Thursday, October 29, 2009

Suburban Sketch Two

Family history corner. My Dad is from Perivale, a suburban area of West London built around the Western Avenue, one of the arterial roads that burst out of London in the '30s, and the setting for much of J.G Ballard's Crash, as this is what the Westway transforms into before getting to Northolt Aerodrome. Despite having lived in London for over 10 years, I had never been to Perivale, and after long talking about visiting 'the ancestral home', we finally got round to it last weekend. The tube train emerges from the depths at Park Royal, and ploughs through acres of factories and shiny new (or not-so-new - the post industrial is old hat by now after all) business parks, and eventually comes here, next to the untamed parkland of Horsenden Hill, to a Charles Holden-esque station designed by Brian Lewis, opened in 1947. Here you can see Holden's style going austere, with none of the Piccadilly Line's Cathedral-like spaces, but the welcoming curve and expanse of glass still have more than a shadow of that style.

But it becomes obvious very quickly that public transport is not what this place is all about. This is Starvin Marvin's, a (possibly reconstructed, like the one in Canning Town, possibly newly built) 1950s American diner. It's the once-terrifying future as a benign, nostalgic joke, and next to it is a building which shows how English car culture was rather less exciting than the American - a shopping parade built by my great-grandfather. Shabby, mostly derelict shops, brown aggregate, sort-of-vaguely neo-Georgian. He put his family up in the flats above, although my grandmother was the only one who didn't get to own her bit, perhaps because she'd married a manual worker with Commie tendencies.

Dad says that there were a huge amount of deaths on this road when he lived here in the 1960s, people just walking into it, without realising that cars would zoom at them doing 80mph. The motorway bridge takes a strange route - rather than a simple a-to-b it curves around from the shopping parade to the road with the tube station on, feeling out of kilter with the road's relentless straightness.

Family Hatherley lived here on the ground floor, with a Turkish family living upstairs. A sign on the house says '1913'. I assume this place was another result of my great-grandfather's spec building activities, although it's a shame he didn't invest in a half-decent architect. A path from here leads you to a weather-boarded medieval church, and an achingly pretty, verdant pathway which leads to a tennis court and a boarded-up toilet. Apparently, the last time Dad was here, the green below was a park.

Fantasies of Falling Down-style anti-golf revenge come later. There is a Western Avenue in Los Angeles.

In the churchyard this gravestone proves Egon Schiele was influenced by the typography of late 19th century Perivale.

The most famous thing about Perivale is the Hoover Factory, designed by Wallis Gilbert between 1932 and 1938. Due to its 'jazz ornament', it was described by Pevsner as a 'monstrosity'. Monstrosities are usually very interesting. This is the canteen block, designed in 1938 when Wallis had added proper Corbusian Modernism to his Americanist neo-Egyptian cake mix, hence the expansive, sheer glass, grafted into the symmetries. I was hoping it would still be where the cafe is, but no such luck.

Every little detail here was designed and thought about, in a crazed capitalistic evil twin to the more Fabian total design projects of the London Underground (although Wallis designed the more sober Victoria Coach Station for Frank Pick soon after). It's all equally extravagant, from the gateposts to the tiles to the screens to the signs to the fences to the security gates. It tells you that the manufacture of vacuum cleaners is a rather dynastic business, something which involves opulence, slave armies and the mummification of the dead emperors, but without all the sand and putrefaction that tended to go along with ancient Egypt.

The later-to-be Nancy Hatherley worked on the production lines of the Hoover Factory during World War Two, when it was turned over to electrical components for airplanes and tanks. Her sister, my late great-aunt and fervent Conservative Party supporter Ruth Silwood (the annual argument at Christmas was always the highlight as far as I was concerned), was a factory supervisor, and after the war she bought a garage in Southall, then a hotel on the isle of Wight. By hook and crook she managed to get the entire family to move with her to the south coast, where my grandparents, one of whom died around a decade before I was born, lived in a Fareham bungalow. Nancy eventually went to the Isle of Wight too, to a first-floor flat that is still the first place that comes to my mind when I'm in any cafe, restaurant or boutique designed between 1950 and 1980.

The Hoover Factory is now Tesco (of course it is), and as you can see, the new additions are very much in keeping. I go inside, to use the loo and to see if the cafe is also in neo-deco style, but it's a Costa Coffee the same as every other Costa Coffee, with the snow-white concrete and the lurid reds and greens replaced by self-effacing earth tones.

All photos by Frances Hatherley

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