Terry O'Connor

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A shower of all my days

My sister recently reminded me of one of our mother’s pet sayings: “You can never go back”. Her point was that if we return to somewhere that was familiar early in our lives, expecting it to be as we remember it, we will always be disappointed. The place itself will have changed in a number of large and small ways, and so will we. Age and experience will have changed our perception, our attitudes, and what was homely and familiar may seem mean and dull. We can return to a place but not to a time, and we cannot go back to experiencing that place as our earlier selves.

All of this applies to the post-Easter vacation trip that we took in the first couple of weeks of April 2013. Taking time off was necessary, even prescribed, and the need to visit relatives and friends took us on a tour across southern England. Quite unintentionally, it also turned into a nostalgia trip around once-familiar places. We began on the Isle of Thanet, a rather sad swell of chalk that protrudes from the north-east corner of Kent. Once described, though I forget by whom, as “A sea of cabbages surrounded by houses”, Thanet still has a close association with the genus Brassica in all its green and wind-inducing forms. The towns that frame this cauliflowering profusion have all seen better days, and even those better days were far from good. Margate has given up the struggle, abandoned all pretence at civic pride. By the end of the 1960s, there was a sense that the town was feeling its age, but by slapping on the make-up and dressing to kill, the old girl could still put on a show. Not any more. Age and infirmity have taken their toll, and the consequences of high living and neglect can no longer be covered up. The town is dying, if not actually dead already. Imposing a trendy art gallery of pretentious tat onto Margate is like pinning a piece of cheap costume jewellery into a corpse in the belief that the deceased will be revivified.

Is this really the town in which I grew up? A few clues show that it is. The Manning family still run the whelk stall by the harbour, the distinctive tower of All Saints Church still looms over the view back across the bay, and the end-terrace house where I spent my early years is still standing, albeit with a sagging roof and having apparently shrunk in the intervening half-century. Maybe I have changed as much as the town, and now see the wrinkles and liver-spots all too clearly? No doubt that is a factor, but no amount of amended perspective can hide the absence of life in a once-thriving High Street. The closure of Woolworth’s was not Margate’s fault, but the failure of any retail business to take on the prime High Street position speaks volumes for the absence of economic life.

Across the island, Ramsgate seems to have fared better, or at least less badly. The tired hotel that my in-laws worked so hard to make successful has been restored to its Victorian prime, a big house in a square of fine houses. A new addition to Ramsgate is a colony of rose-ringed parakeets, bringing an exotic touch to the tall trees of Vale Square. Opinions seem to be hardening against these noisy green birds, but on a bitterly cold spring day they are a welcome flash of life and colour. Down at the harbour, the yacht marina seems to be giving Ramsgate the raison d’être that Margate lacks. There are small bars and cafes, a chandler’s, signs of life.

Revisiting Thanet was never meant to be a nostalgic tour around old haunts, but that is what it became. Just one location failed to depress. In a desperate search for something positive, we spent most of a day at the Powell-Cotton Museum, a wonderful cabinet of taxidermed and ethnographic curiosities assembled by Percy Powell-Cotton in order to bring the exotic worlds of Africa and India to the people of England. He could not have known how valuable that collection would become, a treasury of accurately-provenanced samples and specimens that conservation and genetics researchers find both rare and precious. As a small boy, I knew none of that, but loved the wildlife dioramas and serried ranks of antelope skulls. They still form the core of the museum, and the small boy in me still loves them as a spectacle as much as my older self appreciates the technical skill in their preparation and curation. I knew Powell-Cotton’s daughter Antoinette – Toni – slightly when she was in charge of the Museum, a brisk, rather frightening woman of robust manner and opinions. Many years later, we returned with our own small children. Sitting in a window of the family home was Toni Powell-Cotton, now very old and frail, gazing out over the garden and seemingly oblivious to the noise and movement around her. It was very difficult to equate this elderly figure with the vivid, intelligent, assertive woman that I had known, still less with the rifle-toting young hunter whose image smiled out of photographs in the Museum. Maybe it was just the lighting, but Toni that day seemed bleached of colour, almost translucent, as if already becoming a ghost a year or two before her death. The Powell-Cotton Museum is a valuable archive of records and materials, but it is also a compiled memory of remarkable lives that were lived in a colonial world that is long gone. Its future must be in preserving both that material archive and the memory.

I left Thanet with the same sense of relief that I had felt some 40 years previously. It is hard to think of the prosperous south-east of England having stagnant backwaters, pools of economic and cultural poverty. Once beyond its broad commuter belt, Kent is cut off from the rest of Britain by the black-hole of London, and the east of the county, especially, suffers from being too far from the metropolis to benefit from its supposed economic buoyancy, yet too isolated from the rest of the country to make other connections. Perhaps the whole of East Kent should be annexed by France, and run as an overseas Département?

We moved on to London to stay south of the river with an old friend. A bus ride to Greenwich took us to another old haunt. Not that we could ever afford to live in Greenwich, you understand, but down-market Charlton, two stops down the line, used to be home. So much has changed and, unlike Margate, the roots of the current scene cannot be found in the place as it was decades ago. Greenwich itself throbs with life, even on a Sunday, more cosmopolitan now than any part of London used to be. We sat in the market, listening to the aural palimpsest, reflecting how unlike England it all was and in a very good way. From the lofty heights of Greenwich Park, the view across London is both impressive and depressing. Brash new buildings make their various statements, wearing their lack of continuity with their surroundings as a badge of pride. Across the river, the dreaming spires of the Canary Wharf development form a prominent massif, their summits adorned with the names of their occupiers – Barclays, Citibank, Lloyds TSB. A prominence of investment banks bulges out of the London landscape, in much the same way that a tumour bulges out of surrounding tissues. A cancerous growth bears some kinship with the body parts out of which it develops, but it is out of control, growing fast at the expense of the healthy body, drawing in far more than its share of resources and exuding toxic waste products. So too the investment banks and financial institutions that fund and occupy the gleaming steel and glass tumours of the City and Canary Wharf. More and more of the life processes of London and the South-East were drawn in by these malignant neoplasms, swelling their un-natural growth at the expense of other modes and industries. And now they have all but killed their host, reducing the national economy to a weak and vulnerable patient, yet inoperable for want of a political surgeon bold or skilled enough to cut them out.

When I lived in London as a callow student, I found the contrasts offensive; miserable poor people scraping a living cleaning and washing for the complacent rich who were also their landlords. Perhaps that has changed, but the sense of parallel lives shifting past each other persists. What do the low-income council tenants think of the moneyed bright young things who move into their neighbourhood, opening delicatessens to market exotic produce that the poor can neither afford nor stomach and setting up pre-school nurseries that are of no use to the elderly residents marooned in their crumbling memories? And how do the newly-monied Londoners feel about those who control their lives? No, not politicians, don’t be silly, but the international traders and financiers whose grasp has currently fallen on London, but who feel no more for it than an effusive tumour feels for the lung or prostate in which it grows? The City and its confidence tricksters and usurers, aided by weak, nest-feathering politicians and regulators, have brought about an economic malaise from which we all suffer. No, pleasure though it was to see our old friend, and much as parts of today’s London are brighter and cleaner than of yore, there is still so much about the capital that leaves me uneasy and slightly disgusted.

Happily, there were visits into the surrounding countryside, to see family and to drop in on historic places of interest. Down House, home of the Darwin family, was a pleasure. Despite the best efforts of English Heritage, the house still feels as if it could have been a family home, a place where a gaggle of children could grow noisily while their father worried himself sick. The Darwins could afford domestic staff, of course, but one wonders whether the house was often just a little more untidy than it is presented today. History is tidied up, too.  It was Darwin’s house, and it is right that his achievements take centre stage, but rather sad none the less to see two Victorians of the stature of Captain Fitzroy, founder of modern meteorology, and Alfred Russell Wallace, pioneering evolutionist and biogeographer, reduced to bit-part players in the Darwin epic. No man is an island: Darwin certainly was not and his contemporaries deserve better. So too does Lullingstone Roman villa. It is a remarkable site, the discovery and excavation of which is a remarkable story, yet it is presented in sepulchral gloom that prevents the visitor from fully appreciating the surviving remains. There is the inevitable interpretation video, projected onto a screen that hangs over the site like forgotten laundry, further obscuring the view. If visiting Lullingstone, avoid the video and take a torch.

A complicated and ultimately unsuccessful dinner arrangement took us to Lewes for the evening. Now safely framed by its periphérique of by-pass roads, the old centre of Lewes retains its charm. Buildings of recent origin gap-fill streetscapes of half-timber and Georgian brick. We stopped by one of the modern insertions: “Did you see the excavation that went on here before this was built?”. Such are the nostalgic reflections of archaeologists, focussed on things that come out of the ground. In the late 1970s, when James Callaghan was Prime Minister and Britain still had coal and steel industries, events took us to South Wales. We lived in Cardiff for a year, then bought our first house, a terraced property in a pit village near Pontypridd. Back then, the village had a working pit, and we had miners for neighbours. Following a local tradition, one of those neighbours hacked a lump of coal from deep below ground and gave it to us at the end of his shift: “Keep that safe and you’ll always have good luck”. In a few years, the pit was closed, its community dispersed. We still have our piece of Welsh coal, a deeply-appreciated gift that brought little good fortune to the givers.

Shaking London off our heels, we headed West for a few days in Cardiff, staying with friends and intending to see how much of the old place has survived. The first surprise was the discovery that our ‘escape route’, a mainly-green walking route out of the city, is now a designated trail. All-weather surfaces and clear signage have replaced the muddy paths and bits of canal-side that used to lead us out to the hills. And Cardiff Bay, previously a melange of dereliction and red-light pubs, is alive and positively throbbing. Like the Turner Contemporary and Canary Wharf, the galleries and bistros could so easily feel like an alien imposition, something wished upon Cardiff with too little thought for the host. Yet somehow it avoids this fate. Somehow the Bay feels like a part of the city, used and appreciated by its people as much as the indoor market and arcades in the old centre.

While in Cardiff we took a day at the folk museum of St Fagan’s, a rolling parkland set about with buildings from around Wales, chosen to represent important styles and periods. Some of the buildings were familiar, though it was an unexpected pleasure to learn that the tannery pits are currently out of use, having been colonised by great-crested newts. Heritage conservation trumped by wildlife conservation, and why not? One relatively new acquisition is a post-war prefab, a kit-form bungalow of which thousands were flung up to house families who were bombed out of their homes. Suddenly I was back in Margate, where, when I was at primary school, families still lived in prefabs. Back then, a prefab was somewhere that you wanted to leave, to escape to a ‘proper’ house of bricks and mortar. But pottering around one today, it was difficult not to reflect that many low-income families, stuck in grotty flats or worse, would be delighted to move into one of these unexpectedly roomy, light and efficient houses. Maybe our self-induced housing crisis has reached the point where a new wave of prefabs would be timely. Today, of course, their construction and acquisition would be outsourced by Government and local authorities to a plethora of private sector businesses, each of them skimming off as much cream as possible with no thought for the needs or self-respect of the intended occupants. The post-war prefab was a notable achievement, a satisfactory solution to a pressing problem, a solution that made nobody rich or famous but that did the job. I frankly doubt that national or local politicians today would have the foresight or integrity to deliver such a solution.

Despite the golden glow of hindsight, or the comforting fantasies of UKIP, the past has gone, and our old selves gone with it. Margate will never again be the lively seaside of my childhood any more than London will ever again be defined by Lyons Corner Houses and clouds of pigeons.  The challenge is not that the world changes, but that we do, though without accepting that change and thus enjoying the ride. What our Easter travels brought home to me was that we can never go back and should not want to.

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