by Ian McPherson (Rambling Ringo) for Issue 13 of The
By all accounts, our town centres are in big trouble.
'Clone towns' is a term currently used to criticize the bland uniformity of high streets throughout the
British Isles. Towns weathering the economic storm often stand out by having 'character' - streets of historical or architectural interest, a good number of independent shops, and a lively sociable atmosphere - a buzz.
The latter is provided by the townsfolk themselves, many of whom also appreciate having well known 'characters' about the town. Lisburn people fondly remember local figures such as Jack McMaster, who delivered the milk on his horse and cart (and about whom I have written a song), or 'wee Davy Jones' - not one of The Monkees, but our own 'Tom Thumb' who drove around town in a modified sidecar.
Buskers too, can become 'characters', thus also lending character to a town. In 'A Sense of Wonder', Van Morrison recalls "the man who played the saw outside the City Hall." I remember seeing such a character there in the 1980s (it was probably the same chap).
Passersby occasionally ask me about one of my popular predecessors, who busked with a rainbow-painted face, his dog by his side. Regrettably, I do not know what became of this colourful troubadour, nor am I tempted to integrate animals into my own act. I like animals, but busking with them might be inviting trouble.
I am privileged to have been adopted by Lisburn folk as one of today's 'characters', another of whom is my friend Jonny, zipping about in his futuristic wheelchair, dressed as Batman, Judge Dredd, or even Guy Fawkes!
One 'character' presently missing from Lisburn is actually inanimate: the statue of Brigadier-General John Nicholson, an historical figure mentioned by Kipling (in 'Kim') and commemorated by W.F. Marshall ('Goordaspore'). A fondness for familiar things (rather than an endorsement of the British Raj) explains public concern about the temporary removal of Nicholson from
Market Square while the town centre undergoes a face-lift.
Downtown regeneration, in the hope of attracting shoppers away from the internet and out-of-town retail parks, is happening across the UK, creating concerns that the high street of the near future will be based on the arguably dubious business model of the shopping mall, resulting, in some cases, in private management of once public spaces, raising fears for freedom of speech and expression - issues pertinent to busking, preaching, demonstrating, carol-singing, etc.
Will our town centres continue to evolve through the free social and economic interaction of ordinary people and traders, or will micro-management of public spaces attempt to impose 'character-by-design'? Will free-spirited souls with painted faces, or playing saws, who brought us all a 'sense of wonder', be banished by committees? If so, should we be perturbed?
Perhaps that would be an over-reaction. However, I think we must all evaluate what it is we cherish about our towns and high streets and carefully consider the character we want them to reflect.