We Who Were Living
Returning to this post: I can't actually bring myself to hate Bournemouth, in spite of everything, although it typifies almost everything that can be done wrong in a town's life and environment. Not so much that the actual landscape itself, or the built environment, is repulsive - far from it. Strolling through the suburbs towards the clifftop, the avenues of pines with their massive Victorian detached houses set as far back from the road as can be managed, the small scraps of parks (the 'Woodland Walk' that consists of a concrete path surrounded by a few conifers) and the front gardens of the smaller houses blooming into life, looking up at the Art Deco blocks that punctuate the cliff between Boscombe and Bournemouth piers, you can understand what it was that drew people to the resort, founded on marshes at the end of a stream, in the first instance. There are numerous instances of some quite vile architecture - the finance buildings that stick out like an enfilade of rotten teeth as you approach the town centre, the vastly useless BIC clogging up the view of West Cliff, the Barrett pastel rabbit-hutch complex sitting smugly above the site of the planned 'surf reef' - but there is also plenty to entice the flaneur - as long as he doesn't plan to go inside.
This is the point: successive Lib Dem and Tory councils have positively promoted the total privatisation of space for decades. This extends not merely to the proliferation of housing - the majority of it badly-built, crammed into any spare ground, and justified as social housing when most people are in fact unable to afford it - including gated communities and 'luxury flats' (complete with 'inspiring prospects' of... uh, lots of water), but the systematic destruction of arts and community facilities. The sole council-funded venue, the Winter Gardens - where, the local nostalgics never cease to remind us, the Beatles once played - was torn down several years ago; a number of proposals for a replacement were mooted, including a new arts centre, before they eventually decided on the creation of a new carpark. Since then, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra have resided at the Lighthouse Arts Centre in Poole, with subsequent prohibitively high ticket prices. The town can boast of no munipical art gallery or museum (the delightfully eccentric Russell-Cotes museum, with its cheerful orientalism and Victorian hunting-lodge atmosphere, only houses a private collection of artworks), no visit-worthy landmark - Christ, even Coventry has the Cathedral - no independent bookshop or record-store (saving the one-or-two secondhand outlets, one of which is now closing down), no independent fringe venues (by which I mean somewhere like the Vortex in London), no theatre, and barely anywhere to sit down that isn't a sodding coffee bar. Even Coventry has Taylor John's House, The Tin Angel and The Herbert Gallery - Jacob Epstein, Stanley Spencer; a way of thinking about space, about objects, that is also a way of thinking about community. Coming into the town centre, either down Old Christchurch Road or Westover Road, and up Commercial Road towards the Triangle, you feel crushed, boxed-in between slab-like buildings wholly given over to rampant commerce, until you (or, more accurately, I) have to take refuge in the town library. The streets are conceived of not as public thoroughfares, but, as the SI remarked of the modern metropolis more generally, a means of conveying traffic: the combination of utterly callous drivers and ridiculous traffic systems makes cycling not so much an activity as a life-and-death challenge. Even on the outskirts of town, stretching out toward villages like Throop and Iford, the country is merely the setting for a motorway, a place for pedestrians to be killed.
The town, in unseasonably warm weather, is currently awakening to what looks like spring. And yet, I find myself remembering why it was this place that drew me towards Eliot, in spite of its relative non-harshness as a place to grow up: I recognised, in every street, how "The dead flowed over London bridge, so many/I had not thought death had undone so many./Sighs, short and infrequent were exhaled,/And each man fixed his eyes before his feet." To me, it was the wasteland. The entire environment is indicative of the small-mindedness, meanness and money-grubbing of its population. I see more than enough kids around these days, haunting the same places I did, and wonder what it's like for them growing up here. No doubt they find it easier than I did: they have no values other than those this environment has engrained in them. A halfway exciting music scene exists, as it didn't when I was 15. Self-confidence pours off these kids in waves; the sense of paralysing hopelessness that defined my teenage years is something alien to them. They are products of their environment in a way I never was. I'm somewhere else now. It all came too late.