Concrete Hell, or one of life’s small pleasures?
When I was 17, a few months after passing my driving test, I took the family Fiat 124 up to London on my own. This was the first time I had driven in a city and I was both wary and excited. Various bits of that trip remain vivid. Although the M4 was opened by then, I came in on the A4 Great West Road so that I could pass the various factories at Brentford, including the Art Deco Firestone Factory. I remembered these from the back seat during earlier trips with my parents, and they seemed an essential part of the romance of visiting London. After Hammersmith I joined Cromwell Road and found myself in the centre lane of quite fast moving traffic rising up a flyover on a left hand curve. This seemed a great challenge, but I held my nerve and learned Rule One of City driving – as long as there’s space ahead, just keep going, don’t lift.
After Knightsbridge I peeled off to the left, avoiding Piccadilly Underpass to enter Hyde Park Corner. This I already knew would be another challenge, a huge roundabout with no traffic lights back then and populated with cars driven by rabid Londoners who could doubtless smell that I was a country boy. I needed to keep my nerve and I entered it smoothly enough, only to hear the nah-nah of an emergency vehicle siren as a black S-Type Jaguar, complete with roof spotlights and revolving blue beacon flashed in from behind down my left side, slid smoothly across in front, lurched right down towards Victoria, the revs of the XK six-cylinder rising and the driver deftly catching the rear as it twitched out then disappeared from view. By now the adrenaline was pumping. I was really in London. In a Car. On my own. Could it get any better for a teenage fantasist? Yes. It could because I knew that my destination was a multi-storey car park.
Now, don’t think I was that much of a hick. By then we had a multi-storey car park back in my home town. I think it had three levels. Maybe just two. But more than one, so it was certainly multi-storey in the strictest definition. But why did the concept have such allure for me? Movies and TV, of course. My first memory of a chase and gunfight in a multi-storey was, I think, in an episode of The Man From Uncle. I remember it because it seemed a novel idea with a car squealing round the ramps. It doesn’t seem so novel now. In the last 50 years or so, the multi-storey car park has surely seen more fictional car chases, secret assignations and violent muggings, kidnappings and deaths than any other single generic location.
A couple of years later I visited London again, as a precursor to my actually going to live there. This time my destination was another multi-storey car park, but this time an underground one, the recently opened car park under Bloomsbury Square that is judged by many to be London’s finest car park. It is certainly the deepest and it boasts an elegant double-helix of ingress and egress ramps. This was another special movie car park moment since, as I entered the down ramp, my mind was playing back the soundtrack of the title sequence of the 60s TV Series ‘The Prisoner’, the percussion of the music overlaid with the wail of a Lotus Seven using far more throttle than it needed when entering a car park. In fact, Bloomsbury was not even built when the Patrick McGoohan TV series was made, they actually used two car parks; the interior is the Cumberland Gate Car Park off Park Lane, but the entrance ramp is the Abingdon Street Car Park in Westminster. Nonetheless, Bloomsbury gives that same frisson of excitement as you enter the Underworld, and is better that either architecturally.
In movies, there’s a subtle difference in emphasis between the use of the underground and overground multi-storey. The underground car park is, both actually and in narrative, the darker place. If anything really unpleasant or demonic is going to happen, it usually happens below ground. But I can’t make any easy heaven and hell parallels here. Things only get slightly better above ground level. I’ve not watched many romcoms, but generally nice things just don’t happen in cinematic multi-stories. More regrettably, the not-so-nice things that happen in multi-storeys these days are usually pretty formulaic – they are lazy locations. It wasn’t always so. Probably the Brutalist Gateshead car park in Get Carter seemed a smart location at the time, and the eponymous hero of the mid sixties TV series Adam Adamant Lives! did his living in an Edwardian bachelor’s apartment concealed at the top of a London car park. But usually, even when you get to the top, out onto the roof and into the sun, the chances are you’ll meet an assassin with a scoped and silenced rifle, or someone who just wants to throw you and the car off the top.
So, whenever I visit a multi-storey, there is a film playing consciously or subconsciously somewhere in my mind. I’ve been in quite a few dark, spooky deserted multi-storeys, walking up piss-soaked staircases after midnight under flickering fluorescents …. Clang! What was that noise. Shit, my phone hasn’t got a signal….But the reality is, of course, more subtle than fiction and I still enjoy it when those barriers lift and I enter a previously unexplored volume of ramped concrete. I assume there are people who would prefer to avoid what they see as the inconvenience of multi-storeys. They’d use valet parking, or maybe search one out where the cars as whisked off on a sort of stacker. But not me certainly. Multi-storey driving is a whole sub-technique of its own, and I enjoy it. When driving on the road, few of us realise the thought and technology that goes into road surfaces. The basic crude concrete of multi-storeys guarantees wheel squeal at even walking speeds. This increases the sense of occasion, which should always be experienced with your windows down so you can savour the sound of your exhaust bouncing back at you.
Assuming you negotiate the ramps correctly, there is the inevitable smugness looking at the scuffs and scrapes left by those who didn’t. That highlights the fact that some older multi-stories are problematic, since they weren’t designed for today’s cars which are longer, wider, higher and have poorer visibility. Finally there is the need to reverse smoothly into an almost too tight space, in some places ludicrously so – last year I had to roll over my bonnet in a clumsy slow-motion Starsky & Hatch way in order to extricate myself from between the car and a wall. Then there is the walk from the car park. If you’re in many private Central London car parks, you’ll find a bevy of exotica, some the predictable hyper cars, but quite recently I came across a clutch of dusty limousines, including a Rolls-Royce Phantom V Landaulette. And I find that there’s a pleasure to be had from viewing most cars under the lighting of many car parks.
Writing this makes me realise that I have never actually entered Abingdon Street underground car park in the manner of The Prisoner’s Number Six. True, my Nissan Cube’s engine won’t quite echo back off the walls in quite the same way as a tuned Ford with a straight-through exhaust, and it would cost around £14 for even a fleeting visit but …..