Mark Simpson goes on a road trip connecting four countries: England, Scotland, the UK – & Yorkshire
What’s so ‘Great’ about ‘The Great North Road’? Better known in our more impatient era as the A1?
Well, if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself in the south, it takes you to the north – or ‘The NORTH’ as the signage rightly has it. And unlike the more popular M1, it goes all the way NORTH – instead of petering out like a big Jessie near Leeds. And that’s the proper shining, horny helmeted, be-sporroned NORTH. Not the damp, camp north west of the M6.
For all its butchness, the A1 is also the most glamorous road in Britain, connecting the capitals of four countries – England, Scotland, the UK, and Yorkshire. The A1 is a metalled Union, starting in the English Baroque shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, flowing up the eastern side of England, past the Romano-Viking-White Rose splendour of York, once England’s second city, spooling up and over the much-contested border fortress town of Berwick Upon Tweed, and finishing with a flourish in the Caledonian heart of Edinburgh with the grand panoramic, kilted sweep of Princes Street.
True, along the way, you also have to go through Holloway, under Hatfield and past Stevenage, but glamour always has a price. For size queens out there, the A1 is also the biggest. At 410 miles it’s the longest numbered road in the UK.
Above all, the A1, still mostly dual carriageway, is a road with a view – on the past and the present. Not a virtual ‘M’ road built and engineered to connect industrial centres as fast and as boringly as possible, the A1 is a road that takes time to tell you a story. (Thankfully, plans to downgrade the whole of the A1 to motorway were dropped in 1995).
OK, very often the view it offers is the back end of two lorries labouring up a hill, one overtaking the other at a speed differential of 0.5 MPH. Or during the summer months, those suburban juggernauts of despair – otherwise known as caravans. But nonetheless, and despite all the by-passes and ‘upgrades’ to stretches of it, detouring the A1 from the old ‘coaching’ Great North Road route of Dick Turpin yore, it’s a road that still allows you to see or at least glimpse England and Scotland, instead of hiding it behind cuttings and another Unwelcome Break.
A lush, lowland Eastern England of market towns and fertile arable farms, grain silos and Cathedrals, country houses and garrisons – and, just outside sleepy Grantham… a roadside sex shop. Try finding one of those on the M1. Near Doncaster you zoom around Ferrybridge power station’s colossal steaming cooling towers, looming like concrete castles with dragons lurking within – a legacy of the rich coal seams of Yorkshire that helped fire the Industrial Revolution.
Just before the York turn off you pass a mile west of Towton, site of the bloodiest battle on English soil, where in 1461 the Yorkists triumphed over the Lancastrians leaving 28,000 dead and dying in the snow.
If you look to the West before Scotch Corner, site of the Angle’s decisive defeat of the Goddodin in 600, you might on a clear day glimpse the preposterous beauty of the Yorkshire Dales. As you head up through the land of the Prince Bishops and past Durham, its Romanesque Cathedral and final resting place of the father of English history, the Venerable Bede, is sadly hidden from the current A1 route. But as a consolation prize you might be able to fleetingly scope Lumley Castle, once the residence of the Bishop of Durham and now a luxury hotel where travellers can break their journey in turreted style.
Onwards to Gateshead, where Antony Gormley’s famous Angel of the North, welcomes you, wings outstretched over the A1 like a Norse god, braced forever against the wind sluicing in off the North Sea without the benefit of even a Geordie t-shirt. ‘The Gateshead Flasher’ as locals dub him, is a steely sign commanding you to start paying serious attention, man, pet.
For after you skirt Newcastle’s Western suburbs and fly over the mighty Tyne – with or without fog on it – towards Morpeth, you enter the enchanted Middle Earth of Northumberland, where the A1 frequently narrows and slows to a single lane the better to allow you to enjoy the timeless, undulating landscape, and permit you perhaps to catch a glimpse of mighty Alnwick Castle, seat of the Duke of Northumberland and easily most photogenic star of the Harry Potter movies. A little further on, bold Bamburgh Castle, ancient seat of the Kings of Northumbria. And just beyond, holy, lonely Lindisfarne, where St Cuthbert, patron Saint of the North, got up to whatever it is saintly monks get up to.
Why ever did they film Lord of the Rings in plain and dull New Zealand?
Over the Tweed and just over the border you can enjoy Scotland’s own very abbreviated Amalfi Run as the A1 snakes you along the top of cliffs overlooking a shockingly blue North Sea, and on to the glittering Firth of Forth, with the brooding promise of the Highlands beyond – if it’s not raining horizontally again.
But keep your eyes peeled at all times for the anti-Sassenach speed cameras.
Just south of Dunbar the A1 takes you right through – and over the bones – of the bleak battlefield where in 1650 Cromwell routed the Scottish army loyal to Charles II, who had been proclaimed King of Scotland in defiance of the Commonwealth. Next year of course the Scottish vote on whether to divorce the English and end the 306 year-old Union. If it’s a ‘Byazz!!’, then the A1 will become a truly international road again. Possibly with border posts, passport checks and maybe even the occasional border skirmish and raid just like in the good old days.
Call it what you will, and ‘upgrade’ it as much as you like, The Great North Road is the axis by which Scots and English, invaders and defenders, Romans and Britons, Vikings and Saxons, rebels and loyalists, Catholics and Protestants, Rugby Leaguers and Rugby Unionists, have sought to impose their will and their map-reading on these British Isles.
We worship the body, watch ancient battles at the multiplex, and bow down before the gods of celebrity. Mark Simpson marvels at how much our culture owes to those skirt-wearing olive-munchers, the Greeks
(Independent on Sunday 30 May 2004)
Philhellenes are everywhere, and everywhere they look they see the glory that was Greece. “Today we are again getting close to all those fundamental forms of world interpretation devised by the Greeks…” enthused one of the more famous examples; “we are growing more Greek by the day.” No, not Camille Paglia, but jolly old Friedrich Nietzsche back in the 19th century. According to Nietzsche, even then we were growing more and more Greek: “At first, as is only fair, in concepts and evaluation, as Hellenising ghosts, as it were; but one day in our bodies too.”
That day appears to have arrived – or at least the enthusiastic uptake of this aspiration by the masses has. The Greek legacy in the arts and sciences is almost forgotten in the scramble to achieve a body like Apollo’s; the state itself, like that of Athens, has begun to exhort its members to join gyms and take regular exercise, while the idealised, boyish form has all but usurped the female in public art, in advertising and fashion (often even when the models are actually female).
Leather mini-skirts and flashing smooth brown thighs will be all over the big screen this summer with the release of not one but two blockbusters set in Ancient Greece: Alexander The Great and Troy (in which Brad Pitt plays the parts of both Achilles and Helen). Some might say that we have already seen the Greeks’ ill-advised Trojan adventure remade in last year’s blockbuster, Operation Iraqi Freedom. Of course, in the version of Homer’s epic directed by Donald Rumsfeld, Troy has opened up her gates to the gift-bearing Coalition Greeks immediately – only to lock them shut behind them and promptly burst into flames.
Today democracy (another Greek inheritance) may have conquered almost all, but ironically (yep, there’s another) the standard-bearer for democracy, the USA, is compared increasingly by its critics to anti-democratic Imperial Rome, and its selected rather than elected leader is often dubbed Emperor George Bush II. In other words, both sides of contemporary political debate refer to the ancient world. With the collapse of modernist grand narratives of Socialism and Progress, ancient reference points seem to be the only ones we have.
Hence ancient beliefs are also making a comeback. The decline of Christianity has led to a dramatic increase in the kind of pantheism it (supposedly) supplanted, with more and more people literally worshipping their own gods – even if those gods are often merely celebrities. Sex and horror, to quote Frankie, are the new (old) gods. In the eyes of traditionalists, the Anglican church itself has gone stark raving pagan with the ordination of women. The Christian Blairs have their own Delphic high priestess in the form of “personal guru” Carole Caplin, though maybe she would make rather more sense if she inhaled the smoke of burning bay leaves as the priestesses of Delphi used to.
You might be forgiven for wondering why we need any more philhellenism. But Simon Goldhill’s book, Love, Sex and Tragedy: How the ancient world shapes our lives isn’t just a list of things that he and we love about Ancient Greece (and Rome). Yes, “to speak of culture in the modern West is to speak Greek”, as he writes, but fortunately Goldhill’s book is rather more than a “What the Greeks Did for Us”, or “What the Greeks Can Do For My TV Career”.
Philhellenism may be turning into a gangbang, but it is largely a gangbang in the dark: most philhellenes don’t even know how much contemporary culture owes to those skirt-wearing olive-munchers. Paradoxically, we appear to be experiencing a renaissance of interest in the ancients while entering a new dark age.
Goldhill, Professor of Greek at Cambridge, is of course making the case for the lights of classics in a darkening world that might go to the multiplex to watch ancient battles rendered by modern CGI, but which doesn’t study classics any more. As with everything else, we like the fashions and the fads but not the ideas or the implications. We don’t want to do our homework. Most of all, we don’t want to know ourselves.
Luckily though, Goldhill is a great communicator and the kind of classics master whose lessons you wouldn’t want to skip. Explaining the point of studying the ancients he quotes, as my Latin master used to, Cicero: “If you don’t know where you are from, you will always be a child”, and the famous motto of the Delphic oracle: “Know thyself.” Adding, “Myth and history, sex and the body, religion and marriage, politics and democracy, entertainment and spectacle: these are basic building-blocks of the modern self.”
If this preoccupation with identity sounds slightly Freudian, that’s because it is. There is an excellent chapter here on Freud and the story of Oedipus (a soap-opera star in Ancient Thebes who killed his dad and married his mother), but more than this, Love, Sex and Tragedy is offering a kind of archeological psychoanalysis of the past (Freud himself compared his work to archaeology). Hence Love, Sex and Tragedy is divided into sections which ask the same uneasy questions as Greek myth: such as “Who do you think you are?”, “Where do you think you are going?” and “Where do you think you came from?”
He also cites another Greek play of fragmented identity, Euripides’s The Bacchae, in which Pentheus, young, over-confident ruler of Thebes (Q: Why is it always Thebes? A: Because most of the playwrights were from Athens) is told by the god Dionysus, whom he fails to recognise: “You do not know what your life is, nor what you are doing, nor who you are.” Later Pentheus is ripped to shreds by his Dionysus-worshipping mother who fails to recognise him. We fail to recognise that we are not masters in our own house, that we have a pre-history, at our peril.
Consistent with this, Goldhill is at his best when he reveals the past to be a foreign country that is as unfamiliar as it is familiar. For instance, because of their rude pottery and our prudish Mother Church’s hostility towards paganism, we tend to associate the ancients with sexual license and colossal phalluses a-go-go, but in fact the Greeks had a great suspicion of and respect for desire which we might be advised to consider in our “sex positive” era. The evil suitors of Penelope feel desire when they are being tricked towards their death. Paris, the seducer who brings destruction for Troy, is led by his desire for Helen. In Greek tragedy “every woman who expresses sexual desire, even for her husband, causes the violent destruction of the household. In comedy there are many lusty men, and some even lust after their own wives – but they are, to a man, figures of fun, who are humiliated by their desire, led by their erect penises into scenes of more and more outrageous ridiculousness.”
Even marriage was not meant to be based on desire: “To sleep with one’s wife like a lover is as disgusting as adultery,” harrumphed Seneca, Roman moralist (who would have made a good wife for St Paul, founder of the Christian Church). In the ancient world the hierarchical bond of husband and wife left no place for shared and reciprocal sexual desires. Hence “for a Greek man in the classical city the desire which a free adult citizen feels for a free boy is the dominant model of erotic liaison.”
But, raining on the gay parade, Goldhill also demonstrates how mistaken we are to think that we can use the modern words “gay” or “homosexual” to describe the complex and finally unknowable erotic relations that existed between men and youths in ancient Greece. ‘Greek love’ is in the end Greek, and not a euphemism or standard-bearer for modern obsessions.
Why does the love story of Hadrian and Antinous seem so contemporary? Mark Simpson argues we’re all pagans now.
(Originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday, 09/06/2002)
OF ALL THE MEN who wore the purple of Rome, Hadrian seems the most “modern”, the most sympathetic and the most tasteful.
This second-century Emperor’s characteristics read like a contemporary TV schedule. There’s his aestheticism (a patron of the arts). His muscularity (an Army man, he could march 20 miles a day and “would withstand all elements his head uncovered”). His yen for travel (he spent much of his reign touring the far-flung provinces of the Empire). His insecurity, his melancholia, his obsession with fame, and of course his fascination with architecture, interior design and elaborate gardens with complicated water features (for example at his famous villa at Tivoli). If he were alive today, Hadrian would definitely have his own cable channel: Imperial Lifestyles.
It was, however, his passionate and public love-affair with the athletic, handsome, curly-haired Greek youth Antinous which seems now to be the most modern and enduring legacy of his reign – more enduring than all his grand monuments and buildings, including that wall he built to keep Caledonians out.
As much as we might want to get to grips with this Caesar’s material achievements, it’s the romance which keeps catching our eye. Perhaps it’s a reflection on our time rather than his; and then again, perhaps it’s the way that he wanted it. Whichever, Elizabeth Speller’s new book, ‘Following Hadrian’, a meandering though often interesting journey in the footsteps of the emperor, returns again and again to the hypnotising figure of Antinous.
Hadrian, perhaps the first pop Svengali, discovered the lowly born but divinely beautiful Antinous on one of his great tours of the Empire, making him famous and turning him into the last pagan god by Imperial edict after his mysterious death by drowning in the Nile in AD130. A grief-stricken Hadrian employed all the media power of the mighty Roman Empire to make his boy Number One, erecting statues and temples to him across the ancient world, and even founding a kind of theme park to him called Antinoopolis: a city on the Nile, complete with statues of the expired youth on every street.
Antinous was the Pop Idol of the ancient world, at a time when “idol” meant something you looked up to rather than down on. He was cuter than Gareth or Will – and also rather better at hunting and wrestling (he may have been Hadrian’s boy but he was very much the youthful masculine ideal of the time). Perhaps because he came to represent the very idea of the Beautiful Boy, perhaps because people were less fickle back then, or perhaps because there wasn’t much in the way of reality TV in the ancient world, Antinous was worshipped enthusiastically all over the Empire, especially in the Greek East, for hundreds of years after his death.
Just as today, narcissism and intimations of mortality were at the root of this cult of personality. At that time it was customary for Emperors to adopt their heirs rather than sire them. Hadrian himself was adopted by the Emperor Trajan (with whom he was thought to have been romantically involved). Later, when Hadrian had grown too old and bearded for Trajan, they very nearly fell out over some pretty young men in Trajan’s court. All this is hardly surprising, since the “adopt an heir” Imperial game show itself echoed the Greek model of homosexuality/bisexuality — in which an older man chooses a youth to “reproduce” him and his tastes.
We will never know whether Hadrian would have chosen Antinous to succeed him. Politically. However, by building statues and temples to him and declaring him a god, he “chose” Antinous personally in the most public way and ensured that Hadrian — or his desire — was immortal. Antinous remains, even after all these centuries, the face of desire, at least in the sphere of art history.
Perhaps this is why some whispered at the time that Hadrian had either killed Antinous himself, or persuaded the lad to take his own life, in a form of human sacrifice to grant Hadrian immortality. Poetically, hubristically, Antinous’ death by drowning echoes that of Narcissus – though it may have been Hadrian’s vanity he drowned in.
Whatever the truth of this rumour (Speller dissects the evidence adeptly and concludes that it was unlikely), the beautiful boy who represented Hadrian’s spiritual immortality rather than his worldly legacy would, after his death and deification, never grow old; or even into full, bearded manhood. Interesting that both Christianity and the cult of Antinous should have been founded on images of naked young men effectively sacrificing themselves to their daddy’s desire. Hadrian even named a new star in the heavens after Antinous, believing that it was Antinous’ soul ascended into the heavens.
However, stars can signify nemesis as well as deity. A peaceful and pragmatic ruler who consolidated the Roman Empire by withdrawing from unnecessary conflict, Hadrian is nevertheless remembered forever by the Jews as the destroyer of the Temple and the architect of the Diaspora. His intolerance of Judaism helped foment a bloody rebellion in Judea shortly after Antinous’ death, led by the latest self-styled Messiah, Shimon bar Kokhba – which means in Hebrew, “son of the star”.
It may even be the case that the nova Hadrian named ‘Antinous’ was the same portent that bar Kokhba used to prove his Messianic claims. Reading Speller’s vivid accounts of the ruthlessness of the Imperial troops, the fanaticism of the Judean underdogs and the Emperor’s implacable opposition to any kind of accommodation or compromise with the indigenous population, it’s difficult not to think that history repeats itself, but likes to swap the roles around. The revolt was finally quelled, but not before it cost several legions and much of the reputation of Hadrian in Rome.
Some historians have suggested that Hadrian’s anti-Semitism was a product of his Hellenist tendencies. Part of the spark for the Judean uprising was his ban on circumcision (a mutilating outrage to a Hellenist – the Greeks considered the foreskin sacred). Greek and Jewish culture were in competition at that time in the Eastern Mediterranean, and perhaps this goes some way to explaining why the Judeo-Christian tradition turned out so hostile to homoerotics.
Certainly, Hadrian’s transformation of an ordinary Greek boy into the last pagan god of Rome 100 years after the death of Christ ensured that the Christians would be more than a little bit sour about him. Perhaps it didn’t help that the pagan god looked better with his clothes off than theirs. Early Christian fathers routinely sounded off about the abomination of Hadrian’s ‘catamite’ being compared to The Son of God. (The biggest collection of Antinous statuary today is in the vaults of the Vatican; and arguably the cult of Antinous was assimilated by the Church of Rome, partly in the form of the Saint Sebastian myth.)
As part of his preoccupation with immortality and posterity, Hadrian penned his own memoirs. Sadly, these have been lost. Speller tries the device of introducing each chapter with “memoirs” of the poet Julia Balbilla, friend of Hadrian’s neglected wife Sabina. It’s a nice idea, and apparently endeavours to correct the “male bias” of the Hadrian story, but alas, it doesn’t quite work; Speller isn’t able to bring Balbilla to life, or even distinguish the voice of “Julia” from that of the rest of Speller’s prose.
Ultimately, the most striking thing about Hadrian is not how modern he was, but how much we in the West appear to be revisiting his reign: an extraordinarily sustained period of affluence, persistent uprisings in Judea, the Beautiful Boy worshipped and immortalised in the temples of Hollywood, advertising and pop music – while aesthetics, narcissism, interior design and complicated water features in gardens have become all-encompassing concerns.
The Early Christians saw all this as evidence of the decadence of Rome and how doomed paganism was. Now it just looks like evidence of its longevity.
The Navy that once ruled the waves, the global maritime force on which the sun never set, and gave the world some of the most romantic not to mention fetishistically ingenious uniforms ever devised, seems destined to become ‘nothing more than a coastal defence force’.
It’s also predicted that at least one of the remaining three UK naval ports – Plymouth, Portsmouth, Rosyth – is due to close forever.
Nevertheless, the terminal decline of the Royal Navy has been going on for many years now. As the article below (written for The Observer Magazine just before the invasion of Iraq in 2002, but never published) about an evening spent on Plymouth’s famous Union Street details, the colourful, salty tradition of the English naval town has already been mothballed. And what’s the point of a navy without drunken sailors?
Forgive me if I seem somewhat sentimental about the demise of Winston Churchill’s ‘naval traditions’. But then, doesn’t every nice girl – and naughty boy – love a sailor?
Edwardian matelots sleeping off their run ashore on Plymouth Hoe
Union Street Blues
As Britannia girds her loins to take on Saddam, Mark Simpson spends an evening patrolling the streets of Plymouth trying to savour the salty, rough-and-ready – and sadly, fast fading – flavour of a traditional English naval town.
WHERE, AS QUENTIN Crisp might have asked, can you find a drunken sailor these days?
You might be forgiven for thinking that Plymouth, the famous Naval port in South Devon, from whence Drake sailed to trounce the Armada, the Task Force departed to see off the Argies, and home port for most of what’s left of today’s Royal Navy, might be a good place to start.
But drunken sailors are proving a little elusive this evening, even though I’ve recruited an expert on finding them: Provost Marshall Terry Burns RN. ‘The Navy won’t tolerate drunkenness,’ Mr Burns, the Navy’s Chief of Police tells me flatly, as we drive in his unmarked car up and down Plymouth’s notorious, celebrated Union Street looking for inebriated matelots and bootnecks (sailors and Marines to you).
‘We have much stricter standards than the civilian police,’ he explains, practised eyes scanning the streets for unseaworthiness. ‘If we see a sailor who looks like he’s had one too many, we’ll ‘ave a word with ‘im – or,’ he winks at me, ‘put ‘im somewhere for the night where ‘e can’t get into trouble!’
No one wants to argue with Provost Marshall Burns, a man who could certainly convince several over-merry Marines – with one meaty hand tied behind his burly back – that their evening has reached something of a hiatus. But isn’t getting bladdered, I suggest, very tentatively, one of the few pleasures a matelot, cooped up on board ship for months on end breathing other people’s farts can have on his ‘run ashore’? Isn’t it in fact a sailor’s duty – to tradition, to England, to anyone interested in bedding one of them – to get completely steaming?
“Ah, but you have to remember, Mark,” explains the Provost Marshall patiently, “that discipline is everything in HM Forces – without it you’re just a rabble! You’re always on duty in the Forces, even when you’re off-duty”. A persuasive argument, but not exactly a slogan to solve the current recruitment problem the Armed Forces face.
Of course, the main reason why drunken sailors are difficult to find is that, alas, there just aren’t very many sailors these days. In Plymouth – or ‘Guz’, as matelots like to call it – the biggest Naval port in England, the number of bell-bottoms is only a fraction of what it was ten years ago, before the Cold War ‘peace dividend’ took its toll on the Royal Navy and those fantastically fetishistically-designed uniforms. Of those that are left, many are gone for most of the year as ships stay away from their home port much longer than they used to, being supplied at sea to save on costs – even before the current ‘war against terrorism’ put half the Royal Navy on permanent standby in the Indian Ocean. And while most Marines would like to pretend they aren’t part of the Navy (typical bootneck joke: What do marines and submarines have in common? Answer: They both carry sailors), there are also fewer bootnecks around in Plymouth these days to put the fear of god into matelots.
As a measure of just how ‘Guz’ has changed, today there are more students here than servicemen, and the University has overtaken the Navy as the biggest employer in the town – something that will no doubt bring a cheer to pacifists, educationalists and bicycle thieves everywhere, but hasn’t something also been lost? Isn’t another piece of ‘England’ disappearing forever? After the end of Empire and the Cold War, is Britannia’s last great Naval port losing its salty traditions and becoming just yet another post-everything bland Provincial town full of shiftless students, call centres and multiplex leisure parks? And do you have to have a taste for ‘skate’ (another, more culinary epithet for sailors) to even care?
The Provost Marshall’s driver executes an impeccable and rapid three-point-turn in a car park and bombs back down Union Street known once, when it was full of spit-and-sawdust pubs catering to sailors on the run-ashore, as the ‘Servicemen’s Playground’ (i.e. it was where you went if you wanted to play with servicemen). We zoom past boarded-up pubs and shops, past trendy dance clubs, cacophonous sirens luring student loans onto the rocks, past the tattoo parlour, once doing a roaring trade in ‘England Forever’ designs, now catering for Pammy Anderson barbed wire facsimiles and past the Palace Theatre (now the Dance Academy). So majestic amongst so much rubble and riff-raff – no matter how many times you see it, you can’t help but do a double-take, as if you had just seen Alistair Sim tottering down the street in full drag. With its ornate façade decorated with stirring splendid frescoes depicting the vanquishing of the original ‘Argies’ in the form of the Armada, it looks itself like a once-proud Elizabethan ship-o-the-line now run-aground on some wasteland at the end of Union Street.
‘Is there much trouble between students and matelots’, I ask Mr Burns. ‘Any resentment about the way they’ve taken over their patch?’ ‘No, not really,’ says Mr Burns. ‘Servicemen are very tolerant on the whole – you have to be if you’re living on top of one another.’ ‘Yes,’ I reply, trying not to sound arch, ‘I can imagine.’ Looking at the gelled and cropped young people, male and female, queuing to take the Millennium Disco’s ‘All you can drink and eat for £12’ offer at its word (though probably only borrowing this repast – returning it later, no doubt, with interest, doubled over), I wonder how he tells students apart from sailors.
Ironically, although the Forces are extremely unfashionable these days, and, War on Terror and imminent invasion of Iraq or no, are seen as some kind of absurd anachronism by most young people, short hair and tattoos are very much a la mode – even for boys. Not to mention the fact that young people these days like to get as drunk as… sailors used to. ‘Oh,’ Burns reassures me, ‘when you’ve been in the job as long as I have you can just tell’.
‘By the way’, he adds, ‘I hope you don’t think that we’re killjoys. We stop drunken matelots for their own good. Before they get into serious trouble. You see, Mark, at the end of the day we’re all sailors – and sailors look out for one another, and offer each other a helping hand, y’know?’ ‘I know’, I say. ‘But what do the matelots think of the kindly Provost Marshall’s generous protection and concern?’ Mr Burns laughs. ‘That’s a good question. A very good question indeed. Hmm. We’re not the most popular people in town. But most of them are OK about us. When we let ‘em out of the cell the next morning they usually go: “’ope I wasn’t too much trouble last night lads!”
“We ‘ate the fuckin’ Provost!” Steve, a Marine in his early twenties sporting a dead-giveaway Commando Comic chin and drinking pints of Fosters with his mates is cheerfully shouting in my ear. We’re in the Prince Regent, a busy, beery, warm very loud disco pub popular with servicemen, servicewomen and their admirers at the start of Union Street. ‘Mind, they’re only doing their job, I suppose,’ he adds reluctantly. Steve, originally from Worcester but now posted at a Royal Marine base in Bickleigh, just north of Plymouth, is spending his ‘beer vouchers’ (as bootnecks and matelots like to call their pay-packet) and he seems to be getting rather drunk to me, but the Provost Marshall isn’t with me to judge, so I can’t be sure. It’s packed in here, but everyone’s friendly; a Robbie Williams record comes on and everyone sings along, smiling, holding their beer-bottles in the air: ‘I don’t want to rock, DJ/but you’re making me feel so nice’.
Does Steve like Union Street? “Oh yeah, it’s got a great atmosphere – it’s the heart of Plymouth mate!” What does he think of students? “Not much. Don’t have anything to do with them. If you want to find some, they’ll all be down the Millennium later, pukin’ up.” He’s less tolerant of matelots. “Fuckin’ ‘ate ‘em. They treat us like shit when we’re on board ship.” Ever get into fights with them, like in the good old days? I ask eagerly, thinking of Anthony Newley’s spiffing pub brawls with matelots in the WW II classic film ‘The Cockleshell Heroes’: “Nah, the fuckin’ Provost would be all over us before we even got started”. Another naval tradition bites the dust.
John, 22, originally from London, is a gunner on a frigate. “I joined to see the world, and I’ve seen it now, so I’m leaving. The Navy’s not the future – well, not for me anyway.” What does he think of bootnecks? “Hate ‘em. They’re cement-heads.” Students? “Oh, we just leave them to puke over themselves.” Is he drunk yet? “I’m workin’ on it mate” he grins, necking a bottle of Metz.
Like many Navy recruits these days, Nick, 19, a tall, slightly intense sonar-operator, joined up because he didn’t get enough A-levels to go to University. “But now I’m in I’m very proud to be a matelot,” he declares, looking me straight in the eye. “Yeah, I’d’ve loved to go to Uni and become a doctor but I didn’t, so here I am.” He likes Guz, and says he doesn’t mind the students, but recently got into a row with his sister’s student boyfriend. “He kept saying how we didn’t need a Navy any more. I think he thought I was a loser. I told him that I was defending people like him. Thing is – I know this is a wanky thing to say these days – but I’d die for my country, I really would. Well…,” he pauses. “I’d definitely die for my mates. Yeah I’d die for them no question.” Perhaps it was just the Smirnoff Ice talking, but it’s a sober truth that in civvie street you think it the height of camaraderie if your mates don’t stab you in the back for your job/girlfriend/shoes.
Over the road, in a ghastly split-level Wetherspoons the size of a car-ferry, but with less ambience, some students (the piercings give them away) drinking Alcopops know that time’s on their side. “We avoid the Service pubs,” a girl in green cargo pants explains. “Which is no great loss because they’re usually dives anyway.” What do they think of Union Street? “Oh, it’s shit, isn’t it?” says her friend. “But there’s not really anywhere else to go, apart from the Barbican [the harbour/marina area] which is a bit twee and the Warner Village, which is a bit naff.”
Just like scores of other English towns, Plymouth now has a ‘leisure park’, complete with the usual parking, multiplex, fast-food chains and bars, on the outskirts of town, some way from Union Street. It’s just like every other you’ve visited – which is I suppose the point – and there’s nothing here that speaks of Plymouth, or its rich social and seafaring history. Many businesses on Union Street complain the Warner Village is sucking money away from the Street with loss-leader drink promotions financed out of deep corporate pockets and hastening its decline.
Which is bad news for Plymouth, as the history of Union Street is inseparable from the history of the City itself. Built in 1815, Union Street provided a marshland link between the three towns of Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport – creating the modern City of Plymouth. Initially a middle-class area, the expansion of the docks at Stonehouse brought legions of labourers and then dockers looking for cheap accommodation. Then it began to attract large numbers of jolly Jack Tars on the ‘run-ashore’: parched matelots back from weeks or months at sea would traditionally try to down a pint in every pub on Union Street – most not managing to make it down one side, let alone back up the other.
In the 1970s and 80s disco brought young people from the Plymouth estates, and saw gruesome violence erupt as football gangs picked fights with Servicemen out of boredom and jealousy at their pay-packets (Plymouth was once one of the roughest towns in England: a friend who grew up there then was beaten up daily by schoolmates simply for having long hair – and this was the Seventies). Then, in the early Nineties, Union Street was briefly the centre of the South West’s rave scene, coach loads of young people from Devon and Cornwall turning up to pop pills and dance the weekend away. Today Union Street still has 29 licensed premises, and attracts around 10,000 punters at weekends, but it seems to have lost it’s way; before 10pm when the pubs and clubs get busy, Union Street looks tatty, dilapidated and deserted.
There have been public meetings about what to do with Union Street. Improvement grants totalling £3M have been made available by the local council, English Partnerships and the EU (the tattoo parlour was given £27,000 to restore its 1820s frontage), but no one seems to know quite what to do with the old strumpet or what will become of her. Much of The Street seems to be headed for the breakers yard. The Royal Sovereign, a well-known Union Street pub named after a legendary RN battleship (and also famous locally for being run for many years by a gay man and lesbian man-wife couple) was recently sold for just £6000. ‘If I’d known I’d have put in a bid myself,’ confesses Chris Robinson, local historian and author of a fascinating book about Plymouth’s main thoroughfare called Union Street. “Quite a bargain for a piece of Union Street history,” he says.
Robinson thinks that the Plymouth’s future as well as its past may be inextricably bound to the fate of Union Street. ‘Now the Navy is in decline, Plymouth faces an uncertain future,’ he predicts. ‘The Admiralty stopped other industries coming here – it didn’t want to compete for manpower. Ford was going to build a factory here in the 1920s but was blocked. Apart from the University, the main employer is Telewest, a cable TV and communications company, and call centres.’ Robinson has a slightly fanciful idea that Plymouth could become the new Silicon Valley: ‘property prices are very cheap, the scenery is fantastic and the quality of life is second to none.’
BACK IN 1943, even before the war ended, a very badly bombed Plymouth thought it knew what the future held. The Plan for Plymouth – which razed more properties than the Luftwaffe – turned the centre of the historic town into something of a prototype for East Berlin, with a grandiose, windswept city centre Precinct area, complete with fountains, flagpoles, modernist sculptures, shops and municipal buildings, sweeping from the station all the way up to the seafront. (Now, nearly sixty years on, Plymouth Council is undertaking a radical restructuring of Precinct under the Urban Design Framework, which plans to modernise it – hopefully without losing its neo-Stalinist charm). Most of the residents in the city centre were decanted into new satellite estates where they seem to have been quietly forgotten. As was Union Street. “In this plan Union Street was meant to become a dual-carriageway,’ explains Robinson. “Property was cleared to make way for it, but it never happened – thankfully.”
The almost feudal status of the town meant that Plymouth was, like its sailors, ‘looked after’ and protected from market forces and even the Eighties itself: the Task Force saved Thatcher, so Plymouth was saved from Thatcher. Plymouth has a retro feel to it which also gives is a very human face. “After London, Plymouth is the biggest city South of Birmingham,” says Robinson. “But actually it’s the biggest village in England – and it’s one of the reasons why I like living here. People have time for friendships.”
Perhaps this is why cab drivers banter affectionately on the radio like overgrown schoolboys: “Shurrup big ears” my driver on the way from the station told his Controller. And because they do it in that lilting West Country burr, the absolute antithesis of the hard, cynical sound of Estuary English, the sleazy South East’s lingua franca, you don’t much care whether they get you to your destination on time (they usually do – the roads are blissfully empty by London standards). But this lazy, ambitionless charm is precisely what threatens Plymouth’s future. Young people are moving away in droves. “Plymouth hasn’t produced a single pop group,” sighs Robinson, who has children of his own, one of whom is a regular at nightclubs on Union Street. “Wayne Sleep and Michael Ball are the nearest things we have to pop stars – no wonder the kids are leaving!”
Back on Union Street at the Two Trees, a little further along from the Prince Regent, another disco-pub popular with Forces drinkers, Sarah, a 19-year-old blond lass from Devonport who works as a Navy nurse is sipping a bottle of pink Bacardi Breezer. “I hate Union Street,” she complains affectionately. “I’d leave Plymouth at the drop of a hat,” she adds, not very convincingly. What does she think of military men? “Hate them too. My last boyfriend was in the Navy and I said never again. But,’ she laughs, “here I am, looking for another!” They must have something going for them then. “Yeah,” she snorts. “Pay day.”
The evening wears on and the crowd migrates further down Union Street (being careful to walk straight in case the Provost drives past) to Jesters nightclub, known locally as ‘The Parachute Club’ because as one matelot explained, “you’re guaranteed a jump”. Two pounds in, three pounds a pint, disco on two levels (trance upstairs, pop downstairs) and a fairground punching machine in the front bar. What more could you want on a Friday night? Nick the sonar operator who wanted to be a doctor is here, dancing away with some mates to Geri Halliwell’s ‘It’s Raining Men’ (I know he wanted to die for his mates, but still…). John the bootneck with the chin is also here, I can’t ask whether he’s plastered yet, as he’s energetically snogging Sarah the nurse, over by the cigarette machine.
As chucking-out-and-up time approaches, I rejoin the Provost Marshall’s mobile search for drunken sailors and Marines on the Street, but still without much luck. There are plenty of people who can’t and in fact have no intention of holding their drink – literally spilling out onto the streets; but Mr Burns reassures me they’re only students. Over the police radio we hear about an incident where a man has been attacked by an assailant who “cut his buttocks with a sword.” Alas, despite the promising mention of a martial weapon, this is a civilian crime – not one requiring the presence of the Provost Marshall. Finally, Mr Burns spots a young man with cropped hair, in a white short-sleeves shirt weaving down the street, obviously worse for wear, propped up either side by a couple of similar-looking mates. ‘Here we go!’ Burns announces as we pull up sharply. “We’ve got one!”
Unfortunately, the drunken lad is not a sailor at all but in fact another bloody student. Which should have been obvious by the way his friends deserted him the moment the burly Provost appeared. As a civilian, the lad is beyond the Provost Marshall’s jurisdiction – and protection. Reluctantly, Mr Burns has to abandon him to his fate and the disinterest of the civilian authorities. No night in the brig for him – he isn’t part of the maritime brotherhood and Mr Burns isn’t his Patriarch, and so the lad wobbles off uncertainly into the night.
Like Plymouth, he’s on his own now.
Books by Mark Simpson
The Queen is Dead: A Story of Jarheads, Eggheads, Serial Killers & Bad Sex
Metrosexy - A biography of the metrosexual. By his dad.
Sex Terror: Erotic Misadventures in Pop Culture
End of Gays?
All Saints should be judged guilty until proved innocent.
Male Impersonators - the book that changed the way we look at men.
It's A Queer World - nothing is as 'straight' or 'gay' as it seems.