Monday, June 18, 2012

Safe as the Bank of England

A continuation.

My recent walk took me finally into the centre of this city via the notorious Central Motorway at Swan House. Constructed as the focal point to the grandiose plans to create a "Venice of the North" in the 60s – gondoliers were to be replaced with cars; no one in that naive time could foresee that soon the world and his mate would be up for car ownership and the new urban motorway saturated in turn. Nope, this was going to be like 'Metropolis': A very well ordered Rational Society experienced by a new kind of human being, making objective choices in accord with logical principles set out by intellectuals. The Modernists had foreseen the future and now, in this then magnificent Georgian–Victorian city, a great experiment was going to prove them correct. Heaven on earth was obtainable. Pass the slide rule!

I went to capture the last days of the Bank of England building that has stood unoccupied and unloved at the base of Pilgrim Street  for many years. (Pilgrims did walk this way – to visit the shrine of Our Lady at Jesmond - "Jesus' Mound"). In these times watching a Bank crumble into dust is an enjoyable novelty. I doubt this one did much by way of lending to me and thee. I cannot remember seeing anyone going in or out. Like everything from here down to the magnificent Tyne Bridge, the architecture is appalling. Here some of this city's most historic sites were pulverised or marginalised in the enormous effort to build this cornerstone of the Modernists' 'New Jerusalem'. Now the Bank building is coming down after less than fifty years of existence. How I wish the opportunity to demolish the vast Swan House office block itself, empty and unusable, was not grasped a few years ago!

By some piece of 'fast footwork' the empty office block was re-vamped for flats - though demolition was strongly urged. I wonder, looking up, what the new residents do for natural light? The breathless 'now and happening' tone of the subsequent 'lipstick on a corpse' makeover betrays perhaps the absence of any residents who come out in daylight.

Behind the (ex) Bank lies the yards of Bell's Court, opening off Pilgrim Street. This is also mostly now gone to dust or cleared for a car park. I can just remember the alleyway and cobbles beside a dark tenement when it was home to the 'Spectro Arts Centre' in the 70s. It was a slight remainder of an older, pre-'Classical' Newcastle district. Somewhere nearby the infamous French 18th century revolutionary Marat lodged when briefly living in the city awaiting his chance to return to his homeland and take a bath ... A physician, Marat, when not formenting violent overthrow of the world order, had spent time ministering to the horses at Seaton Delaval Hall.*

Nothing of value however, impedes planners. Their overbearing certainty in their own judgements brought merely impermanence and loss to one of the oldest parts of a celebrated city. I recall a firm of demolition specialists (in another city) whose dirty lorries charged about revealing on their battered tail gates this slogan: Watch it come down. Still watching ...

Link for the Holy Jesus Hospital here.

*Thanks to S.B. for information on Marat in Newcastle. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

While the sun shines

Making my way during our recent heatwave (some pessimists say 'summer') towards town via City Road. This is an area that has undergone a mostly unseen re-development in recent years and the area that languished after the Central Motorway sliced it off from the city centre to the west has come back from the dead.

Just enough of the older architecture – styles that reflect the heyday of the commercial history of the nearby Quayside – remains to give this under rated enclave a character of its own. To think, but for film making collective Amber Films (especially the late Murray Martin), it would all (yes, all) have been pounded into the ground. The usual 'roll over and die' attitude that town planners like to encourage in their chosen victims failed because Amber artfully and comprehensively undermined the City Council's case for clearance. Using photography and taped interviews the 'unseen' Quayside told its own unique, diverse story in a subsequent highly popular exhibition at Amber's own Quayside gallery space. Within ten years this attractive diversity had stimulated a landmark re-generation scheme (whose mediocre leadership took pains to distance itself from the radical community roots of this renaissance). By a whisker Newcastle was spared, in part at least, the disease of 'totalitarian' corporate office blocks that have blighted one sea or river frontage after another around the globe.

To me it is ironic that Martin, a socialist of an independent kind, could easily have become a property millionaire had he chosen. Amber bought their own Quayside complex at a rock bottom price and, as I came to know afterwards, were offered other properties nearby at similarly low market values. Within a few years valuations were several ten fold higher.

Murray Martin, film maker and activist, 1943–2007
(photo: Amber Films)

See also: More than a fig leaf