Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Notes on Portishead (the town)

Back in the early days of Apple Mac, one of the first things a graphic designer learnt was never to use a font named after a city, of which there were many back then. So Monaco, San Francisco, Venice, New York, Geneva and Chicago were all out of bounds, due to the fact that they were extremely ugly (the only modern exception is a fictional city: Gotham, the Obama 'Hope' typeface).

The same rule goes with bands named after places: Alabama, America, Asia, Boston, Bush (after Shepherd's Bush), Chicago, Europe, Linkin Park and the Manhattan Transfer are all dreadful. But two bands are a notable exception to the rule: Saint Etienne, named after the French city, and Portishead, named after the coastal town situated north-west of Bristol.

I've been wanting to go to Portishead ever since first listening to Portishead and learning it was actually a place. Like their music, I always imagined it to be depressing, haunting, industrial and dark. If I had to visualise it, Portishead would look like the landscape of Eraserhead.

Actually finally visiting the place (and playing Portishead albums on the way there) was one of my 1001 Things To Do Before I Die, along with seeing the Star Wars locations in Tunisia (tick), going to Legoland (tick, twice), listening to Sheryl Crow's All I Wanna Do whilst driving along Santa Monica Boulevard (tick) and playing the soundtrack to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly whilst driving through Almeria, Spain (tick), where many spaghetti westerns were filmed.

Though the band themselves call the town 'dreary', I was rather surprised and disappointed to find Portishead, well, rather average, and even, dare I say it, nice. It was once, by the look of things, pretty industrial, having a working dock, two power stations and a chemical works up until the 1980s. The power stations were demolished and the docks redeveloped with a new marina, complete with virtually a whole new town attached, dwarfing the old town.

The nicest part is by the 'beach' (actually mud flats, being on an estuary), where there's a boating lake, park and one of the UK's last remaining outdoor swimming pools. The weather was amazing; we had a swim and an ice cream. Everywhere looks lovely in the sunshine.
The pool, which is run solely by volunteers, and re-opened especially for the scorching weather last weekend (can you imagine a council doing such a thing?), is on Battery Point, site of a gun battery and fort used during the English Civil War. Also of interest is an unusual black, rusty lighthouse. It was possibly the only thing in the whole town that made me think of Portishead (the band), so it's perhaps no coincidence an image of it appears etched into the 12" vinyl release of their 2008 song Machine Gun.

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