Architecture

Walsall’s Competition

September 17, 2016


Of all Western European countries, England is the most richly endowed with unutterably dismal towns and cities, in part the heritage of the Industrial Revolution and in part that of modern architects and town planners. I once wrote of Walsall that it was the ugliest town in the world, to which one of its councillors responded with fury in defense of his little fiefdom. I had not meant to be taken literally”€”it was in the context of a criticism of the town’s new art gallery, which struck me as a hybrid of grain silo and secret police headquarters, built at enormous expense”€”but these days, thanks to universal education, everyone automatically takes what you say with a literalism that makes the average Islamic theocrat seem lax in his interpretation of sharia. Anyway, a poll was subsequently held among the residents of the town and, of those who responded, a clear majority agreed that Walsall was the ugliest town in the world.       

I was under the impression that nothing quite so awful was to be found in France. Imagine my patriotic joy (for though not at all a xenophobe, I am a patriot) when I stopped for the night in V———, a French town at least as bad as any in England! I could scarcely believe my eyes; I felt such a relief. No doubt it is a sad reflection on human nature, but the fact is that the incapacity of others to do better than we is a great, if not the greatest possible, consolation to us.

“€œThere’s no point in being a lout if there is no one around to intimidate.”€

The only hotel in the town was of such hideousness that it made me laugh. It was built in 1990, with elements of Las Vegas bolted onto a concrete construction of the Leonid Brezhnev school of architecture. Since it did not erect itself, someone must have designed it, a terrifying thought.

The hotel was in a wasteland of deserted car parks, empty offices, and shops for sale or for rent, in the midst of which, when my wife and I arrived, the local louts were drinking and shouting. But the town was so dead by nine o”€™clock in the evening that even the louts had gone to bed: There’s no point in being a lout if there is no one around to intimidate. (But I still prefer French louts to their British equivalent; at least they address you as monsieur, not mate.)

The interior of the hotel was so kitsch that I wondered whether it represented the taste of the owner or was intended as a satire on the taste of someone else. The theme of the decoration was 1950s America, a decade that, however economically prosperous and politically stable, was not an aesthetic high point in the history of human civilization. Perhaps the aging owner was one of those increasingly numerous geriatrics who cannot bear to let pass the excitements of his adolescence. There were posters of Elvis Presley everywhere, as well as of Hollywood stars. At the end of the corridor leading to our room was a poster of Marlene Dietrich, reclining on a Louis XIV sofa, bad even by the standards of reproduction furniture, looking a little flushed in a chiffon gown and long evening gloves, and bearing a slender cigarette holder, a metonym for high sophistication.

Marlene Dietrich says: “€œI smoke a smooth cigarette”€”Lucky Strike!”€

The advertisement was from the beginning of the end of the golden age of smoking, when the tobacco companies first felt the cold winds of epidemiological evidence blow. “€œScientific tests prove Lucky Strike milder than any other principal brand!”€ said the poster above Marlene Dietrich’s head, and then, “€œThese scientific tests, confirmed by independent consulting laboratories, prove Lucky Strike mildest of 6 major brands tested!”€

Mildest? In what sense? Less likely to give you a heart attack, a stroke, lung and laryngeal cancer, bronchitis, or emphysema? In those days one didn”€™t ask, one accepted dishonest euphemisms (just as we do now, though they attach to difference subjects).

The advertisement then suggested that you “€œLet your own taste and throat be the judge!”€ for “€œThere’s never a rough puff in a Lucky!”€ which is “€œSo round, so firm, so fully packed”€”so free and easy on the draw.”€

We decided, my wife and I, to experience the hotel to the full and dine in it. Of course there was compulsory football for diners on a large liquid crystal screen. We were installed in a Hawaiian beach cabin in which one expected to be served a blue cocktail with a little paper parasol stick in it brought by what magazines in the 1950s used to call a lovely in a pseudo-grass skirt. In fact the waitress was a young woman from the Ukraine who spoke with a very strong accent.

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