Thursday, 12 April 2018

alas poor Basingstoke

This month's Art Society lecture had the teasing title Basingstoke and its contribution to world culture.  The introduction on the society's website explained that it was essentially a case study in post war modern planning.  My interest was piqued.  I went to school in Exeter, another victim of post war modern planning following the damage inflicted by the Baedeker raids, and as a teenager I found the rebuilt High Street and newly created shopping precincts astonishingly ugly and desperately dull.  Revisiting twenty-five years on for a school reunion confirmed my childhood view that they were dreadful.  My sole experience of Basingstoke was of being stuck outside it on a train for a very long time, as I recall without a seat and holding a poinsettia intended as a gift to my aunt when we finally arrived, but I was familiar with Basingstoke's reputation for taking dullness and ugliness to epic new levels.  The lecture sounded like a must-hear, plus I gathered from the music society chairman who had been programme secretary of the art society at the point when the lecturer was booked that he delivered the whole thing entirely straight, and that it was very funny.

Poor Basingstoke.  It featured in the Domesday Book, and since then when it has figured in history, which is not very often, people have dismissed it as shabby and dull.  Gilbert White of later Selborne fame went to school there and amused himself in the evenings with his friends by undermining the ruins of the medieval chapel that stood at the end of the town.  A visiting Medici duke passed through it in the seventeenth century on his way to London and found it so boring it was scarcely worth his while to walk more than a few steps to look at it.  Even its own inhabitants had scant regard for it, demolishing a fine seventeenth century town hall in the following century to make space to expand the cattle market.

It survived the last war pretty much unscathed, having no strategic industries and not featuring in Baedeker, but caught the eye of the planners looking for somewhere to decant hundreds of thousands of Londoners into new and better housing.  Many of the new towns were built around small villages, but in the case of Basingstoke one hundred and forty acres of the centre of the town were compulsorily purchased, boarded off, and bulldozed and blown up.  The photographs of pre-demolition Basingstoke show a normal, slightly shabby 1960s provincial town, with buildings from Tudor to Victorian times, of the kind that nowadays would be very charming if the money was there, and still shabby if it wasn't.  In the case of the brave new Basingstoke the money ran out before the planners' great vision was completed, and features like the grand civic centre remained unbuilt.  The shopping centres have not aged well, and the new centre is raised up thirty feet above the level of the original town within a vast retaining brick wall known locally as the Great Wall of Basingstoke.

The lecturer stressed that he was not having a dig at the inhabitants of Basingstoke.  As a town it has among the highest employment rates and average wages in the country.  The people are friendly.  It is just that it is so hideously, stultifyingly ugly, and was built at the expense of bulldozing an entire, historic, potentially perfectly good town centre.  Incidentally, the displaced inhabitants were not well compensated for the loss of their homes and shops, and while many of the incoming East Enders were thrilled to have new homes with modern kitchens and indoor lavatories, there was a high suicide rate among the original inhabitants.

Basingstoke did turn out to have made a few contributions to world culture, apart from providing a case study in How Not To Develop a New Town.  A furniture maker supplied the writing slope given to Jane Austen by her father for her nineteenth birthday.  The Burberry clothing brand was invented there, although the tailor's original workshop has disappeared under the Great Wall, and the founder of Merton College lived there, although the site of his house is now covered by a pedestrian footbridge.

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