Monday, June 13, 2011

Recovering the Umbrella

The premises at 18, Queen Victoria Road, Coventry had been condemned and a redevelopment plan put into motion. Unfortunately the redevelopment plan didn't include plans for the relocation of the Umbrella Club in suitable premises. The building was finally demolished either at the end of 1972 or in 1973. Organiser Terry Watson and the committee struggled to persuade the local authority to help relocate the Umbrella and this document is one of the circulars that Terry put out in the campaign for new premises. As he says, it was the first time the Umbrella had been homeless since 1955. 

For a over a year the Umbrella held its meetings in CCVS (Coventry Council of Voluntary Services) (Henry West was both on the Exec and head of CCVS at the time or otherwise held events at the Royal Navel Club off Spon Street. Eventually, by 1974, the Umbrella moved into the Charterhouse but not without pain. The hippy bandscene wasn't to be part of it - to please the council I believe. In 1973 I set up Hobo Magazine and in 1974 Hobo Workshop at the Holyhead Youth Centre to replace what was lost from the Umbrella. The Umbrella supported this move with an offer of the use of their duplicator and Henry West was instrumental in facilitating us via the Holyhead Youth Centre and the mutually beneficial support of his detached youth worker Bob Rhodes. (More of this in the post Hobo Workshop)
Here is Terry's petition for the 'Recovery of the Umbrella Club - 1973'


If you walk along Queen Victoria Road from Queen’s Road towards the city, you will notice on your right hand a long, narrow demolition site, a gap like a missing tooth.

This gap leaves an empty space not only in the city scene but also in many people’s lives, for until recently it was the site of the premises of Coventry’s Umbrella Arts Club.

For the first time since 1955 the umbrella has been left without premises of it’s own.

It was like no other organisation, it provided opportunities for development of latent abilities in creatively minded people.

Many case histories could be cited of individuals who, having joined the Umbrella, attracted by it’s atmosphere or its activities, discovered in themselves hidden talents which they never imagined existed.

This happened at all age: there is a man of seventy who will tell you with great enthusiasm how he took up oil painting as a result of Umbrella contacts; but mostly the Umbrella catered for the 18 – 35 age group, of which the leisure welfare is not officially so well served as in the case of older or younger age-groups.

Take the case of the young man, Michael, who inclinations has been vaguely directed towards what one might call the seedier aspects of Coventry’s night life, who on contact with the Umbrella began to develop an interest in the way the club organised its activities, became an elected voluntary officer and after considerably improving his position in the firm he worked for got married (through a friendship made a t the Umbrella) and eventually moved down to the West Country where he and his wife are running a most successful guest house and riding stables. He will readily admit that it was the Umbrella which gave his life meaning and purpose at a critical stage.

Or consider Dorothy, who was, as they say, a girl at risk at the time when she drifted into the Umbrella club for a late night coffee. She was curiously fascinated by some paintings which happened to be displayed on the walls, was prompted to ask what went on in this place, consequently attended one or two drama group meetings, subsequently helped in a determined and increasingly efficient manner with some necessary typing, courses, and eventually got herself a university place and achieved considerable academic success. She will described how the Umbrella opened her eyes to undreamed of possibilities for the development of her life.

Time and again the Umbrella has acted as a catalyst for unexplored potential.

It was a context which in many subtle and almost undefinable ways stimulated people to think creatively. It made them rethink their life-patterns. It made them sometimes discontented, and then provided satisfaction in its own activities, or prompted them to begin a quest for fulfilment elsewhere.

One basic factor was the permanent availability of the place itself, providing an ambience neutral except in so far as it was permeated by an interest in the arts, not obtrusively so, but pervasively there in the d├ęcor, displays and activities.

This permanent meeting place drew people together in various ways, producing a cross-fertilisation of ideas, always with the possibility of making things actually happen.

It is not the writer’s intention to stress unduly the socially therapeutic value of the work of the Umbrella: it was a spin-off of the method and never deliberate policy. It is far from the truth that members or visitors should be looked upon or regard themselves as ‘cases’.

New arrivals were struck by the openness of conversation and the ease of social contacts. This was often remarked upon. People were accepted and accepted each other as unique individuals whatever their work or life situation elsewhere might be.

If the Umbrella is so desirable, what then is the problem? Just the provision of a place. Since 1955, until recently, the Umbrella has rented property from Coventry Corporation, first at 97, Little Park St. and then 18, Queen Victoria Road. Now it has not been possible to find suitable alternative accommodation, with the inevitable march of redevelopment, and the Umbrella meets occasionally in a hired room, which is not at all what it is about.

It needs a place to meet regularly, suitable to be made into a reasonably attractive social meeting place with a modest coffee bar, and a room for talks, discussions and the playing of music, with facilities for the display of pictures and other art objects, with an area for the carrying out of necessary administration functions. It’s good if it can be open late, so that it is useful if it can be near central transport facilities.

Some people call this kind of place an arts centre, but this terminology can lead to confusion with things of a related but different kind, such as the plush arts faculty of the University of Warwick, desirable but objectively very different in function.

So what can we call it? What better than an ‘Arts Umbrella’

Terry Watson (Organiser of Coventry Arts Umbrella Club) c 1973

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