Accrington Pals

To London yesterday to catch a play that this blog and Mrs Blog tried but failed to get tickets for at Manchester’s Royal Exchange last year – the Accrington Pals by Peter Whelan. This production was by the Tower Theatre company, perhaps London’s top amateur dramatic group, and provided the opportunity to support our neighbour, George, appearing as Tom, one of the (spoiler alert!) brave but luckless Pals.

“Pals brigades” were formed in World War 1 (apologies to any actual historians out there), made up of volunteers from individual towns. I assume the idea was that groups of men, known to each other, might sign on together and fight for each other when the chips were down. Perhaps ok in principle – until, as inevitably happened, whole towns lost a generation of their menfolk when their particular brigade encountered the horrors of the “war to end wars”. Accrington, I understand, was the smallest town in England to supply its own brigade. On 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, around 700 men of the Accrington Pals went into action. Within half an hour 235 of them had been killed and another 350 wounded. This blog doesn’t have the words so it won’t try.

The production was an excellent one and I congratulate all involved. (Incidentally, is the night time view of London from the long platforms over the Thames at Blackfriars station brilliant, or is it brilliant?)

To “make a day of it” in London we also went to the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House, known especially for its fine collection of Impressionists. This blog is no art fiend but he’s happy when he sees paintings that he recognises – and likes, in manageable numbers.

A special commendation to the Courtauld is in order, I feel, for the descriptive panels alongside each piece, which – rare in my experience – seem to say something helpful about what’s in front of you. Elsewhere, I’m afraid the kind of prose used to interpret artworks sometimes appears to have been assembled from random word searches which could be applied in any sequence and could reasonably be rotated around the gallery without major difficulty. You know: “The artist is here expressing the eclectic range of visual and sensory illusions apparently stimulated by life’s ephemeral but contrasting allegories in time and space.” But that’s just me. I was in more familiar territory when Mrs Blog pointed out that the eyes in one of the portraits by Tilly Kettle definitely followed you round the room.  (See below and try it for yourself. She’s right!)

Being up “in town” well after this blog’s bedtime meant missing a couple of possible treats on the telly. (Sorry for lowering the tone). So I have, if I’ve done it right, recorded both W1A and the last episode of Line of Duty. If the former is as good as its predecessor, 2012, I’ll be a happy man. But Line of Duty – that Lindsay Denton, what is she like??  I’ve had to avoid the TV crit in today’s Guardian just in case. And for goodness’ sake, if you know how it ends, keep it to yourself.


Should I mention yesterday’s budget? As a possible criterion for judging its merits, I’m inclined to ask this: “Was there anything in there for Accrington, or for the kind of families portrayed in last night’s play?”  Please feel free to provide your own answers.

Also, evidence in the last few days that government ministers are studying this blog carefully. Blog number 1 mentioned the unwelcome prospect of old farm buildings being converted, or demolished, to provide new houses in the countryside without the fag of needing to get planning permission like the rest of us. “Planning minister” Nick Boles has now indicated that this new freedom should not apply in our best landscapes like national parks, so hip hip. All he needs to do now is agree it doesn’t make sense anywhere else either.




A Virgin Blogger says Carry on Ranting!

My first time. You have to start somewhere and I’m beginning with the two big media events on environmental issues over the past week.

As a town planning student in the 1970s I cut my environmental teeth (we didn’t actually have environment back then, we had to make do with geography, but it was sort of the same) on Ian Nairn. Nairn (1930 – 1983) was the subject last week of a BBC 4 documentary “The Man who Fought the Planners” so I should have disliked him but, as an early and hugely passionate critic of bad architecture and planning, he was an iconic figure and his outpourings were an inspiration.

A former RAF pilot – which gave him a distinctive view of the world – he developed “a deep hatred of characterless buildings and places” and is credited with minting the term “subtopia” to describe the area around cities, failed by urban planning and devoid of spirit of place. The titles of his early books, “Outrage: On the Disfigurement of Town and Countryside” and “Counter Attack against Subtopia”, may give a hint of his feelings. Come on Ian, don’t just sit on the fence – tell us what you’re really thinking.

My first Nairn publication would be “Britain’s Changing Towns”, bought with some of my leftover university grant (kids, ask your parents), and displayed a robust approach to the written word. He collaborated with Nikolaus Pevsner on the “Buildings of England” series and Alec Clifton-Taylor pointed out what he saw as the essential difference between Pevsner’s and Nairn’s contributions: “Dr. Pevsner… is inclined to tell us everything about a building except whether it is worth going to see. Mr Nairn, more subjective, occasionally perverse…never leaves us in any doubt about this aspect.”

Nairn was fond of pubs. Too fond, as it transpired, and he died at the age of 52 from cirrhosis of the liver. If you can still catch the programme on On Demand, do so. Mind you, he may have had a great way with the written word, but TV probably wouldn’t cope these days with a presenter who struggled to make eye contact with either the camera or the person he was talking to.

The other great media event? That would be me, being interviewed on Radio Sussex before muesli time on government’s inspired wheeze to allow the owners of unwanted farm buildings to convert them – or even demolish and replace – to new dwellings without the nuisance of having to get planning permission. There may be a need for more housing in rural areas but, surely, of the “affordable” type, providing accommodation for local people, not just top-of–the-range places.

There may be plenty of old barns that could be reasonably converted. The existing planning system generally copes with those by weighing up the possibilities of continuing agricultural activity or other commercial use, and by considering whether the barn was worth saving anyway, and how sensitive the conversion would be, and what about the impact on the neighbourhood? So, government has come up with a solution to a problem we didn’t know we had and suggested that this is just too hard. While you may still need to get planning permission for your house extension, farmers should be allowed to knock up two or three houses in the middle of the countryside without the “red tape”.

Now this is just my opinion, but – and I know I’m right – that’s plain wrong.

At the time of writing there are encouraging noises that this proposed change won’t apply in our national parks so it may only be the rest of the countryside that receives the benefit of this enhancement.

Ian Nairn, where are you when we need you? Ranting remains as essential now as it ever was.