You don’t see so many awnings these days. The thought only occurs to me as, with the thunder clouds dark and glowering overhead, I seek shelter from an imminent rain storm. In fact, my local High Street is an awning-free expanse of perpendicular brick and glass, with scarcely a convenient doorway to offer any modest sanctuary.
Many years ago, when I was a Saturday-lad, working in a High Street shop, an important part of my job was lowering the awning––it seemed important at the time; I can now recognise it for what it was: a low-skilled, menial task allocated to the least-able member of staff. The awning was striped and colourful and advertised the shop’s logo and business, and the process of lowering the awning involved skilfully negotiating the deluge of water––if it had rained the previous night––or beer bottles––if the local winos had passed by––which fell from it as it was being unfurled. On one occasion, a cucumber fell from its folds––go figure! What dark plots and secret histories have taken place under the protective shelter of a shop awning?
The shop awning’s heyday was during the Victorian era; the ever-inventive Victorians devising the elaborate mechanisms required for their smooth operation. The awning acted as an early advertising hoarding, helping one shop to stand out from its neighbour.
For me, the territory under an awning has often represented a peaceful haven: a free place to shelter from the worst of the British weather; a safe space, where it is possible to stand with impunity, without feeling obliged to make a purchase; the shop-keeper’s small act of charity in an increasingly commercialised world. It is a place from which to look hopefully outwards; not to gaze reflectively inwards.
In a High Street without awnings, this safe space is lost. The weather forces you inside, into the commercial zone, into the artificial microclimate of the economic hubbub. You feel pressurised to buy something, although it had never been your intention. What small item can you buy by way of a token? An umbrella, perhaps?
© Simon Turner-Tree
Simon Turner-Tree has a primordial instinct to take shelter wherever he encounters it.