Friday, 9 May 2014

Welcome to Uglyville

Exceedingly annoyed this week to find out this old Chapel near where I live is scheduled for demolition. It has, for years, been happily minding its own business as an antique store. The business has not gone bust, it has moved elsewhere, since the landlord, claiming a 'sagging roof' applied for demolition. Built in 1849 as a Methodist Chapel, it would originally have served communities in the working class areas East of Bristol city centre. Until about four days ago, it still contained all the original fittings, including stairs, balconies, and pulpit. These have now been ripped out by a reclamation company.

Now, this building has had a 'sagging roof' ever since I can remember, so I suspect the demolition has very little to do with that and a lot more to do with that more modern malaise, property prices. Especially since the area behind Temple Meads station, just a hundred or so yards away, is currently being extensively redeveloped. An empty site on which a dozen nasty, undersized flats can be squeezed is worth far more than one saggy-roofed chapel housing a local business.

I lived in Bristol during the Blair boom years and it was dispiriting to see acres of the city being covered in nasty flats by property developers, with the ready encouragement of the City Council. While I am all in favour of conversions of existing buildings, many of the new developments, like the hideous Benidorm-style blocks in the docks, are just vile. Also, despite knowing many people from various walks of life across the city, no-one I know has ever lived in one of these new-build flats. One or two live in conversions of old warehouses, but mostly anyone who intends to stay more than a few months in the city plumps for housing stock that has been there since before the 1980s.

Recently, I have noticed that onslaught has resumed. Except that while in previous building frenzies developers took on many genuinely unused or derelict sites, these have now mostly gone, and they are scouring the city looking for easy targets. More or less the last area of the docks which was peacefully run-down, rather than disused, has attracted the eye of the council, who smell the whiff of property developer's money. This area houses several run down historic structures, as well as, until recently, a traditional shipwright that built beautiful, beautiful wooden boats. The shipwrights, which took up a good deal of space and employed traditional craftsmen, has also mysteriously gone. Again, a thriving business, but there is no business, it seems, which thrives as much as property.

(Incidentally, when I took this photo, the area was in use by a TV/film shoot, which it often is. Presumably they will have to make way for the property developers, as well.)

No-one has asked for this, no-one has been offered a chance to talk about it or to say what they want. The only logic in it money. And not even the money-as-a-means-to-get-people's-basic-needs-met kind of money, but just the pure mathematical multiplication of money. It is as if the residents of the city have become completely, utterly irrelevant. Not only that but they are completely demoralised and apathetic: even the smallest local decision, let alone the big national ones, seems beyond their power - or even their right - to influence. Local councillors and even MPs may also oppose some of these things - but money has lawyers, and usually wins.

This is what bothers me more than the loss of one run-down chapel: the fact that we seem to lack the way of thinking to challenge this endless logic of money. We might look at something and say: 'but I like it, it's pretty'; or 'it's a bit of history', or 'that's a local independent business, and people need jobs', or 'nobody asked us, and they should', or 'tourism relies on the character of the neighbourhood'. All of which would be perfectly valid objections, but in the face of those there is only one, impenetrable argument: MONEY.

I feel that we live in ideological times, in which we are all subjected to the reign of one overwhelming, official truth, that money trumps all other things. In the same way that in, say, the political life of Iran, religion trumps all other arguments. Politicians and those involved in public life may be hardline or reformist, softer or harder in their views, but what no-one who wants to have a career, or even to show their face in public, can say, is, 'I reject religion entirely'. Similarly politicians and people in public life in the UK can claim that it makes more sense economically to support the NHS or privatise it, or to pay for museums or not pay for museums, but what they can't really do - what no-one in public life can do, and be taken seriously, is to say that these things are bloody expensive, actually, but they're important because they make us feel safe, or because they make us feel at home, or inspire us to greatness. All these things, which would not have seemed odd to politicians of any shade or colour in earlier decades, have become somehow embarrassing, since only money, like only the holy book, is real.

One result of this, since ugly things are cheap, and beautiful things are expensive, is a great tide of public ugliness, made up of tinny, badly made-buildings and endlessly repeating corporate shopfronts. The maximum amount of money must be wrung from the minimum of space.

Recently, I saw a documentary on TV about the first world war, which featured men marching off through - I think - Preston, in Lancashire. I have only been to Preston once, for a couple of hours, but do remember thinking it ugly. I was astonished by this footage, from 1914, at the graceful buildings, the trams, and the handsome civic buildings which must have been proudly put up by the Victorian industrialists.

I even feel that subconsciously, there is something ideological in this ugliness. When you look at a beautiful building, made with great solidity as well as functionality - say, the front of Temple Meads Station - and stand still and think about it, you think, the people who built that had confidence in themselves. They were proud of their achievements. They wanted it to last, and they wanted at once to suggest a proud history by harking back to medieval castle-building, and to suggest that it formed a gateway to the future, in which you could leave town and explore the world at a previously unheard of 100mph. Even to look at this building is to suggest other priorities in life - pride, Englishness, history, exploration - than the simple exploitation of minimum space for maximum profit.

That is why I think that the ideology of money and cheapness is keen to demolish old things. They were built with other beliefs in mind, and as such, provide a direct, ideological challenge.

I think that one day we will find it very odd that we all believed that economics was a force that we couldn't alter, like God, or the weather. Economics is, in the end, just what people decide to do with their money, and what people do with their money is, in the end, decided by what people think is important. The money is inert, and has no preferences: if you leave a five pound note on the table, it will still be there in the morning. You, on the other hand, will have slept and breathed and dreamed.

I find it very awful that we so easily destroy the places where people before us slept and breathed and dreamed, and worked and worshipped, simply to do the fiver a favour. I am fairly sure in future decades it will look vile and short-sighted and stupid, like the Taliban blowing up Buddhas.


  1. Can't disagree with much of that Ursula though spaces and buildings have been saved in Bristol over the years by people who feel strongly about conservation. In St Werburghs, for example, we fight to protect what we value.

  2. Interesting although pretty much everyone I know including myself do live in new build flats as this is all that we can afford if we want to be within walking distance of the city centre. Converting an old chapel or warehouse into flats and the price will be double or triple what standard new build prices would be. Where I live now all the flats were bought off plan before they had even been built.

  3. Since this post was published, a petition has been started to try and save the Ebenezer Chapel. Sign it here.

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  5. Another example of a terrible decision from Bristol City Coucil. Demolition of the old Victorian Board School in St George to build a new ugly school
    If you want to object to the planning application (which includes demolition) please do so before the 2nd of June

  6. Hi Ursula! Just read some of your stories on East of the Web.They're fantastic and I just want to show my appreciation. You are really gifted. Please write many more.