Reflections on the English city

I’ve known Bristol all my life. After Southampton, where my mother’s family were from and which is only 20 miles from Salisbury where we lived, Bristol was the second city of my childhood and teens. Southampton was morbidly affecting, dark, rain-slicked, tough, scary. Bristol was – astonishingly – always sunny. I still have photographs from when I was three-and-a-half. I share the frame with, variously, a suspension bridge that today I can only get across by crawling, a lion, a polar bear, a zebra. I guess that all save the bridge have long since been turned into pies.

I ate my first deep fried egg at the Marine Cafe on the Triangle, I had my first Chinese meal across the street, I first tasted pizza in a basement near St John’s Gateway. I got to know St Nicholas Market by bunking off from some awful play by Dürrenmatt at the Old Vic and being led by a school friend to a bar called The Rummer – an early enterprise of the Berni Brothers, since you ask.

Bristol was also sartorially important. That dogtooth pattern shirt from Daniel Neale when I was 12. The herringbone suit made to measure by Mr Graham Manning of Christmas Steps, a place that so delighted me I wanted the fittings to last forever. I can recall the name of the purple heart dealer who plied his trade in a coffee bar on Park Street. I can’t recall the name of the young woman my mother had taught at primary school who had migrated to the big city and fallen – as the Victorians would have said – into prostitution. She was found strangled in Leigh Woods, a murder that contaminated a group of houses in that direction immediately on the other side of the suspension bridge: they are high Victorian picturesque, some chalet-like, some cosmetically oriental as though intended for a hill station like Ootacamund. They had been jolly. Now they had become slightly sinister.

The Devil’s Cathedral was never jolly. Indeed when I was tiny I would look at it through parted fingers as though it were the set of a spinechiller, which of course it was. My spinechiller. Opposite it is the steep Arno’s Vale cemetery where one of Peter Nichols’ great telly films, Hearts and Flowers, was set. Further into the centre there’s a terrace encrusted with grime and behind the grime, climactically impervious industrial terracotta. And behind the terrace, the best-named place in Britain – Totterdown, where late Victorian houses do indeed teeter madly on impossible slopes. Nobody would go there on account of its architecture … but the appeal of place is quite apart from that of architecture.

This then is what might be called Bristol One – or, rather, a tiny fragment of Bristol One. My Bristol. A serendipitously accumulated Bristol of chance views, fortuitous encounters and stubborn memories. Bristol Two is widely shared. Some of its facets coincide with those of Bristol One: Clifton Bridge, Arno’s Court’s former stables aka the Devil’s Cathedral – so called by Horace Walpole because they are built of shiny black slag that recalls the volcanic stone of Catania in Sicily and Clermont-Ferrand in Puy-de-Dôme.

Bristol is a city that possesses an abundance of structures that are one way or another of the highest stature. St Mary Redcliffe, the cottages at Blaise Hamlet, the tobacco warehouses, Kingsweston, the Wills Tower, Edward Everard’s premises – and three outrageous essays in Victorian Venetian high comedy: the Granary on Welsh Back, the old Lloyds Bank in Corn Street, the sometime museum close to the Wills Tower, which is now a restaurant of sorts. It goes without saying that they were not intended to be comedic, but become so by dint of their solemn self-regard. There is a sort of beauty in pathological pomposity. That they are jokes against themselves does not for a moment lessen them.

As well as these structures there are, of course, such magnificent set pieces as Clifton, Queen Square, King Street. Bristol Two is the Bristol of icons. The icons that we tick off: if we haven’t seen them, we haven’t seen Bristol. It was always thus: hence most Grand Tourists of a quarter of a millennium ago were forever running into each other. We see what we have been taught to.

It is impossible, as they say in football, to legislate for Bristol One. It has, so to speak, chosen us. I never elected to have an art deco Smith’s Crisps factory tattooed on my brain in perpetuity …

Bristol Two is different. The purpose of monuments extends far beyond their utility: they memorialise their maker, their patron, a commerce, an ideal. Their function is no more modest than that of a statue that an autocrat raises to himself. Clifton Bridge can hardly have been claimed to have been necessary from the point of view of communications; the Wills Tower, one of the tobacco dynasty’s many gifts to this city, is as much an advertisement for the product’s benefits as an exercise in pedagogic philanthropy.

Now, if I suture together the Bristol of the sentimental mnemonic triggers and the Bristol of quasi-official, popularly sanctioned sites, their aggregate comes to a tiny, and atypical, fraction of a single per cent of this city’s buildings. Which leaves a vast mass that is not exactly unseen, but which is unscrutinised. This is the silent majority. The buildings that occupy the spaces between the buildings that have made their mark. It is this mass that forms the wallpaper of the roofless galleries we call cities and towns, it is this vast mass that is the fabric of urbanism. I’ll reword that: which is the fabric of what should be, what might be urbanism.

The character of a place is to be found in the apparently ordinary. The beans in the cassoulet, not the confit and the sausage. We have a self-deluding habit of making the atypical stand for the typical. We convince ourselves that English villages are like Lacock or Castle Combe rather than like the accumulations of bungalows, pseudo-bucolic executive estates, crescents of ill-maintained council houses, rusting waterbutts, breezeblock piggeries and crack-dealing yobs that are actually the norm.

Twenty-five years ago, Peter Aldington, that most craftsmanlike of architects, suggested that what was needed was not more grand gestures but, as he felicitously put it, a better standard of ordinariness. That, I believe, remains the imperative. Bristol demonstrates the primacy of ordinariness because it possesses an unusually high standard of ordinariness.

The circumstances that have occasioned this are complicated.

The first lunch I spent with Ian Nairn, he ate a packet of crisps and drank 14 pints of beer; the other time he was thinking about his figure so ate nothing and drank 11 pints


The peculiarity of the topography is an important factor. The combination of precipitous hills, chasmic valleys, rivers and consequently, the delightful lack of a grid, seems happily inimical to grand gestures. It is a labyrinthine pattern that has encouraged disciplined one-offs. Heterogeneity is the norm. Beneficent collisions and wacky juxtapositions are ubiquitous. Differences of scale, material, style: differences that are exacerbated by buildings being seen in vertical as well as horizontal relationships.

If you don’t approve of it, you call it piecemeal, scrappy. It is certainly the obverse of the great port with which Bristol for so long traded. Bordeaux’s classical unities are not on the agenda. Individuality and eccentricity are. Though eccentricity is an inapt word since it presumes a rule to diverge from. Here there is no rule.

Bristol’s genius resides in its benign anarchy. That does not of course apply to Clifton – to which I’ll return in a moment.

The history of English urbanism – though not Scottish or European urbanism – is the history of a longing for suburbanism. Mistrust of urbanism and of cities themselves is deeply embedded in the English psyche. If a culture is essentially a compound of custom, practice, tics, habits, traditions and collectively received ideas then we have an anti-urbanistic culture to fight against for the very survival of this country as a place worth living in.

It was half a century ago that the 24-year-old Ian Nairn published his great polemic Outrage, a work of scorn and ire and prescriptive inspiration. Save that it inspired nobody. Nairn railed against everything that was bad about the unchecked spread of low-quality built environment, an environment that has continued to get worse. And will very likely go on getting worse – burb will breed burb will breed burb. The sub has long been redundant: these burbs have no urb to be sub to. Hence his coinage of subtopia.

It was probably Nairn’s despair that drove him to devise the Nairn Diet. I met him twice, towards the end of his life, I need hardly add. The first lunch I spent with him, he ate a packet of crisps and drank 14 pints of beer; the other time he was thinking about his figure so ate nothing and drank 11 pints. He died a few months later of cirrhosis. Cruelly, he was in Ealing, the so-called queen of the suburbs and the sort of place he abhorred.

Back to Clifton. It is certainly a suburb. A most unusual suburb if only because it doesn’t make my heart sink. Like most of Bristol it is not easily legible: its layout is haphazardly tied to the contours of its slopes. It invites us to lose ourselves. But unlike most of Bristol it is not a quick-change artiste; it does not turn into something new with every corner. A broadly classical idiom was maintained long after it had slipped out of fashion.

But we don’t notice that today. This is what Betjeman called the classical survival – we should be thankful for it. Like Cheltenham and Brighton, which are as architecturally blessed but lack the dramatic site, Clifton owes its singularity to a property that causes many of today’s architects embarrassment: it is all in keeping.

There is nothing wrong with being in keeping. There is nothing wrong - commercially, artistically, let alone morally - with pastiche. There is evidently nothing wrong with pastiche if it’s of modernism since that is what the current British mainstream comprises:

neo-modernism, synthetic modernism – those are handles, not denigrations. The pasticheur is a sort of chameleon. The problems arise when the chameleon has no sense of shape or is colourblind.

So homogeneity is one of Clifton’s great attributes. Its second great attribute is that it is centripetal. Its architectural aspirations and its forms are urban. It is not trying to flee the city despite the lure of the downs and gorge and the strangler’s woods and Somerset’s lush fields. Its streets and squares are city streets and city squares. A bombastic construction such as Royal York Crescent may not be technically great architecture but it is great cityscape. It makes no allowance towards its being perched on a cliff staring towards the Mendips. Clifton belongs to a late Georgian, early Victorian moment when suburbanism did not imply anti-urbanism.

At the time that Clifton was being completed, the young Friedrich Engels had just published, in Germany, The Condition of the Working Class in England – a book based on his observations, some acute, some callow, of industrial Manchester. For Engels – as for Hitler after him – the city’s only virtue was as a concentration of the disaffected, among whom revolt might be fomented.

Try telling the subtopian Englishman that his wretched home in Dismal Close off Dreary Avenue is not a castle


Many of his less guileful contemporaries saw no virtue in cities. Indeed as Britain’s might and wealth increased and the population of its cities made exponential leaps, so the tide of anti-urbanism gathered strength. To deplore the very notion of the city and to insist that the only alternative was to reshape mankind so that the city would be rendered redundant and a new form of organism be created from zero … this was so much a part of the bien-pensant Victorian curriculum that it was not reckoned dotty.

Far from it: this was a conventional shibboleth – as commonplace as anti-elitism is today and as vacuous. They all signed up for the big fret: Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, the sexually squeamish John Ruskin, William Morris who thought wallpaper could change the world, Arthur Mackmurdo who abandoned architecture to write tracts urging humans to learn from the social structure of the beehive, such future fellow travellers as HG Wells and GB Shaw – who would announce during the worst of the Ukranian famine that the USSR was the world’s best-fed country. These were the officer class gullible. There were countless troops, too. But nobody had any idea what the alternative to the city would look like, not even the well-intentioned old fool Sir Ebenezer Howard whose disastrous book was written – with fists dipped in lard – just after Engels tardily appeared in English translation, and which spouted nostrums in response to the conditions of half a century before.

Howard’s Gardens Cities Of Tomorrow is an anti-landlord tract that is obstinately mute about the appearance of such settlements. It’s as though he considers that appearance is a frivolity in comparison with a new economic foundation and shelter. Most small-scale 19th-century utopian essays had done little more than reflect mainstream taste and constrained budgets: Robert Owen’s New Lanark was composed of what might have been workhouses; the Chartist colonies were industrial backstreets displaced to meadows and orchards; Saltaire was a primly Italianate model village that was as cheery as a prison. These places did not sing a sweet lullaby of a bright, startrite dawn.

Now it was Howard’s good fortune and 20th-century Britain’s bad fortune that his derivative tract was published at a time when a new domestic architecture of brilliantly contrived escapism was at its apogee. Never was neverneverland more persuasively realised than by the rurally fixated, childlike luddites of the arts and crafts. Never was twee, cutesy, unthinking, saccharine, eager-to-please, easy-on-the-eye winsomeness carried off by a greater genius than the young Lutyens. This may be because genius is seldom disposed to express itself in the medium of dreamy treacle.

Parker and Unwin, the architects of Letchworth and Hampstead Garden Suburb, may not have been as blessed as Lutyens but they were good all right. Pragmatic utopianism had found its perfect architectural expression. Shaw called Letchworth the Heaven near Hitchin. The future mass-murderer Lenin went to inspect it. The English garden suburb became the world’s cynosure. And the world, it has to be said, treated the recipe more judiciously than did England. France and Germany, Russia and Belgium realised what the English begetters never admitted to themselves: that this was a fantasy of bucolicism, this was a game. And so it had rules. A set of constraints. Sokol in northern Moscow, Elisabethville in western Paris and Le Logis-Floréal on the edge of Brussels revel in their bogusness. There is no pretence of being part of any Countryside other than that of their own devising. These are suburbs that still belong to the city. There is no will to secede.

In England, however, the garden suburb was like an actor subsumed by a role. The promoters of the garden suburb forgot they were living in, and building illustrations from, a fairytale. They believed that they were creating villages. And millions of people bought into that fantasy. The exodus from cities became an English norm. The aspiration to move to the country was eased by the provision of what might be passed off as country … This diaspora was the most demographically significant tendency of Britain’s 20th century. The irony was that it was a reaction to a gamut of problems that no longer existed. By the beginning of the 20th century, cities enjoyed drainage, sanitation, gas and, in some cases, electric light. Diphtheria, cholera, typhus, scarlet fever, yellow fever, mauve fever – fevers in any colour you want – all disappeared. So the migration from cities was undertaken by fugitives from past fear, by refugees from an urban myth. This was a migration whose motor was fuelled not by reason but by faith. A faith that is all too evidently still espoused today.

And faith is always a problem: try telling a credulous communicant that the emetic red stuff offered by a bridegroom of Christ is made from rehydrated wine-style powder in Crediton, Devon. Try telling the subtopian, land-hungry Englishman that his wretched home in Dismal Close off Dreary Avenue is not a castle but a cancerous cell that is destroying what remains of his country.

For Cobbett it was the city that was the cancer. Today we know much more about that disease, we know it delights in multiple sites not necessarily connected to each other, we know how promiscuously playful it is in where it elects to strike. It is worth noting that in western Europe, it is only in England that the “inner city” is synonymous with crime, destitution, social deprivation.

Why? Because it is only in England that the people who run cities and generate the wealth of cities live in exurban dormitories and so have no personal stake in them. Sure, this is changing. Slowly. But it is changing through a new faith – in the balms of regeneration. And believe me, it is a faith.

We, the faithful, know that Michael Heseltine transformed Liverpool’s economy and spirit with the miracle of the garden festival. That the Lowry and the Imperial War Museum of the North have so changed Manchester that today there is no gun crime in Moss Side. That Frank Gehry has demonstrated that if you get rid of right angles you put a smile on a terrorist’s face. That alfresco restaurants and perfumed candle shops and bravely fuschia alcantara docksides by Citterio spell a better future.

If I had less faith I’d whisper an unmentionable phrase. Dirigisme. Environmental dirigisme. But then I’d whisper it in vain. For the only civil liberty that this too subservient country values is the liberty to hope for a triple SUV garage and a water feature garden.