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, Â 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.Â 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.