Sunday, 17 July 2016

50 Years

The Middlefield Lane estate was finally completed on 27 November 1965, when the community centre on North Parade was officially opened. Sadly, and perhaps fatally for the estate in future years, the centre was never really intended for the whole community. It was to be primarily used instead by what the Gainsborough Evening News, on Tuesday 30 November, referred to as 'the old folk', who lived in the adjacent ground floor flats. This early 70s photograph shows the community centre as it was back then, situated at the end of the block of flats:

In its typically genteel but equally blunt style of provincial reporting, the Evening News went on to state that the centre had an ‘L-Shaped sitting room', which was ‘tastefully furnished with easy chairs in grey and green leather cloth', that could nevertheless be ‘easily sponged’.

So what happened on the estate after then, 50 years ago? Throughout 1966, the Evening News gives Middlefield just four mentions, the first being on 4 January when it was reported that a library book service was to be introduced to the ‘new’ community centre, where a selection of books would be available to borrow on Wednesday afternoons in the communal lounge.

A week later, it was reported that the last of the six shops on the Precinct had been let as a ‘sales shop of ladies and children’s wear’. As someone who hung around the Precinct almost on a daily basis, I don’t especially remember that shop at all, but then at five years old I might not have been taking much notice – although I seem to think it might have been in the unit that later became the ‘Washeteria’:

The biggest news of the year as far as the estate was concerned came in May, when a bedroom fire was reported on Priory Close: ‘The first ever fire in one of the houses on Gainsborough’s new uphill estate’ stated the Evening News, as if it cheerfully expected many more to come. And finally, on 7 June, ‘concern’ had been expressed to the Gainsborough Urban District Council Housing Committee about the dangers of planting new trees on the estate too close to the houses (a year previously, in May 1965, the Finance Committee had approved a spend of £510 to Crowders of Horncastle to supply, plant and stake 340 trees on the estate). The architects of the estate, Fisher, Hollingsworth and Partners, were consulted and they responded with their usual single-minded determination to maintain the aesthetic purity of the environment they’d designed, stating that any removal of trees would ‘upset the balance and layout of the estate’. As a consequence, ‘no action was taken’, and the trees remain as an important facet of the estate today:

And that was it for 1966, and for the Middlefield Lane estate 50 years ago. On 8 November however, the Evening News reported that a ceremony celebrating the completion of the nearby Pasture Road development of 500 new council houses had taken place. The postwar, local authority housing boom was pressing on, at a scale both unprecedented in Gainsborough back then, and completely unimaginable anywhere today. Pointedly, the Evening News article set out to ‘meet the housewives of Newtown’, with their centrally heated homes, each complete with a ‘sun porch’. This, it seemed, was the new 'Newtown'. In the ‘White Heat’ of the 1960s, and within just two years of it being completed, Middlefield's moment of modernity had already been eclipsed; it was already of the past.    

(Archive photos courtesy of Paul Kemp)

Sunday, 15 May 2016

'Except when it began, I felt so happy, I didn't feel like me.'

So, following on from my previous post, Spontaneous Estate Excavations, we did our dig, and it turned out really well. Lots of wonderful people, young and old, turned up to do some hard digging (the Middlefield Lane estate was built on very dense clay). And we unearthed lots - and lots - of great archaeological finds: quite a bit of 17th to 19th century pottery alongside many bits of old clay pipes smoked by labourers who worked the land before the estate was built. The star find was a sizeable piece of Black Death-era pottery of a lovely olive green colour, and with a kind of 'handle' that was made by the potter squeezing the clay out between finger and thumb. Seven hundred years on, our twenty-first century fingers and thumbs fitted perfectly into the indentations made by our fourteenth century antecedent. At any given time, we had something like fifty estate residents, children, Cubs, Beavers, mums and dads, volunteers, all working away on eight pits. It was fabulous to be involved in doing something for my home estate, and for the people of Gainsborough in general.

Personally, one measure of how much I must have enjoyed myself lay in the fact that over the whole two days - in this age of constant, smart-phone captures of the most fleeting and trivial of our personal gestures and actions that only seem to confirm the doubt of our existence - I took just one photograph, of the activity around one pit on North Parade:

I was excited about digging around here because it is near to where the Precinct shops used to be. As it happens, we didn't find a cap-gun but there were a couple of marbles and a 1980s ring pull, which was just as good to my mind, because it is the material culture of us, of our recent everyday lives. From another pit nearby on The Walk, someone found an old plastic Smarties lid with the letter 'u' on it. The same pit unearthed a pretty much intact brick, with the inscription 'LBC' (London Brick Company) 'Phorpres' on it. Of course, the daft old internet has a website devoted to an A-Z of English bricks and brick-makers which brilliantly confirmed that the 'Phorpres' was most used at the peak of the postwar rebuilding period in the 1960s. So this was the type of brick that built the Middlefield estate (or not, in the case of this one, which was obviously dumped and turfed over as the estate was completed). For me, this was the find of the weekend because it is an example of what Freud called a 'screen memory'. A screen memory is a 'compromise' - a thing, or an image from the past which stands in for the actual experience of the past. As Freud put it in one of his papers from 1899, screen memories are 'not made of gold themselves but have lain beside something that is made of gold.' The same could almost be said about that brick - and, indeed, the whole project. The brick wasn't gold, but it might as well have been, because it confirmed the beginning of the history of the estate. It also brought back memories of playing on the estate before it was finally completed. Those bricks were everywhere when I was four or five years old. We used to play on the heaps of sand that were left at the bottom of our road, and we'd forage for stray lumps of putty which we used as ersatz plasticine. This was how we filled our childhood days.

In her book The Future of Nostalgia (2002), Svetlana Boym notes a type of nostalgia that she calls 'Reflective nostalgia', which is personal, and not tied up with 'Restorative nostalgia' which unfortunately tends to get tied up with reactionary tales of past glories. Reflective nostalgia is borne out of reverie and is therefore more intangible and poignant. I always love spending time on the estate, helping to make activities like the dig happen but, to be honest, all I end up seeing at the end of them is irrevocable loss, which is why I took that one photograph above. As I wandered over to the team working there, I was suddenly reminded of this photograph of the same spot taken back in 1967, and of the North Parade of my childhood, which today has almost completely disappeared: 

The other great thing about the dig however was seeing children getting involved, filling their childhood days with being an archaeologist, as they helped to work down through layers of soil and time. The need to keep going in the hope that something shiny or old would turn up in that next layer (or 'context' in archaeological-speak) was compelling, but sometimes it just seemed that sitting on the grass scraping up the soil from around something that was hard and very much stuck in the ground was all that mattered. It seemed to me that the children on the dig were lost in reverie, and happy in themselves. Memories were being made as they worked. Maybe the memory of the dig, and of their time on the estate, will become a future source of reflective nostalgia for them. I've written before about how I dream of the estate being 'reborn’, as Walter Benjamin put it, ‘into a present capable of receiving it.' There's a fighting chance that this might happen through the children who live there, via a project like this. It's their turn now.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Spontaneous Estate Excavations

Has anyone done an archaeological dig of a postwar council estate before? 

I don't think so but tomorrow and Saturday, I'll be on the Middlefield Lane estate with Carenza Lewis doing just that. We'll be aided by residents, Cubs and Beavers, and a team of archaeologists in doing several small test pits in people's gardens, and on the open, communal green areas on this Radburn-influenced estate. 

I have no idea what we will find but it'll be fun doing it. We've caught wind of a late nineteenth century amateur archaeologist-cleric claiming that there was evidence of an Anglo-Saxon burial on what is now the edge of the estate - so we're going to carry out some excavations around there for a start. You never know! 

Channelling the Anglo-Saxon spirit at Middlefield

We will also be doing a test pit near where the Precinct shops used to be, so I'm hoping to find bits of an old plastic cap-gun I lost there in the late 1960s. On the 27 and 28 May, we'll be on my old home turf, Dunstall Walk, so goodness knows what we'll find there, particularly as I had a reputation for digging fox-holes for my Action Men in other people's gardens - maybe the odd miniature Luger or two. If nothing else then, what we might recover is compelling archaeological evidence for the gun fetishes of a generation of postwar boys.

All of this is what Richard Gould and Michael Schiffer, in 1981, called 'the archaeology of us' - put simply, an investigation of the material culture of the postwar world. More recently, in 2009, Rodney Harrison embarked on an 'archaeology of the welfare state'. Harrison was interested in the effects of postwar reconstruction on the physical landscape of Britain, arguing quite rightly that there has been relatively little work done on the ‘material worlds’ of the welfare state. He too focussed on council housing, noting that the development of council estates in the postwar period was part of a 'brave utopian socialist experiment' that reached 'its zenith in the mid 1970s', by which time the state had supplied almost a third of the nation’s housing. 

Harrison didn't carry out excavations as such - instead he concentrated on the material changes made by residents to their council houses in the post-deregulation, right to buy period of the 1990s. Our more archaeologically-centred project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, under their 2016 Connected Communities: Community Futures and Utopias theme, and so our primary aim is to engage the Middlefield community in physically exploring the nature of where they live, which was designed and planned on a quasi-utopian 'garden city plus motorcar' model. Personally, I have considerable qualms about the ways in which the word 'utopian' is constantly applied to council estates, mostly because it tends to be used as a stick with which to beat these places as products of doomed-to-fail, pie-in-the-sky ideas and dreams. On the contrary, I believe that local authorities, their architects and planners were merely trying to build good, modern homes for everyone, which were intended to provide for the more prosaic, everyday needs of sociability, contentment, and well-being. 

From the Gainsborough Evening News, 4 February 1964

I think estates like Middlefield still manage to do that today - and that is why we will be there over the next couple of days - to help sustain that sense of sociability and well-being amongst the residents there. At the very least, I hope that we will have a good time because the rest, as Arthur Seaton put it in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, is surely just propaganda.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016


In 1969, when I was 9 years old, I went with my Mum and Dad on a day out to Doncaster racecourse for the St Leger Stakes. My Dad got me to choose a horse (I can't remember its name) and he put a couple of bob on it for me. Miraculously I ended up winning 19 shillings (just under a pound back then) and when I got home, I hotfooted it to the toyshop and bought one of these:

This is a Dinky Captain Scarlet 'Maximum Security Vehicle', complete with its case of 'Radioactive Isotopes', and it cost me 13s 9d. Quite a lot of money in those days but that didn't stop me taking it out to play as soon as I could. Back then, my friends and I used every bit of the Middlefield Lane estate's infrastructure for playing on, and this naturally included the roadside kerbs. These came to act as a seemingly limitless micro-network of roads and motorways where we played any number of imaginary games with our Matchbox, Corgi and Dinky cars.

Day in, day out, we would play 'cars' at ground level, wearing out the knees in our trousers as we knelt on the tarmac gravel, or splitting the soles of our shoes as we squatted on the balls of our feet, while we pushed our cars along the kerbs. We'd get some chalk and create road markings, drawing parking bays, houses and shops on the pavements (these are surfaced over now but back then they all had real paving stones which gave us even more scope for designing our own little urban world). On a cornerstone like the one below for instance, we'd replicate the rules of the road by drawing some Give Way dotted lines and triangles.

But the only real limits here came from our imagination. One of the most important 'rules' of our own devising was that when we got tired down there on our knees pushing our cars along, we could decide to 'fly'. We'd announce 'I'm flying', and we'd pick our car up and walk over to where we wanted to go. As soon as I could, I took my new Captain Scarlet car out. At one point I decided to fly. Full of reckless excitement about my new purchase, I extemporised a bit and opened the gull wing doors for them to act as 'real' wings. As I pitched my flying car around the bend, the case of isotopes fell out, and through the grating of a drain. We all gathered together to peer down into the dark, oily, liquid depths of the estate's drainage system to see if we could fish it out, but we could see nothing: the case had sunk, lost forever. After that, I sloped off home. From then on I kept my treasured Maximum Security Vehicle on my windowsill for display purposes only. I felt so sorry for myself, I never even stopped to consider that I might have contaminated Gainsborough's water supply for centuries to come.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

The same, a week later ...

Plan for a book:

Middlefield: The History and Meaning of a 1960s Council Estate

1. Conceptions of the postwar council estate
Social change and the development of the council estate after WW2
Intellectual views
Professional views
The family home

2. Scale and development 
The financing of the postwar council estate
Postwar council estates and the city
Regional variations – council estates in town and country

3. Planners, developers and architects
Local Authorities and planners
The Architect
Town plans and densities
The council estate builder

4. The Anatomy of the Middlefield Lane estate
Dwelling types
Architectural styles
The Shops
Traffic and the car
Outdoor Space and the community

5. The People of Middlefield
Socio-demographics of original tenants
Use of the estate and its environs
Demographic change and decay

6. Cultural contexts
Cultural visions of the postwar council estate in the contemporary past
Space, Place and Everyday Life at Middlefield
Memory, nostalgia and the past in the present
Myth and representation
Characterising Middlefield’s landscape

7. Conclusion: Preserving Middlefield

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

The Next Day

In his 1935 poem, 'Snow', Louis MacNeice wrote that 'World is suddener than we fancy it'. Over the last few days, between Friday 8 and Monday 11 January to be precise, several things happened in the world that were very much suddener than I fancied. On the Friday, it was David Bowie's 69th birthday, which coincided with the release of his latest album, Blackstar. Two days later, Bowie was dead. When I heard this (from my daughter early Monday morning as she was taking her last gasp of social media before going off to school) a vast number of memories immediately came to my stricken mind, all borne out of a love for Bowie that I've had since I was 12, when a friend gave me his copy of The Jean Genie because he'd bought it and then decided that he didn't like it. It was Christmas 1972, and I can still see myself in my 60-watt dimmed bedroom, curtains drawn on a winter night, air-guitaring to that Manish-Boy riff on repeat. Another memory then came to me of being in the back of a car with friends, driving home along country roads from a night of drinking in a village pub. It would have been the summer of 1977, and the in-car music was ChangesOneBowie. I remember looking out the window and thinking how the opening chords of Changes seemed to ring out in time with the telegraph poles as they sailed past us one by one while we drove along at some daft speed. Then, another memory, of the cold winter of 1980-81, when I'd bought myself an Olympus Trip camera and some black and white film, going out onto the Middlefield Lane estate to take some moody, twilight photos of the houses and flats, fuelled by the dark, Modernist sonic landscapes of Metamatic, Closer and, of course, the wellspring of them all, the second side of Low. 

'Find your own Bowie, you will have it somewhere', said Suzanne Moore in her heartfelt summary of her Bowie, and of how he managed to show us all the endless possibilities of being young. I'm not young anymore, and I lost those photographs years ago, but last Friday I still toyed with buying Blackstar, intrigued by watching what then just seemed like a strange and unsettling video for 'Lazarus'. But I didn't commit. And now I've lost Bowie too. I watch him walk backwards into that wardrobe in the knowledge that he's never going to come out again. 

Another thing happened on the Sunday of that weekend, on the day that David Bowie died, when David Cameron appeared on the BBC's Andrew Marr show to trumpet about his 'vow' to 'blitz' poverty by demolishing the 'UK's worst sink estates' (I'm sadly quoting a Guardian by-line there), 'promising' that 'brutal high-rise towers' and 'bleak' housing would be torn down in an effort to tackle drug abuse and gang culture. This came at the end of the week when a new housing bill was starting to be discussed in the Commons, the main thrust of which is that the Government wants to withdraw secured tenancies for those living in our ever-dwindling supply of council houses. Council house residents and estate communities in general will no longer be afforded even a whisper of a sense of security or stability in their lives. This is a deliberate and as nasty a piece of neoliberal class war as you are likely to get in these depressing first days of January 2016. And, as Aditya Chakrabortty pointed out last week, these moves have been lifted directly from the rightwing think-tank, Policy Exchange, and from its former housing specialist, Alex Morton, who has churned out a number of mean pamphlets such as 'Ending Expensive Social Tenancies', all defined by what Chakrabortty nicely described as 'flush-cheeked libertarianism, casual dismissal of the rights of those not on stellar incomes, and subheadings such as “Most people actually support forcing people to move from expensive properties”'. Two days later, Historic England (English Heritage as was, and the body still responsible for the listing of important buildings) announced that Morton's chum from his Policy Exchange days, Nicholas Boys-Smith, had been appointed as one of Historic England's new commissioners. 

This was succinctly described by one twitter commentator last week as 'an absolute shower of shit'. For Morton and Boys-Smith also have form together as the instigators of the highly disingenuous, hedge-funded, anti-modernist, anti-Welfare State housing 'campaign' group, Create Streets. Here we have, in one fell mid-week swoop, the component parts of a new, we-do-what-the-fuck-we-want-and-we-don't-care Tory hegemony, all falling neatly into place before our very eyes: a sustained and vicious attack on anything vaguely 'socialist' or which smacks of the welfare state, where renting a council house is for losers, just as travelling on a bus used to be. And that's it. The ongoing debate of the Housing Bill in the Commons today had at one stage just 20 Tories in attendance and not that many more Labour representatives either. That's it. The end of council housing. Earlier last week, another Guardian journalist, John Harris, wrote an article called just that. And today, the Next Day, the day after we found out that David Bowie had died, Harris wrote a piece about another end, the end of an era when art and music could 'truly subvert'. His first 'moment of wonder' was of seeing a cross-dressing Bowie singing Boys Keep Swinging on TOTP. Mine was of listening to Jean Genie back in 1972 in a council house which was a happy home for twenty years of my life, and for the last forty of my parents. Like me, Harris couldn't 'even begin to articulate' what Bowie's music and image conveyed to him, other than 'a sense of thrilling possibility' that 'There is more than this'. But now there isn't. The idea that there could be more, back then, listening to Bowie, now seems 'strangely quaint'. David Bowie is dead, and the council house is dying. They were never quite unrelated: how many council house kids lay back on their beds in the 1970s and 80s to dream of becoming Bowie ('I could fall asleep at night as a rock and roll star'). But now it's dead. It's all dead. It's all history now, and it seems as if there is no hope, no hope whatsoever.