Living in Oxford for ten years, and little Cotswolds villages for another couple of years, gives one an unrealistic expectation of the pace of civic change. While the loss of certain tenants of the public space – pubs, bookshops, ancient trees – can give a pang to the heart, it’s far to say that to wander around the Oxford streets of 2012 is more or less to wander around the Oxford streets of 1995.
Blackburn and Witney town councils, however – representing my youth and my present respectively – seem determined to wreck as much as they can of their inhabitants’ shared memory. Mostly they each concentrate on bits from the semi-recent past, in the hope that people don’t attach too much affection to them – not true – are more accepting of their loss – sadly, probably true – and have forgotten that the 1960s have done the job that the councils are trying to avoid, of already demolishing the real architectural heritage that might otherwise get in the way.
Witney’s Marriott’s Walk development is an epitome of the unwanted. Built on a flood plain, registered in Luxembourg and full of ersatz-sized versions of the chain stores that are much better represented in Oxford’s few shopping centres anyway, Marriott’s Walk is of no obvious civic value. Indeed, the flow of money out of Witney – to tax havens, multinational corporations and the time-is-money convenience of remotely homed car drivers – might be considered a net civic loss. At around the same time, Blackburn’s town council tore out its old market-stall buildings – greengrocers and haberdashers along with them – and stuck a The Mall Blackburn in their place: a clumsy, syntaxless construction designating a clunking, soulless one.
I hope Witney can learn lessons from Blackburn, but I doubt if they will. For a while, I was starting to think that the conflicted feelings from my youth were gradually being resolved by gentle improvements to the unlovely yet loved in Blackburn. I would visit the then prettified market halls with mixed feelings of nostalgia and admiration that the old could be preserved in a vivified new. Now, after a The Mall Blackburn-sized bomb blast has removed much of what could have engendered my pride in the town, there’s not much left for me there; when I return to visit relatives, some ten miles out of Blackburn, I only ever go shopping in nearby Preston.
And why would I do otherwise these days? After all, if everywhere is a The Mall Everywhere, then what is left to distinguish one town from another, apart from its location and nearness? And is that, in the end, the whole point?