Scenes from the start of Christmas

by Stephen Tall on December 23, 2006

Catching the train is when it starts for me.

Somehow – regardless of the railway’s attempts to put its passengers in a bad mood by jacking up the prices, cramming the carriages with cattle customers, and ensuring we’re all late for wherever we’re meant to get to – the mood is more cheery.

It’s one of the only occasions in the year you’ll be on public transport when almost everybody is heading for family and/or friends to begin their holiday.

I had a momentary panic yesterday. My iPod has decided to become erratic, telling me the battery is knackered when I’d only just charged it. In itself, that’s annoying. That it should give up the ghost five minutes before I’m about to board a train, and endure three hours of the ‘family carriage’ – the noise of which I can survive only with musical accompaniment – is not my idea of good irony.

(Thankfully, after a few minutes’ rest it got up enough puff to see out the rest of the journey … before conking out again.)

Chugging into Newton Abbot (left) is when I know I’m on holiday, just half an hour from my parents’ home (or one hour, as First Great Western contrived it to be).

The whole journey had been swathed in a thick, ethereal mist – like something out of The Dark Is Rising – until we reached the coast, and the stretch of track that winds along the stunning Devonshire coast by Dawlish and Teignmouth. It’s a route I know well; but it still takes my breath away.

Last minute Christmas shopping is something I love. I’m sensible enough to have bought most gifts months weeks days beforehand – but nothing beats the slightly giddy, slightly frantic atmosphere of hunting for presents to beat a deadline.

And, almost excitingly, Plymouth’s city centre has had a makeover since last year, with the smart new Drake Circus shopping behemoth (right) replacing its drab predecessor – though, unfortunately, the contrast with the municipal greyness of its concrete neighbours is now quite painful.

It may not have been his most heinous of crimes, but the dreary and characterless architecture of post-war Britain is one that Hitler still inflicts on us today.

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One comment

Hitler has quite a lot to answer for, but surely you can’t blame him for all the post-war architecture right up to the present day? I would reckon that the post-war building in Plymouth came to an official end on the day in 1962 when the Queen opened the Civic Centre.*

The Drake Circus that has just been demolished wasn’t built until the early 1970s (at the same time as the Westgate Centre in Oxford…) and was intended to be far superior to (i.e. more modern than) the big Plymouth shops that had been put up in a hurry after Hitler. I was there when the original “new” Drake’s Circus opened, and it was thought to be the bee’s knees compared with the rest of Plymouth shopping centre: we gawped at the first supermarket, outdoor escalator, and multi-storey carpark that we had ever seen, marvelled at C&A, and thought we were looking at the future. No one would have believed that the whole lot would be demolished (again, just like the Westgate Centre) after thirty or so years.

The post-war planners of the 1940s and 1950s were working under unprecedentedly horrendous circumstances and can be forgiven; the biggest mistakes were made in the 1960s and 1970s by the next generation of planners, who tried to improve on the utilitarian but sound buildings put up post-Hitler. They introduced many gimmicks but did not taking enough care to ensure that roofs didn’t leak or concrete deteriorate.

(Don’t imagine that you can escape one of the most trying residents of your Headington ward by escaping to Plymouth. A Liberal may go a long way, but this is not far enough. I shall be there visiting my mother tomorrow. I am a Plymothian born and bred, back to my great-grandparents, who moved down there from Wales as Salvation army officers in order to open a temperance coffee house in Devonport to keep the sailors out of the pubs. Quite right too.)


*I gather that the Civic Centre itself is now also under threat. Again, when it was built we thought it was the most marvellous building we had ever seen, and regularly went up to the viewing terrace at the very top (around the restaurant): there was much more to see than from Smeaton’s Tower. Planners should be warned: this generation’s glamour is the next generation’s tat.

[I didn’t realize that by deleting a message to correct a typing error that it would appear as the sinister removal above!]

by Stephanie on December 26, 2006 at 10:38 am. Reply #

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