Tracey Thorn, regular contributor to that old, armchair sitting, political pontificating, lefty proclaiming, publication; New Statesman, writes across a range of topics. Husband Ben’s health issues, families changing, children, university departing, then traipsing home, leaving again. Life’s challenges, her solutions, like mine, stumbling. There’s little wrinkles we, I, overlooked, perhaps unaware of, more likely probably forgotten. Tracey shows different takes, views, and perspectives, broad sweeps from her current experience, backed by past hopes and dreams. Her memories, as with us all, shape how we live today, and like all memories, her’s spark mine. Reflection, self analysis, occasional despair, as a contemporary, she’s a few years younger, we share formative years and experiences, memories, disappointments, and successes.
Recently writing about her love of Betty Davies, a Diva film actress, icon to some, she mentioned a fabled and much loved cinema, remembered from my London, l left 25 years ago. (God, was it REALLY that long, passed in an eye’s flicker). The Cinema, The Everyman Cinema Hampstead, delightful repertory Cinema, in London’s urbane, trendy, and ultra desirable neighbourhood of Hampstead. In my London years, it was one of THEE Premier cinema’s for films that were miles from the multiplex, out of town blockbuster screening, Hollywood financed ‘safe’ films. Memories of Cuban Coffee, Fair Trade Chocolate, Anti-Apartheid commitments, and community support initiatives. It’s now transformed into a national chain, branches across the country, some old community theatres, some indy flea pits dusted down, updated and improved, others delightfully revitalised, but the ethos, so memory cherished, seems, somehow, sacrificed.
Looking at my local Everyman, sadly shows too few of those repertory films, such a delight in those London years. Contract working in London 10 years ago, I’d seen Everyman’s spread it’s screening choices, but sensed diluted values, reduced commitment to ‘worthy’ films. Now with my home city ‘Everyman’, the listings disappoint, slight variations with the huge multi screens. Of course multi screen, 4D, surround sounds, with 10 screens, can slip in the occasional ‘indy’ classic, including those films lauded at Cannes, Venice, Berlin, and Sundance. But for new cinema, the non ‘Blockbuster’ ‘franchised’ there’s all too few screens, all too few places for different eyes and voices. Can I, we, them, blame the Everyman? Tough one, they have responsibilities, they have business ethos to develop, rents to pay, costs to cover, staff to support. I suppose that’s what happens with a business that starts with a romanticised vision, of a better way of seeing and being, somehow gets lost as it tries to spread it’s love and vision.
It’s NOT JUST the Everyman that seems to have moved so far from it’s purported roots and values, I remember the first few pubs opened by JD Wetherspoon, usually old, failing pubs, in easy to get to places, taken over, redecorated, refurbished. Hazy, perhaps beer fogged memories, recall a vision, an ethos for these pubs. George Orwell’s ‘1984’ described a perfect pub, a place of refuge, an escape, a repository of memories. Happy days, in small, lovingly preserved spaces, free from the hostile totalitarian government. George outlined his description, his values, the founders of Wetherspoons claimed this as their founding vision. They DID promote, support, and proudly boast this vision. TO BE fair, they did deliver this vision early on, and their pubs were the antidote to mass sales, beer’s the same, brewery chains, that dominated mid 80s pub nights.
I used and sought out Wetherspoons as a sign of a great pub. Now the chain looks like many others to me, it feels like a discount supermarket, mock Victorian decor, yeah, the beer’s cheap, yeah there’s real ale, and there’s choice, and happy punters. On the good side, there’s no televised sport, but cheap, basic, hot food.
Now it looks any other chain, standard food, carpets, decor, menus, think Premier Inn, it’s the same everywhere standardised, sanitised, commoditised, now slightly despised, but at least there’s a host of pubs taking up the mantle laid down by promoting Orwell’s vision seemingly let slip by Wetherspoons.
Even before these two, there was Virgin records, not the record label, not the media stores, but the early 70’s Virgin record stores, a breath of life, with free coffee and carrot cake, a dark, almost rock club feel, that nailed it’s colours to the mast. No Cliff, or Max Bygraves, no Osmonds, or Bay City Rollers, this was a store for the youth, for hairy rockers,Led Zep, Genesis, punk, reggae, local labels, folkies and local bands in a local store. All part of the Virgin magic mix. Fast forward to the 2010’s it’s mega stores, high rent, high street, high costs, low margin, low choice options, mainstream bands, the DIY ethos of punk, and dance slipped away ‘T’ shirts and videos, replacing Jazz and World sounds.
There’s other companies that seem to have changed, Ben and Jerry's, Pizza Express, Starbucks amongst them. As they become global they lose their uniqueness, in marketing jargon ‘Unique Selling Point’. I’m never really sure when change happens, and can understand how, with the best of intentions, a business, with a cuddly ethos, morphs into another mass marketing, global brand. I can see the original owners wanting to spread their dreams, their vision. They promote their shared ‘good honest values’ and grow, becoming a regional and then national brand, as commercial pressures, practices, and ethos take over.
Do I want to go back, hmm, Virgin LPs, that’s vinyl readers, had a reputation for being scratched, I had few problems, and the store was a refuge for me, place for music, and hanging with friends. This was a time of Wimpey, and Woolworth’s café, too young to pub, too poor to cafe. This was (shock horror) a time before filter coffee, before cappuccino, but I’d take today with it’s options, it’s variety, it’s choices. There are still independent record stores. I don’t Amazon, and never Download. We have better pubs, and better Ice cream parlours to compete with Ben and Jerry’s, but I miss the community values and hopes that underpinned those founding values, the same could be said of some of the internet E-commerce founders today.
These notes have been a meander through memories good and bad, sad and happy, a recognition that change is constant, and drifts down paths we don’t like and don’t want. Sad to see those companies change, they were cultural totems, dependable, repositories of hopes and dreams. But on reflection, it makes me appreciate and support those who try to revitalise those dreams from my 45 years of idealism. I do have two repertory cinemas, local pubs, (pricier than Wetherspoons). There are businesses built by idealists, community pubs, cafes that offer more than pre packaged and standardised coffee. You can put all the photos of 50’s Rome, and rural Puglia on walls, but instead of transporting people to Bologna, you're still in Blackburn. The good things for me, it stops me being a lazy cinema watcher, coffee sipper, or record buyer. I just choose more carefully and try to buy indy, even if it means less stuff.
Thanks to Tracey, her thoughts and words, for sparking my memories, random thoughts and new paths, yes stuff’s gone, but it’s made me look and value what’s still out there, here, and across the city to be loved, enjoyed, and valued in a changing world.
Main Image listed Muswell Hill Everyman Cinema by Philafrenzy
Toon Traveler back on the road in September. Watch this space...