No more heroes

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Next month Watchmen will hit our cinema screens. Adapted from a graphic novel first published between 1986 and 1987. As the Cold War disintegrated and America became the last Super Power on earth. These are the heroes of DC Comics and Marvel twisted to suit the ambivalent 1980s. Superheroes battling against reality. Superheroes born not from a meteor shower, but from the depths of their own imaginings.

 

The book was created by writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons. This isn’t the first of Moore’s stories to be transferred from comic book to film. He is the imaginative force behind The League of extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta. Graphic novels adapt themselves easily (if not always successfully) to film. The story boards immediately provide a visual skeleton. And they combine traits of most Hollywood blockbusters – fantastical scenes and violent action with minimal dialogue. The narrative is utilitarian. It gets the job done in bold letters. This is sound bite fiction. With dialogue that will be familiar to anyone who enjoys the films of Quentin Tarantino. The speech bubbles are littered with slang. They punch. And what gets said is sharp and to the point. It has to be.

 

Watchmen is a crossroads in the evolution of the superhero. It represents a moment of disillusionment. Watchmen’s heroes are more or less unpleasant. They are compromised by personal emotions. By their pasts. By their desires. By their hatred becoming personal. They are created and motivated into action by the affects of their dysfunctional environments. The larger than life personas they assume become projections of that dysfunction. These are themes of characterization which would be picked up and applied by film director Christopher Nolan in Dark Knight. The first truly adult depiction of a superhero on film. Christian Bale’s Batman has no superhuman strengths. He can’t fly. He doesn’t have enormous strength. He can’t climb unaided up walls. He doesn’t have x-ray vision. He has no specific powers. He is motivated by anger. By fury. Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent has seen his principles tested beyond endurance. He becomes Two-Face as a result. A man who only allows for black or white decisions. Decisions that are unfair and based on cold chance. The Joker is a product of his background. His nihilism instructed by a broken childhood. There is no spaceship from Krypton delivering salvation or destruction to earth. Watchmen laid down the blue print for this type of superhero. The Comedian’s state sponsored murder sprees. His blood lust given free reign and rubber stamped by authority provided he killed the right people. These are men and women who have been created by the world around them. They are human beings. Flawed. Perverted. Obscured. Compromised. They have nurtured their problems until they manifest into action. This is pro-active psychoanalysis. They are Charles Bronson in a cape and mask. This is the superhero world created in Watchmen. And it’s this basis in reality that makes Watchmen so pivotal.

 

Watchman’s only genuine, for lack of a better phrase, superhero is Dr. Manhattan. He is the only character in the book who has special powers. Created like the Hulk or Spiderman in a lab by mistake. Method, results, conclusion gone wrong. Dr. Manhattan has apparently limitless power. He can change his physical dimensions. He transports himself to Mars. He builds cities from the sand. He can modify and create matter. He cares about nothing. He is ambivalent. Manhattan symbolizes the modern superhero. The blind worship of celebrity. He is America.

 

The rest of the characters are essentially everyday people. Maybe they’ve gone crazy down at the gym. Loaded up on Benzedrine and Testosterone. Gone to town with the Canadian Airforce training manual. But they are real people nonetheless. And they perform deeds which we are all capable of. I see it in my friends. It is Flaming Cross stalking the dark streets of Manchester. His encyclopaedic knowledge of World War 2 projected onto the present day. He brings justice to the post-Satanic North. He wears a leather SS trench coat. A Gefechtshelm on his shaven scalp. Jack boots. He’s swinging a night stick. Coshing ASBO teens. He sleeps swathed in a Union Jack. He listens to the Smiths. He rips anti-social drivers from the seats of their Seat Leons and BMWs, street justice for the illegal use of a bus lane. Triumph of the Will. Flaming Cross. AKA Reichsman. AKA Suedehead. I see it in Bootneck. Cammed up. A blood-stained green beret on his head. A hunting knife strapped to his leg. Gutting drug dealers in the Dearne Valley. Leaving their disembowelled bodies swinging from lampposts in Thurnscoe. Creating blood angels. His guilty victims furled in the wings created by their own exposed lungs. He lives with the memory of the Orkney Uprising of 1997. The islanders disrupting the economy with their oil refinery raids. The 713 unit of the Royal Marines sent in to sort it. Killing crofters in hand to hand fighting. His comrades brutally scythed down by booby trapped beer kegs. His dreams haunted by the cries of violated sheep.

 

The heroes of Watchmen are you and me. What they become is what we are capable of being. What we might be if we let loose. If we didn’t restrain ourselves. If we knew no boundaries. We see glimpses. In our moments of road rage. In drunken town centre brawls. In obsessive neighbour arguments over litter and parking. Our anger. Our fury. Our potential for self-righteous justice. The brutal satisfaction of all our frustrations. These are anti-heroes in the truest sense. There are no simple, altruistic champions of humanity. Crime fighting is a personal addiction. A need. A justification.

Flaming Cross

The Lazy Sunbathers

The BBC is carrying a story about some teen who has toasted herself down at the local tanning salon. It’s headline grabbing stuff. Fuck the economy. Fuck our troops dying in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fuck Morrissey’s new album. This is what’s important. The Health & Safety blunders of cretins. And it’s a timely reminder. Because, let’s face it, how easy is it to strap yourself into a sun bed until your skin blisters like gloss paint under a blow lamp? We’ve all done it. It’s a simple mistake to make. Especially if you’re a fucking half-wit. This unfortunate fourteen year old developed her melanomas for the standard four minutes or so but on reflection felt that she didn’t look enough like a freshly creosoted garden fence. She wanted to fucking burn. So she banged in another four quid, set the dial to ‘Hiroshima’ and went back under for another twenty to twenty-five minutes. Gas Mark 25. Grapple X. I ain’t got my money’s worth unless I get the stench of burning epidermis. I wonder if it pinged when she was done. Serving suggestion: Stir well and let stand for forty-five seconds. She remerged like a sunbather from Christmas Island c. 1958. Skin scoured by UV until she had 70% first degree burns. Well fuck my spats. Quelle surprise, Rodney. There’s a fucking shocker, eh? Who’d have thought that was going to happen?

The BBC are carrying a cheeky photo of her back. Her bra strap had acted like a stencil, giving us a glimpse of some uncooked flesh next to her tantastic burns for a before/after comparison. Grab a felt tip pen and sketch in a green cedar tree between her shoulder blades and she’s got the flag of Lebanon. The burns are impressive in that way that some other poor sod’s compound fracture holds you in morbid fascination. And X-rays of objects embedded in peoples’ heads. And this man survived despite the chisel through his brain. Sharp intake of breath through critically pursed lips. I bet that fucking hurts. She ended up in hospital. She got put on a drip and had to breathe through an oxygen mask. She’s going through fifty tubs of live yoghurt a day. Doused on the burns. Longley Farm are shipping them to her door. She’s hoping for a nice copper-tone tan at the end of it. She’s the envy of her mates.

The BBC reports: ‘No-one was at the salon to prevent her from using the beds or stop her from using the booth for as long as she did.’ Would you credit that? How irresponsible can you get? What were they thinking? Didn’t they realize people would just keep roasting themselves until they browned down to the bone? Have these people no sense of responsibility? Thoughtless bastards. What do they think we are? Beings capable of rational thought and personal responsibility? Get with the fucking plan. We’re all whinging morons. We’re bored monkeys. That’s the trouble with this country. Nobody wants to take accountability for our stupidity and irresponsibility. There should have been some attendant on hand, badged up, certified by the local college as a tanning safety officer, beating her out from under the UV lights once she started to sizzle. Perhaps they could poke them with some thermostat. Like half-cooked burgers at a roadside café. Dab it into an orifice to get a reading. I’m sorry, love, you’ll have to come out. You’re hotter than the sun.

But it’s not just tanning salons. What about the other places where we’re expected to take care of our own safety, despite all the temptations to act like a fucking idiot? I want to see life guards down at the supermarket. Every aisle should be covered top and bottom just in case I start to beat myself ‘round the head with a tin of cockerleekie soup. Or decide to pour bleach down my gullet. Just to see what happens. Out of idle curiosity. Because I feel like pushing those boring boundaries. And what man hasn’t been tempted to poke cocktail stick down their Jap’s eye in the home baking section? It’s going to happen. Someone has to take responsibility. Somebody has to be on hand with the plasters. The tourniquet.

The hapless, peeling teen’s Mum is a Health & Safety Officer. No irony there. She wasn’t aware that some salons were un-staffed. She shakes her head. She frowns her lips. The disgrace of it. The reckless hunt for profits taking no account of their customers total fucking stupidity. It’s only natural that customers are going to be ignoring the big sign that said: ‘No under sixteens’. That warned of over-doing it. The teen’s Mum said that un-staffed salons posed ‘an enormous risk’. An even bigger risk than stupidity, perhaps. An even bigger threat to safety than being as thick as pig shit. The callous owner of the salon scratched his head and remarked coldly: ‘It’s unfortunate someone chose to ignore the warnings about sun beds.’ He’d got posters up. Warnings about over-use. Posters? Fucking posters? He’d got fucking posters up? Is that enough? Does he honestly think he’s done enough? How does he sleep at nights?

Anyway, I have to go. I’m heading up to the Co-op. To get some milk. To get some Toffee Crisps. Some orange juice. Some Honey Cornflakes. You never know, I might see what happens when I stick a bottle of J2O up my arse (Apple & Mango). Crown first. I bet they haven’t risk assessed the possibility of that happening, have they? Irresponsible twats.

Subterranean homesick blues

Amongst the items of lost and found property presently stored by Transport for London are an attaché case packed with dentures, a stuffed fox and twenty-two World War I German Picklehaube helmets. These are small drops in a very large ocean. Every year Transport for London gathers together more than a hundred and fifty thousand items of property left on buses, taxis and trains. Waiting to be reclaimed are three hundred engagement rings. Five hundred male and female wigs. Ten thousand copies of The Da Vinci Code. More than a thousand sex toys. Three thousand mobile ‘phones – some dating back to the power breakfast days of the 1980s. Half a million babies dummies. And at least one Agatha Christie murder victim from the 1930s. Dismembered and trunked up. Approximately 40% of all items handed in or recovered by staff are reunited with their owners. The rest are held in safekeeping. Some subsequently binned, some recycled, some auctioned. Some never leave. Some are never claimed.

The items are stored in vast underground caves beneath Baker Street. This is a dusty world of the half finished Rubik’s cube, the forgotten Sony Walkman with Haircut 100 cued up on tape and the Teddy Boy’s sharpened flick comb. Here are London’s own catacombs. But whilst the catacombs of Sicily and Naples contain the desiccated remains of their dead residents, with the corpses posed to mimic life in poignant poses, the catacombs of London, typically and aptly, represent its populace in the retention of 27,000 umbrellas. Not to mention those dentures, the stuffed fox and that army of mislaid dildos.

This is modern palaeontology. The phylogenetics of our materialism. Living archaeology. This is the Tutankhamen’s tomb of the City banker and the LSE student. The eternal briefcase and the political textbook of the dead. These are the discarded belongings of Bakerloo Man, the Australian backpacker, and his forgotten trip through the blinding snow to visit Tate Britain. An annotated Rough Guide and a Rolf Harris autographed didgeridoo. Here rest the relics of our civilization.

In the dusty bowels of the London Transport property office stories of comedy and tragedy are expressed in the unclaimed child’s buggy and the discarded iPod. There is a tale to everything, if only you look for it. If you allow it to exist. And not just in the embalmed remains of a Dodo found in the back of a Hackney carriage or the Emmanuel wedding dress left on an empty train at the conclusion of the Northern Line. Or the false leg that turned up on the top deck of a bendy bus by Green Park. But in every object. Even the mundane. The cheap Swatch watch, the Furby which sings ‘Bob the builder’ when you squeeze its neglected belly and the Thomas the Tank Engine ruler. Each is a window on a private life. How were they lost? Why has the owner never been to find it?

Monuments and public art speak of our aspirations. They represent what we would wish to be. The big moments that have affected us. That have enriched or impoverished our shared existence. Our hopes. Our beliefs. Our pain. Our triumphs. Our egos. They attempt to assimilate the broader, shared events of life. The wars. The tragedies. The milestones. The achievements. They are a coping mechanism. They try to convert emotion into marble. To set it in stone and make it manageable. They are aids to comprehend the incomprehensible. These are the Cenotaphs. The Angels of the North. The Nelson’s Columns. The mementoes of a culture. Nothing beside remains: round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away. But it’s the lost bi-focal spectacles and the Gent’s trilby (size 9½) that speak about who and what we are/were. A mislaid leather glove holds more poignancy than a thousand stone triumphal archways. Posterity will not know us from our grand buildings and monuments. What does Tower Bridge truly tell us about the Victorians when compared with a woman’s whalebone corset c.1862? What could capture 1985 better than a lost ‘Frankie Says’ t-shirt with half a can of Quattro poured down the front of it? Our lives in the early 21st Century will be more aptly summed up in a broken controller for the Nintendo Wii than has ever been achieved by the Millennium Dome or Sir Norman Foster’s Gherkin. Nothing shows us for what we are better than the stuff we throw away or the things we lose.

In this world of greed and selfishness Lost & Found is a beacon of hope. The very fact that a stranger will hand in some item of value so that the owner might have it back is out and out cockle warming. One Christmas I lost my wallet. It had £70 in it. I remember the feeling of emptiness and despair when I dipped my hand into my empty pocket. The sudden emotional disorientation. Without hope I visited the police station. My wallet had been handed in by a traffic warden. The cash still there. My heart soared. My faith in humanity was reinstated.

Obviously not everyone is so honest. Ying and yang. Light and shade. There are the items reported missing that have never been found. That, so far, have not been handed in. The copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio that was last seen on the Circle line. The scale model of HMS Ark Royal made from polo mints that went missing on the Docklands Light Railway. Paul Weller’s sense of humour which disappeared on the number 75 somewhere between Soho and Pimlico in 1976.

You know who you are.

The Road to Thurnscoe Needle Exchange

Introduction: Our Brian

There’s a bulldozer around and it’s in your street, bringing Clayton Square to the ground, could have sworn it was there last week. Have you ever been to Leeds? Have you ever been to Merseyside? The town planners coming so, terraces run for your life.

                     – ‘Who killed Clayton Square?’ by Shack from the album Zilch (1988)

In 1976 Brian Glover made a documentary about his home town. No joke living in Barnsley. It was awarded the Royal Television Society’s Best Regional Programme the following year. Brian is aggrieved. He’s standing up for Barnsley.

Brian goes around the then new Barnsley Market. Melamine and shiny steel bracing. A rolled linoleum flooring. Solid concrete. All as chained to the Super Seventies as the Bay City Rollers, Trim phones and inappropriate sit-coms. The old market had been famous throughout the north of England. Photographs show the broad spaces, the smoky pubs filled with miners and glassblowers, suits and whiskers staring curiously at the photographer. The boast was made that if it was sold in the UK then you could get it on Barnsley Market – and cheaper. Established by Royal Charter from 1249 under the auspices of Henry III and still held on Wednesdays. But as decimalization came in the old open spaces were replaced by the concrete future of the Metropolitan Centre. They were gonna build communities. It was going to be pie in the sky. WH Smiths, Littlewoods. A huge Boots opposite. British Home Stores on three floors further down May Day Green. Good for socks and underwear. The stalls which had been on Market Hill opposite the Nat West erased. Spilt into the Outdoor and Indoor, the market was restricted. A huge reduction in the number of stalls. Any history that the town centre possessed – the Elephant & Castle pub where Dickens had put up when he passed through town, the Gas Nook a cobbled street running from the market, a Shambles to rival York – obliterated from the map. The Luftwaffe had let Barnsley be, it was of no interest in the Baedeker raids of 1942, but the Town’s councillors blitzed it. Left it in ruins. A wreck. The town got rusticated concrete and cheap paving slabs. Anonymous drab and sheer ugliness.

Barnsley wasn’t alone in being buggered in this way. Many other towns shared a similar fate. Leeds. Coventry. Birmingham. Newcastle. Liverpool. Manchester. Norwich. Portsmouth. Exeter. Bradford. And on and on. The list covers the country. As a nation we were gifted a heritage of bad architecture and shoddy back-handers. This was the world of John Poulson and Reggie Maudlin, you keep all your money in a big brown bag… Snide deals and our heritage shat on. Personal greed masquerading as civic progress. Remember the slums of the 60s? Well they’re the fortunes of today. The petty burghers of the Carry On films and Tony Hancock’s Punch & Judy Man. Chains of office, suits from Cecil Gee. As Leeds novelist Keith Waterhouse observed: ‘I would put most of the blame [for the state of post war town planning] on the councillors who invite and encourage the laying-waste of their own townships. The trouble is that many of them are not very bright.’

And so we have the new Shambles in Barnsley. Aptly named. A dead space that has no emotional connection with anything. You wander along its broad pavements like a lost soul in limbo. The wind cutting through you as it howls up the hill from the Town End roundabout. Anonymous space on either side. Uninviting and run down.

The Barnsley Council buildings fill the centre of town like a tumour. Brown concrete. Black windows. Thick walkways over the streets below. They loom. Over the market. Peering down on May Day Green. Turning their back on the bus station. Greedy hands out for the council tax.

Heading towards Sheffield Road, the area that had been occupied by the Alhambra Music Hall and the huge Ebenezer church, Sing as we go and ‘Jerusalem’, was a wasteland for years. Broken bricks and piles of dirt. The rest of Sheffield Road out of town separated from the centre by a four lanes of traffic and the Harborough Hills roundabout with its pedestrian subway. We now have the Alhambra shopping centre. Cheap bricks and fag end shops.

Ugly. Cheap and ugly. That is the main characteristic of the town centre.

Orwell complained about the expense of the Town Hall in The Road to Wigan Pier. That instead we could have built more crime ridden estates and three bedroom semis for teenage Mums to occupy rent free. But what would Barnsley have had without the Town Hall? The area up around Old Town is Barnsley’s saving grace. At the top of Market Hill. The Royal pub where the future Queen Victoria stopped for a Ploughman’s and a pint of mild in the early 1830s. Just down from that Butterfields department store, as was. The Miner’s technical college, the row of buildings occupied by the Barnsley Chronicle offices – Yorkshire’s best selling weekly newspaper – Ashley Jackson’s art shop and a newsagents that looks like it might have brought us news about Trafalgar. A glimpse of what the town might have been.

The Barnsley created in the 1960s is not the brave new aesthetic of Le Corbusier or Walter Gropius. It’s modernism on the cheap. Cheap materials. Cheap ideas. Cheap design. Expedient and sloppy. The result of pioneering greed. The brain child of the boastful local supremacy that rampaged the UK throughout the 1950s and 60s. When every town had to have its own new scheme. It’s own vision of tomorrow.

In the 1960s towns were re-built to accommodate the car and not people. Town Planners evinced an almost Stalinistic hatred for the past. Many of their decisions were perverse and spiteful. Organic evolution was dismissed and new roads were forced on townscapes centuries old. This was the Town Planners’ long march to an automobile Utopia. This is the grim machine-world of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Automatons filing in and out of town by arterial roads. The relief roads. The ring roads. To populate shops and office buildings between nine and five. It’s easy and fashionable to condemn the planner’s blueprint. Until you’re stuck in a mile long queue of traffic down Wakefield Road of a Monday morning. What would have happened without the ring roads? Without the dual carriageways that cut through villages to get to the town? Grid lock. Perhaps the planners had more foresight than we give them credit for. They anticipated our love of the car. Our abandonment of public transport.

But human beings are chameleon-like. Habitat breeds emotion. Responding to unfriendly surroundings people retreat. They become unfriendly. Bustling between drab shops and dismal offices in their own protective bubbles in these towns built for machines. What you give is what you get. We do not commune with concrete.

Back in 1976 we see Brian mixing with shoppers. Pensioner’s edging into shot, faces sniffing in suspicious curiosity. A bad smell. Checking the corners of the parlour to see if the cat’s done anything unpleasant. Tinker! You dirty sod! A generation that had seen the Nationalisation of the Coal industry. Conscription of their loved ones. Rationing. The implementation of free health care. A massive change in living standards. The modern world was coming.

My Auntie Jean had those plates from Joe Edward’s market stall in the 70s. Wore one of those green three quarter coats with the faux fur trim.

As Brian went through the indoor market, going up the escalator in the meat market to the bedding section, I was probably on the kids’ roundabout, just out of shot, with its double-decker bus and American station wagon. Two goes, heading for the sports car with its white plastic wheel and the chrome brace, Mum watching, then a bag of chocolate footballs from Thornton’s. Stood outside Littlewood’s for the photograph that every kid in the seventies posed for at some tie or another – cuddling some poor little monkey while a bloke with a beard took your photo. Or browsing WH Smiths with my Grandad for Ladybird books. Heaven.

The market declined in the 1980s. Down and out. The indoor section a piss-soaked concrete maze. I remember shopping for records in 1987 and seeing a tramp sat on a bench just behind WH Smiths, urinating in full view of what few shoppers were left. This in the middle of the afternoon. Some of the alleys leading in were no go areas. Dark and dank. The shops retreating. The artificial lighting inadequate. The corrugated roofs on the stalls leaked or channelled the rain water into powerful spouts.

The Metropolitan Centre feels to have landed in the town awkwardly. An exercise in grim functionality and stark utilitarianism. It functions without any sense of pleasure. Like the worker who hates his job but has a mortgage to pay. It does its allotted task with ill grace. The bad mannered shop worker who never smiles and says neither please or thank you. The person on the other end of a ‘phone who rudely works their way through a dialogue led by drop down boxes and pre-rehersed spiel. A smile is beyond The Metropolitan Centre. It was not designed to smile. It checks its watch and sighs. Resenting.

Now Boots has shrunk. What used to be the back and the underground section taken over by Poundland – the name says it all. BHS is no more. Where now for good undies and socks? Littlewoods has gone and the floor space empty. The Metropolitan Centre awaits demolition. Looking down on the shoppers disconsolate, angling for a sympathetic voice. Redundant after thirty years. Like a promising child that turns out to be a feckless disappointment.

Brian visits the Theatre Royal on Wellington Street. Sat in the upper tier. Charlie Chaplin, Gracie Fields, Mr. Memory. Robert Donat pressed tight amongst the crowd at the opening of Hitchcock’s The Thirty-nine Steps. British Warm and some Woodbines. Hecklers earning their 15 minutes of fame. A whooping laugh. Rolling back in the seats, knees going up. Local heroes, out onto Wellington Street and into the Corner Pin or the Shakespeare, a few pints of Barnsley Bitter, then back down the mine the next day on the afternoon shift.

The Civic on Eldon Street was the main theatre in the town when I was growing up. Pantos, Sooty and Sweep, kids’ glam rock group the Animal Crackers. The decade found families turning their back on live entertainment and heading further along Eldon Street and the Odeon cinema. The Theatre Royal was reduced to a bingo hall in the 1970s, clickety click, key to the door, Kelly’s eye, Brian’s ladies from Barnsley Market, traipsing in with their carrier bags from Jack Fulton’s and Woolworth’s, getting a few lines down before catching the 235 back to Athersley, New Lodge, Mapplewell, Darton and Kexbrough. A cold wait in the barren bus station off Kendray Street with its low roof and a queuing arrangement of metal railings, names scratched into the paint. The Theatre Royal closed up and was mothballed totally in the 80s. Cocooned. Grime collecting at the doors. Used for filming Bert Rigby, You’re A Fool in 1989. He’s a singer! He’s a dancer! He’s a coal-miner! We all walked past without noticing for more than a decade. It could have been worse. At least some Poulson wannabe, with the all seeing eye from Mount Doom, didn’t spy the bit of prime real estate and gobble it up. Bring it to the ground and gift us with some concrete abortion in its place.

It re-opened near the end of the Millennium. But town centres have changed. Every night is binge night. So now the theatre is a bar. Another notch on the crawl. Another round under the belt. Groups in costume bouncing from pub to pub, building up to the nightclub. St. Trinians school girls, French Maids, police women with pink furry handcuffs; the lads as cavemen complete with polystyrene clubs and leopard print frocks, in 70s wigs, as Elvis Presley at the Flamingo in ’74. Getting as much alcohol on board as possible. 2 for 1. All you can drink for £15. Five quid bags of heavily cut cocaine. Some Ketamine for those on a budget. A few pills to get you there quicker. Crown the night with a kebab and a bit of racist banter with the Turkish bloke in the takeaway before chucking your guts then copping off with some sort in the taxi rank. I like a good night out. Late night spew and violence persist.

In 2002 plans were revealed for the biggest development of the town since the 60s. Labelled ‘Rethinking Barnsley’ and largely the brain child of architect Will Alsop. Ambitious to say the least. The plan is to transform the town into a space for urban living, with an aesthetic modelled on the archetypal Tuscan hill village. This is New Barnsley. The concept worryingly mirrors Poulson’s statement that he was going to turn Newcastle into the Milan of the North forty years earlier.

Images from the plans are puzzling. As Jonathan Meades observed: ‘It is a truism that representations of the future (and, indeed, of the past) are more indicative of the era they are made than the era they are made about. Characteristically they lift a couple of aspects of the familiar (present) world and stretch or heighten them, or distil them into caricature.’

Alsop conceptualizes. He is a Damien Hirst of architecture. Glass and steel instead of a shark and formaldehyde. He thinks big. He thinks incongruous. His urban lake in the centre of Bradford. The Liverpool ‘Fourth Grace’ (AKA ‘the cowpat’) abandoned. His design aesthetic leans towards the bulbous. He is an enemy of the straight line. As Graham Morrison, architect and member of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment’s design review panel, remarked of Alsop: ‘Ordinary buildings [are] distorted into unnecessarily complicated shapes. As competition increases, each image has to be more extraordinary and shocking in order to eclipse the last.’

Of the £15,000,000 ‘contract value’ what is Alsop’s involvement in the actual architecture? The model is abstract. The only solid structures expressed are existing ones. Chiefly the Town Hall.

Alsop states: ‘We prepared a view of Barnsley that in some respects could equally be applied to many other towns in England, each with its own character but with many needs in common, some becoming pressing in this new century.

We believe that Barnsley was once a compact, close-knit and sustainable community and could be so again – its beloved market was established in 1249 by Henry III. Out of a population of 120,000, approximately 2,500 live at present in the town centre. The centre of town is not the beating heart of the community and the countryside is used up by urban sprawl…

In this context we solicited the views of Barnsley’s full social mix, in forums which have allowed the fullest expression of aspirations, fears and visions about the town. Our vision is based on the findings of this consultation.’

Where is the industry that’s going to support this regeneration? The jobs? Will we see commuters from Leeds and Sheffield passing up and down Dodworth Road to the M1, drawbridge up in Gateway Plaza. Electronic portcullis down. CCTV covering every angle? Is this the town that’s being re-built for Shane and Kylie out in Thurnscoe? No? So who is this new Barnsley for? It looks like a piss take. The movie that accompanies the concept is even weirder. Set in 2025 a postman delivers the three letters posted to people around Barnsley against a back drop that looks like something from a kids’ sci-fi programme. A poem written and narrated by Ian McMillan. The Bard of Barnsley. Homely rhymes and Alan Bennett observations. I couldn’t tell whether McMillan was serious or not, so I contacted him. In response he said: ‘I reckon that Will’s comments certainly got people in Barnsley thinking about architecture and the buil
t environment, which is, I guess, a good thing.’

So, a few bizarre headlines apart, all we’re left with is a model of the town surrounded by coloured house bricks arranged in an oval with some £1.99 fairy lights run through them. Voila! My Uncle Harry could have done better with some of the lads from the model train club. At least he’d have put a couple of Hormby locos in there. The flying Scotsman and the Mallard racing past the War Memorial, a turntable on the Town End roundabout. And possibly a scale model of Mount Snowden. In the film we have ‘The Brain’. Another one of Alsop’s turnip-shaped designs. It seems to represent the new Media Centre just off Regent Street. Though it looks to be sat on the Police Station. OK, fair enough, the Media Centre is an impressive building. Albeit tucked out of the way. Albeit a bit brown. And it looks nothing like Alsop’s idea. But where is the rest of the plan? The only solid building on the plan is the Town Hall. Some fairy lights from Woolly’s and a few Swarovski ornaments do not constitute town planning. The buildings are shapes. Impracticable. They are a concept. And as such after only four years already look dated.

I think Barnsley’s a long way from getting the halo.

I’m stood on the town hall steps, like Brian Glover thirty years before me. George Orwell another forty years before that. The Prince of Wales shaking hands and cutting the ribbon in the cold winter of 1933. Countless blizzards of multi-coloured confetti as Barnsley couples skip down the wide steps from the Registry office across the decades. In drainpipes. Flares. Turn-ups. Wide lapels. Two button. Single breasted. Double. A variety of hairstyles, dresses. The parade past the War Memorial. Then every year the nativity. Being carried by my Grandad from the Beetle, pyjamas, my woolly dressing gown, slippers. Mum and Grandma linking from the car. The figures in the stable. Jesus in the manger. The wise men gilded. Architecture of the mind.

The first cut is the deepest

Between March 1999 and July 2000 James Sandall of Bolton, Lancashire committed a series of successful and lucrative thefts. Sandall, an unemployed heroin addict who stole to fund his habit, would brazenly walk into shops wearing a high-visibility tabard, rigger boots and, occasionally, a safety helmet; he would then blithely browse shelves and casually place items in a large orange bucket before leaving the store without paying. His favourite items to pilfer were large jars of coffee, packets of razor blades and boxes of chocolates. All relatively expensive for their easily transportable size. Stripped of his costume, Sandall would hawk his wares door to door or in pubs to unscrupulous tight wads. The cash would be converted into heroin at the earliest opportunity and squirted promptly into his femoral artery.

Sandall’s crime spree went unchallenged and the police were baffled by the apparently invisible thief whose grainy, luminous image only seemed to appear on CCTV systems after the crime had taken place. They dubbed him ‘the ghost bricky’ and made several appeals for information about his identity on regional and national TV to no avail. Detection and capture seemed unlikely and Sandall might have continued to prosper from his dishonest ways had he not been accidentally trapped in the temperamental revolving door at the Barnsley branch of ASDA and his subterfuge – together with a hundred and forty-seven boxes of stolen Loreal hair dye – having been finally discovered. Sandall subsequently admitted one thousand, five hundred and fifty three counts of theft throughout the North of England to a value of approximately £150,000. He was given a suspended sentence and fined £100. The presiding judge at Sandall’s crown court trial remarked on Sandall’s unkempt appearance in the dock – he attended the court in a dirty tracksuit, scuffed trainers and baseball cap – and the court’s inability punish him further or engender any sense of shame or social responsibility.

When staff members at the various stores targeted by Sandall were interviewed by police in the wake of incidents, some remembered having seen Sandall but assumed he was in the shop for some official or legitimate purpose, or else was patently honest and harmless due to his hard-working appearance. They then dismissed him from their minds. Others admitted that they had not even noticed Sandall. That they had been totally oblivious to his presence. It seemed that both sets of employees had mentally blanked out Sandall due to his costume.

Criminal psychologists call this the ‘YMCA effect’, named in honour of 1970s disco band The Village People. Workers, policemen, members of the armed forces, and stereotypical figures become almost invisible due to their psychologically established uniform. The businessman in his suit, the nurse in her blue smock with an upside down watch. The milk man. The Jehovah’s witness. The gas board worker. They are accepted at face value for what they apparently represent and blend in. They are stripped of their individuality. They become a type. We make assumptions about their presence and their purposes. The phenomenon was exploited by G. K. Chesterton in his Father Brown short story ‘The Invisible Man’ where a murder is committed by a man who alludes initial detection by employing the mundane disguise of a Royal Mail postman. As Father Brown observed: ‘Of course you can’t think of such a man, until you do think of him. That’s where his cleverness comes in.’

The principle underlines the fact that first impressions count. The con man’s second maxim. A lot can be achieved by decent tailoring and creating the right tone. Ask Robert Hendy-Freegard. Throughout the 1990s Hendy-Freegard convinced a number of people that he worked for MI5. That he was infiltrating various IRA terrorist cells. That his life was in danger from the Polish mafia. He conned them out of hundreds of thousands of pounds. They allowed themselves to be beaten up as proofs of their loyalty. They gave him money. They slept rough for days on end at his behest. They provided him with sex on tap. They surrendered their homes. They traveled the length and breadth of Britain to perform such cryptic undercover missions as buying tin openers from obscure hardware shops, traveling to another town and handing the opener over to a bewildered stranger in a certain pub on a certain street at a certain time. One couple were instructed by Hendy-Freegard to ditch their lives and go on the run. They obeyed and went on a four year odyssey. At one point on their journey to hell they spent three months inside a rancid Sheffield flat because the spy that never was had forbidden them to be seen in public. And how did the former bar man and car salesman achieve these surreal and vicious ends? Each one of his victims observed the same thing about the plausible liar. He spoke well and had exceptionally clean fingernails.

All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.

North Yorkshire police are appealing for witnesses to identify a male wanted for a series of street robberies in York. The thief has struck four times in as many weeks and on each occasion immediately melted into the oblivious crowd of shoppers. He is described as being Native American in appearance, 6’2” tall, wearing a suede suit with tassels, moccasins and an eagle-feather war bonnet headdress.

Not in my name/Ode to Joy

For the past thirty or so years patriotism has not been fashionable. The hippies sorted it. And Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Thanks to them, and GCSEs, together with Playaway’s Brian Cant, patriotism is no longer acceptable. We have evolved. We have progressed. We have grown up. We know better. We no longer read Kipling. Unless it be to mock his jingoism. Commando magazine and it’s cries of Achtung! and take that, Fritz! raise a derisive chuckle. The national anthem no longer plays out every night on the BBC. Britishness is now irrelevant. We are citizens of the world. Or, at the very least, citizens of the European Union. We are enlightened. We are modern Europeans.

 

On 21st October 2005 the Battle of Trafalgar was re-enacted. The battle was instrumental in Britain’s dominance of the sea and helped pave the way towards building the empire upon which the sun never set. On its two hundred anniversary, for the delight of dignitaries, the battle was re-played not with the opposing sides of the British pitted against the French and the Spanish, but with two teams. Red and blue. No one won. An analogy in itself.

 

And yet…

 

This week Northern Ireland’s Environment Minister Sammy Wilson suggested that local people should be offered jobs over foreign nationals. He said what?! This week Northern Ireland’s Environment Minister Sammy Wilson suggested that local people should be offered jobs over foreign nationals. Wilson was promptly decried as ‘bringing shame on Northern Ireland’. And in response to Wilson’s remarks Bob Collins, of the Equality Commission, stated the current state of the law plainly: ‘You can’t restrict applications for positions on the basis of a preferred national identity.’ Sinn Féin’s Sue Ramsey summed it all up: ‘What Sammy Wilson fails to recognise is the rights and entitlements of foreign workers and the fact that laws, especially European laws, make working across countries a basic right.’

                                      

This comes in the same week that energy workers at the Lindsey Oil Refinery in North Lincolnshire protested over the use of foreign labour. Somewhere in the region of two hundred and fifty Italians have been contracted by petroleum firm Total (apparently pronounced as if to rhyme with ‘go pal’. You learn something new everyday). A contract worth £200 million awarded to a company based in Borgone near Turin. Perfectly legal. All above board. But the British workers are unhappy. They are moaning. They are calling for ‘British jobs for British workers’. Mimicking Gordon Brown’s words from his inaugural speech as leader of New Labour at the 2007 party conference in Bournemouth. ‘As we set out on the next stage of our journey this is our vision: Britain leading the global economy – by our skills and creativity, by our enterprise and flexibility, by our investment in transport and infrastructure – a world leader in science; a world leader in financial and business services; a world leader in energy and the environment from nuclear to renewables; a world leader in the creative industries; and yes – modern manufacturing too – drawing on the talents of all to create British jobs for British workers.’ The refinery workers are accusing foreigners of taking their jobs. The refinery workers are accusing Gordon Brown of letting them down.The demonstration was supported by walk outs at refineries in Hull and Scotland. Wildcat strikes. More spontaneous downing of tools followed in the succeeding days. The images of massed pickets evoked memories of the 1970s. Arthur Scargill closing the coke depot at Saltley in 1972. Red Robbo bringing British Leyland to its knees at Longbridge later in the decade. The protests prompted a huge police presence. Dissent was simmering. Resurrecting the spirit of working class militancy that many thought had been stamped out and exorcised in the 1980s.

 

Struggling to keep up with their member’s feelings and actions, Unions responded to the protests by saying that the contract should have been given to British workers. The same Unions that have fought for equality. Union officials state that the foreign workforce have been hired as a ‘cheaper option’. They reject claims that they are ‘specialist’ contractors. This is the same union that declares: ‘The vision of Amicus is not limited to the United Kingdom. It extends throughout Europe, and we have links with unions and governments across the globe. Never afraid to get the best we can out of Europe, we’ve set up more European Works Councils than any other union.’

 

But apparently they don’t want European workers in Britain.

 

Tough.

 

The government and legislators proscribe a kind of international socialism. This year will see a new Equality bill placed before parliament. The bill aims to provide a framework for a fairer future. Amongst its clauses is the principle that employers will be able to choose a job candidate from an under-represented group over an equally qualified ‘majority’ candidate. In other words positive discrimination. The government legislates that fairness has no borders. That fairness isn’t constrained by a fundamental sense of right and wrong. And, it seems, that fairness sometimes has to be unfair. To be fair. But is that fair?

 

Foreign workers from the European Union have the same rights as British workers. Rights that are enshrined in law. Employment Minister Pat McFadden, cleared up any ambiguity in the Prime Ministers words from 2007. ‘Gordon, in saying that [about British jobs for British workers], never said we are going to have economic protectionism, we’re going to stop international trade, we’re going to stop British companies trading abroad, or European companies trading here. What he’s saying there is, “I want to see the British workforce equipped for the jobs and skills of the future”. And that’s precisely what the government is doing.’ Gordon shrugged the protests off with blithe pragmatism, cutting down the refinery worker’s calls for a patriotic approach to recruitment policy: ‘Well, we are part of a single European market but I have always understood the worries that people have. They look round and say, well, why can’t we do these jobs, jobs ourselves, these are jobs that we can do. When, when I talked about British jobs, I was taking about giving people in Britain the skills, so that they have the ability to get jobs which were at present going to people from abroad.’

 

Ah, I see. That’s that one cleared up.

 

Old school Nationalism, the Nationalism of the Union Jack and the Swastika, of Tommy Atkins and Bobby Moore is a cultural, political and economic anachronism. It has been replaced by Corporate Imperialism. Superseded. Tesco employs more people than the combined armed forces of the UK. The McDonalds golden arches is more readily recognized by school children than the Cross or the Crescent. The level playing field of employment laws within the European Union give Corporations access to a wealth of workers who are willing to work cheaper than the British. They don’t even have to re-locate their factories or refineries. They can simply import labour. It’s a cracking idea. Corporations are unhampered by borders and work permits or restrictions. Corporations prompt government policies. Corporations shape government legislation. The little man with the big ears and the misshapen nose, stood warming himself at the factory gates next to the burning oil drum, hasn’t adjusted himself to the idea yet, that’s all. But he will. He’ll learn. Right now he’s being prepared and equipped for ‘the jobs and skills of the future’. The British worker is too expensive. I’ve seen the future. The future is the credit crunch and the minimum wage. We are learning some new lessons.

 

The protests at Lindsey would have been unthinkable two years ago. And unpalatable. The media would not have been supportive. The sight of podgy working class faces, stuffed on bangers and mash, shouting the odds in thick regional accents about ‘foreigners’ would have merited condemnation. Racist, xenophobic bigots. Sun reading, tit-ogling Neanderthals. They would have been marginalized. With their holidays in Spain and their football team loyalties. Now the media tout them as the down-trodden little man. The BBC sheds crocodile tears. The News at 10 highlights the story hypocritically.

 

We are living in a time of change. Of massive economic turmoil. The idea of ‘British jobs for British workers’ and the legal hurdles against such a proposition poses questions about the fundamental principles of nationality in the modern world. If only economically. The spectre of protectionism – for decades scorned – is rearing its head. Is this post-modern xenophobia? Possibly. But does the government owe me, a British citizen, anything? For the taxes I’ve paid begrudgingly for years? For my worthless National Insurance contributions? For the decades I have spent living here? Not according to the laws that have been passed. The government needs have no loyalty to the British people. The law says so. In which case, what is the purpose, under these circumstances, of national government? I pay my council tax to Barnsley Council but they’re more bothered about emptying the bins for a bloke that lives in Birmingham. So what am I paying them for? The man in the big chair at the Town Hall has decided to use my money to light the street lamps on St. Anne Street, Salisbury. What’s in that for me? BMBC are building a new primary school in Aykley Heads, Durham. How am I getting value for money in that? I’m being fleeced for nothing. Eh? Similarly how is the government protecting my best interests? And the best interests of the refinery workers at Lindsey? And if they’re not then what use are they to us? Why fund them? There is an argument that we should be governed from Brussels. Some might say why not. Some might argue that we already are.

Talking Heads

The art of conversation is easy. The knack lies in restraint. When in conversation with anyone minimalize speaking. Successful conversation is all about listening. About being a sounding board for your interlocutor’s emotional landscape. No one really wants to hear what you’ve got to say. Any words you utter should be applied strategically to prompt and praise. And if you have a shared experience – you’ve visited the same holiday location, endured the same digestive bug, bought the same car – down play your efforts/achievements/experience in comparison to theirs. Follow these rules and become Michael Parkinson. Remember: everyone loves a toady.