Retail in need of therapy

This (see ) was slipped out quietly by one of the government’s lesser known agencies this week, so will have gone un-noticed, as was the intention. Sorry and all that, but it did NOT slip under my scam detector.

It all sounds so reasonable doesn’t it? Who, after all, could object if blind people say A boards are a hazard?

Except that I doubt if they have. More witless prodnosery would be par for the course with the current generation of government sock puppets, but in this particular case I doubt it.

Activists I speak to have been pointing out issues which prevent disabled people getting out and about in Douglas for decades. The alleged “redevelopment” of Strand Street and surrounding areas should have been the golden opportunity to address such issues, but neither Douglas Council nor Douglas Degeneration Partnership have ever acknowledged receipt of the suggestions or invited them around to see what might be done.

Not once.

So, we can take it for granted there is something else going on.

The thing is, the areas where A boards are found in Strand Street have been the sites of some contention between the remaining small traders and developers for years. Right before the current Marks & Spencer site replaced a block of small shops which were compulsorily purchased and demolished, in fact.

And those A boards advertise little businesses which are tucked away in alleyways and have no front on Strand Street. DDP and the council have been trying to winkle them out for years. Petty harassments over keeping passageways clear, fire or health and safety checks, attempts to hike up rents or rates…. it goes on and on.

There is an obvious motive. If DDP could just clear them out some large corporate might be interested in the site. Except, of course, that because UK shop-based retail is falling apart fast before Amazon and other online buying that is increasingly unlikely.

Sure, Sports Direct, the notorious slave traders, did take over the Strand Street Centre from the insurance company who fronted for the last alleged owners. But if past Manx form is any guide, they won’t be paying rates for a decade anyway. And on the UK Companies Registry their UK branches are registered as “non-trading”, which means they are only taxable somewhere offshore, and my guess is that is not here.

So, finally, the future of Manx retail is in the hands of people who are doing their best to put Manx retailers out of business, in order to hand the areas where they used to serve some useful community purpose over to retailers from elsewhere, who are so busy trying to save their big UK shops they can’t take up the offer anyway.


Time to step up

The funeral of my last 1980’s good friend and Manx mentor was on Monday. Sadly, I only found out about his death on Sunday, so could not even get time off from work to go.

Reg Quayle was a local sculptor, art activist and campaigner for the preservation of early 20th century architecture. I first met him back in 1984 when he was curating one of his two Strategy: Get Art shows by contemporary Manx artists. The venue was an empty unit in Onchan shopping centre (now itself almost defunct), and the artist was Kevin Atherton.

These days Atherton is middle-of-the-road famous for public sector commissions, such as Platform Piece, his figures at Brixton railway station which marked the first time black British people had featured in a public sculpture. The piece Reg showed was In Two Minds – a cutting edge 1981 piece of video art in which Atherton argued with a video recording of himself made three years earlier. Having just “retired” here from some pretty cutting edge art activity myself, I was pretty excited to find it. Reg admitted that, actually, the Manx Arts Council weren’t interested and Kevin had lent him the piece as a personal favour.

It was the same story with Chris Killip, then being praised by no less a figure than John Berger for his photos of a Manx traveller family but similarly unable to raise interest in his own country.

As far as I could tell, it wasn’t just disinterest in contemporary art, it was also reluctance to admit that the island had any travellers. Following the UK pattern of local authorities harassing travellers and moving them on from traditional sites (which were inevitably then redeveloped as housing estates or industrial parks) the Isle of Man introduced a law making it illegal to bring a caravan over on the ferry or use it here. Killip not only lent Reg the exhibition, he came over, stayed with Reg, and I met him – a very modest man who within a year or two was getting national exhibitions in the US, but remained unrecognised by the Manx government or art bureaucracy for at least a further 20 years.

Reg’s other passion was local Victorian and Modernist architecture. In between commissions he often worked in the building trade, for example on the redevelopment of local shops and other buildings. He kept photographs of unique craftwork before it vanished and sometimes managed to salvage bits and pieces. For example, I recall part of a beautiful feature in his house was salvaged from an art deco stairway in a long gone Douglas shop, which the redevelopers just wanted to smash up and burn.

Similarly, he was absolutely apoplectic about the way original features in Villa Marina Arcade first went unrepaired and finally vanished. He believed that items like handrails, doorways, and bronze lamp fittings were gradually vanishing in the backs of vans, either to scrapyards or for the growing restoration trade in the UK, and he was probably right.

One of the legacies of talking to Reg about such things is that I not only look round shops or buildings and see the “product”, but look up and notice the decorations. My appreciation of even the simplest 20th century shop, arcade or public building has increased immeasurably.

It got to the stage where, on returning from the UK or Europe, the first thing I did was run round to show Reg photos of some facade, doorway or light fitting I’d seen that echoed a Manx one. It all added to his ongoing case for preserving or at least cataloguing such things, which was inevitably ignored year in and year out as “redevelopment” of “out-of-date” or “unwanted” buildings proceeded – especially around Douglas. As a result, Douglas, supposedly saved from 1980’s decay, now resembles a pre-Glasnost city centre in any out-of-the-way Soviet statelet. All that is missing is the bread queues, and the way things are going even that could happen.

So, anyway, another bright star and literate friend gone. And with Trump, Brexit and any number of other depressing developments this year, 2017 looks like being a year in which common decency and an appreciation of beauty will be rarer than ever.

What also strikes me is that I’m now at the same stage in life as my Manx mentors were when I first knew them. As they’re no longer around, guess I have to try and put that knowledge to work.

End of the pier show

I was wondering why it was so hard to get out of my street today, thanks to the adjoining main road being blocked by badly parked cars of hideous design and colour. Upon winding my way through the aforementioned Chelsea tractors and sheeple carriers to go about some vital business I discovered the root of the problem.

I forgot this (see ) was on.

Oh…….. yuk!

I should say that I’ve known Tom for a number of years, and he’s a great bloke. He is the cheery optimist behind a number of the island’s earliest and most innovative green projects, inevitably done on shoestring budgets and in the face of official disinterest or disapproval. Unlike the average Manx ecological lemon-sucker, Tom’s projects were done out of sheer curiosity and love of experiment – just to see if they were possible. As he is retired anyway, with no desire or need to work, they were also not sly career moves disguised as environmental evangelism.

Tom also has a…. somewhat mischievous … approach to Elfin Safety regulations. Inevitably, on being told he could not do something, he did it anyway and claimed to have “forgotten” about the restriction due to his advanced years. But the resulting thing would be so well built that there would have been a public outcry if he’d been told to dismantle it, so it stayed. They have not been maintained since, but ironically that is not so much due to government neglect as other green meanies of a more mercenary nature, who regarded their simple and effective design as a career threat and so left them to fall apart.

So, if anybody can see the project through it will be him, and good luck to him personally. But I still see no point in it, other than as an excuse for some old codgers to tinker about enthusiastically with something a lot bigger than a train set, and definitely no argument for public funding.

Apart from anything else, a vital part of the original structure (the connecting part which gave it an ‘L’ shape and offered weather protection for berthed craft) was removed 25 years ago and cannot be rebuilt. So at best you could restore a shortish walkway and ….. do what, exactly?

And who, under the age of 70, actually cares anyway?

As a stand-alone tourist attraction, it would attract, well …. nobody who could get there unaided or would spend money. As a part of a “package” to attract the grockles to Ramsey …. where else would they go?

What else in town, apart from some naff Chinese paving slabs and a Costa, is there to look at? The park is a mess, the new swimming pool is falling apart already, Mooragh Prom has more rusty motor homes than an Alabama trailer park, and the bridge between them and the main town is usually out of action.

The original appeal for restoration was at the time when the connecting area was removed and the main drag stripped of anything of architectural or historical interest. This, coincidentally, was at the time the Villa Marina Arcade was being similarly “asset-stripped”. UK scrap yards must have made a fortune. The argument was that a restored pier could tap into the emerging heritage market, based on recently retired, relatively healthy and mobile, tourists on fat final salary pensions.

But that market has been dead for at least a decade. The strongest proof of that is that Culture Vannin and the Tourist Department (neither of whom live in the same century as the rest of us) have just started pushing it as an excuse for lifetime salary funding.

So, finally, the only people to whom this project is of interest will be dead – or at the very least dead broke – by the time any meaningful restoration is done. I do wish the bodgers and codgers well, though at heart they must know it is as fanciful as raising the Titanic.

Jingle Hells

I was amused by the reference to ‘community carol singing’ in . It’s all part of a ghastly local authority plan to try and entice visitors to Ramsey for Christmas shopping, as also outlined at .

A penguin nativity, put on by Baptists? Is that for real? Well, maybe as close to reality as anything involving evangelical oddballs, I suppose.

I assume this is an attempt to cash in on that dippy penguin film that such fundies have (wrongly) taken as some sort of ‘proof’ that only families with one daddy and one mummy are ‘natural’. Best not to tell the witless that, rather interestingly, zoologists say that penguins quite happily adapt to a nature red in tooth and claw by bringing up babies in groups with two males, or females… or really any combination of supportive adults available, and that mating for life with same sex partners is also nothing unusual for them.

Sadly, this will be a gathering of the kind of people I’d never voluntarily spend time around outside the one building in Ramsey that, until last week, was staffed by people I would. For your sanity and stomach’s sake, best to stay well clear.

I also fear all this frantic activity will be enough to break the new Chinese paving slabs. Perhaps it’s all part of some fiendish plot so that the company run by a disgraced politician’s family who got the contract to wreck the square in the first place can get paid to make it suitably ugly – yet again.

And seriously, who on earth sings carols in public? These days, who, below the age of 40, even knows the words or tunes?

Now, I’m happy enough singing all the wrong words to Christmas carols I learnt at junior school in some church out of mischief – if only because it’s twice as funny when I’m the only one who knows either the right or wrong ones. In fact, I have one obligatory visit this very Sunday, so will make up for it by doing just that.

But in a public place, and funded by public money? Not really. Just give the whole disaster a wide miss.

And if you must waste time and spend your hard-earned buying useless objects for ungrateful sods who have no need of them and will never use them, here’s a tip. If you order online via the chain stores, you only need to deal with the adolescents who staff such places for a minute or two while you pick them up. As all the real work putting your order together will have been done by real people (probably migrant workers on agency contracts), then there is nothing these grumpy little zit-farmers can do to screw it up.

Ramsey Post Office , RIP

I have to make a sad update to my ‘Going Postal’ piece of August 16th.

This week, out of the blue, the Ramsey Post Office staff were informed that, effectively, the post office closes next Wednesday evening. Some have been offered temporary work elsewhere – such as the sorting office or Douglas’s similarly doomed building. One was asked to spend a month or so teaching the incoming Spar staff how to do the job from scratch. So, no attempt there then to hide behind the Christmas postal rush what a disaster the changeover will be. Another problem might be that their tutor has himself been on extended sick leave due to stress.

Even more disgraceful is the treatment of the woman who has been acting manager for two years, and in reality long before that while waiting for the last official manager ( and close friend of the government minister behind the whole mess) to stop turning up and taking money just for being there.

Before the original closure announcement she was waiting for the official promotion which she had been assured would soon follow. After the announcement she was told both this and pay commensurate with the job she has actually done for years would no longer follow. Unlike the other staff, she is still to hear if she has a job of any kind after Wednesday.

It seems that when the Manx government is presented with a rare example of a public facility run by keen, efficient and personable staff their solution is to shut it ASAP. Perhaps because it interferes with some bizarre public image they need to sustain of government services run by useless, parasitical wasters who hardly know what day it is.

The true purpose of a massive, publically underwritten and overpriced ‘redevelopment’ of the area around the former courthouse and current post office still is not clear. Somebody, somewhere, is doubtless about to quietly make a huge profit, and those who really paid for it are not.

But frankly, who cares any more anyway? With the last example of human life or community removed by government diktat, they might as well cordon the place off with hazard tape and declare it a disaster area.

Going postal

The talking point in town for the last day or two has been this (see
and ).

The real story is a textbook tale of Manx misgovernment, greed, dishonesty and (frankly) sheer stupidity. My sympathies are with the excellent staff who got shafted, but anyone else involved on either side can take a hike.

Before anyone got their snouts in the trough, what we had was a model of how a small town public service should work. Rather like all those pubs and small shops which have also been ‘rationalised’ out of existence by redevelopment, the staff knew every customer by their first name and went out of their way to help.

Then, a few years back, various political nonentities decided that the town centre looked a bit shabby and should be ‘redeveloped’. In the process, a company run by a disgraced politician’s family got rich on consultancy fees overseeing the move from the perfectly adequate old post office round the corner to the recently emptied courthouse-cum-police-station, then got even richer redeveloping the old post office.

Quite why they even got paid for a project requiring little more than covering the area in awful Chinese paving slabs to form a handy terrace for a new, unwanted, Costa, and screwing it up so badly that they had to rip them up and do it again (for which they doubtless took another consultancy fee)… I really would not know. This is how civic life in the Isle of Man has always been conducted, and as long as enough brown envelopes pass around why would anybody likely to receive them change it?

So, having achieved a ‘new’ town square which is just as ugly and soulless as every other identikit ‘redevelopment’ of every other perfectly adequate sleepy little town in Europe, with the tarted up courthouse-cum-post-office as a centrepiece, the nonsense might have stopped. But no. Because at that point anyone with half a wit realised that the real plan all along had been for an anonymous developer to acquire the courthouse as some sort of themed pub or night-club, having had all the real work done at public expense. Oh, and the Isle of Man Post Office simultaneously and suddenly announced they were closing their last two town post offices.

Crikey, what a coincidence, eh? And this even as the town’s one grotty night-club, just a few yards away, struggles to find enough sheep-molesters to throw up over each other each Friday and another pub just a few more yards away closes for good.

Well anyway, the peasants revolted, and eventually decided to set up a community company which could run the courthouse, take over the post office and keep the staff in jobs…..

Which sounded jolly good stuff, except that coming out of the woodwork to run this model enterprise were freeloaders from the town’s most bat-shit crazy evangelical enterprise (who recently lost the chance to acquire public land and funds for a hideous ‘super-church’) and fronts for another notorious political family who also have a side-line in property scams, and who are (coincidentally, we can be sure) desperately fighting to divert another major redevelopment project to land and premises they profit from.

In theory the ‘good guys’ are opposed to the politicians involved in the post office closure. In practice, politicians amongst them recently helped two of the ‘bad guys’ with housing problems.

In the case of one, to ensure his mother got a flat in the most sought after sheltered housing scheme; in the case of the other (following a messy marriage break-up in which the wife and family retain a flashy house) setting up a love-nest in the same sheltered accommodation for him and his mistress, even though neither are physically or financially in need. Oh, and even while the surrounding tenants have waited years for basic repairs, both flats were extensively refitted before the new tenants moved in. One wonders what might be the payback for such favours?

All of which explains why, while the current friendly, honest and efficient post office staff remain in their present premises, I will go out of my way to give them my custom. But as soon as that post office closes I will go out of my way never to use a privatised replacement staffed by disinterested jobsworths.

And as for a bogus ‘community hub’ run by the very swivel-eyed loons who kill off all hope of community? Life is too short to suffer that too.

Generational excrement

This (see ) gave me a cheap laugh, and not just because ex-public schoolboys pretending to have any kind of street cred is hilarious.

It was also because I remember a local lecture back in the late 1980’s by Gavin Stamp, the acerbic architectural critic who continued the re-assessment of Victorian architecture started by John Betjeman. Under the pen-name ‘Piloti’, Stamp also writes most of Private Eye‘s ‘Nooks and Corners’ column, which waspishly records the desecration of UK historic buildings without once descending into the inane burblings favoured by, say, Manx heritage queens.

What I remember about it most was his slide-show about new and naff Douglas buildings during which the phrase ‘Kentucky Fried Georgian’ was used to mock the designs of one architect much favoured by government and the finance sector at the time. That architect was Ian Brown, and his KFG monstrosities not only wrecked the island’s capital but paid for these plonkers to go to school. Current fees at KWC are about £10K a year, I believe. Judge from this tosh if they are worth it.

Incidentally their dad certainly could not claim to have designed the Villa Marina. He merely presided over the destruction of the original building, along with the arcade next door. During that awful project the island’s last art deco masterpieces (and only classic examples of all that was right about early 20th century seaside urban planning) lost all their distinguishing features, and around a million quid’s worth of period fittings must have vanished in the process. Some (such as top quality hand-crafted doors, staircases, wall fittings, and statuary) vanished off-island in white vans and was sold to restoration buffs. Much more of it (e.g. the bronze lampshades from the arcade) was simply melted down and sold for scrap.

Some blame underpaid building workers. Others think management were in on the scams too. But the suggestion made when government overseers were questioned about it that nobody recognised the value of such items is simply not conceivable. And with Douglas Degeneration Partnership dictating current changes, I doubt things will get better during this generation.