Friday, 16 December 2011

Art Decades

I've been haunted by the opening shots of the second episode of Shane Meadows' truly brilliant and heart breaking This is England '88, that show Sheffield's Gleadless estate in an early morning winter fog like a place that could deny time itself: it was like 1988, 1962, and 2011 all at once.

It also took me back to the winter of 1980/81 when I used to wander around my estate moodily taking early morning B&W shots (all lost now) of the Middlefield Lane estate, after getting back to Gainsborough off the 3.25am 'milk train' from a night out at Sheffield's Limit Club, and with much of Metamatic in my head. 

Even in dank, shortest-day, winter weather, the (dare I say it) pastoral beauty of this hillside estate as filmed by Meadows is undeniable. Lionel Esher called it 'one of the prettiest suburbs in England', while Owen Hatherley neatly sums the estate up as 'Taut’s Berlin via Neutra’s Los Angeles, refracted through the English Picturesque.’ Have a look at that episode of This is England '88 - - and get a glimpse of what was, and what could still be, if anyone cared enough. Happy Xmas.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

If there is something

So George Shaw, the man who paints council estates, didn’t win the Turner Prize. There’s any number of pretty obvious reasons for this – he’s a painter for a start, and a representational one at that. Or is it because he paints a council estate (Tile Hill in Coventry) and no one can understand why? One article on Shaw and his work begins quite typically:

the grey, pebble dashed frontages of 1950s council houses are not improved by rain … In Coventry, as elsewhere, the mistakes of the post-war planners of public housing have long been derided - from the materials they used (too much concrete) to the scale they built on (too monolithic) and the places where they chose to build (too far from the middle of town).

Chris Arnot, ‘Art of the matter’, The Guardian, Wednesday 13 August 2003.

The same old same old: ‘mistakes’. Too rainy, too ‘concrete’, too monolithic, too remote. The pebbledash on our house was actually full of colour and texture (so much so, my Mum used to go spare when we hung around picking the stones off). Shaw's work touches on things that are too complex and profound for the comfort of the chattering classes. Take just one of his statements about his work and his early life on the Tile Hill estate:

I started to make these paintings out of a kind of mourning for the person I used to be: an enthusiastic, passionate teenager who read art books and novels and poems and biographies and watched films and TV and listened to music and dreamed. They are paintings of places that were familiar to me in my childhood and adolescence, places in which I found myself alone and thoughtful. They are places in which I forgot things. For the one single moment that I can recall, I feel a dull sadness for the thousands I have forgotten.

How many of us, who were born in the 60s and who lived on a council estate but are now in the position to be reading vaguely pretentious blogs like this, recognise this scenario? Substitute the word ‘painting’, and put in ‘blog’. For me, Shaw’s sentiments and the evocations of his adolescent council estate world go way beyond mere nostalgia. Like many others of my generation, I would lie on my bed listening to the first Roxy Music album, dreaming of the usual things: glamour, escape, tape recorders, girls, oscillators. 

But when I listen to Bryan Ferry singing ‘threw your precious gifts into the air, watched them fall down’ now, I am also sharply reminded of Frederick Jameson’s claim that our relentlessly commodified and mediated society has created a ‘fear’ that we ‘have not really lived, not yet lived or fulfilled [our] lives, in a world organized to deprive [us] of that satisfaction.’

Apart from more recent works such as the superbly titled ‘Landscape with Dog Shit Bin’ (2010), the most mysterious and interesting facet of Shaw's paintings is that they tend to edit out all the clutter of the contemporary urban landscape – the abundance of cars, satellite dishes, wheelie-bins, or the hotch-potch of doors, uPvc windows and fencing that the post ‘Right to Buy’ privatisation of these council estates has allowed. This could be popularly explained as a merely nostalgic attempt to return to a simpler time, uncluttered and unmediated by the trappings of contemporary culture, but I think it is also part of a process that Freud called 'memory work' - of trying to strip away the layers of time in order to recover a time and place when one could be ‘enthusiastic’, ‘passionate’, and ‘thoughtful’. Is this one way to resist that fear that we have ‘not really lived, not yet lived or fulfilled [our] lives’? Maybe, but it is also about that other thing that life today prevents us from fully considering - the future: 
what happened in the past only matters inasmuch as it enables us to anticipate what lies in store for us … our memory is apparently designed so that it is focussed towards future changes 
Douwe Draaisma, Why life speeds up as you get older: How memory shapes our past, Cambridge University Press 2005
Maybe this is why Shaw paints the post war council estate. It's certainly why I write this blog: it's about the past, but it is also focussed towards those future changes - in what remains of a public sphere, we need to revisit and revive the council estate experiment more than ever.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The 'Revised Plan'

This is little me, peeking cutely out from my Silver Cross pram. I reckon that this photo would have been taken in the Spring of 1962. I’m in the yard of what was our house at that time, within a back-to-back terrace that had the amazingly Dickensian name of Popplewell’s Row. At this time, Gainsborough was a small market town, with a population of around 17,000. The working life of the town was dominated by Marshall, Sons and Co, manufacturers of tractors, traction engines, boilers, founded in 1848. In 1962, Marshalls employed anything up to a quarter of the town’s population (my Dad included) and the firm still housed many of its employees in these Victorian terraces.

But things were changing, and I fancifully and idealistically imagine a group of the town’s planners poring over the ‘Revised Plan’ for Gainsborough: demi-gods of modernity huddling around a 3D balsa-wood model of the town centre.

In order to bring this old town into the twentieth century even the old council offices they were standing in were set for demolition, and I see the planners waving a slightly regretful, but undoubtedly necessary hand over these ancient terraces, as they condemn them to destruction. This was a good thing, and I won’t let anyone tell me otherwise – Popplewell’s Row, along with many other ‘Rows’ in the town like it, were working-class slum dwellings, and needed to go. Two years after I was photographed in my pram, Popplewell's Row was demolished and we opted to be re-housed in a brand new council house on ‘Dunstall Walk’, on the very edge of the Middlefield Lane estate.

In her book, Council Housing and Culture: The History of a Social Experiment (Routledge 2001), Alison Ravetz states that slum clearances and the re-housing of families in new estates represented ‘state intervention’ that was ‘being invoked in working-class interests’ (p. 5). So far, so good. But Ravetz then goes on to suggest that ‘The whole operation was a culture transfer amounting to a cultural colonization: a vision forged by one section of society for application to another … It asked nothing more of tenants than to live in houses and to participate in estate life in ways approved by middle-class reformers.’

It is true that there was a kind of cultural, and indeed, social ‘transfer’ going on in the case of the rehousing of Popplewell’s Row’s residents, who are listed in the 1962 Caldicott’s Directory for Gainsborough and District. We lived at No. 7 and my Dad, ‘Waites, John A’ is listed there. Amongst others along the row were:

9.             Brown, Leslie
17.           Bacon, John W
21.           Reid, James
23.           Brooks, Gordon
29.           Hollingsworth, C
33.           Biddles, Frank
37.           Brooks, Leslie

When we look at the 1965 directory listing for the then one-year old Dunstall Walk, we see none other than ‘Bacon, John W’ at No. 18. Next to him, at No. 20, is his old neighbour, ‘Reid, James’. At No. 22, is ‘Hollingsworth, C. Next door to him at 24 is Gordon Brooks. Two doors down, at No. 28, we find Frank Biddles, next to Les Brown at No. 30. We were further along, at No. 36.

Those who obviously chose to move up to the new estate were placed in these new houses in almost exactly the same order as they were at Popplewell’s Row. I don't think there was anything patronising in this: it was just a simple, rational move to try and keep old neighbours together and to preserve the old neighbourhood community. Ravetz however seems to suggest that this sort of thing added up to ‘institutionalization’ and precluded ‘spontaneous estate evolution’ (whatever that is – did my Dad want to be ‘spontaneous’ after coming home from working a 2 ‘til 10 shift at his lathe at Marshalls? Was my Mum was always secretly thinking about creating an estate ‘happening’ while doing the ironing? Was my 9 year old self being spontaneous when I got into big trouble for helping my mate to mess up his Dad's front lawn by digging foxholes for our Action Men?). 

Perhaps as a working-class kid making a mess of the neighbour's garden, I was 'spontaneously evolving' into a working-class estate kid. What is clear is that we weren’t forced to live there. There are many names listed in the directory entry for Popplewell’s Row that do not appear on the listings for any of the houses on this new estate. Maybe they were the true working-class heroes, somehow perhaps refusing to ‘live in houses and to participate in estate life in ways approved by middle-class reformers’, and we were the poor dupes succumbing to middle-class ways. It’s the endless, enormous condescension of posterity all over again.  Speaking of EP Thompson, I'm reminded of how he very rightly berated an academic for calling early nineteenth century Lancashire cottage weavers ‘proto-industrialists’. The weavers were ‘proto-nothing’, Thompson said, they were ‘for themselves and not for us’. They were ‘not bugged’ by modern notions of status and equality. Neither were we in 1965: all I know is that, as far as my family was concerned, we just wanted to live in a nice, modern, house. Given the state of our previous home, this was a simple necessity and requirement, and the Middlefield Lane estate provided it.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Where did your heart go 2: once there were roundabouts

Strange, almost archaeological traces of another disappeared park between North Parade and The Walk.

‘A mark of a wider dereliction in the relation between history and the present.’ (Patrick Wright and Jeremy Davies, ‘Just Start Digging: Memory and the framing of heritage’, Memory Studies,  July 2010: 3, pp. 196-203). 

Where did your heart go?

This photo of the playpark on the Middlefield Lane estate was taken in April 2008. It had been there in one form or another since the estate was completed. I went back to this spot in May 2011.

For some reason the park equipment had been removed. I spent many happy years playing on that park a very different world ago. Do children not live round here anymore, I wonder? Are they not allowed to have somewhere to play on this already deprived estate?