Saturday, 2 February 2013
Derby - better in the seventies
We visited Derby the other day. We don't go there often because we're not city folk, but every now and then a reason seems to pop up from that deep well of old habits we all have to live with.
It was a reasonable day for January, but both my wife and I had the same thought as we walked round the city centre. My wife put it like this - Derby was better in the seventies than it is today.
Not that it was ever overflowing with appeal, but many of the the big name stores have emigrated to a huge retail shed called Westfield where presumably people go to forget. I can't think of any other reason they would go there.
What do they hope to forget? I think they go to Westfield to forget the real world. Inside you could be almost anywhere. There are no distinguishing features, nothing to think about beyond the safe, sterile and utterly undemanding world of the mall.
Outside Westfield it isn't too bad as cities go - which in my book means dire, but dire to a familiar pattern. Yet on this occasion I sensed something more than the usual dose of dire. What it was, I'm not sure, but it felt like decay mingled with a whiff of corruption.
The most prosperous-looking building is the newly renovated council house pictured above, recently refurbished at a cost of £32 million. There is nothing wrong with that as far as I know, but it give a certain flavour of dichotomy - a dichotomy not quite in tune with the healthy exercise of political power.
The city looks shabby and the new council house makes it worse by oozing an aura of money and petty power. In and around the old shopping areas such as Victoria Street and St Peter's Street, imposing buildings from Victorian and Edwardian times are no longer imposing. Ground floors plastered with tacky frontage, upper stories left forlorn.
Planning seems to have been haphazard for decades - at least in an aesthetic sense. Making the best of what you inherit and adding to it with a sense of style - there is none of that. With Derby it is more like random enthusiasms and money-grubbing deals betrayed by their lack of harmony.
City centres aren't as central as they once were with respect to the life of the average citizen. There's no positive draw to Derby's and I don't see how in the coming decades, this will change. It's not just a question of overt prosperity with city centres, but of size, function, ambience and even civic charm.
As ever we were glad to leave. We'll go again of course - we've known Derby for almost sixty years and I think both of us would prefer to be more positive about the old place. But our few visits are more habit now than anything else.