Sunday, 23 February 2014

Butt ugly

Yesterday, necessity brought us to the heart of the Manx third world, i.e. Strand Street, Douglas.
On principle, usually only two things cause me to venture to Douglas these days. One is paid work, the other is meetings related to what you might term good works. Those apart, I really see no reason to dwell in the heart of darkness any more. Almost everything colourful, unique or interesting has been closed or knocked down in a redevelopment blitzkreig that began in the late 1980's.
The latest excuse for the dead-eyed air of the place is a supposed move away from local shops (or even just real world retail outlets staffed by real people) and on to the internet, but this is a lie and the problem is much older.
It began 25 or so years ago, when urban planners decided the area needed regenerating to stop it looking like every other Northern seaside town at the peak of Thatcherism. Inevitably, the “solution” was also Thatcherite and involved winkling every small family business out of their property or tenancy, then replacing them with soul-less shopping centres whose “key tenants” would be major UK retailers, working on the theory that once these were in (rent free for years if necessary) smaller retailers and new local businesses would follow.
We now know how well that worked. With proper planning and a little research into the theory and practice of the socio-economic model they were using, the planners could have too. Or perhaps they always have known, and also know, like career Thatcherites, that the real beauty of free market urban redevelopment is that it is a job for life. The scam works, very simply, on the basis that most businesses simply fail while even the successful and well planned ones have a predetermined shelf life, but that regional governments must always be seen to understand and be managing such change, rather than being as frightened and confused by all the strange noises and flashing lights as their most ignorant ratepayers.
But, returning to yesterday.... all three of us had outstanding gift vouchers which could only be cashed in at Douglas-based major retailers, so we held our noses and dived in for an hour or two.
In the past, we usually take a break halfway through, grab a sandwich from one of the genuine local businesses and munch it on a bench in Regent Street before continuing. But yesterday we discovered, to our horror, that even the newish tramp-unfriendly Regent Street benches had been removed in favour of.....
I still shudder now at the brutalism of the replacement grey slabs of undulating concrete - nominally intended as seating. The latest monstrosities are of a kind seen only in 1930's fascist public art, regional British 1960's shopping centres and Manx millennialist kitsch. Off-island readers who need a reference point could try the current Jonathan Meades TV series in which, in his usual straight-faced style, he deconstructs such horrors and all the screwed up venal, totalitarian scheming which caused them while, nominally, reclaiming them as “good architecture”.
The sheer ugliness (disguised as “function over form”) and impracticality of the new seating area had me idly wondering if T. Dan Smith has distant relatives (or at least admirers) amongst the Manx “redevelopment” fraternity. I also wonder if Douglas Degeneracy Parsnips have shares in Amazon. If not, why else are they so set on making Douglas town centre – 25 years ago a decent if unadventurous example of a typical Northern seaside main drag – so ugly that nobody but the blind can bear to be in it in broad daylight, or while not so legless that they never notice or care what it looks, smells and sounds like?
Answers on a seaside postcard to...well, frankly anybody but me. I neither care nor want to know about a centre of excrement I need not even pass close by unless somebody pays me to do so.

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