Friday, February 26, 2010

Lewis’ of Liverpool – some reflections on closure and loss 2007-2010

I have lived in Merseyside for all but one year of my life, and in Wallasey for most of that time. In boyhood, I first lived near Wallasey Grove Road station and later, although further away, in Grove Road itself. Until 1977 the underground railway to Liverpool then terminated at Liverpool Central Station. Walking up the wide steps from the station platform, the left side led out into the open air. Turning right took me to a passage and along to stairs and an escalator that led directly into Lewis’ store. I do not know when this passage was dug out, but the wall finishes would suggest around the later 1960s. It made it possible to visit the store from the Wirral without ever emerging onto the streets of Liverpool, which seemed in my childhood to be novel.

Lewis’ store was like part of the furniture in the lives of many people on Merseyside. A shop had been founded there in 1856, and it became a major department store in the later Victorian era. The building in Ranelagh Street had been reduced to a shell by wartime bombing; later, I encountered the architect involved, who asserted that its restoration was the largest war damage project in the region, if not the whole UK. Lewis’ was somehow always there, and it was a shock when its then owners, the transnational Sears, announced in 1991 that it was to close. After Owen Owen rescued it, many departments closed down, reducing the rabbit warren of floors to four. In the process, the store became more like a bazaar, with various concessions taking up what had been a single retail operation. In the churning of assets now familiar in High Street retailing, the ownership of Owen Owen itself changed, reducing its chain of stores to the solitary one trading under the name of Lewis’ of Liverpool.

I had had no idea that Lewis’ was in any difficulties until I drove past and saw “Closing down” posters in its windows. I learned that it was to close in early May 2007, and so visited, with Sara, partly to see what bargains might be left, but also to look round a building that I had always known. We visited the basement first, the escalator leading to this having been long boarded over. The Food Hall, long well-known for various exotic products (many of which were probably end-of-line remnants) was reduced in size; the tea-room next to it looking sad, with old photographs and prints of Lewis’ advertisements on the wall. Even the coffee machine had broken down, and the person in charge glumly said that there were orders not to mend it.

I photographed parts of the interior, especially the exits, with the handrails and wall finishes of what had been an ornate entrance before it was obscured by the installation of fire protection screens. The place was clearly in its last days, with whole areas cleared. Sara bought a perfume bottle that turned out to have no price – it was a tester, but even that was for sale – and upstairs was a whole area in which counters and display cabinets were on sale. I rarely shop for clothes, and was surprised to reach the top two remaining floors, and to realize that I had never ventured up to these for many years. At the far end of the top floor was a restaurant area, where I saw something that now appeared anomalous. An older man was there smoking a cigarette – something banned in Wales since April 2007, and banned in England shortly afterwards.

It was a sad occasion, but I wondered why I felt this way, as I do viewing empty buildings and photographs of vacant hospitals and other buildings unearthed by urban explorers. Partly, I think, because I had always known the place. I had been a student and later a member of staff in the same building in Clarence Street, less than half a mile away, and had often dropped in to Lewis’, sometimes to buy birthday cards or odd food items, more often to avoid the rain, on the way to Liverpool Central Station and home through the underground railway. I am aware of the contradiction in such feelings. I find younger people much more consumerist and retail-conscious than my own generation, so that buying clothes with odd names like Diesel from stores with odder names like River Island (What River? What Island?) seems to be a major part of their lives. It is easy to invalidate such feelings, to point out that clothes are mostly made by children elsewhere in appalling conditions, that “fashion” is a cynical means of creating planned obsolescence, and that shops are just big boxes to store and sell goods. Indeed, this is something that I tell students, to deconstruct their feelings about the pleasures of shopping and instead substitute a view of retail properties as investments. Accounts by staff, in retail as well as leisure and other customer-encountering occupations, make it clear how little they buy the dream when it is sold on the basis of poor pay and conditions.

And yet, despite the ease with which the curtain of illusion can be lifted, there is something of substance in feelings for a place so well known. For any place which so many have known, its function as retail, as a source of profit (or, as press reports revealed, major financial losses in recent years) is not the only supplier of meaning. When I told my mother that the store was to close, she was shocked, as she had never know a time when it was not there, and she was then 82 years old. She related fondly one of her father’s memories about Lewis’. In his childhood he was fascinated to find that the basement had been flooded and a Santa’s grotto constructed on an island reached by boats. Since her father was born around 1884, this memory must have derived from the 1890s, illustrating the deep roots of the place in memories of those long gone. As does the Jacob Epstein statue of a huge naked man, known as Liverpool Resurgent, which has amused many people and shocked some of the prudish since it was completed 50 years ago. So much is talked about “heritage” in terms of architectural structures that need to be conserved, but in the case of Lewis’ and other places it is, perhaps, the heritage of memory and meaning that needs to be considered.

I write now on the day that Borders bookstores opens for the final time; another big box, at Cheshire Oaks near Ellesmere Port, which has been a familiar place for Sara and I since we met. A cynic would point out that this was a US operation taken over by private equity interests with the sole aim of increasing profitability, an aim that has failed. But I know others that feel that a landmark, part of their lives, has been removed.

As for Lewis’, it reopened on the brink of closure, when a previous owner acquired it. I walked round it today, but experienced different feelings from those of 2007. It has reverted to its earlier form of a big box ripe for further conversion – a hotel is mooted for the upper floors. Perhaps it is only when spaces and places can no longer be accessed, it seems, can other values, of care and grief at impending loss, be experienced and expressed. The rest, for now, belongs to memory.

Postscript February 2010
It has been announced that Lewis’ will close finally in June 2010, with the redevelopment of the area behind. Parts of the fa├žade will be retained. I plan to write about my further thoughts on this.

Postscript April 2010
The Conservation Centre in Liverpool has an exhibition about the "lost" fifth floor, abandoned since the first closure. The website is interesting, and I hope to visit this and perhaps take a tour of the fifth floor before the whole place finally closes. More to write about here.

J 22-12-2009 slight editing 8-4-10

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Leaving a decade - written 31 December 2009

When many of us look back to the twentieth century, it is often portrayed in terms of decades – especially the 1960s. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, and feel that much that is attributed to the 1960s – the student revolt, for instance – is characteristic of the early 1970s. The making of that assertion, in itself, reproduces the tendency to associate memories and records with a specific decade.

Yet calendar-making, and even the precision of clock timing, are comparatively recent; and there are other cultures which have their own dates and times. Our precision seems to relate partly to taxation (on an annual basis) and the abolition of local time essential to run railways. I suspect that the fetishism of decades (to over-state it) is at least partly a creation of the media – primarily newspapers and television, but also books and magazines. The attraction of grouping disparate events into neat chronologies has perhaps proved too great, even though those chronologies may have been used to over-generalise and devalue the uniqueness of individual experience.

The fin-de-siecle perspective popularised by the earliest large-scale newspapers in the 1890s was hardly a match for the hysteria of ten years ago, around the Millennium. I heard, anecdotally, of a hotel near Wrexham that was offering the “Millennium experience” (one half board overnight stay, with entertainment) for around £3,500. My own Millennium experience was somewhat more parochial – my wife lay in bed through the evening, whilst I recall going out into the garden, with fireworks going off in houses around ours, wondering whether I was doing too little to mark the occasion. A week later, she was in hospital with suspected pneumonia, while the rest of us discovered that, fear of computer failures apart, the world was little different with a new digit in front of the year.

There seems to be far less hysteria around the ending of the first decade of the 21st century, although lists of main events, and attempts to characterise the “noughties”, have appeared on internet sites. One of these has revealed that one of the best selling albums (as they are still called) is an anthology of The Beatles. It would be astonishing to imagine a band from the 1920s proving the best-seller in the 1960s, but less surprising, given that much popular music seems to be viewed as the product of a past Golden Age; as I ceased to listen to pop music, or watch television, eight years ago, I am not qualified to comment. When such music is deemed to be the ephemeral preserve of the young, it is somehow heartening, if puzzling, to consider that four men who would now all be pensioners, and one of whom died 29 years ago, should still find their work popular today. Much the same applies to Michael Jackson, who was about to begin a comeback/farewell tour at the age of 50, had he not died. I recall him as a somewhat screechy young boy, who, 40 years ago, fronted the Jackson 5.

On the eve of a new decade, there is much media speculation as to how the last ten years will be viewed. One common feature that I would highlight is the development of information technology. I am writing this piece on a laptop, may well place it on a personal weblog, could inform people in newsgroups of which I am a member, and could highlight it to some of my “friends” in Facebook. That sentence uses terms that would be unintelligible 10 years ago. Yesterday I carried out an oral history interview of a man who commented that 10 years ago emails were merely used for internal communications, whereas his successors must now receive many emails from members of the public. He showed me a document that his former employers will send to members of the public in printed form, but which, I found, can be downloaded directly from its website. I photographed this man and am able to email the photograph and the recording of the interview to him. Today I drove past a series of derelict wooden huts in the Yorkshire Dales, and found an history of this place – Linton Residential School - on the Net, with links to many digital photographs. My use of IT has become routine and low-tech, using inexpensive equipment. All of this technology has been an advance – as an avid taker of photographs for 30 years, digital photography, with its minimal cost and reproducibility, feels like one of the most important inventions ever. The abuses of IT, and the dangers to everything we value individually and collectively, are another matter.

Politics in Britain, and the rest of the world, have developed in the 2000s in ways that have moved from disappointment to despair in some quarters. This was the only decade when Labour was in office for the whole period, but for many it was not one on which the Thatcherite legacy was firmly repudiated, destroyed and the foundations of a new politics laid in permanent fashion. Instead, Thatcherism was consolidated and enlarged by the Blair governments, which provided the coup de grace for social democratic politics, starting at leadership level and working down to ordinary supporters. Despite the huge global financial crisis, the dominance of free enterprise in mainstream political movements has become absolute. The noughties proved to be the decade in which I distanced myself more and more from political involvement. I seem to be in good company. My experience has reflected the impact of systems that replace democratic decision-making by management. This has been the decade of a particular kind of “management” thinking, characterised by targets, benchmarks, indicators, and the ticking of boxes, assuring quality on paper but often producing anything but quality of experience for participants.

The noughties proved to be the decade in which my encounters with grief and loss proved to be intensive, and far removed from the abstractions produced by professionals and academics. In 2000 my first wife was diagnosed with cancer, and, despite treatment that was apparently successful, died early in 2002. I underwent a rapid education in the nature of grief, mostly self-taught, as I struggled to understand feelings that few writings, many purportedly scientific, seemed able to ameliorate. What I learned was that grief is not an unpleasant place to which a road takes you, and from which you need to find another road, so that the unpleasant place becomes a memory. Grief is the territory over which roads traverse, and you need to find another road, often a stony one, that will take you through this life without miring yourself in grief. The irony is that, ten years later, I am in many ways happier than I was in 2000, more reconciled to the pervading sense of loss, and in happier circumstances. Much of that is due to my second wife, whose love has provided a sense of purpose for the future. We are travelling very different roads together from those which would have been followed with our first partners, but there is hope. I remain keen to understand grief and loss, now from a more objective, less painful, position. One legacy I might leave could lie in attempts to publish some account of the insights from my journey.

If there is hope for the future, it is rooted, ironically, in the threats that climate change and other environmental problems pose to the future of humanity. Noone would wish these threats to be there, but they need to be taken seriously, and there have been advances here in knowledge and interpretation, The 1950s saw small numbers of people who expressed concern about the environment, but it was in the 1960s that the threats began to be expounded. The 1970s saw environmentalists ridiculed, but steady advances in science, but in the 1980s, the era of Brundtland, the first ideas of sustainability began to be taken seriously by governments. In the 1990s, I began to teach environmental management to professional students who took this seriously, and began to appreciate the challenges that solutions might bring. By the 2000s, concern about the environment had become mainstream, with only small number of sceptics. The rhetoric is in place, but the real solutions, the new approaches to politics, including common responsibilities over the globe, have been slow to develop. Despite the very limited steps agreed at Copenhagen in the last month of this decade, there is hope that the coming decade will involve real change to respond to real threats. We end on hope but with the fear that if reality lacks so far behind rhetoric, the next decade will feature long-term, irreversible damage to the global environment.