Introduction: Our Brian
Theres a bulldozer around and its 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. Hes 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 Towns 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 theyre the fortunes of today. The petty burghers of the Carry On films and Tony Hancocks 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 Ploughmans and a pint of mild in the early 1830s. Just down from that Butterfields department store, as was. The Miners technical college, the row of buildings occupied by the Barnsley Chronicle offices Yorkshires best selling weekly newspaper Ashley Jacksons 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. Its 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. Its 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 Langs 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. Its easy and fashionable to condemn the planners blueprint. Until youre 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 Hitchcocks 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, Kellys eye, Brians ladies from Barnsley Market, traipsing in with their carrier bags from Jack Fultons and Woolworths, 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, Youre 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, didnt 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 Poulsons 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 Wills 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 Alsops 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 Alsops 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 Barnsleys a long way from getting the halo.
Im 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.