Sympathetic Refurbishment

This week Gary Budden looks at patterns of regeneration and cultural amnesia outside the London Orbital.

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‘I always hoped this place might stay the same’

The Levellers, Miles Away

A combination of turning thirty last February, reading a number of books on the seemingly prosaic activity of walking – Geoff Nicholson’s The Lost Art of Walking, and the wonderful Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit – and my getting-to-be-ancient grandmother’s move to the Kent coast to be near/looked-after-by my mother, have all coalesced in the last few months into a slightly clichéd pensiveness. Basically, I’ve been dwelling far too much on the notion of time passing, listening to melancholy songs by Nick Cave and Hüsker Dü, and getting sad about things that have not even happened yet, in a way I realised that I was kind of looking forward to; a perverse notion if ever there was one.

However, Solnit herself cheered me up immensely with the following lines:

'In small doses melancholy, alienation, and introspection are among life's most refined pleasures.'

Amen.

This slightly rambling introduction leads to me my recent visit to the city of Canterbury in Kent, a stay with my mother in Whitstable, and visiting my brother in the beautiful rural setting of Hernhill.

I went to secondary school in Canterbury, and in many ways my image of the place is cemented around 1999, in those years of GCSEs and A-levels, boozy forays into the many, many pubs that litter the small city. It was different before me, and is different after.

So, inevitably, in the intervening decade and a half, things have changed. What does shock me, unless I’m betrayed by my own memory, are the clearly visible signs of the bland brandscape of 21st century neo-liberal Britain. Perhaps in a city such as Canterbury, so old and oozing with history both well-remembered and obscure, a new shopping district or a ridiculously large Costa coffee stand out more. Would I care as much as these things appearing in Harlow, Milton Keynes, Ashford?

In London, the city’s skin is in constant upheaval and metamorphosis, the schizophrenic architecture somehow adding to the appeal of the place. Like Suggs says in London: The Modern Babylon, it never was like it was. Seeing the open sores of franchise coffee outlets on the streets where I was schooled, it’s more upsetting, if selfish and not entirely rational. Richards Records, the store where we pored over the latest vinyl in those pre-Spotify frontier days of the early internet, is long gone. Whatever Comics remains, albeit in a shifted location. The new Marlowe theatre looms large and insistently modern, men and women patiently sipping coffee in its gleaming café looking out at clouds of midges that boil in clouds above the river Stour. A small banner on the opposite bank informs of the Canterbury Quakers meeting point; I note it and photograph it; my partner works for Quaker Social Action up in Bethnal Green. It is of interest to us at least; I am an atheist but I like to see evidence of traditions older than Costa and Café Nero making themselves known.

One upshot of my pedestrian reading and clichéd introspection is an ability to slow down and look. By the metallic new theatre sits a collection of doll-sized statues commemorating revered playwright, Christopher Marlowe, and I photograph greeny-metal representations of the Jew of Malta, Tamburlaine, and of course, Doctor Faustus. Though it’s in a busy sidestreet, right by the tourist draw of the theatre, it feels unloved and set apart. The largest statue, standing atop the plinth bare-breasted and clutching what looks to me like a lyre, has a cobweb running from hand to ear, a small spider going about its business wrapping flies.

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A few feet from this forgotten monument to Marlowe, a small opening barred with black metal railings allows anyone who cares to peer into a small graveyard. A tasteful and modest sign informs:

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Here lie the bodies of many of those Protestant refugees fleeing Catholic persecution in France, and their descendants. A service in French is still held within the cathedral, the Eglise Protestante Francaise. Again, I am not a Christian, but the continuity and sense of history and their place in it is humbling and affecting. What would they think of the city as it is now; as it was in 1999?

We all invest certain places with real meaning, personal biography, and it is sad to see certain place where I recall fond times and formative (drunk) experiences change. The luxury of nostalgia in a safe first-world country.

The most naked sign of constant flux is The Parrot pub. I still find it hard to use that name, as to us it was and always will be Simple Simon’s, an independent pub that served 8% cloudy cider that guaranteed an eventful night and a brutal hangover. The building, always a public house since 1370, still maintains some of the original architecture, Flemish bricks, 14th century staircases. Make your own story if you like, the place is bloody old whatever angle you come at it. So OK, Shepherd Neame buy up the place, sand down some of the character and install worryingly clean looking wooden floors and try and present themselves as a restaurant that happens to look like a pub. On my recent visit, people still were using it for its original purpose, drinking, as it should be. If you want a restaurant, go to a restaurant. It seems simple to me.

Writing this piece, I decided to have a look at The Parrot’s website and see what they said about the history of the place:

Following a sympathetic refurbishment in 2008/9 the Parrot is now a stunning drinking and dining venue in the heart of Canterbury.Having renamed the pub the Parrot after hearing local rumours that it was once called the Parrot in previous centuries, although we haven’t found any evidence to back this rumour up, we rather liked the name!

No mention of Simple Simon’s. So much for their bogus claims of heritage.

This is a small example, common across all of the UK, and I’m glad that the pub remains in some form rather than having become yet another set of flats that make a mockery of the word ‘luxury’. But the half-hearted attempt they make at continuity with history, unverified by their own admission, and the disavowal of the very recent history that looms large in my own teenage years, is disquieting and symptomatic of much larger problems.

Believe the website, the information signs, and you’ll forget things were ever any different. But they were, and this is why I am writing this. I cannot allow myself to forget that things weren’t always the same. I’m all for sympathetic refurbishments but not like the one The Parrot has enacted.

***

As I was showing a newcomer Canterbury, of course we visited the cathedral. Nine pound fifty the privilege to access a piece of crucial history, more if you wanted to wander the gardens. We paid the minimum fare and wandered the gardens anyway, where small stalls sat selling plants, organic muesli, local honey. Leather-gloved men stood smiling holding tethered barn and tawny owls, a buzzard and a goshawk. Small children looked amazed at the birds of prey. They were real and unfree.

We walked the gardens, landscaped to the point of no return, all in control and in order. It was nice. For reasons unclear, guinea fowl plodded on the immaculate grass while a white and ginger cat sunned itself in a flower bed. Old women were everywhere.

We wandered back to the stalls, gravitating to the honey. We had a conversation with the man running the stall, bearded and amiable, about his locally produced produce, and yes it did taste good. Why are these jars a pound cheaper? I asked.

The honey in those jars, we discovered, had been heated to regain its fluidity and allow it to be filtered. How come? All the bees in the hive were dead when the beekeeper went to collect the honey. The awful weather, he said, amongst other things. The bees are dying, aren’t they? Yes, they are, he said. We bought the A-grade stuff, and mix it with our yoghurt, blueberries and granola in London.

We carried on looking round the gardens, at a Japanese peace tree to commemorate Nagasaki, signs for the French protestant church, a statue of the Son of Man. We walked inside the cathedral, as beautifully and coldly unaffecting as I always found it. All I thought of were dead bees.

***

We’d done the deep history of Canterbury. Avoided the high street at all costs, wouldn’t go anywhere the new(ish) shopping precinct and the malignant McDonalds, so instead walked the nicer areas around Palace Street, near The Parrot, close to the Marlowe.

My partner spotted a shop, what looked like a temporary set-up, Orange St Vintage, and we went in. If I’m honest I wasn’t expecting much, in Hackney vintage is becoming a dirty word, a source of mockery, whether justified or not. I still try and work out the difference between ‘second-hand’ and ‘vintage’ while everyone else has stopped caring.

The couple running the place were, it turned out, Kent born ex-Londoners who had recently made the move back down to the coast, to Westgate-on-Sea. They all spoke about Danish furniture and I nodded along like I knew what they were talking about. Then the husband told us that they supplied many of the Hackney vintage sellers who sell products on for double the price, the stuff that they scour Belgium, Holland and Germany for. Lot of Danish stuff there apparently. I didn’t ask why they didn’t go to Denmark.

The conversation moved round to Hackney and their days there, I announced I lived there right now with the addendum that I grew up in Kent and was down visiting family, absolving me (I hoped) from the dreaded DFL (down-from-London) tag. It’s all public schoolboys with three-grand cameras in Hackney now, he said. The price of houses in Margate, where my brother works, came up, the utter insanity of London house-pricing, gentrification, the all-consuming desire for authentic vintage furniture from a past we all helped destroy, all that was discussed. I wondered if I, in ten to fifteen years, would be having the same conversation, ruminating on my time in the city that forced me out, talking to Londoners who were themselves feeling the pinch. It was a good chat.

***

The day after, we visited my brother in rural Kent near Blean woods. He lives in Dargate, but we drove the short distance to Hernhill for food and alcohol at the Red Lion.

What struck me as uncannily in keeping with these thoughts, was the Red Lion pub I was eating my Sunday lunch in (I say Sunday lunch; a butternut squash curry was the only veggie option whilst everyone else enjoyed a roast) was the very place I had been writing about about a month previous. Walking through the small graveyard of St Michael’s church which stands directly opposite the pub, obscured by a venerable and huge oak tree, I noticed a small wooden sign dedicated to those who had fallen in the Battle of Bossenden in 1838, in the woods nearby. The pub we had sipped cider in was the very place where the body of self-styled messiah William Courtenay had been lain out after his failed uprising. The sign gave Courtenay’s real name, John Tom, and no other information. His and his followers bodies lie in unmarked graves somewhere under the soil here.

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Strange to come face to face to a small piece of fascinating and largely forgotten history; this was the last armed uprising fought on English soil, allegedly. The regiment who gunned down the group of labourers from Hernhill, Dunkirk and Boughton, the 45th from Canterbury, would go on to kill twenty chartists a year later. The local labourers were angry about the Poor Law of 1834 and enticed by Courtenay’s millenarianism and promise of a better life; these dreams, whether naïve or not, were put down in a classic British fashion, with state violence and largely rubbed out of the narrative.

I took photos on my iPhone, of course, thought briefly about the depth of history in even such beautiful and dull places as Hernhill, and continued to enjoy my family’s company. I pondered dead bees, Huguenots, teenage alcohol nights in a pub that seemingly never existed, Hackney retro-dealers, a past that is never stable and a future that I will make sure I write myself.