Friday, 19 June 2015

Heritage Heroics


It has never been cheap or convenient to save the nation's heritage. That is not the point (though personally I would argue that, contrary to developer's claims, it is almost always cheaper to restore what exists than to demolish it and erect something unworthy in its place with little more than a 50 year life expectancy, as the majority of new builds have. Fewer, if they fall out of fashion before that).

But to get back to the point. Once all the battles are finally fought and won to save a historic gem, it is invariably to the gratitude of the local community that the survivor still stands and they discover a new pride at the piece of local history in their midst. 

Such is the fight ahead to save the oldest commercial building in Brighton in the Laines, Tucked away and forgotten behind a modest and somewhat neglected 18th century building housing a branch of Timpsons, Puget's Cottage, which annexed the late Hannington's Department store represents an architectural 'Miss Havisham', virtually untouched for more than 150 years. It is only now that another attempt is to be made to straighten out the squiggly historic charm of the Laines by bulldozing an additional passage through to aid commerce that it (and Timpsons) have found themselves in the wrecking ball's path. 

And fair enough, neither will ever win any beauty contests when compared to, say, the Brighton Pavilion, but they can certainly enjoy an uncovering of charms and add a unique selling point to the Laines which would be lost if the developers were allowed their somewhat unimaginative and brutal way to make it look like just another shopping street.

But this is not an 'either' 'or'. For no.16 North Street next door could easily accommodate a ground floor 'Hannington Lane', preserving not only its upper floors, but the threatened buildings at 15, and offering a much more gentle and true-to-the-spirit of the Laines alternative. Windows or access into the historic courtyard could be built into the passage and the oldest commercial building put back to commercial (or tourism) use. In fact it would be a much cheaper scheme from the developer's point of view. 

Brighton and Hove City Council planning officers recommended rejection of the demolition permission, yet somehow it went through and is now, thanks to the local Brighton and Hove Historic Commission, being appealed through the Home Secretary. Rather disappointingly, not to mention alarmingly, one local heritage group The Regency Society has spoken in favour of demolition of this listed building as its chairman seems to think allowing the scheme through is 'more important' to Brighton. However it is not an 'either' 'or' as previously stated. It is actually a situation where everyone can have their cake and eat it, so what's stopping them?

On a more positive note, and following my previous blog, Save the Hippo! detailing the history of the building and saga, this week came the wonderful news that the Brighton Hippodrome is almost saved! Almost, as it is now in the hands of what we hope will prove a good and sympathetic owner - the Academy Music Group. This is largely thanks to the heroic efforts of local MP Caroline Lucas, Save the Brighton Hippodrome and Our Brighton Hippodrome Facebook campaigns who worked tirelessly to highlight the building's plight and fund raise. A fantastic example of what people power can achieve! All that remains now is to draft a sustainable business plan for the future and carry on pushing until it opens its doors again. However there is no reason to suppose the Brighton Hippodrome cannot be just as successful as its surviving and thriving sister Hippodromes in Birmingham, Bristol and elsewhere.

And what act could fail to be inspired by performing in a building cheered on by the ghosts of Max Miller, Laurel and Hardy and a whole host of old time stars..?

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Margaret Grant-Smith 1924 - 2015

I received some sad news this week. My fellow writer from Earlsdon Writer's Group (when I lived in Coventry in the 1990s), Margaret Grant-Smith, died. Margaret was a retired business studies teacher (orderer of the first computer in Coventry for the Coventry Technical College, apparently) and the politest lady I ever knew.

Exceptionally well-spoken, Margaret combined an old world charm with a mischievous girly giggle which belied her years.She was also surprisingly adventurous, having gone to Africa just after the war and lived and worked there for three glorious years in her early 20s, leaving her with a lifelong love of the continent.

Then her father became ill and Margaret dutifully returned to Coventry, first to help nurse him, and then to live with her mother, getting a job and helping her financially after he died.

Eventually she met Leslie, a Scottish aircraft engineer, who became her husband. They bought a newly-built 50s house in the suburbs and had two children. Leslie developed parts for the landing gear of the newly invented Concorde supersonic jet. The family lived very happily for several years.

Tragically when the children were still young Leslie contracted an aggressive form of cancer and Margaret lost him in 1971 after only 15 years together.

Left to raise the children alone, Margaret asked the Technical College (for whom she was already tutoring a few hours a week) if they could increase her hours. They did, so at least Margaret was able to continue paying the mortgage and they could remain in the family home.

Years later Margaret discovered that Leslie had been among hundreds of military servicemen who had undertaken chemical warfare exercises during their time in National Service. A significant number went on to develop cancers of various kinds and die young, but at the time everyone assumed Margaret's husband had just been unlucky. Certainly the soldiers themselves had been given no reason to suppose that the exercises they were participating in posed any danger to them long-term.

Margaret found widowhood hard, not least the hurtful fact that a number of female friends seemed to avoid her as if worried she was going to pursue their husbands now that she was a widow. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Although she enjoyed a few dates (with single gentlemen) in subsequent years and told me she received a couple of marriage proposals, Margaret was to remain single for the rest of her life - another 43 years - taking the view that no one could match up to her Leslie.

However Margaret didn't let the grass grow under her feet. She was an intrepid traveller, both at home and abroad, took up writing and was an active member of her church and community. She treated herself to a brand new car at 75 and even embarked on a screen writing course at her local university at around the same time. She also doted on her children and grandchildren and was equally cherished in return. Though it was amusing to note her slight consternation at her young grandson taking the informal liberty of christening her 'Nanny Marg'.

Margaret's writing could be unintentionally priceless. A certain drawing room play of hers involved what were supposed to be contemporary teenagers grappling with contemporary issues but they were so proper and correct in their speech and manners, the whole thing came across as a Noel Coward play gone wrong! I was in secret stitches every time Margaret recited a scene and would have loved to have seen it actually staged as it was a unique style! And it's not as if Margaret did not frequent the theatre. She loved the theatre and was open-minded to most artforms, so while she was old fashioned in some ways, she was also lively-minded and in touch in others.

While her home remained a tribute to the 1960s in its decor, it was spacious and comfortable and Margaret loved it, particularly the garden. When I first knew her in the 1990s, she had a rather unlikely canine companion inherited from her adult son. Not a dog Margaret would ever have chosen for herself, she and Suzy became the most devoted of companions. Sometimes Margaret would host Earlsdon Writer's meetings at her home and Suzy became legendary for letting out a pained groan when someone's work wasn't very good, much to Margaret's embarrassment. She turned out to be a surprisingly good literary critic! When Suzy died, Margaret had her portrait painted from a photograph and it took permanent pride of place above her mantelpiece, somewhat incongruously next to her late mother's china cabinet collection.

The last ten years of Margaret's life were a struggle with series of TIA mini strokes leading to a downward decline, much as she kept gracious and proper to the end, if somewhat confused. She had to give up her car at 87 much to her chagrin, and, one by one, most of her other activities though she walked in the nearby park every day for as long as she could. I felt sad that I lived so far away and could not visit more often though she was lucky enough to be surrounded by good neighbours, her church friends and frequent family visitors. Sadly she didn't get her wish to die in her own home as, by the final few months, she needed a nursing home, but she remained stoic throughout, her strong faith seeing her through. RIP Margaret - what a wonderful world it would be if there were more like you.

I will end this tribute with one of Margaret's charming poems from her collection 'The Mixture Varies'

Uncle Jim

Aristocratic Uncle Jim
Impeccable manners, a charmer
No one would have guessed him
To be a practical joker

He visited England frequently
For suits from Savile Row
Took my parents out on the spree
A nightly extravagant show

Returning home to his African farm
He sat on the stoep for sundowners
In the last glow of the evening calm
Next day to join big-game hunters

The calamity had no portent
He would not tell and I was banned
From asking what caused the accident
That robbed him of his right hand

Back to England sooner than planned
To Harley Street of course, A perfect fit
The best artificial hand
I thought him brave to be proud of it

Then he'd delight when meeting people new
To shake them warmly by the hand
But not without undoing the screw
One lady fainted to the ground

But time again, he'd feign surprise
"That damned loose screw!' he'd cry
And profusely apologise
All this before he lost his eye

Monday, 8 June 2015

A Murder In The Family

Recently my partner's mother told us she had just lost her cousin Peter in Canada.
He was a fit and well retired professor in his early 70s who had recently been on a hiking trip when he was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cancer. Within three months he was dead.

This led to the story of his life.

His mother Trudl (Heidi's aunt) had been one of three sisters. Each sister was blonde and glamorous but Trudl had been blessed with the beauty and luminescence of a film star.

As a young woman in 1930s Germany she worked in a department store and quickly found herself promoted to model for their women's clothing range, her posters all over town and in the newspapers. She caught the eye of a wealthy widowed factory magnate some years her senior. They were married and she had two children, both boys.

The family enjoyed an enviably opulent lifestyle until WWII broke out. Soon after that the factory was bombed and the family lost everything. To make matters worse, shortly after the end of the war Trudls' husband died of a fatal heart attack.

Widowed and broke and with the city in ruins, Trudl decided she needed to find a better life for herself and her boys.

The opportunity came to go to Canada for a modest passage and Trudl seized it.
Still young, she quickly found fashion modelling work again and rented a small apartment in Toronto. Her boys were enrolled into good schools and soon learned English.

Trudl was naturally popular with men and soon found a handsome and charming suitor who purported to be devoted to her.

All was well at first and the family were very happy. Gradually though, Trudl realised how possessive her boyfriend was. He also drank far too much and would be aggressive when drunk. Occasionally he would hit her and they split up several times but he would always apologise profusely, promising to get help for his problems, and she would always take him back. This went on for some years.

Eventually Trudl's relations back home in Germany told her they missed her and begged her to return home now things were better economically. They also knew she was not very happy with her man.

Her boys had now left school and with the eldest at university and the youngest
about to start, Trudl felt she could leave them to finish their education and they could join her in Germany when they had finished if they wished to.
She made the mistake of telling her on/off boyfriend of her plans, no doubt assuming this would be a means of letting him down gently since he knew how much she missed her family back home and they missed her.

Two days later she was found with a bullet through her forehead, her boyfriend dead beside her with a gun in his mouth.

Her boys were devastated but somehow managed to finish their university education and go on to lead successful professional lives, They also both married and had children and grandchildren.

It was obviously some years since Heidi had last thought of her aunt (whom she had only known as a child before her aunt emigrated), but Peter's death had brought it all back.