Another great book from the Persephone canon, about the destruction of Bath’s unique architecture in the swinging 60s and 70s. I never thought I could be so moved by a book about architecture and its ruination but it proves that Persephone is full of literary surprises – and that I am a soppy git.
The Sack of Bath was written at a time when a dastardly trio – of developers, the city council and the planning department – were bulldozing large parts of historic Bath in the name of ‘progress’. In a passionate 1973 plea for a halt to the architectural carnage, Fergusson laid bare what had already been lost through candid ‘before and after’ photographs (some of which were taken by Lord Snowdon, no less) and, in the hope that what was left could be saved, explained what was ‘so remarkable’ about Bath: the almost intact survival of an 18th century ‘Georgian’ redevelopment that encircled the Roman core of the city and comprised of upper, middle and lower class buildings side by side:
To all intents and purposes, Bath was a ‘New Town’; and practically all the artisan housing – the poor quarters – was planned and built in conjunction with the big set pieces which made Bath magnificent. Eighteenth century Bath had virtually no decay in it. The terraced cottages of the grooms…the stonemasons…the porters and the Sedan chair carriers – and of the pimps, the pick pockets and the whores – were of brand new Bath stone. In their often simple way they were as perfect and graceful and as harmonious as the Bath of the middle and upper classes. All Bath grew old together. It was unique.
But while the aforementioned dastardly trio protected the largely upper and middle-class set pieces such as the Royal Crescent, they allowed ‘the Bath of the working classes, the Bath which made Beau Nash’s fashionable resort possible’ to be reduced to rubble. As well as there obviously being something rather ‘classist’ in this approach, Fergusson’s key argument is that without working class Bath, the set pieces would become ‘Old Masters without frames’ and something of the essence of Bath would be lost forever.
This book was a surprisingly upsetting read, and not because I had a rather ill-fated weekend with a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend in Bath over a decade ago. It reminded me of another ‘sacking’ that was going on around the same time – of Edmonton, the part of North London which I grew up in. In the 1960s and 70s, another bunch of philistine ruffians liquidated a plethora of characterful, hundreds-of-years-old streets that made up Edmonton Green, the heart of this ancient parish (#haterscancheckDoomsday), to build a new shopping centre and accompanying tower blocks which would last a mere thirty-odd years before the bulldozers came again saying ‘sorry mate we effed it all up last time, we’ll have to start again. Sorry guvnor.’
Now, I appreciate that the streets of ‘the old Green’ were not architectural gems and that their loss was not quite akin to that of a model Georgian town. But, for me, there is something very saddening about the eradication of any working class environment that has been shaped by its inhabitants – and our ancestors – over time. With people’s buildings gone, what of their history? And, on the simplest level, it pains me that I can’t have a swiftie in the pub where my Dad supped his first pint ‘a few months before I was legal’: he ‘can still taste and smell it, a pint of mild costing one shillings and nine pennies’ but that building, the Golden Lion pub, is dust on the wind. I’d like to meet the twit who signed off its demolition and throw a pint of lager dregs (Stella Artois, just to be really spiteful) over their sorry self. Why there was not a movement to protect it on the basis that it was the start of Ian Turner’s long and illustrious drinking career, I do not know.
I worried that I might be romanticizing what had been lost, so asked fellow Edmontonians on the ‘Edmonton Past for the over 60s’ Facebook group (yes, I’m gatecrashing that group, and I love it) how they felt when ‘the old Green’ was razed to the ground. ‘I don’t think there was any formal campaign to save the old Green; I’m sure there would be if it was happening now,’ said one member. ‘I think once it was built people started to realize what they had lost.‘ Another confirmed that I was not alone in pining for the Golden Lion: ‘many residents of Edmonton were sad to see it demolished. As an old coaching inn with parts dating from Elizabethan times, it should never have gone.’ And, as one person eloquently put it: ‘It’s f-ing shit now. What a waste.’
However, the most telling part of this afternoon Facebook exchange was how quickly the memories of and lament for long lost buildings soon turned into a walk down a broader memory lane, to include recollections of Saturday mornings at The Granada cinema (pulled down to make way for the multi-storey car park you can see in the picture below), confusion at the first self-service Tesco on the Green, and tales of ‘Roger with the one hand’, ‘dodgy characters’ at the Crosse Keys pub (‘no names to be mentioned’) and a watchmaker who was a dwarf (I’m not making this up). Our collective memory is rooted in these old structures, however ordinary-looking they may be. I wish we’d had Mr Fergusson on the case in Edmonton forty years ago. While John Betjeman said of Bath, ‘Goodbye to old Bath. We who loved you are sorry/They’ve carted you off by developer’s lorry,’ my poem for Edmonton would run thus:
Goodbye to old Edmonton. Here is the rub:
Even though we now have a Wilko, I miss all the old pubs.
(With thanks to Edmonton Past for the Over 60s for a very informative Facebook thread.)