Evidently Shoetown

The fact that my Dad is in hospital – and will most likely be so for some time – has resulted in me getting re-acquainted with my home town, something that has produced some strange resonances with the past.  Dad lives in a village outside the town, so I generally come straight here off the A14, bypassing Northampton completely.  The last time I spent any time in the town would have been in the late 1970’s when I lived there for a few months prior to escaping up to Manchester – and ‘escape’ is very much the operative word here, because that’s how I viewed the situation then and I haven’t much changed my viewpoint in the intervening period.

I left Northampton at 18 for the world of Higher Education and did so without too much of a backward glance.  It was the early ’70’s,  a key era in the history of the town.  The decision had been taken to flatten large areas of London’s East End and relocate people up here – they were referred to, often scornfully, as ‘London Overspill’.  Huge new estates mushroomed on the eastern edge of the town, the incomers poured in and the ‘locals’ didn’t much care for the impact they had on the place.  I remember returning some years later to find – to my astonishment – that an Eel, Pie & Mash shop had opened on Abington Square, though that’s long gone.  The same area is now dominated by an astonishing number of Eastern European food shops and even a restaurant called ‘The Hungry Polack’.  One of the few pleasures of my current circumstances is that I can pop in to these shops and stock up on wonderful Polish bread, marinated herrings and other Baltic delights.

I came back intermittently, but most of my Northampton friends had also left for university and the people who remained and who I ran into in the pubs were familiar to me without being close.  I largely missed out on the impact of the Cockney invasion, but there were other changes that were easier to spot.  These were the days when, across Britain, old and often beautiful buildings were being pulled down to make way for  indoor town centre  shopping precincts and Northampton was no exception.  The ultra-modern Grosvenor Centre went up during this era at the expense of some extraordinary old buildings, notably the late Victorian confection that was the Emporium Arcade.  Church’s china & porcelain shop dominated the frontage, but inside the arcade was an Aladdin’s cave of small shops, cafes and offices that wound uphill on a slight incline and was surely unique. 

 Northampton’s late lamented Emporium Arcade

No room for sentiment in the bright shiny world of 1970’s consumerism so down came the  Emporium Arcade – and much else besides – to be replaced by the bland brutalism of the Grosvenor Centre, flanked by the architectural carbuncle that is Greyfriars Bus Station.  You don’t need to see it, do you?  OK, but don’t say I didn’t warn you…..

The twin orifices of Greyfriars Bus Station, looking a bit like the ‘atmosphere processors’ in James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’

This depressing, ill-lit monstrosity was like the chute in a slaughterhouse; people would emerge like doomed cattle from their buses and be funnelled down the escalator into the threshing retail mayhem of the Grosvenor; it was virtually impossible to get out of the place via any other route.   As usual, with late 20th Century urban development, the needs of ordinary people were playing second fiddle to the demands of  greedy retailers. 

Of course, Northampton is not alone in this respect; Birmingham’s Bull Ring, Manchester’s Arndale and the whole Brent Cross complex in North London were contemporaneous big brothers to the Grosvenor’s cheesy charms.  And, when all was said and done, there were still areas of the town – St Giles Street, for example – that remained largely untouched by the Poulson-esque excesses seen elsewhere.

Since those days, there have been other changes, all of them fairly predictable.  The main thoroughfare of Abington Street has been pedestrianised, the old cattle market has been flattened and replaced by a huge supermarket and the site of the former Barclaycard complex on Marefair is now a hotel and retail complex.

Miraculously, a few other distinctive features have survived more or less intact – the Market Square is the largest in the UK apart from Stockton-on-Tees and has survived, albeit with an ever-diminishing number of stalls on market days.  The old Fish Market is still standing, though it’s no longer a market of any kind and the old Co-Op Arcade has survived as well, though it’s now known (I kid you not) as ‘The Ridings’. 

However, a town is, of course, more than just a collection of buildings and where I am suffering a certain disadvantage these days is that I don’t really know anyone in Northampton any more.  There’s a certain irony in the fact that 2 of my closest friends are from the town, but, like me, they escaped as well.  As I have observed previously in this blog, our shared origins are significant to all of us inasmuch as they have helped to define us as people, but we only come back to minister to ailing elderly relatives or – in their cases, but not in mine – to pay flying visits to siblings.  In a very real sense, the Northampton we knew ceased to exist a long time ago. 

Despite the passage of time and the fact that many of my contemporaries and their families have either died or moved away, that old and forgotten town actually lives on in my memory and I find myself walking past buildings that have survived and trying to remember what they used to be.  So, that Wetherspoon’s used to be a furniture store, the cinema where, aged 11, I saw (but could hardly hear) The Beatles is now the HQ of some happy clappy Christian cult and that old corner cafe is now an estate agents. 

This process is aided and abetted by my tendency to walk round plugged into an iPod set on ‘Shuffle’, so just occasionally, I get a soundtrack to match my nostalgia.  The other day I was passing by The Racecourse Pavilion (now a Chinese restaurant) when up came Cream’s ‘White Room’, a song that was a major playlist item back in 1968.  Similarly, I was walking down Abington Street yesterday when up popped ‘Little house I used to live in’ from the Mothers of Invention’s 1970 ‘Burnt Weeny Sandwich’ album.  Perhaps most appropriately, however – to the extent that I almost burst into rueful laughter – was a souvenir of my sixth form days; Egg’s ‘A Visit to Newport Hospital’, which began playing the other day precisely at the moment that I walked into the grounds of Northampton General.  Spooky or what?

It’s probably inevitable that for someone with as ludicrously encyclopaedic a CD collection as I have, music can be a powerful ‘aide-memoire’ .  For some people, such memories are triggered by old photos or meeting up with old friends, but for me, it’s definitely music.  I could probably return to Manchester and experience something similar whilst listening to early U2 or Joy Division.  Same story up in Newcastle, except there it would probably be The Blue Nile or The Waterboys.  In Scandinavia, it would have to be Culpeper’s Orchard, Dollar Brand, and early Pat Metheny.  I have nearly 7000 individual pieces of music on my iPod – not entire albums, but cherry-picked tracks  and many ( though not all) evoke memories of a particular era or place or  a particular person or group of people.  As I head for my 60th birthday, it’s become almost  geological in terms of the different strata of music from the different parts of my life.

 In 1968 or 1971, the idea of an iPod and music as a moveable feast would have seemed like something out of Ray Bradbury novel, but now it’s 2011 and here I am, headphones on, strolling around streets that are sort of familiar and yet also slightly alien at the same time.  The addition of musical time bombs from the depths of my iPod leads to a weird kind of emotional fracture; it’s like taking two similar (but not identical) transparencies and laying one on top of the other. The music reminds me of the person I used to be; like the town, I have changed as well and, like the town, not always for the better.


4 responses to “Evidently Shoetown

  1. This piece brought me back (though I’ve no real desire to go there, and haven’t for over twenty years). Still, several references to places in the town evoked oddly nostalgic feelings. I lived (survived) in that Cockney overspill of the Stalinist-inspired eastern district (though not as a former Cockney), I later rented a flat above a second-hand shop in Abingdon Square (across from the Unitarian Church), I worked in the hideous Grosvenor Centre (Ravels (of Bond Street!) and Dixon’s, from 1975–76), and happily misspent several years of my youth spinning the discs (and stealing them) on Northampton General Hospital radio (Radio Nene Valley) – I wonder if the steel-cage lift has been replaced in the old Nurses’ quarter? On a temporary return to Shoetown in the late 80s (working on the revamp of Tesco’s in Weston Favell – the second, as I had worked on an earlier revamp in 1979 (a workmate was David Haskins aka Jay of Bauhaus!), I attempted to nullify my forced presence in those dull Northampton streets (“they fucking got you fucking down” – to paraphrase JCC) with the aid of the magnificent Durutti Column (on a Walkman cassette player, of course, and recorded from my own vinyl). If nothing else, it’s all illustrative of some uncanny Northampton–Manchester nexus (and I haven’t even mentioned Best’s six goals against the Cobblers in 1970).
    I hope your father is improving.

    • Thanks for the comments, Dominic. It’s something of a relief to hear that I’m not the only person with such feelings! Like my relationship with the town, my Dad is up and down right now. All the best.

  2. I read your piece on the Emporium arcade with great interest – I played there with school friends as a child, running up the stairs and along those balconies making as much noise as possible. I also visited the toy shop frequently. In my memory (which may be deficient) the arcade had shops up the stairs but they were empty. I also remember a black and white tiled floor. Am I correct?

    Jan B

    • Hi Jan,

      Thanks for the contribution.

      For me, the Emporium Arcade has become a metaphor for the wholesale, cavalier sacrifice of some of the finest parts of our towns and inner cities to the Gods of Commerce. Now, I hear that Northampton’s Grosvenor Centre – successor to the Emporium Arcade – is set to be demolished/replaced/redeveloped. Meanwhile, here in Birmingham, New Street Station is also for the chop. No great loss in either case, but what will go up in the place of the existing eyesores?

      I wonder whether urban developers have learned anything from the wretched mistakes of the 1970’s or whether we’re just destined to suffer another wave of architectural monstrosities? Sadly, if the latest incarnation of Birmingham’s Bullring is anything to go by, it would seem that few, if any, lessons have been learned. In the centre of Derby, the outside view of the recently opened Westfield Centre looks like one of the Reactor Sheds at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. Yet again, another triumph of function over form.

      As for the Emporium Arcade, my teenage visits were largely connected with an Aladdin’s Cave of a Second-hand Record Shop (Cannot remember the name) that flourished there in the Arcade’s final days. They moved…possibly to Bridge Street or possibly Derngate after the demolition. I do recall that in those days, the upstairs premises were largely unoccupied, although I vaguely remember there being a cafe up there. I’m not sure that I ever ventured into the upstairs galleries and I certainly have no recollection of any tiled flooring. There was something vaguely Dickensian about the place and the fact that it sloped gradually uphill just made it all the more fascinating

      When I was clearing my late Father’s house earlier this year I found an old and rather elegiac piece of paper from the old ‘Chronicle & Echo’ – these days, we’d probably call it a ‘Compliments Slip’, but as well as ‘Chronicle & Echo’ across the top in a bold serif font, it also featured a long-range black and white photo of the old C&E building on the Market Square (now Boots the Chemist), taken on a clear winter’s day and standing alone and surrounded by giant cranes following the demolition of the Emporium Arcade and all the surrounding area. Presumably, the C&E were waiting for their new building on The Mounts to be completed before they moved. I’m vaguely thinking of turning it into a Christmas card and it’ll almost certainly get posted on here at some point.

      Again, thanks for your post…..

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