines in the early 1970s but not finished until 1981. It looks like the kind of building evil corporations in Hollywood films choose for their bases but there is at least a little humour in the concrete battlements at the top of the tower.
The Arts and Social Sciences Library of the University of Bristol on Tyndall Avenue (Twist and Whitley, 1975) is another building often described as ‘fortress-like’. Its windows, angled to control the entry of light, and its top-heavy structure, do give the impression that it is peering down on passing pedestrians.

A tower block surrounded by trees.
Castlemead.

Underneath a motorway.
M32 at Eastville.

I’m going to finish with a leftfield suggestion: take a closer look at the M32 motorway from beneath, at somewhere like Stapleton, where the song of the traffic between concrete columns brings to mind the interior of a cathedral, with mile after mile of the rawest béton around.

Reading My Way Through 1959

The cover of Free Fall by William Golding,

I’m planning to spend 2019 reading only novels from 1959, with some extra homework on the side.

Why? Because in 2017, I set myself a similar reading challenge – only books by women – and it helped me focus. I read more, and more widely, and more books that were new to me. I discovered some new favourite writers (such as Edna O’Brien) and the habit stuck: I continued to read more books by women in 2018, and feel better for it.

But in 2018, with no specific challenge, I read less overall, and caught myself lazily returning to old favourites out of which I have already chewed all the flavour.

So, for this year, I needed a challenge, and focusing on a specific time period seemed like a good idea. The mid-20th century happens to be where my head is at a lot of the time anyway. It also happens to be when the Big Novel I’m working on is mostly set, so this also doubles as research.

I landed on 1959 specifically by asking my handful of discerning Twitter followers to choose between 80 years ago, 70, 60, and 50. (It was close – 1969 nearly won.)

As of this morning, I’ve started reading Free Fall by William Golding, which I found on Wikipedia’s list of British novels published in 1959, and then happened to stumble across in a secondhand bookshop in Osterley on Sunday. “Perhaps you found this book on a stall fifty years hence which is another now”, he writes eight pages in, bending my mind somewhat, despite being ten years out. It’s not quite my usual thing – very self-consciously literary, prose verging on Joycean – but it seems to have hooks in me already.

A low resolution image of streaks of light on a curving road.
From the front page of the Manchester Guardian for 1 January 1959: ‘The lights of south-bound vehicles on the Preston Motorway’.

On the side, though, I’m also going to try to do something I’ve been thinking about for years: reading a daily newspaper for each day of 1959.

This has never been easier than today with local libraries offering access to The Times and the Guardian, and the incredible British Newspaper Archive providing scans of all kinds of local and national titles.

On 1 January 1959 the Manchester Guardian was declaring A PROSPEROUS NEW YEAR with “Industrial shares index at highest level ever”. It reported that actor Alec Guinness had been awarded a knighthood, and that the West had rejected Nikita Khruschev’s suggestion that Berlin be made a “free city”. Meanwhile, in Cyprus, EOKA issued a defiant new year message for the British government: “We will emerge from our present peaceful attitude as FULLY armed avengers to return the blows.”

Postcard of Coventry Cathedral.

Given my interest in post-war architecture, I was also interested to read this:

To-day, for the first time, hymns and prayers have sounded in Coventry’s new cathedral. They came not from the choice and chapter but from the unaccustomed voices of the masons and labourers, tilers and glaziers and plumbers, whose hands are raising the walls of what to-oday we heard called “This great fortress of God in Coventry.”

Unfortunately, an opinion piece on racial tension, and a surge in white nationalist tendencies, suggests that there’s little shelter from the problems of 2019 to be found in desk-bound time travel.

I’ll also be making a point of listening to music from 1959, and watching films and TV from the same year, without being exclusive about it. I’m looking forward to rewatching Room at the Top for starters, which I last saw as a teenager in Steven Bennison’s media studies class at Bridgwater College.

If anyone feels like joining in, or borrowing this idea but wallowing in a different year, go for it – I always enjoy company on these expeditions.

War Still Echoes

Inside a shelter.
The Spitfire base at Perranporth, Cornwall.

The recent surge in the visibility of fascism and fascist imagery is depressing. It’s become a cliche to say it but here goes: we had a war and settled this a while back, didn’t we?

What I’ve been thinking about lately, in particular, is how that ‘while back’ doesn’t even feel all that far back.

Yes, that feeling is partly a result of my being a relic of the 1970s but, really, you don’t have to look far, even in the leafy suburbs, small towns and countryside of Britain, to see great concrete chunks of World War II just lying around, like tombstones.

I went for a run up and around Purdown in Bristol the other day. My aim was to get to the base of the telecoms tower I’ve been able to see on the horizon for the last few weeks. Once I’d got past that, however, I was amazed to find myself picking a path through what were obviously the overgrown remains of gun emplacements.

Officially known as the Purdown Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery this site was first militarised in 1939 and the concrete structures were erected in 1940. Locally it was the source of the legend of ‘Purdown Percy‘, a supposedly secret, supposedly massive gun that could be heard across the city.

Fantastic as I found this survival I wasn’t surprised by its existence because, honestly, it sometimes feels like a challenge to go for a walk or ramble without stumbling across something like this.

Spitfire base, Perranporth.

On the Cornish coast in April my other half and I found ourselves diverted through the remains of a Spitfire base at Perranporth — overgrown, yes, but so complete that a Battle of Britain fighter squadron could probably operate out of it by this time next week if need be.

In my home town of Bridgwater pill boxes surround the railway station and line the canal all the way Taunton — brutal brick and concrete structures designed for no purpose other than war and preserved at first, I’ve always assumed, because no-one quite believed the peace would hold with Russia rampant; and then just forgotten about.

Even in London, built on and overbuilt and developed to a high shine, you can still see painted signs on Smith Square pointing to air raid shelters, and the remains of shelters themselves in parks and on side streets. Just look at the Citadel in St James’s Park, as I used to do on the way into work most mornings for about a decade — a bunker so bullying and intrusive, like a beached warship, that it has almost become invisible.

The war is still with us, even as those who remember it firsthand slip away from us.

The war is still The War.

The warning still rings.

It’s In Swindon

Edwardian photograph: a grocer's shop.

I have a skill that I have yet to work out a way to monetise: finding places on Google Street View based on a single photograph and limited data.

You know when some account or other Tweets a black-and-white photo with some variant on, ‘Any idea where this is, Twitter peeps?’ Once I’ve finished vomiting over the use of ‘Twitter peeps’, I’m the bloke that spends an hour switching between Street View, census records, online photo archives and about 60 other sources to work it out.

It reminds of a jigsaw puzzle based on an M.C. Escher drawing I once helped the other half with. All the pieces looked the same, it seemed utterly impossible, but slowly we learned to distinguish between mostly black, cross-hatched black, sideways hatched dark grey, stippled dark grey, and so on. With an old photo, the more you stare, the more details pop out — a church spire in the background, a number on a nearby shop, the name of a brand of horse food, a faded sign…

Only this morning I cracked a puzzle set by the ever-fascinating @ghostsigns by spotting a war memorial in the bottom right corner; searching the Imperial War Museum’s war memorial database for NEWCASTLE UNDER LYME OBELISK and then exploring the area around Chesterton Park (where I’ve never been in real life) on Street View.

It’s satisfying on several levels. First, it’s pleasing to help someone else. Secondly, as someone who often wants help from others solving pub-related mysteries, I hope it earns me some Karma or something. Then there’s the pleasure of the hunt — I didn’t know anything about Newcastle-under-Lyme when I got up this morning, but now I feel as if I’ve lived there. Finally, there’s the reason most people do puzzles: the sense of elation that comes with a deferred resolution. I may have punched the air discreetly over my porridge.

My greatest triumph came closer to home a couple of years ago. The photo at the top of this post is of my partner’s great grandfather. We knew he ran a grocer’s shop in East London between the wars on a particular street (Orford Road, Walthamstow) but couldn’t work out where it was exactly. I stared at that picture, at Street View, back at the picture, back at Street View, until hours later I declared, ‘It’s in Swindon. Here, look.’

See, Orford road doesn’t slope, I eventually remembered, which broke that hang up. Then, free to think beyond what I’d assumed was an established fact, I started to look more widely, starting by Googling ROLLESTON which, among other things, is a street in Swindon. That rang a bell — wasn’t that where the other half’s great-grandmother was born? I trolled up and down Rolleston Street for a bit but couldn’t find the shop. Then I zeroed in on this distinctive feature:

Window bracket

I’d seen this, here. But the window arrangement wasn’t quite right, and none of the other buildings nearby had the same arrangement. Then, the final move: I looked at the building from a different angle and found a shot from an older Street View survey: BINGO, THERE IT IS.

That’s clearly a converted shop premises, on a slope, with the right arrangement of windows and brackets. (I didn’t know then about the back-and-forward date slider in Street View, or maybe it hadn’t appeared at that point.)

I know, I know — this is incredibly bloody boring. That’s who I am. Deal with it. And if you get stuck with something like this, do drop me a line. I might be able to help and even if I can’t I’ll have fun trying.