Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 10

This is a chapter from my book, The Way Forward. Buy the whole novel now from or

The Tricorn Centre first opened its doors in 1966. Sitting on the periphery of Portsmouth's city centre, the building was described as "an orchestration in reinforced concrete that is the equivalent of the '1812 Overture.'" Obviously whoever said that was very drunk at the time, or they weren't much a fan of classical music. It looked like a burned-out Imperial fortress from a Star Wars film. By 1968, most people were starting to miss the car park that had once occupied the space. In that same year, a poll of some 500 designers found it to be the fourth ugliest building in Britain. In 1989, it fell to sixth ugliest building. But in 2001, a poll of BBC Radio 4 listeners would place it in its rightful spot as the ugliest building in the whole of the United Kingdom.

A monument to a very embarrassing time in architecture, the Tricorn Centre was made entirely of concrete. On its best days it was lifeless and wholly uninviting, but when rain fell, heavy wet splotches would turn the complex an even duller gray and the building would exude depression. Its concrete had the ability to soak up the filth of the years: car exhaust, spit, piss, vomit and God knows what else. I suspect that if you had hit the building's dungeon-like multi-storey car park with a blue light, the whole thing would have glowed like a structure in the movie Tron.

It was the quintessential Portsmouth building. So much of Portsmouth was built as if to be used for scenery in the world's most depressing film. If a person were keen to take up shooting heroin, the Tricorn would have provided the perfect setting. One might need to add a little graffiti to the walls and random crumpled-up newspaper carried by the wind to create the proper cinematic mood (and maybe a cackling old lady standing next to a burning oil barrel; nothing says "Wrong Part of Town" like a cackling old lady). With the right lighting, one could create a sense of being lonely and removed and desolate even though it was right in the middle of a densely populated city. Add some creepy techno music and it would have looked like the perfect place to give up on life.

It was actually nothing like that, though. No super-villains lurked within. No strung-out junkies propped themselves against the walls. The Tricorn Centre was just some big empty building. Portsmouth as a whole suffered a similar dichotomy of look and reality. There were plenty of boarded up businesses throughout town, but by and large Portsmouth felt tidy and utilitarian. It was simply a testament to the wonders (or lack thereof) of concrete. Pompey was once named No. 14 on a list of Britain's 50 most crap towns. The negative attitude most people have toward it comes not because the city is necessarily frightening or dangerous but because it's just so unattractive.

Personally, I blame the Germans. I also blame the French and those bastards in Superior, Wisconsin. The French and citizens of Superior likely had nothing to do with Portsmouth's aesthetic, I just dislike them. But the Germans could shoulder the most blame for Pompey -- the Nazis, at least. With Portsmouth serving as the seat of Royal Navy power, the city took a beating in World War II. Nazi bombs even tore apart the 18th-century HMS Victory as it sat in dry dock. Bombs are still being fished out of the harbor. So, my un-researched and unproven theory is that the factors of a post-war economy, a rush to rebuild and a misguided desire to create a "new" look drove the architectural mutiny that defines Pompey. It's not really the sort of place you would encourage someone to visit, unless you didn't like that person.

Something about how unsightly Portsmouth is makes it incredibly endearing, though. As I told Allison, it is an ugly dog of a town -- some sad little creature that's missing an ear, is blind in one eye, and walks with a limp. At first, you look at it and think: "Put that thing to sleep."

But then you warm to it and want to be around it all the time. All that unforgiving concrete starts to feel like home. Pompey's history consists mostly of whores, smugglers and military action, but somehow it has an undeniable charm.

The Tricorn Centre used to be the crown jewel of it all.

All this is neither here nor there, however. I only mention the Tricorn Centre because it is where I saved Andrew Bern's life. Or, as Andrew would have it, it is where he and I had sex.


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