Over the last two decades, the UK town and city centre has become an identikit place, formed from corporate culture that is sucking away any true diversity and choice you have left.
Back in 2002 a report entitled Ghost Town Britain revealed some staggering facts. In the UK between 1997 and 2002 specialist stores like butchers, bakers and fishmongers shut at the rate of 50 per week. The country also lost one third of its bank-branch network – leaving nearly 1000 communities across the UK with no access to a local bank. Twenty non chain pubs were closing every month.
And what was causing and replacing these closures ? Large corporate identical chain stores, with shop fronts of steel and glass, aggressively positioning themselves in our town centres, offering the attractive illusion of more choice, a fantasy shopping experience. And that’s all it is. An illusion. The appearance of another chain store in your town is the death of choice. All you can do now is to buy the same things that everyone else is buying.
And this is why the remainder of our independent retailers, pubs and restaurants are so important. If you value true independence, if you value choice and if you value towns that have a sense of identity and soul, then the status of our remaining independents must be maintained.
This is what Love Albert Road Day is about. In my hometown of Portsmouth a group of independent shopkeepers grouped together and came up with the idea of promoting their street and giving something back to the local community. Albert Road has largely managed to avoid the influx of large corporations, even if a small Tesco supermarket exists in one particular unit, but the retailers struggle against the nearby chain stores, even although many of them offer unique and better value products. So Love Albert Road day was born. With one mile of the road shut off for the day and glorious sunshine beaming down, an estimated 40,000 people came out for a big community street party. Frankly, if Portsmouth’s chain store centre the Cascades had organised a similar event, I can’t imagine that people would have been so willing to support it. There was a real feeling of celebration of the more alternative shopping centre of Portsmouth.
Musicians and DJ’s performed everywhere; on roofs of buildings, in bars, on the street and on two main stages, and whilst enjoying the sun, the shops, the atmosphere and other entertainment I also managed to catch a couple of sets. The B Of The Bang played on the back of a lorry converted into a stage. I wrote here about this bands eclectic sets and great dark songs, but today their magic is behind a cloud. Unfortunately their set is shockingly bad, marred by a huge number of technical difficulties including out of tune guitars, random unwanted rave beats firing from their keyboards and a terrible sound mix that does the band no favours. “If you want professionalism, there’s another stage 200 yards down the road,” announces lead singer Chris Whitear.
A few hours later however I catch them playing another set at The Wedgewood Rooms and it is a totally different tale. This time their music sounds, huge, wide screen, epic and gut wrenchingly good, guitars howling with real aggression, the presence of two drummers power pounding in perfect symmetry adding depth and beefiness with songs like Lung and Alaska being given the sound treatment they deserve. It’s not all rocking stadium sized songs though; opening song Last Day On Earth provides a possible first for the venue, with the band armed with their skittering and folkish banjos and ukuleles on the dance floor, playing without microphones before marching on stage to amp up the sound and finish the song. A risky but great way to start a set.
Before The B of the Bang, another Portsmouth based band also impress massively.
Holdfast display a very different side to the normal dirty sounding rock they play, with female fronted vocals from lead singer Roberta laying somewhere between Siouxsie Sioux and P.J Harvey over a stripped down two acoustic guitar acoustic arrangement. The lack of noise brings focus to the songs which seem to be strangely more adventurous, rewarding and occasionally ethereal than their brasher fully amped up brothers and sisters. Probably the best two bands in Portsmouth right now on the same bill.
Not everything at Love Albert Road day is however quite so serious musically. A set by The Bog Rolling Stones is funny, and the tunes are spot on as far as tribute bands go. Watched by a huge crowd, there are people hanging out of windows and sitting on the tiles to catch a view, including one brave soul who performs a series of backward flips on a roof to great cheers from the crowd below. “This festival is the only one you can go home with an antique,” quips ’Mick’ before adding “and I don’t mean you Keith.” Later he dedicates a song to the curry houses of Albert Road, thanking them for saving the drunk people of Portsmouth. And of course, even although they don’t look anything like the real thing, they do sound very good indeed and wheel out all the hits to a street of smiling faces against a backdrop of people.
Love Albert Road day was a huge success in its delivery and attendance. Let’s just hope that it reaps long term rewards for its traders, for without them Portsmouth will have another layer of its soul stripped away.