Reinventing England

Great Britain


Miguel Coyula, urban architect, has this to say about Cuba normalising its relations with America: ‘When you talk to people, and you ask them, Why are you visiting Havana? The common answer is, I want to see it now. … I want to see the real Havana. … So they share the fear that Havana could be gone and all this magic could be gone.’

I think this is particularly true of England – there’s a ghost country that has little to do with modern reality. In the same way that tourists want to see California from an open sports car, not Milwaukee from a Greyhound, visitors want England to be filled with quaint villages, bobbies on the beat and red telephone boxes. They don’t want to see Newcastle on a Saturday night. A Polish friend of mine just went to New York for the first time and was delighted; it didn’t matter to her that the New York I knew, the one of 42nd Street grindhouses, Meatpackers’ district rave clubs, Scribner’s Bookshop and Wolf’s Deli had vanished or that Times Square had turned into Disneyland. What she saw was everything she had seen in the movies.

But London – and by extension England – is not what you see in the movies. What you expect to see is the idea of the place. What you actually see is the hell of Piccadilly Circus as it is today. Perhaps the next mayor, one more responsible than Boris Johnson,  can return some semblance of liveability to such centres, but what Londoners have to live with right now is an almost total loss of the city’s identity.

London’s centre is rarely shown in my books, because it’s as boring as anywhere else. Charing Cross Road, once the home of the West End’s bookshops, now has a monumental McDonald’s at its centre – who wants a scene from a book or film set there?


Outside London the makeover is even more extreme. Elegant civic towns by day turn into Magaluf at night, thanks to council rulings that allow 30 bars to be placed beside each other in one street, all offering cut-price booze. Yet movies have a way on reinventing the future; gadgets from SF films transfer into real life, so could this happen with towns? I was struck by the way Harrogate has become more like a scene from an Agatha Christie novel with each passing year. It was always pretty but now it’s outrageously so, like a film set dressed and ready for a take. I took this on a ‘busy’ Saturday morning.



What shocks me about travelling between towns in England during summertime is how astoundingly picturesque it still is. Factory farming may have flattened fields and destroyed hedgerows, but so much remains green, lush and uninhabited, to the point where any argument about England being overcrowded seems absurd. Towns may trade on their historic pasts while looking nothing like that image, but huge improvements are also occurring. Images of drunken teens confronting harassed police have shamed enough cities for urgent shakeups to take place. Clearly we don’t want to return to the kind of rural idylls that used to be shown each week on ‘The Avengers’, but with returning employment opportunities should hopefully come a better balance.


8 comments on “Reinventing England”

  1. Alan says:

    “Clearly we don’t want to return to the kind of rural idylls that used to be shown each week on ‘The Avengers’”…

    Yes, we do. Well, I would, anyway.

  2. Ruth says:

    I’m with Alan on this one – we do, we definitely do.

  3. snowy says:

    Everywhere is ridiculously ‘flowery’ at the moment, in the run up to the annual ‘In Bloom’ competitions.

    The Provisional wing of the local Womens Institute have been up and about every Sunday at O-O-my watch must have stopped-for weeks, clattering about with buckets and watering cans.

    [Some people take it very, very seriously, nobody has been murdered with their own shears, yet…. But I wouldn’t even put that past some of them.]

    [If we were to build on all this apparently empty farm land, we could probably each have a house for every day of the week and one just for Christmas. But we’d have nowhere to grow food. Not a problem while oil and hence transport is cheap, making imports inexpensive.

    But if that ever changed, say due to a war engulfing the main oil producing states, then things might get a bit sticky. We’d have to import everything from France and while I like a bit of dribbly cheese now and then, every day might be a bit much.

    Food needs a lot of space, if a loaf of bread takes a yard of wheat and each person needs a loaf a week it multiplies up very fast.]

    [Stopping up now, before I start calculating the maximum sustainable population size based on only using bio-mass, no oil, no gas, just wood. Extrapolating from the population of pre-industrial Britain. Stop it, stop, just stop.]


  4. Roger says:

    Perhaps Julian Barnes’s idea of building another England for the tourists and leaving the natives in peace is the best solution.
    The problem is we’d have to build a third England – or London, at least – for foreign property investors.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    You have to accept a place as it is. People can get drunk as much as they like if tourists have gone to bed. (That’s capable of several misconstructions but let it stand). We have been to London twice and while the skyscrapers startled us we liked the gherkin and moved on. I people watch and that’s possible anywhere. Even though the proportion of tourists to locals is high in York and Bath I still got to talk to locals (and tourists, too). Tourists cannot expect a place to be exactly the way they imagine it – unless they are prepared to enforce the same standard in their own home town. (How do you envisage Berlin – Paris – Chicago – San Francisco? Well, that last doesn’t work because they seem to do exactly that.)
    And I like flowers – in baskets, planters, and flower beds. Water before the crowds come and find a place to worship (building, forest, or garden) to start the day.

  6. Peter Dixon says:

    Old England is never what it used to be.

    I tootled up to Northumberland on Friday for a stopover at a friend’s hotel where they were holding a beer festival about 2 miles north of Hadrian’s Wall. Over the road was a genuine motte that had certainly once had a bailey. The owner is building houses on the top and no one from the local council or Time Team seem terribly interested in the despoiling of an ancient earthwork. Anyway, it was all good fun and after a locally smoked kipper for breakfast headed back home.

    Northumberland is a big landscape. Standing on Hadrian’s Wall you can see for 50 miles in all directions with nothing to see but sheep, cows and the odd low flying military jet pretending that they are in Afghanistan.There is certainly enough land around here to build several small towns or even a modest city, but what would people do? No industry, no reason to be there.

    Forty five minutes drive brought us into the centre of Newcastle, where, in the shelter of cathedral and castle I counted five separate hen party’s winding wheeled suitcases, joke pink ears, short skirts and milky thighs across streets that once ‘ran awash with Scottish blood and were piled high with corpses’. This was at the bottom of the famous Bigg Market, or more accurately Flesh Market which brings with it a certain innuendo.
    Adjacent is perhaps Newcastle’s most famous watering hole; Balmbra’s Music Hall, the opening scene of Tyneside anthem ‘The Blaydon Races’. Once famous for its Victorian music hall and a listed building. It has gone through several owners and has turned into a burnt out shell and possible site for refurbishment (the number of inconvenient or unprofitable Tyneside listed buildings that have mysteriously burned down only to be replaced by planning applications whose attention to detail suggests several years preparation is astonishing). No one seems too perturbed.

    This is England; on a sunny day all looks lovely, when its dull and overcast you sometimes wonder what is being stolen from you.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    How can they be building on a medieval site? They’d have to dig, level and so on, wouldn’t they? I know the argument about not being able to save every “so called” historic site, but isn’t there a general set of priorities with the option of some local changes? I understand about those suspicious fires, too. We have had incidences in our area of the same thing.

  8. Adele Graham says:

    Please tell me Little Storping exists, ducking pond and all.

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