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Würzburg, Wolfgang Lenz

Würzburg, Wolfgang Lenz (Photo credit: Schoening-Verlag)

As we’d travelled to Würzburg to visit friends, there had been no mugging up in a guidebook beforehand. It felt like a sleepier Prague: the finest buildings were Baroque confections of womanly curves kissed by gilt. The populace dined outside under the benign eye of the Marienberg Fortress, although it took a few days before we made it up the hill for the visit which, amongst other things, documented the state of the town after the fire-bombing it received on the 16th March, 1945. Like Coventry and Dresden, Würzburg post bombing had an air of nuclear apocalypse about it but, unlike Coventry, it was decided that the town’s pre-war Medieval and Baroque opulence should be recreated. The Grand Designs crowd might scoff at the dishonesty of projects of this sort but Würzburg enjoys a relaxed set of open spaces, whilst Coventry’s concrete brutalism is grittier, urban.

Coventry Rooftops

Coventry Rooftops (Photo credit: Tim Ellis)

In My Father’s Eyes Were Blue, Antony Owen takes a long hard look at his home town and is troubled by the changes he sees. In The Second Destruction of Coventry, the smell of death visits Owen’s city again: ‘At City Arcade’s helm / an imprisoned Gypsy wind / swoops past a displayed massacre / of pork bellies and shop owners’. No-one managing a franchise for an international brand could be said to be a ‘shop owner’ and so the tail-end of a nation of shopkeepers are trapped in their businesses as the fire-storm of globalisation sucks the breath from their lungs where they stand. Owen’s a plain-speaking poet and his elegy to independent Coventry is reminiscent of Tony Harrison’s Durham, or even v.. ‘The truth is cold / as a lap dancer’s thigh. / The commercial harlot / in her blue and yellow robe / looks to her cowering pimps / with their open laptops / and Jerde logo pens / who bow to Starbucks / and close the shutters / of Barrington’s café / and Gemma’s wool shop’.

American Corporate Flag

American Corporate Flag (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nights at the Skydome presents us with a typical British Friday night. ‘Black cab cavalcades arrive: / dark vassals in dark vessels / dress cobblestones in H&M shadows, / alcoholic sonnets sounding / “I ‘ate paki taxi drivers”‘. ‘Cavalcades’ implies a procession, or raid, on horseback. Owen’s either suggesting menace, or cocking an ironic snook at the pub crowd. ‘Vassals’ and ‘cobblestones’ invite the reader who knows the city to imagine Spon Street: on one side of the road sit the tinderbox houses of Merrie England which miraculously survived the Luftwaffe’s otherwise successful razing of the city whilst, on the other, the arse ends of commercial developments, housing clubs like Lava & Ignite, moon at them. Würzburg and Dresden were painstakingly recreated but the architectural glories of Coventry are humbled and rendered absurd by their cheap brick bedfellows, a point which Owen makes in Spon End Subway where ‘In moth-dead flickers / Elizabeth shines / pillowed upon a suede quarry of indignity: / the purifier of conscience, / next to a beaker marked ‘McD’ / and a clown high on lows / with a name no-one knows’.

English: Spon Street, Coventry Historical buil...

Spon Street, Coventry. Historical buildings in the conservation area. One of these is a curry house. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The final poem in the collection, Corner Shop: Quinton Road, covers the same ground as v.. In v., Harrison presents his infirm father trekking past the supermarket to the corner shop for a chat more than anything ‘but time also came and put a stop to that’. Owen’s pensioner waits every Tuesday ‘for the 9:12 to Quinton Road / to hear her name spoken kindly / by David in the corner shop. / Tesco is nearer and cheaper, / full of cantering blurs, / beeps and name-wearing do-gooders / who lower their tone for the palsied, / calling her ‘love’ if she’s lucky’. Again, Owen works with stark contrasts but these cannot be dismissed as simplistic as, sadly, he’s right: some towns fight the odds to protect their character from global brands but, in the process, turn themselves into the sorts of places visited by coach trips. Owen’s right to be angry too. The high street revolution isn’t just about where we buy groceries: it’s about budget pubs the size of warehouses; it’s about how the elderly interface with the world in a time of revolution; it’s about the erosion of local colour and culture. As Owen writes in Sunrise on the Slagheap, ‘Success is a haircut at Toni & Guy’.