Saturday, May 3, 2008

Ladybellegate Street, Gloucester

Walking around Gloucester this afternoon and wondering for the umpteenth time if the latest wave of regeneration will achieve anything more than an outbreak of urban regenerator’s bum†, I was pleased to be reminded of this chunk of wall. This is the kind of signwriting that makes me lie on my back and purr, and somehow the decay that’s taken place makes it more evocative, not less.

Why get worked up about a painted notice on an old wall? Well, for several reasons, actually. First, it’s a reminder of a kind of craftsmanship we don’t much see these days, now that the laser printer has replaced the brush and mahl-stick; someone chose the letters, laid them out, and painted them with care and skill – the person who could do this so well deserves our admiration. Second, it tells us about a forgotten industry: quite a lot of us know that Gloucester produced matches, flour, and aeroplanes; it’s interesting to know that beer was bottled here too. Third, this place is right in the centre of Gloucester, alerting us to the fact that this town was once home to a diverse inner-city economy, where manufacturing, processing, packing, and merchandizing went on in the same neighbourhood.

It tells us a lot, then, this fading, scuffed paintwork. But its age and battered condition stand for something more. I’ll try and illustrate this with a personal story. Over thirty years ago, in my last year at school, I set out on a series of journeys across England and Wales to attend university interviews. One of these grillings was at Swansea, and as my train slowed and pulled into Cardiff station I caught sight of a poster, then common in Wales, advertising the local brew: ‘It’s Brains you want!’ said the slogan on the poster, a remark that seemed cruelly apposite in view of the purpose of my journey. A few years ago I made the same train journey and was astonished to see that, although the poster had long been stripped away, its ghost, in the form of a faint residual image, was still there on the wall.

How many hundreds of thousands of people had seen that poster and its ghostly image? What pints had it evoked in the minds’ eyes (or minds’ taste-buds) of passengers? What other imaginings had it inspired? Talbot’s wall must have sparked off similar trains of thought, renewed on reacquaintance, redoubled even with a passing glimpse of this tantalizing fragment. Such signs are triggers of memory, and repositories of dreams.

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† When I wrote this post I had a link here, to a piece by Jonathan Meades in which he explained how "urban regeneration" is now widely equated simply with "building". So whereas people once referred to "builder's bum" or "workman's bum", to describe the rear view of a worker bent double at some strenuous task, it's now possible to imagine regenerators adopting the builders'role, position, and cleavage. The link died, hence this note.


Peter Ashley said...

Superb blog Philip. And, you have reminded me that the last time I was left standing on Cardiff station I looked across to Brain's brewery and noticed that the central two letters on their neon sign were greatly enlarged to read 'A1'.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you, Peter. Good to know that Brains are still up to their tricks. Tell me, do graphic designers have a word for the little pointy bits that protrude from the middles of the main strokes of the upper-case letters in this sign? Not serifs, presumably, as they do a different job?

Peter Ashley said...

I am very tempted to say that we designers have always called them 'pointy bits', but no. I don't think there's a specific word, but of course you've now set me a challenge that means I won't rest until I've got an answer. That's the Bank Holiday gone.

Neil said...

The way lettering either survives or decays is very touching, isn't it. France used to be covered in advertising or display lettering like this; in what is now (gulp!) 40 years of travelling there, the disappearance of these chirpy exhortations to buy this or that product has been a source of real regret. Yet, as you say, the ghosts of letterforms still haunt the buildings where they once stood proud.

emma said...

The way the lettering is so well spaced round the curve of the wall also proves it was done by a very experienced hand, not his apprentice!