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Posts Tagged ‘brighton’

Having used a fairly recent (1992) I-Spy book as the springboard for a flight of fancy, I thought it would be fun to get one of the older ones and see what differences there might be. I-Spy on the Pavement came out in 1961, the year I was born, so that’s the one I decided to get.

The idea of children being encouraged to wander around towns on their own, looking at things, seems quaint these days (and it is poignant that this should be so.) To my modern eyes, accustomed to seeing children as vulnerable beings needing round-the-clock supervision and enclosure, the I-Spy ‘redskins’ in the illustrations seem to move through a world of adult menace; it is as if the various tradespeople and mendicants they encounter are just playing roles of normality, like characters in a Hitchcock film.

But the kids are in a world of adventure, junior psychogeographers seeing wonders in the detail of the city.

Of course, some of that detail has changed in the past 47 years. Banks have changed names, police boxes disappeared except for the one mythical one that is better known than ever. (I recently found a picture of Brighton Clock Tower, and remembered that there was one there, opposite the original Virgin Records.)

The 1992 I-Spy in the Town does not include CCTV cameras, now a feature of most urban environments. (This seems like an odd omission, as ‘I-Spy’ sounds like the raison d’etre of the CCTV industry, an ideal motto for their guild. One can imagine a special I-Spy book being produced as a training manual for CCTV operators, like the famous Ladybird Computers book that was used to train MoD officials in IT; ‘Vagrant in Sector 10: I-Spy for 20, dispatch community police officers’).

Amazingly, the 1961 book does mention CCTV, albeit in a different context. It seems that construction was a spectator sport in those days, understandable with new ‘sixties’ architecture appearing from the rubble of WWII. Special viewing facilities were available at building sites, and were apparently common enough to include in an I-Spy book. These included a ‘televiewing platform’ (Score 20), in which ‘Closed circuit television is installed and on a large monitor screen…you can see the work in progress in areas that would otherwise be hidden’.

I’m all for exploring ‘areas that would otherwise be hidden’ and I love the way this little book makes everything seem pregnant with meaning…

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The next legs of the journey will take me through Buckinghamshire. This being the case, I have picked up a guidebook of sorts: Buckinghamshire Footpaths, by J.H.B. Peel, found in Wigtown (‘Scotland’s book town’) while on holiday. Buckinghamshire Footpaths was published in 1949, when a Britain battered by war was re-creating itself, and part of Peel’s purpose is to prompt readers to see preservation of countryside as an essential part of that re-creation: ‘Unable ever again to conquer others, let us now conquer ourselves.’

Peel, a poet whose work included Mere England, a long work about Buckinghamshire, sees parts of his county as examples of the kind of countryside that needs preserving. Whereas ‘The Londonward side of Amersham…is marred beyond mending’, ‘the northern half of Buckinghamshire is curiously ill-served by railways and main roads, and has therefore retained a relatively high degree of civilization’. For Peel this meant a lack of ‘Cosy cafes, palaces-of-dance, super-cinemas and other attributes of progress’, a place to experience ‘that sense of peace, which is an Absolute of Life’.

Of course, things have changed in the three-score-and-ten since the book was written. Peel could not imagine there being a reason to change the ‘unsophisticated’ nature of the county, giving as a hypothetical example the absurdity of running a bus service between the small hamlets of Milton Keynes and Woughton-on-the-Green. These days, the number 18 runs on the hour, reaching Woughton without ever leaving the huge version of Milton Keynes that now embraces the whole area.

Personally, I can see a beauty in many of the things that Peel would deplore – motorway services, gigantic New Towns and all. And yet I see myself in this picture:

To the quiet man who in these unquiet times is braced and made whole again by contact with things strong and steadfast and English, his County…is a very haven, in which he will find, not escape nor mere distraction, but the still, small voice of reality, cool and unwavering and melodious amid the vast mirage of contemporary arrogance and haste.

Although I now live in Lancashire, and have fond memories of boyhood holidays in Bucks, my county will always be Sussex, the destination of this walk. There I might find the ‘still, small voice of reality’, perhaps in the ‘cool and melodious’ spring that emerges beneath the escarpment of the Downs at Fulking… but perhaps in the foyer of a ‘super-cinema’ on the seafront.

Arguably I am one of the ‘good English folk, or proud Britons’ Peel writes for, mongrel quarter-Jap that I am; I am certainly glad enough that there are woods, fields and old buildings around. However I can’t bring myself to believe in a pure, essential set of ‘things strong and steadfast and English’, unconnected from other ‘things’ and somehow unchangeable. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist: I’ll keep an eye out for them as I wander through Bucks and beyond…

But it will be a careful eye. With concepts like ‘Britishness’ being grasped at by charmless fascist-wannabes and latter-day Thule Society types – cueing late-70s memories of Anti-Nazi League rallies in Brighton and London, a bloated man mouthing abuse at the marchers from the patio of a famously Hitler-loving south coast B&B, the long heat of the Rock Against Racism carnival in Victoria Park, Bernie outside Hassocks station batting away a skinhead with his skateboard, Pils-soaked gigs in the Vault and the Hanbury Arms, the Resource Centre getting trashed – in such times I guess it is important to try and distinguish between one’s own romantic fantasies, and other people’s manipulative dreams. As for ‘reality’, I may not know much but I do know that it can’t be tamed, packaged  or colonised.

I think I can spot my own fantasies and, to some extent, the paradoxes and contradictions within them. On the one hand, I can fill with emotion at the thought of English lanes in ‘Hardy’s Wessex’, pints of ale in Tolkien’s Shire, the England depicted in the fat ‘Books of…’ and ‘Guides to…’ published by the AA and National Trust that arrived at our house through the 1970s, TV’s luminous Larkrise with Gary Dobbs looking at vegetables in a sunlit square, and countless other lovely, idealised pasts.  At the same time I can join the Hope not Hate people in celebrating a diverse ‘modern’ Britain, and yearn for the lost Utopian possibilities of the 1960s mourned in the works of H.S.Thompson and M. Moorcock, transforming, exciting futures.  Meanwhile Brighton, my lodestone, offers as a kaleidoscope of images, ideas and subcultures, unfixable and therefore endlessly desirable. Earthquake, storm, fire – then the still small voice.

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Starting to plan this walk, I need to do a few things. Some idea of route will help, including a start and end point.

Commencing at the end, the plan is to return to my birthplace. Brighton Maternity Hospital is no longer there; I could (and probably will) peer at the office block on the site, but that would be a bathetic end. I have no memory of our first home in Patcham. Sooo – I’m thinking of the end of Brighton Pier as the destination point. From there (on a clear day) I can look back at everywhere I’ve lived, worked, loved, drank, and just existed in the Brighton/Hove/Portslade locations that mean something to me.

That settled, a starting point is needed (and I suppose technically this is more urgent). My own front door would make sense, but I’m thinking of the end of Southport Pier. I’ll then walk to Ormskirk and onwards, probably joining the Trans Pennine Trail. Unfortunately this isn’t a Pennine Trail reserved for Trans people – it’s a coast-to-coast walking/cycling/ostrich-powered-rickshaw route, but it will get me to a point where I can cross the Mersey and veer south. (A massive detour to Sheffield, where some friends may give me a cup of tea, would be possible on this waymarked trail.)

These two points give the thing some symmetry – pier to pier, sea to sea, resort to resort…

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