Bill Grimsey, King of the Clone Town

Strutton GroundRetail expert Bill Grimsey has published his report this week. It’s based on facts, says Bill, proudly. But for all the facts, the report says nothing new – it’s a rehash of other people’s ideas, and is very similar to the Mary Portas High Street Review that came before it. It takes as its foundation the death of the High Street, and is based on the belief that independent shops should just give up now.

And today Bill’s been Tweeting his praise for Tesco – it’s ‘the real deal’, and ‘Tesco’s Harris + Hoole coffee shop chain has been given licensing approval for cafes. The day out at Tesco is getting better!’.

Bill’s also Tweeted about his pleasure with Primark’s increased profits, saying the ‘consumer cares not where the stuff comes from only price!’

Of course, an alternative view would be that big stores like Primark and Tesco are actually the problem. They’ve championed price over quality or fair working conditions. Tesco have used unpaid work experience placements.  And Primark are currently paying compensation to 4000 people after the Rana Plaza sweatshop collapsed in April, leaving over 1100 people dead.

Bill’s unflagging support for Tesco, Primark et al is unsurprising, from a man who’s lived his life in clone town retailers like Iceland. But the comments about Primark are something different. I’m not sure whether they’re ill-considered, or just uncaring.

In any case, maybe we should look for grassroots ways to tackle the problem, from the floorboards up not from the boardrooms down.  An alternative view would be that, with the number of independent shops increasing in the last year by over 400 stores, it’s the clone town that’s dying. There’s certainly evidence that the number of empty shops in city centre is falling, while it’s rising in shopping centres and retail parks. So that belief that the high street has a chance is not just nostalgia, Bill; it’s facts.

 

 

 

 

Tales from the empty shops frontline in Boston and Holbeach

The Boston shop had been open about a week, word was getting round and we were getting many people coming back again and again to attend our free arts activities…..which was great, it meant we had an opportunity to engage them in conversation and find out some real information.

We exhibited artists’ work produced during the previous 3 months consultation phase, letters created for shop windows leading up to our launch event and information on community groups to raise awareness of their work.   The information sharing and networking was woven in amongst the practical activities, the cups of tea, the knitting and nattering…..and listening.

Although I was mainly in the Holbeach shop, I also programmed myself in to the Boston shop a few times, just so I could get a feel for the differences…..with 14 miles between them, one a busy town and small port, the other a small fenland market town, there were many.

It was during one of these times that Dennis appeared silently at my side, ‘I’d like a word’ he said.

‘I make canes……with carved heads, would you like some in the shop?’

We chatted as we drank tea.   As well as carving the most exquisite duck heads (mainly) on long hazel canes, Dennis also created puppet heads.   He wanted to set up a touring puppet theatre.   He was from the local area, he had the most amazing skills and up to now nobody had known about them.  Dennis told me he had previously worked with another artist and asked if I’d like to see pictures of the work they completed.  Wow! (sorry but I don’t have permission from the artist to give you any further details, you’ll just have to trust me and it wasn’t puppets).

Dennis brought in his canes the next day, he’d also made a frame for displaying them.  His work attracted attention every day with shop visitors admiring his skill and the playfulness of the carved heads.  And as for his puppets; I forwarded his contact details to a Lincoln theatre company who often use masks and puppetry in their work…..the two are now talking.   Dennis is working on his next large scale collaborative installation.

A guest post for the Empty Shops Network blog by artist Carol Parker. As Transported Empty Shops Co-ordinator, she programmed and curated two empty shops, one in Boston and one in Holbeach, during July-August 2013

Bill and Mary forgot about people

P1050725When retail experts like Mary Portas and Bill Grimsey talk confidently about the death of the high street, there’s one thing that they seem to have forgotten.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Amsterdam, Bedford, Belfast, Bexley, Boston, Brighton, Brixton, Broadstairs, Coventry, Chichester, Eastbourne, Enfield, Guildford, Halifax, Holbeach, the Isle of Wight, Leeds, Lewes, Littlehampton, Manchester, Margate, Newcastle in New South Wales, Portsmouth, Rochdale, Rotterdam, Salford, Shoreham, Southampton, Streatham, Stresa in Italy and Worthing in the last year or so.

P1050907And what Bill and Mary have forgotten? Independent record stores, quirky bookshops, antique shops, food markets, toyshops, ironmongers, vintage clothing emporiums, art materials shops, mod-style menswear boutiques, tailors making suits for older men, shops selling scooters, electrical stores, wool shops, greengrocers, model railway shops, comic stores, flea markets, stationery shops, galleries, haberdashers and charity shops do more than just ‘retail’. They’re about people. Grimsey and Portas have forgotten about real people.

From North Laine in Brighton to Manchester’s Northern Quarter, from Coventry Market to Covent Garden, from Brixton Village to the beach at Broadstairs, there are shops that are social spaces, as well as places to sell things. And there are shops that are making things, closing the distance between small-scale manufacture and being a shopkeeper. Shops are providing a focus for communities with a common interest, and are places that people meet, hang out and go shopping together.

The facts and figures retail experts like Grimsey and Portas use, the kind of data they’re used to using in their dayjobs working for big shopping centres and the massive retailers who’ve done the most damage to our town centres, assume that every business is after growth and that every customer is just after the lowest price. Grimsey and Portas can’t even see these blurred, hybrid spaces – let alone understand them.

Of course, many shops are closing and many more will in the next year. This isn’t a plea to preserve the status quo. Because change is good, and change does not mean the end. Our town centres have become clone towns, dominated by the big chain orthodoxy, by sell fast and don’t linger, by the lack of imagination of management interested in only the fastest route to the biggest profit. It’s time we had something different. We deserve better.

Imagination and creativity will win. It’s a defining part of the British character. Some shopkeepers want a small, sustainable business (not to make millions) and are finding a corner of a crowded market. They’re mixing online and the high street in ways that defy the experts’ data. They’re making shops that fulfil a useful social function, bring a benefit to our towns beyond mere selling.

And many customers still want to shop, because it’s a social activity. They want to come together around a shared interest, be it model soldiers or vintage clothes or knitting or riding scooters or just a love of food. Shopping isn’t just about the acquisition of goods, but about gaining knowledge, experience and understanding – you can’t beat a bookseller’s suggestions, an ironmonger’s advice, the tip-off from the chap in the record store, or the thing the man in the flea market has put by for you.

Yes, shops are closing: yes, it’s tough being a shopkeeper: yes, the high street is changing. But don’t expect shops to disappear, just because retail experts and their clients would like them to. Let’s support this new, local business with reduced business rates. But first, let’s visit them, linger, meet shopkeepers and customers, and understand the change that’s happening.

Marcus Westbury and Australia’s ‘Renew’ movement

P1060383I’ve been lucky enough to meet Marcus Westbury a couple of times while he’s been in Europe – and to go out to Australia to work with him as well.

He’s the driving force behind Renew Newcastle (backed up by a great team, it has to be said) and has inspired Australia to restore, renew and reactivate high streets. He’s made the idea of using empty shops and other buildings for creative purposes mainstream out there.

There’s a real depth to Marcus’s work and, in the best Buddhist way, he matches right thought, right word and right action. He’s a clever chap, but in an honest and straightforward way because he’s interested in actually doing things. All the same things I’m interested in doing here, but Marcus is far more eloquent than I’ll ever be at explaining them.

That’s why the fact that Marcus is currently crowdfunding a book about his work is so important; if you can support him, it’ll be well worth it. You can pledge to support Marcus here. And you really should.

Exploring Newcastle, New South Wales

‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’ TS Eliot

P1050553There are three answers to the question (often asked) ‘yes, but what do is your actual job?’ The first, the most honest, is that I’m a social artist. The second, for people who wear suits, is that I’m a consultant. The third, the most secret, is that I’m an explorer.

I’ve been to dozens of towns and cities across Great Britain, discovering insane buildings in Leeds and unusual history in Coventry; I have spent a few short days in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, places that let DIY culture get under the paving slabs; I’ve wandered through an Italian village that was like Portmeirion without the rain. The furthest I’ve been in my exploring, though, was my recent visit to Newcastle in New South Wales to take part in the Creating Spaces conference.

It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit since I first found out about Renew Newcastle and the work of Marcus Westbury and his team.

P1050864Newcastle is a post-industrial town, that just a few years ago had a seriously hollowed-out city centre. Hunter Street was full of empty shops, and other buildings were emptying out too. But that changed, and by 2011, Newcastle was on the Lonely Planet Guide’s top ten list. And 106 Renew Newcastle projects later, it’s hard to imagine there was ever a problem that needed fixing.

Newcastle’s city centre (the Central Business District or CBD) is long and thin, a familiar enough layout for anyone from an English seaside town. This city centre is of course off-centre, the geography skewed by the harbourside to the north and the beaches to the south. Hunter Street is the spine, stretching parallel to the harbour.

At Newcastle East is the headland of the harbour, stunning beaches, magnificent sunrises, old warehouses turned into holiday apartments and an Art Deco sea bathing pool. Near this end of town is the Hunter Mall, the main shopping area of Hunter Street. This is where Renew Newcastle has had the biggest impact.

P1050730It’s an area of beautiful heritage buildings, glorious Art Deco facades against deep green trees and impossibly blue skies. Buildings are grand, and proud, and show that Newcastle was a rich, industrial city. Think Leeds or Manchester, but with brighter skies and clearer air. The ghosts of old businesses are everywhere; plaques mark banks that have traded for 100 years, shop names are found in ghost signs, and there are more significant enterprises who carved their name in stone. There are ghosts too, of the failure of salvation by brick; the skeletal remains of an ambitious, million-dollar scheme to encourage a street market to appear.

P1050725There’s also an impressive amount of street art. Vibrant murals, quirky quotes like Facebook inspirational memes gone real world, and creative flyposters are sprinkled along the Hunter Street spine. The best are the works curated by Street Art Walking’s Simone Sheridan, and they add colour and draw you up side streets as you walk.

But Hunter Mall doesn’t have many empty shops, though. Not now. These have been replaced, first with temporary projects brought in by Renew Newcastle, but then by other businesses.

Projects like Make Space, a collective of female makers who fit the shop around family, and vintage photobooth hire company Strip of a Lifetime, and roller derby stickermaker NataLickIt are finding new uses for old spaces. They’re pioneers, opening up the city for the entrepreneurs that always follow.

And follow they have, here like anywhere else in the world. Newcastle is starting to get its share of cool cafes and hipster coffee shops. A national chain tried to move in, piggybacking on the creativity, but was ignored. People stuck to the independents and the chain closed and left town.

And perhaps more importantly – Renew Newcastle graduates, having tried and tested in temporary premises, are now going full-time and filling spaces.

P1050907Renew Newcastle has a good track record of encouraging start-ups, with workspaces like The Bank of Ideas and Studio Melt, studios like Shannon Hartigan Images, and beautiful, quirky shops like Alie Jane as living testament, but that’s not its aim. Renew Newcastle set out to achieve the activation of empty buildings, maintaining them and improving the look of the city centre while that post-industrial future is worked out.

The real achievement though is discovering that post-industrial future as part of the process. Newcastle is now a vibrant, creative city, where artist-makers, graphic designers, illustrators and software developers alike are making new products for export to a global market. And at the same time, improving the place where they live and make it an attractive destination for a worldwide audience who like architecture, and heritage, and creativity, and culture, and good cafes. And the great beaches don’t hurt, either.

On the Isle of Wight

The Isle of Wight is an interesting, and often contradictory, place.

On one hand, it’s untouched 1950s seaside working class holiday territory, all ice creams with flakes and Kiss Me Quick hats (and no, not a lazy writer’s stereotype – they’re for sale in the Delicious Cafe in Ryde).

On the other, it’s places like Cowes, where the streets are stuffed with the accents of the ruling class, posh girls in Oxford lacrosse team shirts, and the shops are all White Stuff, Joules and Fat Face. Of course, there are still some useful shops, especially if you have an expensive yacht in the harbour, like ship’s chandlers Pascall Atkey. And like every town on the island, there’s hardware store Hurst, with distinctive H-shaped doorhandles.

The island is undoubtedly beautiful, with great scenery and towns which have, on the whole, been untouched by the worst of late 20th century development. High streets are full of small, quirky shops with great display windows, curved glass, tiled doorsteps and original features. Walls carry the traces of old signwritten adverts. There are pockets of emptiness, like the top of Ryde which has been cut off by an unsympathetic traffic layout. But these are isolated and could, with a little political will, be reinvented as destinations in their own right. Arreton Old Village, for example, has played on its antiquity, proudly boasting to be ‘100 years behind the times’.

There is a wealth of creativity on the island, led by people like the Isle of Wight Makers Network, Quay Arts and clothing-company-and-cafe Rapanui. And the way that quirky, boutique shops have spread from obvious locations like Cowes towards more traditional towns like Ryde shows that there is a commercial drive, too. The island’s towns look great, have potential by the plastic bucketload, and aren’t in bad shape to start with. Vacancy rates are below the national average, for example, and there’s a strong pop up culture, with a tradition of shops (including high-end boutiques) opening for the summer season or to match local events. Of course, the place is also known for a string of festivals, creating whole pop up towns a few times a year.

But there’s one contradiction holding the island back. And that’s the attraction to and fear of ‘the mainland’.

From the northern side of the Solent, it’s easy to be envious of the islanders. They have a great lifestyle,  property at a reasonable price and a fantastic place to live.

From the island, though, things are different; there’s a feeling of isolation, a sense that problems faced are unique to the Isle of Wight, and a nagging belief that things must be better ‘over there’. But the truth is, the Solent is tiny and with fast Red Funnel connections, it’s easier to reach the bigger island to the north than ever before. And of course, social media enables even closer connections without getting on a boat. There are great partnerships to be built with arts, cultural and creative organisations that are a short ride away and organisations like the Isle of Wight Makers Network and Quay Arts are doing that.

An end to isolationist thinking and a simultaneous celebration of the island’s local distinctiveness show a great future for a special place.

Thanks to Sara at Isle of Wight Makers network, staff at Quay Arts and to Red Funnel for supporting my visit to the island.

On Sunday Trading

I’m not sure when shops started to open seven days a week, because when I was a child shops closed on Sundays.

Sunday was a day when society turned itself off, rebooted. It was a day for family, friends and neighbours. The day when people got their new things out; I remember the buzz of the first Flymo, admiring glances at a new BMX, watching a video at a neighbour’s house again and again, all with an Instagram haze. Blue skies, hot summers, protests and strikes – but always new technological wonders.

So I wonder if closing shop on Sundays might be the way to kickstart the economy. I don’t believe that, when it comes to the bottom line, shops are taking any more because they’re open on the seventh day. The amount of money in people’s pockets is the same if not less, and people aren’t spending more. It certainly benefits the big traders, as it gives them another competitive edge, but it has a huge impact on the quality of life of small shopkeepers.

And in a culture of working seven days a week and without any leisure time, are people buying the big ticket leisure items?

Would closing all but corner shops and newsagents on a Sunday mean less money in circulation? No.

Would it mean more time and therefore more money spent on leisure goods, from bicycles to beach toys, plants to patio furniture? Just maybe.

Would it mean more time and more money spent in seaside towns, and tourist attractions and elsewhere across the UK’s leisure industry? That’s worth £74 billion, employs more than 1.5 million people and that’s about 4% of the UK’s gross domestic product, by the way. Almost certainly.

And I suspect it would increase the country’s happiness levels no end, and increase community cohesion too. Let’s bring back a day of rest.

Low country (Part II)

It’s amazing how much of a city you can see in a single day, if you put in the legwork and the city has a decent public transport network. Amsterdam does, and in Maurice Specht I had the perfect city guide.

Cycle store
Cycle store

The intercity train from Rotterdam where I’d stayed the night beforewas a good start – double decked with seats more spacious and comfortable than anything in the UK. And plenty of spaces for bikes, too. Every station has huge cycle racks, housing hundreds of bikes; so big in fact that a regular complaint is that the edge of the cycle parking is still five minutes walk from the station.

In Amsterdam itself, the bike is king. Beautiful, rusty and battered sit-up bikes are ridden down cycle paths as wide as the UK’s roads and it means the city’s traffic has a human face.

Signs
Signs

We started with the short ferry ride from Central Station to the Noord district, home to Tolhuistuin and a growing creative community. While we couldn’t get inside Tolhuistuin– a jumble of old municipal architecture reconfigured for creative use, with open spaces full of ad-hoc structures used for events – we were given a much more warm welcome at T-shirt print studios Tees Me. We were literally passing and were dragged in off the street and offered coffee in the offices of what is essentially a web-based business. There has been a concerted effort to give these businesses space in the Noord, and mixed in amongst neat residential housing are small studios and galleries mainly selling online. There are odd corners of craziness too; one street of tiny, brightly-coloured wooden houses stood out as worth exploring.

Concrete jungle
Concrete jungle

The creativity of Noord is a huge contrast to our next stop, Bijlmermeer. This area of the city was planned post-war; it’s all big city blocks and a maze of spaces that on a plan might have seem structured but in real life are insane. Motor traffic is raised on roads at first floor level, with pedestrians, scooters and pushbikes at ground level. There was a street market selling the same jumbled stuff as any UK street market, with foodstalls and street barbeques billowing smoke across the maze of precincts. This wasn’t the future people planned. It’s a confused jumble, an illegible space that’s the the wrong scale for people to live. It reminded me of nothing as much as the dystopian refugee camp in the final scenes of Children of Men. We never even found the place and the person we were looking for.

Block
Block

The beautiful ‘Plan West’ estates from the 1930s might well have been what the Bijilmermeer architects were inspired by. But here, the vast city blocks felt very comfortable. Each unit of housing and flats took up a whole city block, and was finished with small details like art nouveau tiles and elegant house numbers. Blocks look subtly different, and there are details like clocktowers, balconies and the like that give the buildings an organic feel. The blocks have wide streets between them and neat, well-designed squares spread around them. The squares have good public space, and are used for events throughout the year. Shopping streets are cared for, with bike lanes and tram tracks meaning cars are the transport of last resort.

Paving slab
Paving slab

However, last year a jeweller was shot on the main shopping street here, Jan Eef, and the fear of crime and the sight of empty shops led local residents to start the ‘Ik geef om de Jan Eef‘ campaign.

It’s a simple, elegant and well designed campaign, bringing local residents, community groups and shopkeepers together to show they care for their local street. There’s a neat branding, applied to paving slabs along the street, and a number of the empty spaces are being used for pop-up shops under the same banner. It’s made people aware, in a very simple way, that their local street is worth having; a lesson that many UK high streets learnt the hard way.

Equally inspiring was the project which housed the meeting I was attending. A converted shop just round the corner from Jan Eef house Groen Gras, an events company which employs young people as stage managers, technicians and stewards when it delivers events for the city council. It has given hundreds of young people worthwhile and well paid employment and staged events attended by tens of thousands of people. While a lot of projects aimed at getting young people back to work have good intentions but no way to deliver, Groen Gras is really changing lives.

And that seems to be the spirit of Amsterdam; the spirit of can-do optimism that our own prime minister David Cameron wants to see more of in the UK. Who’d have thought that Amsterdam, with its obvious reputation for cannabis and prostitution, might just be the best Big Society inspiration we can find?

2010 in lists

Selected highlights from a frankly fabulous year
Moments in time:
  1. Students protests, London
  2. Pier Day, Worthing
  3. Sean O Hagan’s Music for Sixty Ukuleles and Sixty Children premiere, Wukuele Festival
  4. Tracey Emin ‘I Never Stopped Loving You’ switch-on, Droit House, Margate

Shops and cafes:

  1. Secondo, Brixton
  2. Green Cuisine, Worthing
  3. The Book Ferret, Arundel
  4. Tin Angel, Coventry
  5. Crafty, Belfast
  6. Bookcase of Carlisle
  7. Made In Belfast
  8. Foxes, Carlisle

Books:

  1. Surface Detail – Iain M Banks (Orbit)
  2. A Guide To The New Ruins Of Great Britain – Owen Hatherley (Verso)
  3. Alec – Eddie Campbell (Top Shelf)
  4. Alphabets, a miscellany of letters (Black Dog Publishing)

Places to sit and think:

  1. Worthing Pier
  2. Coventry Cathedral
  3. Carlisle Cathedral
  4. Neal’s Yard, Seven Dials
  5. Old Fort, Shoreham Beach

Empty shop projects:

  1. Theatre Absolute, Coventry
  2. ReFound, Belfast
  3. Slack Space Colchester
  4. LET, Pennine Lancashire
  5. ARKLab, Cardiff

Music:

  1. Yeasayer – Odd Blood
  2. Best Coast – Crazy For You
  3. Dirty Revolution – Before The Fire
  4. Sleigh Bells – Treats
  5. Paul Weller – Wake Up The Nation
Places to stay:

Laughing in Peel Precinct

The square could be a filmset. There’s a pub on the corner, a row of shops (flats above), a park and the Oxford Kilburn club, the school a few doors down. An empty film set now, waiting for the crew, lights, actors, props. A script, of course, and a script.

All London life is here. The whole estate, eleven blocks, 170 floors, tilts up from the square. Rises from the central point, a CCTV camera post, out to the edges – the broad sweep of the train tracks out of Euston, the gentle terraces and Tin Church of Kilburn Park Road. Rises, packed with people; more people than the architects, throwing out the better standards of the Housing Manual 1949 in favour of high-rise living with a bonus for each extra floor built can ever have imagined.

The estate is like Babel after the fall, everyone speaking a different language: English, Somali, Arabic, Portugese, Filipino, Amharic, Yoruba, Albanian, Urdu. And where there should be a noise, a joyous noise unto the Lord, a babble… instead is silence. Nobody talks, everyone walks quietly, quickly. Heads down, hoods up.

Except for two beautiful girls in headscarves, giggling and smiling, chatting and texting, meandering through this and that. They’re the life of South Kilburn. The point, the purpose. Despite the crushing weight of the tower blocks tilting in, the paranoia of the CCTV camera in the centre of the square, the fear of the shops’ shutters, they’re laughing. Happy to be here, today, in Peel Precinct.

Carlisle’s edges

“Carlisle’s all about edges, borders, the delineation of one thing and another.

It’s on the edge of England, or maybe the edge of Scotland. It’s a border town, a frontier place, a fringe; the edge of every empire that the last two thousand years has seen. It’s very much the end, the full stop.

It’s the thing between sentences, full of squares and courtyards, the space between places. It’s transient, shifting, always in a state of flux yet ancient, solid. Rooted in Roman history and a local deity, but alive with even more ancient religions. Standing stones, early Christian Celtic crosses in the cathedral, Green Men on the walls of shops in the market square.

The buildings are heavy, made from a local stone that itself changes from one thing to another, sandstone sedimentary layers blending from deep, faded-blood red to a soft yellow, often in one carved piece. Stone from a Roman quarry eight miles away.

The stone is so eccentric it makes the cathedral look like a patchwork. A feeling that’s only enhanced by the slipped lines of decorations, the wonky and skewiff Norman arches, the might of pillars whose feet don’t quite match each other’s ground levels. Maybe the clay, when they built one bay, was wet, (don’t forget, ever, that Carlisle floods), but for whatever reason, stone pillars sank. So even the cathedral is in a state of movement, neither one thing or another. Where there should be something static, unchanging; there’s something that wiggles like a fish.

There are solid stone city walls and metal barricades on Botchergate. Heavy gates across empty alleyways and railings around war memorials. Clear, strong definitions. Black and white. With so much that is transient, temporary, timely, the city tries to draw strong lines.

Of course, a firm line always makes you see what’s either side of it. So the city’s attempts at definition only make the change, confusion and incoherence more apparent.

Carlisle’s about shift and uncertainty, the edge of places, the impermanence of stone.”

Written for an exhibition as part of the Empty Shops Network tour in Carlisle

Carlisle, city of two halves

The third stop on the Empty Shops Network tour (the second, Shoreham, was so manic it goes unblogged) is Carlisle.

It’s a bewildering, beautiful and bewitching city. I’m staying in a moderately grotty guesthouse a few minutes outside the city centre. The straight route here is down Botchergate (‘bid the dishonest man mend himself; if he mend, he is no longer dishonest; if he cannot, let the botcher mend him’).

Botchergate is the main road into the town, but it’s shabby and semi-derelict at the bottom end, and at the top end is a string of pubs and rough alehouses. The drunkenness on a Friday and Saturday night is so bad that they actually close the road to traffic, to stop people falling under passing cars. Locals are obsessed with how bad the street is, and it’s certainly in need of some love and attention, especially as it’s the gateway to the city.

The other side of the city is where I spent today, starting in the gentle, intimate cathedral. It’s a magnificently shambolic building; some of the arches are wonky, and in one place a pillar sunk during building and the line of detail above is interrupted. The local stone changes colour from a white to a deep red, sometimes in one block, giving the building an even more haphazard feel, like patchwork made from favourite scraps. The ceiling holds the whole together; a dramatic blue with gold stars, best viewed by laying on your back on the stone floor and relaxing for five minutes. Which amuses local schoolchildren no end.

Tullie House Museum is equally eccentric, with Stanley Spencer paintings hung in stairwells and corridors where it’s almost impossible to see them and appreciate their incredible beauty. There’s a Peter Blake tucked away in a stairwell amongst some far less impressive portraits, as if they didn’t quite know where to hang it. And the Roman galleries, with a mock up of Hadrian’s Wall, butt up against a gallery about railway history which includes replica First and Third Class carriages with a view across to the castle.

The Cathedral and Tullie House are in a beautiful quarter, all rambling cobbled streets and corners with arches and turrets like a Harry Potter film set. It’s also home to the perfect Foxes cafe lounge, a quirky and eccentric eaterie with great staff, art on the walls, and comfy seats. The ideal way to end a day exploring.

It’s been difficult to get to grips with Carlisle this week, with the clash between rough drinking and ancient history and contemporary art making it hard to understand. But it’s a great city once you explore and just accept the accidental collisions, chance encounters and culture clashes.

The Empty Shops Network – a big thank you

A couple of years ago I ran a small local arts organisation, the Revolutionary Arts Group, struggling with no resources to stage artist-led festivals and open studio events, and using non-traditional venues for exhibitions- an old bakers, a functioning church, and other community spaces.

As the recession bit, I was fielding more and more enquiries about how we did it – particularly using empty shops – so the Empty Shop Network was born. The aim was to start collecting information about work in the redundant spaces in town centres, and provide a central point of contact for anyone wanting to find events local to them. It was always a big ambition on no budget, but I realised that I was thinking along the right lines when Susan Jones from a-n offered me a small grant to produce a piece of research which became a ‘Knowledge Bank’ article. It laid the foundations for the Empty Shops Workbook as well.

I’m typing this on the train back from Gatwick, afterflying out to Belfast for an a-n AIRTime event where I was able to talk to 60+ Northern Ireland artists about using empty shops.

The last year has seen me writing strategies for local authorities, talking at national community conferences, spending timewith Central St Martins students at graduate week, hobnobbing with the great and occasionally even the good at the Conservatives Arts and Creative Industries Network… the list is kind of endless when you include all the conversations, BBC News interviews, magazine articles and other stuff that’s happened around the fringes.

I’m starting to earn a sensible (but by no means excessive!) wage as an artist and arts manager.
And it’s all because that small, early grant gave me the confidence – it was tacit recognition that I was doing the right thing.

That grant has helped us to access even more funding and set up a range of projects – and the thing I’m most proud of, we’ve already paid about twenty times the original grant to other artists and small creative businesses.

So thank you Susan, and thank you a-n for providing real support just when it was needed.

Tell me about Oswald Denniston

A week ago, I joined a small group of other people running organisations exploring meanwhile projects and temporary spaces, to see how we could work together and collaborate.

One of the ideas I put forward was a touring project, creating a local history exhibition in one week. Underpinning the week’s work with artists would be workshops, meetings and mentoring – so that while publicly the project would end in a one day exhibition, underneath it even more artists would be introduced to the skills needed. Quick thinking – swift marketing – speedy planning. All essential when the opportunity to use an empty shop may come around quickly and be gone in a week, but not skills that every artist can understand.

So a week later, with support from the Meanwhile Project, I’m running a live project in Brixton called ‘Tell me about Oswald Denniston’.

Oswald Denniston was a passenger on the Empire Windrush when it docked at London in 1948, and in the early 1960s became the first African-Caribbean trader in the Granville Arcade, now known as Brixton Village. He passed away in 2000, after becoming a pillar of the local community during a life which took in signwriting, market trading, cycling (he was the first black cyclist in the Herne Hill Cycling Club) and reciting epic verse.

We’ve taken a small unit in Granville Arcade (nowadays known as Brixton Village), set up tables and chairs, and we’re ready to talk about Oswald. It’s a battered, dirty unit among the busy food stalls and near the ‘Brixton Party Shop’. It used to be Taj Textiles; Oswald’s stall in Granville sold fabric. I like that coincidence.

Come and join the conversation at Unit 73, Brixton Village on Tuesday, Thursday or Friday and see the finished exhibition, featuring work by artists including Alice Angus and The Caravan Gallery’s Jan Williams, on Saturday 6th February.

Empty shops in Shoreham by Sea

I’ve probably made some old Tory very happy today; I got on my bike in search of work. Specifically, hunting down empty shops to use in Shoreham-by-Sea.

In the Empty Shops Network’s home town of Worthing, the Borough Council has forged a partnership with neighbouring Adur District Council, which means that our empty shops money covers Worthing, Lancing, Shoreham and Fishersgate. And we’re looking for a big, flagship project in Adur, so I’ve spent the day cycling to find likely sites.

I was actually born in Shoreham, in the maternity unit in the old workhouse. I’ve worked there a lot, as a founder member of the Beach Dreams festival and as sound man for Richard Durrant. I’ve exhibited in, got married at, and floodlit the outside of, the Church of the Good Shepherd on Shoreham Beach – and once, notably, heard the Vicar’s confession. I lived on Shoreham High Street, in a flat above a charity shop, with views across the mudflats towards the houseboats. And I partied quite hard on the houseboats a few times, too.

So I know Shoreham well, and it’s sad to see it suffering. There are a few empty shops, and a downmarket Woolworths clone in the old Woolworths. In a small town, those few empty shops really have an impact.

Saddest of all, though, is a monumental building in the middle of historic Shoreham town, which looks like it’s been bought for redevelopment. It’s an odd bit of architecture, vaguely arts and crafts-ish; striped brickwork, odd detailing, hints of turrets and towers.

There are four shops at street level, and the front two facing onto the old war memorial and church yard are suspiciously bunker-like with thick walls and small windows (pictured). One of them’s empty. Behind them, down a side street, are two more shop units, both more traditional but in poor condition. Both of these are empty.

Above it all is the old church hall and parish offices, and from the state of the building and the boarded-up doors I’d guess these are empty, too.

I’m not sure what the plans for this quirky architectural oddity are, but I’d like to find out more about the building – and I’ve got a site visit later this week to start exploring and planning. Can we bring a bit of temporary use to Shoreham town centre, perhaps some community shenanigans like The UpMarket project we ran in Worthing? It would sit well amongst the great little independents, scattering of cafes and delis, and a flea market in the old Tarmount Studios – all of which make Shoreham well worth a visit.

Hopefully…

Worthing vs Lewes – what makes small towns tick?

What makes towns tick? I’ve been visiting a lot of town centres on the quest to fill empty shops. Why is Lewes such a lovely place to spend time, while Worthing feels a bit of a wasteland?

It’s more than just built environment, although has something to do with it. Yes, Lewes has lots of history, beautiful old buildings, and is wrapped around some very curvaceous hills which makes the whole place feel exciting. But Worthing has plenty of nice buildings too, especially around the fringes of the town centre – Warwick Street and Brighton Road, Montague Place and Liverpool Terrace, even the bottom end of South Street and the Royal Arcade. There’s lots of lovely Deco and Art Moderne, some quirky Victorian, a bit of eccentric Edwardian, and even some quite chunky, urban Brutalism that I like.

But still, something’s missing. Partly, it’s the quality of shop fronts and shop fittings. In Lewes, the shops feel as though they’ve been there a hundred years without significant change – things feel old, and loved, and trusted – like heirlooms passed from father to son.

I visited a jewellers in Lewes, using a carefully, conscientuously converted butcher’s shop – he was proud of the marks the meat cleaver had left in the floor, and had made his work benches out of timber, blown down in the 87 gale, cut from trees that used to belong to Winston Churchill.

In Worthing too many shop fronts are cheap, and plastic, and the insides of many shops lack character. If it doesn’t feel like the shopkeepers love their own property, it’s hard for us as customers to feel much affection I think. There are exceptions – Pestle & Mortar in Portland Place could have been there fifty years, and Bookstack’s bonkers furniture collection makes it feel lived in.

But more importantly, it’s about stories. If you’ve lived in a town long enough, the place is alive with narrative. In Worthing, where my family have been for generations, I can tell you stories about my dad’s old record shop and where he used to sit selling IT; his father’s time working in an electricity showroom or guarding the gasworks against the IRA in the 1930s; the plots of land his father and grandfather owned, sold to The Corporation.

But sadly, Worthing’s shops don’t carry the same history. I’m sure only a handful remain from my childhood. Where are Bentalls, Gamleys and Allans the stationers? What happened to Optimus Books, Kinch & Lack for school uniform, even Woolworths and Sussex Stationers? Faced with a lack of continuity, it’s hard to love a place – it becomes a collection of retail units, not a tangled mess of shops and stories.

Lewes wears its history proudly, like an eccentric old uncle in waistcoat and pocket watch; and like the old uncle, it will tell you great stories if you ask.

Towns like Worthing need to rediscover that sense of place, the special corners, the stories and songs that weave a town together to make a community.

Best Shops in Britain: Secondo, Brixton

Customer in Secondo, Brixton

I spent 2009 looking long and hard at empty shops, and where the high street was going wrong. The best bit of all that work was finding the bits where the high street gets it right; the Best Shops in Britain.

While I was sitting in Brixton’s quirky Secondo, I Tweeted that I had found my new favourite cafe in London.

Secondo, though, is much more than that. It’s a vintage clothes shop with a well-stocked bar (a whole cupboard for whisky), a choice of coffee, delicious cake and great company.

There are racks and racks of vintage clothing, with quirky and cute alongside classic cut suits. Shoes, bags, hats … the full works. And lots of it. None of this silly habit some secondhand shops have of just racking out a few nice items. Lots, so you have to get stuck in, rummage and explore.

There are tables and chairs dotted about amongst the racks, so shopping doesn’t have to be hard work. Big comfy battered armchairs too.

I was offered a choice of coffees, without any pretension – just straight coffees with great flavour tips. I had something very chocolately. And was given a free slice of carrot cake as well.

It’s also the kind of place where you can’t help but talk to other customers, although my conversation about a chinchilla fur coat got surreal when a complete stranger (pictured) said it was the kind of coat you’d have to have sex on… like I said, the kind of shop where you talk to other customers.

So what makes Secondo such a success? It’s more than a clothes shop and more than a cafe – it’s more than the two combined. It’s a little bit of lifestyle, a place to spend time rather than shop. It’s on a fairly bleak street (at least when I visited on a cold Wednesday) and it offers a little pocket of warmth and friendship. This is – on a small, independent, off-high street level – destination shopping.

Oh – and the staff are brilliant too.

Empty Shops 2.0

As I’ve had time and space to work on ideas for empty shops this year, and as I’ve been able to support others in their work, I’ve become ever more keenly interested in the ideas, inspiration and ideology behind the work.

The Revolutionary Arts Group started nine years ago, by using an empty bakers in Broadwater as a temporary art gallery. We’ve since brought together artists to use spaces for more conceptual work, as places to inspire site-specific art and installations, and as festival hubs full of exhibits but also hosting workshops, short-term studios and performances. This is a similar flightpath to many other artists and groups who’ve taken over empty shops.

And now I’m watching the birth of a new phase: the thing I’ve always hoped would happen if we gave creative people space and support.

The next wave of empty shops projects won’t just be about artists exhibiting existing work on bare walls: they won’t be about easy in, easy out market space for makers: they won’t be about graphic design to cover empty shops. Although all of these have a place, are (thanks to the work of groups like the Empty Shops network) well established and proven to be better than barren and bare empty boxes littering the high street.

A wave of new projects on the starting blocks across the UK are about interaction and interrogation, community and chat. Over the last week, I’ve talked to people about ideas based on technology and tv remote controls, geography and urban exploration, science and social enterprise.

As funding is becoming available, artists are moving from static ideas to serious reinvention of high street spaces.

The Empty Shops Network has a mission to revive, restore and reinvent the high street. The next year is going to be seriously interesting. You want out of a recession? Welcome to a new high street, a next generation of enterprise, an inspiring movement and the future of town centres. Welcome to Empty Shops 2.0.

The Empty Shops Agenda*

The a, b, c, of Empty Shops

“The fact that the trees are in blossom very briefly is what makes them important to us.” Tim Anselm (The Beekeepers blog, 1st Apil 2009)

This is an agenda for people using empty shops, slack space and setting up meanwhile projects, looking at the when, why and how of empty shops based on years of experience. It’s also an attempt to make it clear that not every project is perfect for an empty shop. These are special places, and the meanwhile shopkeepers are special people.

a. Embrace The Meanwhile

Like the Buddhists say, it’s about living in the moment. Right now, there’s lots of empty space and all the experts agree, by the time I finish writing this sentence there will be even more. 1000 shops a week are closing. When we’re out of the current recession, there won’t be as much.

Enjoy it while you can – move quickly, be agile, and think on your feet, or you’ll miss it. Grasp the nettle, grab the moment, and embrace the meanwhile. What did you do in the recession, daddy?

b. Find The Character

Using empty shops for temporary pop-up projects is about much more than getting an idea onto the high street for cheap. The best projects are celebrating the local, finding the distinctive, engaging with the character of empty spaces, exploring new ideas and exciting the neighbourhood. As such, they are useful for community groups, local authorities and central government wanting to address a variety of different agendas.

These projects and the places have their own character – find it and embrace it, don’t try to make it look like everything else on the street – or like everything else you do, either.

c. Enjoy The End

The success of an empty shop project may be measured in many ways. It can increase footfall for a neighbourhood, supporting local traders. It can raise the profile of a community event. It can bring together a new partnership, whether that’s a group of excited, inspired and engaged individuals or a working relationship between organisations and authorities.

And it’s quite alright for a project not to work. Like Becket said, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Empty shops make great laboratories for new ideas and new businesses. And– in a week, a month, or half a year – it will all be over. Look forward to the end, it means it’s time to start planning a new project.

*well, it was a manifesto – but that’s a bit ranty. A polite agenda, maybe.

Written as part of the Empty Shops Network project