Revolutionary war on the high street

I was recently walking down Cornmarket Street in Oxford, admiring a flamboyantly-costumed street performer entertaining Spanish émigrés with an accordion, when an unrelated thought about high streets came to me – a pensée if you like.

High streets, as most people will know, are locked in major battle. In fact, so numerous are these engagements threatening peace and stability, it’s more like a war; and it’s not clear how exactly they can emerge from the fog with lives and limbs intact.

On one side we have independent traders, defending with honour and doughtiness all that is good with the high street. And on the other we have the Orks of modern consumerism. In the former you might have to pay a little extra for their goods, their vegetables might be rotting a bit at the edges and you might be unable to find the exact make and model of camera you’re looking for. But you’ll definitely get a personal service – won’t you?

OK, yes you will. If they fail to meet your needs, they’ll explain the deficiency with calm apology rather than incomprehensible grunting. On occasions they’ll even point you to Wainwright’s or Borthwick’s or whatever that other local shop is down the road where they might have just what you’re looking for.

But the best thing about them is that they stand against the Orken army we all know is pure evil: supermarkets, foreign mega-chains, online sellers and suchlike. We skip over the fact that some of those shops now going out of business were once the vanguard of evil corporatism. Oh, the irony! Yet because they are now victims, we naturally think them not so bad after all – how we love to turn Ebenezer Scrooges into Timothy Cratchits when the limping starts.

They’re falling like flies: Woolworths went some time ago; Blockbuster, HMV, Jessops, JJB Sports and many others went into administration more recently. And if this wasn’t cruel enough, Woolworths was turned into the very image of its enemy: an internet brand. Admittedly, the recession might have had something to do with the carnage, but as well as these outlets going under, smaller independent shops are losing out, too. With their underhand use of economies of scale, efficient supply chains and low cost operations, supermarkets and online sellers are killing the opposition one by one.

But this bit of the high street war was not precisely the stuff of my pensé. I was thinking more of the coffee shop wars. Partly, I must admit, because Will Self has recently been writing about the ‘cod-rustic commercialism’ of Le Pain Quotidien in his New Statesman column (online, naturally.)

If that mighty literary mind is preoccupied with the problem then so should we all. Being written by him, there’s lots of gorgeous, pretentious (deliberately?) stuff like this:

great cartwheels of golden pain ancien, reposing on equally golden wooden shelves, the whole reminding me not so much of a boulangerie in La France profonde, as of a BBC television adaptation of a Marcel Pagnol novel.

Such prose should, of course, be painstakingly inked onto painted vellum and read at leisure in monastic hideaways – not banged out on some digitally reductive website and skimmed on a smartphone. But that was the point he was making – that these places, ‘fakeries’ as he calls them, are conning us with fancy prose.

Though in this case he is aiming his sharpened pencil (I see him composing in pencil, on parchment, sometimes) at the ruthless manner in which the corporate bosses have turned beautiful, rustic France into a commodity to sell on Albion’s increasingly crude and crass high streets.

After quoting Walter Benjamin’s incomprehensible words on art nouveau, he directed his anger at the duff track lighting, the squatted ventilation ducts, the flowery Arts and Crafts windows, the pointless croutons and the petrol station chicken – fake and shoddy the lot of it. He was not amused and left lusting, as he wrote, ‘for the antagonism that leads to revolution.’

Well, the revolution on the high street continues. The coffee shops are trying as hard as they can to show they are on the side of the good: the people, the oppressed and Robespierre (though only until he loses popular support, naturally). When one chain is accused of not paying fair tax, the others let us know that they are. And then the one supposedly not paying what it ought writes a cheque to HMRC, with press charm offensive.

Seems quite easy in the end, doesn’t it? Complain and something gets done, eventually. Don’t like something about one shop, spend your money in another. The market at work. Consumer power. People power. But without Robespierre and the guillotine and probably UK Uncut while we’re at it. Much more civilised.

Then the thought came to me that there is no new high street war after all, just the continual jostle of the market where shops come and go, where clothes go in and out of fashion and where brands go into administration and then reappear under new management in a new format – often the internet these days.

We might not like all of it, or much of it even. Aspects of capitalism can be fake, unappealing and sometimes destructive, who can doubt that, but Will Self has shown us a way in that simple act of exercising his liberal, free, consumer right to choose to eat an overpriced chicken salad or not.

Vive Liberté.

The Museum of the History of Science, Oxford

The British weather seems to have been caught in two minds lately – nothing new in that.  If it hasn’t been raining like a broken gutter, it’s been as hot as the subcontinent.  It’s lucky, therefore, that we have so many fantastic museums and galleries in which to take refuge.  While the primary motive for visiting such places might be our (and perhaps our children’s) enlightenment, there are numerous other reasons for ducking in.

They’re free, or most of them are thanks to the National Lottery and the triumph of the idea that you don’t need to charge entry to make money from the punters.  These places seem as committed to their shop and cafe operations as they are to their curation.  Postcards and books, and drinks and sandwiches; anything they can think of that you might want to buy.  And those donation-boxes or guilt-boxes or whatever the corporate name is for them always seem generously full and expertly placed to catch the eye (or the shin) before visitors leave the premises.

The British Isles may be home to other places of refuge, but go into a cafe and you know they’ll insist on selling you something.  At least in a gallery you can opt for the free Gainsborough rather than the two-pound coffee.  You could try perusing the board-mounted works of art most cafes now seem to have hanging on their walls, colourfully depicting the exotic origins of their coffee beans, but those already supping on their Mocha Macchiato Lattes might well start perusing you, only they’ll be considering who to notify for your psychiatric committal rather than the provenance of that Guatemala print.

In many ways museums and galleries have taken over from our old clerical buildings (unless they’ve since decided to change their designation to museums, too), some of which now charge for access to their serene atmosphere.  Some might even argue that they’ve superseded cathedrals and great churches as places of spiritual and intellectual awakening.  A development to please Professor Dawkins, no doubt.

But museums and galleries are not all newly established.  In fact, many of them seem to have their origins somewhere in that great period of British scientific and intellectual advancement from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.  The country’s (and the world’s) first museum open to the public was the Old Ashmolean on Broad Street, Oxford, built in 1683 to house the collection of Elias Ashmole (1617-92).

That collection – much augmented in subsequent years – is now housed in the University of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology on Beaumont Street.  But the old building continued as a museum and is now Oxford University’s Museum of the History of Science.

Without getting too sentimental or collectivist about it, these places are real gems.  In many ways they represent the mark of civilisation, where a sense of the civic (in the citizenship rather than the city or town sense of the word) has risen from the babel.  And inside these civilised buildings one finds tranquility and calm and refuge from the meteorological and human pandemonium found outside.  Summer tourism might bring some of it inside, but even so, one senses a clear change of pace there.

The Old Ashmolean began life not only as home to Ashmole’s collection, but as the University’s School of Natural History.  Lecturing and demonstration took place on the middle and upper floors, and experimentation in the chemical laboratory in the basement.  But this all ceased when scientific study moved to larger premises and the building became the Museum of the History of Science, its exhibits founded on the collection of Lewis Evans (1853-1930) left to the university in 1924.  It is now home to arguably the world’s finest collection of early scientific equipment.

The place is packed with astrolabessundialsquadrants and other early mathematical instruments associated with astronomy, surveying and navigation.  In addition to British exhibits, the collection includes examples from 19th century China, 13th and 14th century Islamic Spain, North Africa and Ottoman Turkey, and 9th and 10th century Syria, and elsewhere.  And in the basement, there are examples of apparatuses used in work on penicillin, atomic numbers and anaesthesia, not to mention early photography and projection, and equipment donated by the Marconi Company.

There are more sizeable museums to visit, and if you want a cafe then you should probably go somewhere else, but it’s a hidden gem of civic Britain, and a place in which the visitor can quite happily take refuge for a couple of hours from the weather, come rain of shine.