Sent To Coventry
I headed to Coventry at the weekend, for the first time in over a decade. The reason for my visit was a Civil Partnership party, and I spent a lovely evening surrounded by charming geeks. It rapidly became clear that I was one of the few party-goers who was not a member of the Coventry Bondage Scene*.
I’ve had a complicated relationship with Coventry. I lived there for a while as I went to Warwick University, which is marooned on a campus on the outskirts of the city, resolutely nowhere near Warwick. I wasn’t having the best of times back then, and during the journey up on the plastic virginity train I felt a few pangs of forboding, particularly when the train passed through Milton Keynes. I wasn’t sure what memories would be dredged up by the visit.
I arrived with a couple of hours to kill, so decided to have a wander around the city centre. To get there you cross the inner ring-road via a series of unappealing underpasses. As I approached the first set of stairs, I spotted three youths in orange and lime green sportswear coming the other way. I put on my best neutral, confident but witheringly unconcerned face – my special not-getting-stabbed face. As they passed, one punched me on the arm. “Ere mate, you look like a dickhead”, he said. The other two snickered. I moved on.
Coventry suffered two disasters: the firebombing that destroyed much of this once beautiful medieval city, and the well-meaning utopianism of the post-war planners. I’d already passed the first dubious planning innovation – the inner ring-road, like a noose strangling the town – and I was about to arrive at the second.
The city centre is a mish-mash of dispiriting arcades and precincts of various ages, and arriving as I did just before 6pm on a rainy Saturday evening, the place was practically deserted.
I was reminded of my first visit to the town during my first weekend at university: I wandered around the plazas with a few friends, and ended up eating lunch in Starburger – clearly a former Wimpy – which enjoyed pride of place in a circular building at the centre of one of the more desperate precincts**. Access was via a series of concrete walkways, and I remember trying to imagine what the place would have been like when it first opened. In my head there was bunting, brass bands aplenty, candyfloss, and no-one under the age of sixteen without a hat.
I imagined pride at Coventry being the first city in the world to have a pedestrianised town centre (the cars parked up on the rooves), and of the excitement of living in a place of thrusting modernity. I thought of optimism. I looked around myself. And I thought of optimism again.
Heading on, I arrived at the cathedral, with its famously bomb-destroyed interior and wonderful modernist extension. There are a couple of surviving medieval buildings in its immediate vicinity, and if you take a photo from a sympathetic angle you can again imagine Coventry as a town of winding back-streets, of cobbles and ancient buildings. And people throwing shit out of upstairs windows and dying of the plague.
A large proportion of the town once looked like this, as this pre-war photo indicates. Many of the surviving medieval buildings were moved to Spon street, where they remain, as a kind of pre-war Coventry history high street. Given this amalgamated street’s proximity to a large club/entertainment venue, many of these buildings now contain things like 70s theme pubs and Ye Olde Kebab Shoppes.
Sheltering from the rainy and deserted cathedral, I ended up in Browns, a cafe-bar that was one of my favourite haunts back in the day. It’s an interesting building, and is run by the same birds nest haired matriarch from back in the day. I recounted the dickhead incident. She shook her head: “there’s something about this place, a certain air still. I live just up the road in Leicester, which isn’t perfect but doesn’t have the problems we have here. I’m Coventry born & bred, but…” She trailed off at this point. Entertainingly given these remarks, a quick trawl through the comment sections of the internet reveals Browns’ door policy is, at best, eccentric. Clearly attempting to keep a middle class student enclave free of undesirables hasn’t been without its controversies.
I finished up my half pint and headed back to the station, a taxi, and the party.
Since I got back I’ve been doing a bit of reading up on how Coventry developed. Interestingly the plans for the city centre were devised even before the Blitz, by to-become-highly-influential architect Donald Gibson. His was the idea of separating motor traffic from pedestrians. He was told by the Minister for Works and Buildings that Coventry “…should be a test case, not for me and my authority, but for the Government and for England.”
And so it was. I went back to Coventry city centre the next day, and I appreciated not having to look out for cars. The improved weather and the surrounding shoppers made me feel more forgiving than I had previously. Also I felt that Donald Gibsons’ original designs, though now tatty and compromised, weren’t as terrible as carbuncles like the more modern Cathedral Lanes centre. Which, not incidentally, blocks the views of the Cathedral that were central to the Precinct’s original design (see here).
Also, the car was seen as the future, and the main solutions of city design were based on the assumption that the car would enjoy total mastery for ever more. They hadn’t done the numbers, or considered the traffic unsustainability of every single person in the country taking to the roads. If I was to sit down and design my dream city now, I’d be thinking of cycle lanes, of light railways and trams, of trolley buses, of civil buildings and galleries and museums; trees and squares and parks. An elegantly roofed senate for local democracy. And shops, I suppose. People quite like shops.
I asked a friend who works for Nottingham Council what he thinks. I wondered whether town planners ever fantasise about the sheer power and glory of being able to develop such unified utopian dreams, back when the local authority had the power and financial clout to bring about their master visions into terrible reality. Does he, I asked, despair at the mish-mash approach of private developers, who are now essentially the ones in charge of how our cities unfold?
Being culturally Yorkshirian, he gave me short shrift.
“I think places like Coventry ensured that power was removed from the planners and while it has probably swung too far in the other direction, you probably need a happy medium. Looking out the window here you get a pretty good view of the City Centre and both public and privately built buildings are divided into attractive ones and monstrosities in roughly equal proportions. I guess the current system means you’re unlikely to get an enormous amount of spectacular buildings but you’re equally unlikely to end up with Milton Keynes.”
Which is a fair opinion, but I was thinking more of the concept of what a city was designed for. Whether centrally planned or privately comissioned architects are the likeiest to come up with shittest buildings is a separate question. I don’t think it makes much difference. Look at most modern developments: they’re much of a muchness. When Coldplay play modern arenas on the edge of town, it’s hard to tell which is the band and which is the building.
Milton Keynes turned out how it did because it was designed for the car owner: Coventry was motor city, the Detriot of the West Midlands. Who’s to say a city designed for the pedestrian, cyclist and public transport user wouldn’t be beautiful? Donald Gibson separated the car from the pedestrian, sure. But in doing so he was admitting defeat: he turned the road into a no-go area for pedestrians, for cyclists, for anything other than the private motor.
It’s a mentality that still blights us today, with the advent and rise of U.S. style out-of-town shopping centres: ugly, selfish, and only accessible by car.
So it turns out I still have a complicated relationship with Coventry. It’s just that nowadays it’s from a town planning perspective.
* This I think it a good band name. Other likely band names that cropped up in conversation over the course of the evening included “The Gay Tories” and “Twats in Speedos”. The latter is more of a side-project, methinks. At this stage I’ve got more band names than songs and, like Luke Haines, delectable quotes for interviews that will never happen.
** I went back the next day – it’s still there, and the arcade in question has been spruced up and there’s a new roof on it.