High Street – then and now

Visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum the other week I stumbled across a display in their bookshop of a newly issued facsimile edition of High Street – first published in 1938. This elegant little book contains illustrations by Eric Ravilious, whose wood engravings and watercolours of the inter-war and early WW2 period are highly regarded. The beauty of the book is in the combination of J.M. Richards’ architectural descriptions of the ‘typical’ high street of the 1930s with the whimsical lithographs of Ravilious. The text is written as if for an explorer from a strange land “This pile of hams is all ready for Christmas, when people buy hams in great numbers… it is a favourite English dish” and in fact the V&A has commissioned an Afterword by Gill Saunders, which explains that the book was originally aimed at children and that the everyday is presented as “strange and marvellous, investing the prosaic with an air of novelty.”

Saunders also points to the unsettling and mysterious character of the book, which I can see mainly in the perspective of the illustrations, several of which are taken from a low position out on the pavement and many of which have the shop illuminated, shining out from the dark surroundings. For some reason this reminds me of Judith Kerr’s illustration of an early evening drizzly, darkening high street drawn in her wonderful The Tiger Who Came to Tea, where Sophie’s Mummy and Daddy take her out to have a supper of “sausages and chips and ice cream” because the Tiger has eaten the cupboard bare.

For me, the fun of reading High Street is visiting – yet again – the current debate around the future of the British (or is it English?) high street. The book’s illustrations were drawn mostly in London, site of the Adaptable Suburbs project http://www.ucl.ac.uk/adaptablesuburbs/ that my colleagues and I are running at UCL and it is easy to be sucked into a nostalgia for the warm, cosy atmosphere created by this text. In fact, many of the illustrated shop fronts date from earlier periods. Even more to the point, the book captures the high street’s shops as undergoing a transition; the hardware store is “changing a lot, and certain branches of it are dying out because many of the things that hardware shops sell are being used less, or are being replaced by something else.”

Other shops are adapting: Mr Pollard used to work both as a plumassier (a dealer in feathers), but now that fewer women wear feathers in their hats, he works mainly as a taxidermist for hunting people, although his shop-front still states Naturalist : Furrier : Plumassier. Not that different from our observed business diversification in contemporary London – although I have to admit that the South Norwood Bazaar loses in aesthetics what it gains in economic diversity.

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