Bus Stations of the Heart
Everywhere has to be famous for something. That sounds like it must be a truism, but I'm not so sure: it has the sound of a statue passed by some sort of grim provincial tourism agency. The fact that obscure parts of large countries are filled with such strange sights as the World's Biggest Ball of Twine (at least four candidates at the time of writing), museums for such unlikely subjects as pencils and hammers, houses built out of beer cans, henges built out of old cars, and so on suggest the existence of a desperate instinct to (literally) put your home town on the map.
When I was very young we lived in a small suburb of a small town close to a slightly bigger town which somehow managed to scrape an upgrade to city status for the Queen's ruby jubilee (or this may have just been a coincidence). These are the places which moulded me, and perhaps I learned too much from their spectacular obscurity.
The small suburb I have no real memories of. These days it remains virtually unheard of, except for fans of a particular kind of rather dark comedy: one of the League of Gentlemen grew up there, too, a few years before I was around, and there have been suggestions that the twisted hellhole of Royston Vasey, where most of the League's TV shows have been set, is actually based on our mutual old place of residence. I don't know, but suggesting it, in the right company, is pretty much guaranteed to raise some smiles. So I suppose it has that going for it.
My father had one of those jobs where it was more-or-less obligatory to relocate every few years – my sister and I were talking this over recently and worked out our parents have moved house seven or eight times in the fifty years or so of their marriage. For a long time it seemed as though some slow-acting homing instinct was in operation, as for most of this time each successive move seemed to be dragging him closer and closer to the place where he was born (a slightly decaying tourist town noted for fresh air, fun, and a tower which our family helped to build).
So it was that we eventually left the small suburb and moved to the small town. No famous comedy shows were inspired by this place, it seems: pretty much the only currently famous person to have emanated from this neck of the woods is the current speaker of the House of Commons. (My father recalls him vaguely as a teenager, and is pretty sure he was a bit of a rascal.) A few years ago I found myself having to go back there on a semi-regular basis for work reasons, and found I barely recognised the place. It had acquired a sort of fame as the place in the UK which had the highest percentage of its adult population in prison, which oddly enough the local authorities did not seem especially interested in publicising. The signs were there if you visited it: I stopped off in a pub on one visit, and noticed all the pool cues showed every sign of having been snapped over someone's head. The alcoholic beverage I ordered was not on tap; it came out of a can, which they cheerfully opened in front of me. They say you can never go home again; I wish it were true, but suspect otherwise.
Time ticked on and we relocated again, this time to the slightly bigger town destined to become a city in 1992. These days the place is frequently cited as an exemplar of the regeneration of once-decrepit former-industrial towns in the north of England. When you consider that a few years ago it was famously the home of the most crime-ridden street in the country, you can see why this would be something worth shouting about. When I was living there, though, it was mostly just famous for the bus station.
A bus station isn't much to shout about, you would have thought, but our bus station was built on an epic scale, dominating the town centre. Someone I knew at school had an uncle who was the manager of the bus station, which even then almost qualified as a claim to fame. It was the largest bus station in Europe, with forty bays on each side; the hall-like interior was a rhapsody in off-white paint and black rubber floor tiles. What gave the place its looming presence was the fact that a five-storey car park was built on the roof. Walkways and ramps squirmed out from the place in all directions; one led to the local Guild Hall, where the UK Snooker championships were held for a bit (one heard tales of people descending through one of the subways leading out of the place, only to unexpectedly come across John Virgo or Willie Thorne).
It was Brutalist in every sense of the word, but also oddly arresting and even quite beautiful, in a bleak sort of way. I suppose it was loved and hated in equal measure; in the end I avoided going near the place, especially after dark, but at the same time I couldn't conceive of the city centre without it.
Others felt differently, and (after I had left the city) numerous attempts were made to have the place torn down. It seems to have triggered something of a battle for the soul of the city – the struggle over the bus station was not quite as impassioned as the typical set-to over the statue of a celebrity slave-trader, but emotions were stirred, and campaigning tapestries were sewn.
In the end they decided to keep the bus station, which is now a listed building, and presumably safe for the foreseeable future. One of the aprons has been pedestrianised, and the subways have all been sealed off, while the Guild Hall itself was hollowed out by the financial crash and never really recovered; but it is still recognisably the same place.
My partner and I visited the city on a (very low) budget holiday and I was delighted to see an exhibition celebrating the history of the bus station was on. ‘An internationally important piece of architecture', apparently: when I was a lad, you would probably have been soundly mocked for even making the suggestion. We toured the exhibition so my partner would be able to properly appreciate the place itself, just a few minutes away. I couldn't quite get my head round the pedestrianisation, and I missed the subways, but in many ways it was like stepping back in time thirty-five years.
We went up on the roof and looked out across the city, not that there were really many landmarks. The famous scalloped curve of the parapets had been rather spoilt by the suicide-prevention netting which had been erected on every floor, which was a shame, and suggested that not everything was quite as rosy as the city's cheerleaders might suggest. But as concessions to reality go, it could be worse. We wandered around the roof for a bit and then went for some fried chicken.