My first memory of Guildford was gleaned on the Hog’s Back, a busy road curving over the hills behind the town. I guess circa 1966. It resonates because of a rant of my father’s at an ‘Architectural Excrescence’. Dad had many pet hates and modern building styles was one. To be fair the 50s and 60s were a period when building quickly was at a premium and using the cheapest, most modern of materials – concrete – was in vogue. This time, however, the direction of dad’s ire was a red brick lump. Guildford cathedral.
Dad was rather in the Prince Charles camp when it comes to architecture. My favourite of the Heir’s many anti architectural quotes was about an office complex (Paternoster Square) , a small part of which I inhabited when I started work in the City of London. “You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe,” he told the Corporation of London Planning and Communication Committee’s annual dinner at Mansion House in 1987. “When it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble.”
Dad’s target that day was newly built. For Dad, echoing many a Colonel Blimp view on Britain (everything about buildings was better 50 years ago) we British were the ultimate when it came to Church and Cathedral building so why diverge from a working template? He adored Salisbury; he swooned over Winchester; he was a touch ‘Meah’ about Westminster; and thought St Paul’s overrated (being more a Hawksmoor then Wren man). But even at its worst (the drab Bath cathedral) ecclesiastical architecture, to him, was a matter of indifference not the visceral dislike he espoused that day.
I’d like to say the years have leant it a charm, allowed it to mellow. Sadly it still reminds me of the ‘lumpen pissoire’ of Dad’s original critique.
Guildford became my home briefly in the late 1970s as we lurched from one wage crisis to another cost of living debacle (sound familiar?) I had my first motor bike and froze to death on its seat. I hadn’t realised a truism about getting really cold until I biked across the Surrey countryside to the College of Law back then – that getting cold is horrid, bloody painful but getting warm again is even worse.
I spent six months in daily three hours of lectures, trying to hold a pen in my frostbitten fingers before going home to reinterpret my notes into a working version of English. The occasional day out saw us hit Guildford hard – and rather bounce off. In 1979 Guildford didn’t party like it was 1977. It is probably a happening place now but not back then. Nowhere was I suppose. Even punk seemed sanitised there – the spitting was into handkerchiefs. Maybe it was because, back then, Guildford had more shoe shops than anywhere I’ve ever been. And that probably proves my favourite economic theory – the Shoe Event Horizon.
The foundation of the Shoe Event Horizon theory is that when depressed, people tend to look down, and when they look down, they see their shoes. To cheer themselves up, they might buy themselves a new pair. Thus, in a generally depressed society, demand for shoes will rise.
In the critical condition, demand for shoes rises faster than the capacity to make good quality footwear. As shoe quality decreases, the demand increases further because shoes wear out faster and need to be replaced more often; as the demand for shoes increases, cheap mass production causes shoe quality to drop even more. What results is a spiral of increasing shoe demand and decreasing shoe quality. Eventually, this destabilizes the economy to the point where it is “no longer economically viable to build anything other than shoe shops”, and planetary society collapses.
That was epitomised in Guildford in 1979 and explains the Thatcherite revolution that followed the barren years that ended in the Winter of Discontent I 1978. After all Ford Prefect claimed to have come from Guildford.
This post would like to pay tribute to Douglas Noel Adams (11 March 1952 – 11 May 2001). He taught me a new sort of surreal humour, of wit and intelligence and, in crafting the best half our radio programmes ever (bar none) he allowed me to listen, laugh and do a many sit ups as I could while the programme was on. He it was changed my shape irretrievably and for that I am grateful.