Monday, 16 July 2012

Waterloo Station Every Friday Night

I recently watched the 1945 film 'Waterloo Road', which stars John Mills as an AWOL soldier.  He has been tipped off that his wife is carrying-on with the local cad (Stewart Granger) and he sets out to find the pair and sort the situation out.  This film shouldn't be confused with the 1940 Vivian Leigh melodrama 'Waterloo Bridge', also about a "fallen woman".  What is it about Waterloo and women of dubious virtue?  Having spent a couple of years in Southampton, I'm no stranger to Waterloo station and I was never tempted to cast aside my virtue there I must say.  Although I did once lose my shoe on the tube stairs a la Cinderella.  But I digress.

'Waterloo Road' is watchable for several reasons - Alistair Sim in a supporting role as a doctor; scenes filmed in bombed out South London and a hilarious bout of fisticuffs between Mills and Granger.  It also portrays an old fashioned method of wooing - as Granger takes his intended victim (Tilly) to a tea dance.  The pair spend a day together and they meet at a pre arranged spot under the station clock, a small scene that I was reminded of later on when Richard Hawley's 'Cole's Corner' came around on my MP3.  I love this song, which I find so evocative of my youth.  Cole's Corner was a famous meeting point in my home city of Sheffield, everyone of my generation is likely to have parents and grandparents who met there on their dates.  As Hawley says, every town had its Cole's Corner.  THE meeting point.

Cole's Corner was part of history by the time I was old enough to go off downtown on the booze.  Our generation never referred to it, even though we had all heard of it.  My friend, who lived in a different part of the city to me ,was often my drinking partner.   Our meeting place was at the top of the escalators from the Hole in the Road (an underground precinct) which is also now consigned to history.  But this spot was just a few steps down from the Cole's site and was always dotted with people obviously waiting for dates.  Some looking well scrubbed.  Some smelling like a tart's boudoir.  Some looking keen.  Others looking resigned.

There is a crucial difference between the station clock scene in 'Waterloo Road'; mine and Hawley's memories of Sheffield and the present day.  That is a lack of need for a well known meeting place.  This is in part down to the mobile phone.  People can now just give each other running commentaries on their current location and direct their paths so that they cross.  Some mobiles can give you the location of friends without having to even talk to them.  But another reason for the demise of the meeting point is spelled out in Jessica Mann's excellent book 'The Fifties Mystique."  Mann has written this memoir of the 1950s as a warning to modern women not to hark back to this decade with rose tinted spectacles.  On the whole, being a woman in the 1950s was boring, repressive and frustrating.  This is amply illustrated by her words from page 124:

Most hotels and restaurants would not serve young women on their own, the implication being that they were probably prostitutes waiting for clients.  Bars often displayed a sign announcing that 'a lady will not be served unless accompanied by a gentleman' and many pubs did not let women in at all.

As it was also assumed that men would pay for everything (being the ones with the money) so external meeting points were needed.

As a teenager I wouldn't have gone into a pub alone.  1980s Sheffield still had its corners of chauvinism and it was always best to hit the bar as a twosome.  But now I would have no qualms about meeting a friend in a familiar pub and ordering the first round while I waited.  This may be partly the self confidence that comes with age but I do believe that women alone in city centre bars are not given a second thought anymore.  Even if you are subject to unwelcome attention you can resort to the mobile phone for deflection tactics.  Having a real or pretend conversation with someone until your friend arrives is normal. (For any inexperienced youngsters reading who are subject to unwelcome overtures, I suggest "Mother? Did you make me that appointment at the GU clinic? It's weeping again!")

These points signify progress - and I am happy to support the right of any woman to walk into a pub rather than have to stand in the rain waiting for a gentleman to accompany her.  But this loss of meeting points is another erosion of the individuality of our towns and cities.  Which is a bit of a shame.

Above are some links to websites about things mentioned in this post.  Little plug:  I've also got a book of short stories based in old Sheffield:

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