This is a piece I’ve worked on with photographer Mark Salmon and was released by The Quarterly in their ‘Tribes’ issue on the dying phenomena of the British highstreet.
Portrait of a Highstreet
This photographic journey to the humble urban surroundings of Worcester is certainly not another soul-stirring sob story, but a vivid testament to optimism, passion and determination. It sketches a portrait of some admirable, hard-working people, who all share an invisible, adamant collective spirit that seems to have been lost lately.
Once upon a not so distant time, when its thriving high streets still marked the backbone of every town, village or city, Britain earned a reputation for being the undisputed Nation of Shopkeepers. Green grocers, butchers, framers, barbers, pubs, through to bridal shops and tanning salons – all squeezed in one little stretch of the community lifeline. Certainly, we’re all facing unparalleled challenges as the young Bob Dylan once put it memorably as ‘the times they are a-changing’. With the financial crisis infesting each and every corner of our everyday lives, the urban image of our traditional high street is slowly but surely shattering past all recognition: While rents are skyrocketing and the gentrification processes thrust aside everyone and everything that dares to stand in their ways, long-established communal and commercial epicentres are torn apart or simply shifted somewhere else.
And who can’t tell you a story or two about it? What’s mostly left of the vivid diversity on our high streets are countless run-down junk shops, bookie’s, pawnbrokers and shabby chicken-places that spring up like mushrooms alongside the usual suspects of Asda, Tesco or Sainsbury’s. Gone are the days that we could walk down the street, nip into each shop, get the weekly shopping done from someone who knows our names. Now we are quite often served by a nameless, faceless, money-devouring drone that we bark orders at. Sure thing, time and tide wait for no man and customer demands are ever-changing. Why buy at the local butcher around the corner instead of the cheaper pre-packed meat at the chain or order a set of tools online rather than at the DIY store? Let’s face it: For some it’s time-saving convenience while others don’t really waste much thought on the good of others as long as they get their stuff as cheap and as effortless as possible. End of story.
Not quite. Even though they might easily disappear in the grey mass of a changing environment, here and there blazes a sense of pride, awakening and resistance beneath some of the high street’s crumbling façades. Instead of bowing down to the ill-minded presets of our economic system, a bunch of family-run businesses, who shaped the image of their neighbourhood for decades, can’t help but oppose the dictatorship of money. In stark contrast to the shiny appearance of the sheer overwhelming competition, these local stores reveal a certain roughness, unadorned honesty and relentless straight-forwardness, which speak volumes. Despite wearing their hearts on their sleeves, it’s the people’s welcoming hospitality and true grit that lights up these seemingly unloved premises from the inside.
Never mind that they are passionately grafting up to 12 hours a day, 6 to 7 days a week, involving their children and even grandchildren, there’s simply no room for depression, but a hopeful adherence to the well-tried values of a time way before the recession: A chat, a smile, a free advise, a heartfelt warmth that enriches the community and illustrates the true value of a local business built on blood, sweat and tears. It’s not merely their own suppressed fear of survival in adversity, but the menacing surrender of a once strong neighbourhood that fuels them to tirelessly dedicate their lives to a higher calling – the well-being of their local community. They are the remaining pillars of a sadly neglected microcosm. The unspoken collective of kindred spirits, with a shared identity, anger and fear.