Saturday, 22 December 2012

The people known as overspill

The Park Springs London overspill estate, Gainsborough. From the Lincolnshire Echo October 31 1969.

'Everything had changed. Mrs Paxton went to the small town and found another town had been clipped on behind it, with rows of houses and no shops. The people in the sudden new town were known as overspill. Mrs Paxton hardly looked at them, once she had left the butcher and the chemist, and had picked up her bread. If she had to pass by the boundary of these ghostly new streets she looked away, and the children and cats that played there were no more real to her than figures in a cartoon.'

(From Alice Fell by Emma Tennant)

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Falling through the air with minimal resistance

It's been just over a year since I started this blog, and so far I've had nearly 4000 pageviews. I'm not sure if that's a decent score or not. And I have the grand total of 4 followers, including someone called Mrs Daniel who appears to be a bit of a Modette/60s garage popster (and who has fabulous bright red tights). Sadly, she doesn't write anything on her blog about these tights or the Nazz. She should. 

I don't get much, if any, feedback, but no-one else seems to be writing anything to do with the 60s council estate, and I enjoy doing all of this anyway, so I will keep going. And for those of you who do look at my blog, even though I might not know who you are - those of you who might happen to appreciate what I'm doing, and who like council estates, here is a little Xmas present, an aerial photograph (courtesy of Paul Kemp - thanks Kempy!) of the estate nearly in its entirety from 1972: 

If you click on the image, you'll hopefully get a larger version for you to pore over. I often stare at this photo, almost in an attempt to 'jaunt' (you'll know where I get that word from) myself back into this place and time. My house is amongst the staggered rows of houses that face the fields to the right. Here it is in blurred close-up, the house to the right of the path with the lamp post on the corner:

The uncanny thing about this view is that whenever it was taken (sometime in the late summer/early autumn of 1972 I think) someone or something was outside our house, under our living room window. I can't tell exactly what was there but I would lay odds on that little blurry shape being my mother sitting out 'on the front', as we called it, in the sun on a deckchair. This is something she often did, and I bet the front door was open, with the radio playing quite loud (in 1972, midday mornings on Radio 2 would be with Jimmy Young - "what's the recipe today, Jim?"). Believe it or not, this estate, with its layout of 'open-plan' lawns and open, communal, networks of paths and green spaces, was intended in those days to be safe, sociable, respectable even. And it was. When I was a kid, and when it was sunny and warm, nearly all the front doors here would be thrown open to let some warmth and air into the houses. People would sit out in the sun while kids bombed up and down the paths on their bikes. 

I used to sit out there also during the summers of 1979 and 1980, catching rays and reading books, after being made redundant from my first job as a computer operator for a local engineering firm that was owned by British Leyland. No matter - I was 19, and was given what seemed to me then to be a very handsome redundancy package and, better still, the time to read, to make music, paint, take photographs, go and see New Order play their second (or was it third?) ever gig at the Retford Porterhouse. I was friends with a small group of individuals who made up the sum total of Gainsborough’s 'post-punk' community: someone called Graham who played guitar, two hippy/punk brothers who didn’t seem to do much at all, Benny, and PPB - the Tim Buckley of the shires - who had a Teac Portastudio and lots of other useful equipment. Finally, there was my friend Dallas French, composer of the classic songs 'Babby Doll' and 'Fuck You I'm on the QE2 (with Meg Mortimer)' who was never quite going to be ordinary with a (genuine) name like that. We all cadged a rehearsal/recording space in a small, nearly derelict room at the back of an empty shop on Church Street, and constantly formed new and different combinations of the same group, based around whatever type of music we were all into at any given moment (which generally ranged from some dub reggae, Parliament, The Fall and The Associates). 

The creative fruits of this set of musical alter-egos appeared on a compilation cassette that we ‘released’ to a completely unsuspecting public early in 1980, called ‘A Gainsborough Selection Box’. The tape’s cover was festooned with Victorian photos of the town, and quotes about the state of Gainsborough in the age of Thatcher. We included a quote from Marcus Kimball, the then Conservative Member of Parliament for the town, showing 'concern' as Tories do in their typically hubristic, 'realistic', 'hard-choices' bullshit manner: "The town will recover from its present industrial trough but it will take some time". Benny (who had been to university) attempted some daft, NME influenced, Paul Morley-esque sleevenotes: 

‘Senses/senseless – Gainsborough indeterminate indifference feelings coming in letters endogenously/exogenously determined economic recession we drink slop and celebrate the celebate circle that is – Gainsborough.’ 

We did all of this because we could. Occasionally, we had to suspend composing and recording while one of us went off to sign on. 

And when I wasn't making music, I was outside my house on the Middlefield Lane estate in the sun, reading, listening to music, shirking, doing nothing really, just another young man amongst the steadily rising ranks of the new unemployed. I had a very particular sound world for those new days of unemployment - Selbstportrait, The Return of the Durutti Column, Colossal Youth, the second side of Before and After Science - languid, very self-contained, electronic landscapes. And the reading matter? To the Lighthouse, Le Grand Meaulnes, Southern Mail/Night Flight.

And, especially, my favourite back then - an almost forgotten book now by Emma Tennant called Alice Fell, a fantastic, mesmerisingly bizarre story of a girl growing up in the 1960s. 

I'm re-reading Alice Fell at the moment (and it's still staggeringly strange and beautiful, and very recommended) - and one year on from starting this blog and in the depths of yet another cold and dark winter, trying, desperately almost, to physically and temporally situate myself back outside my old house in the sun, in 1980, still on the edge of nowhere, opposite the field at the end of the estate, exactly where the town used to stop. How could I want to dream myself back to those early days of Thatcher, and to an estate that was on the verge of disinvestment and deterioration? Well, because it seems like a dreamworld in comparison to what we have now at the end of 2012. At least there was still something of the social, of the civic, and of polity in those days. And because it was real, and what I did with my time back then was real, and not some bloody 'blog-o-sphere' version of it. But I'll keep doing this blog nonetheless (even though at the moment I'm heartily tired of our pissy, prissy, on-line, twitter-ish and 'e-petition' forms of 'dissent' and 'resistance') because it does show just one instance of a possible and viable alternative to the cold and dark world that this callous, crass and venal Tory autocracy/plutocracy is busily making. Yes, that means you, Gideon - you and your chums can just fuck off, but to the rest of you, have a happy Xmas and a peaceful New Year.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

The distant rim of sentimental green landscapes

In July 1953, Gordon Cullen published one of the very first of his self-illustrated and typically amiable demands for the design of new state housing developments to be characterised by a more urban, 'townscape', type of environment. 

'Prairie Planning in the New Towns' (along with J.M. Richards' preceding companion piece in the same edition, 'Failure of the New Towns') was daring for its time in how it asserted that the New Towns largely suffered from the same faults as the pre-war suburbs which they were meant to improve upon. In particular, their layout was far too spacious due to over-large expanses of greenery, long walks and 'lavishly' wide road widths. Richards felt that we were still building garden suburbs and that we had forgotten how to build towns. In a fabulously lyrical, yet tart, turn of phrase, Richards sympathised with the 'unhappy' New Town housewife 'marooned' on the 'distant rim of their sentimental green landscapes ... cut off from the neighbourliness of closely built-up streets.' What Cullen called 'Prairie Planning' meant boredom:

'The main impression of prairie planning is that of vastness, the feeling that the little two-storey houses are far too puny and temporary to match up to the monumental, overpowering space.' 

In my post before last, I showed how my house, alongside others on our row, looked out upon open countryside. One of the photographs that was used by Cullen to illustrate his critique of prairie planning was this one of the outskirts of Stevenage New Town:

When I first saw this, I had to do a double-take. Here is a view of Dunstall Walk taken from across the other side of the field last seen in my post Bus Stop:

As I said back then, the Middlefield Lane estate was originally built on the very edge of the town looking out onto open countryside (to the left of this view now is another, much larger estate, a by-pass, and an ever-growing industrial estate) but this is still a very similar situation to the one that Cullen and Richards were criticising nearly sixty years ago. Cullen noted that all of this wasn't the fault of the architect; they were the victims of 'committees' who had got 'the bee of dispersal in their bonnets - the idea that it is not quite nice to have a neighbour, that the ideal town is one that will fill - or empty - a prairie.'

On the face of it, Middlefield Lane has all that Cullen and Richards disliked - large expanses of greenery:

And those 'lavish' wide road widths:

While some of the original tenants did feel somewhat 'marooned' out on the edge of town (until the Bus Stop came, and the estate's own precinct of shops a year after the estate was opened) as a kid I was very happy on the distant rim of my sentimental green landscape. Cullen and Richards' articles were prescient in the way they suggested a fundamental shift towards greater densities and a more urban sense of neighbourhood coherence but, in small-town Gainsborough, the open, 'prairie' like spaces of my estate gave me an enormous amount of space and freedom to walk, run, cycle, and to chase around. 

The New Towns somewhat belatedly came to embody that 60s yearning for 'freedom', for instance in the 1967 film Here we go round the Mulberry Bushwhich was uniquely set in Stevenage New Town. This is a still from the film:

The lead character - ‘Jamie’ - played by Barry Evans - is seen here cycling in and around a landscape very similar to Middlefield Lane. At this moment 'Jamie' is sadly prattling on to the camera about ‘birds’ in a groovy, permissive and very non-PC 60s manner. Stevenage had already been described in a 1959 newsreel as ‘the design for living’ for ‘the citizens of tomorrow’, which was particularly made manifest by what the newsreel described as ‘the sense of spaciousness’ in the town. The publicity for Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush celebrated the location for epitomizing ‘the mood of swinging new Britain’ and the ‘fresh possibilities’ in this new, seemingly carefree, and highly modern environment. The 'sentimental' New Towns, provincial estates like mine, and the high density tower block estates all presented different aspects of those same 'fresh possibilities', and a remarkably shared set of experiences. Jamie embodied the zeitgeist of 1967 by bombing around the prairies of Stevenage on his bike, just as I was doing at the same time as a seven-year old on the Middlefield Lane estate – except I wasn’t going on about birds -  well, not yet anyway.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

The Transformation of Urban Britain

Drawing/collage by Gordon Cullen, Architectural Review, July 1953

Gordon Cullen produced a number of illustrations and articles for the Architectural Review throughout the 1950s and 60s (as well as providing some very cool drawings for Homes for Today and Tomorrow, a key report on housing standards produced by the Government’s Central Housing Advisory Committee in 1961). The above drawing was made for J.M. Richards' polemic against low-density developments, 'Failure of the New Towns' (AR 7-1953, pp. 29-32) which was followed by a piece by Cullen entitled 'Prairie Planning in the New Towns' - something that I will write about in more detail with regard to the Middlefield Lane estate in a forthcoming post. In these articles, both Richards and Cullen were already beginning to push for a denser, more robust urbanism in opposition to the garden-city-like New Towns. 

Such debates were long and complex and, sixty years on, there's still a lot of thinking to be done here in relation to new towns and council estates in particular, and the post-war urbanisation of the country in general. The days are getting shorter and colder and I'm already looking forward to next summer when I shall be going to this:

The Transformation of Urban
Britain Since 1945
A conference organised by the Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester, 9-10 July 2013

which promises to shed some much needed light on issues like these, and to hopefully nurture a network of scholars and practitioners on post-war urban Britain. 

For more details, see

Monday, 5 November 2012

Bus Stop

Back in the day when governments actually planned a future, the 1944 Housing Manual envisaged new 'neighbourhoods' of 5-10000 people in 3 forms. The first was characterised as ‘open development’ with a low density of around 30-40 persons per acre; the second was ‘inner-ring housing’ with a density of 70ppa, and the third was called ‘central area development’, that would consist of housing within the centre of a town or city with much higher densities of 100-120ppa (naturally involving high-rise blocks of some kind). 

The Middlefield Lane estate fell into the ‘inner-ring housing’ camp. When it was completed in 1964, the estate was situated on the very edge of Gainsborough, and about a mile and a half from the town centre. The estate looked out onto open countryside  - one reason why the estate seemed like such a paradise to me when I was a kid - and for several years our house looked out onto this:

At that time, the estate clearly wasn't yet 'inner-ring' but within ten years of this photo being taken (1966) it had become just that. By 1976, a by-pass ran across the middle of this field, and a large 'London Overspill' council estate (the Park Springs estate) was being built just beyond the hedgerows you can see to the right of the photo. 

One of the frequent criticisms lobbied at new council estates like Middlefield Lane was that they were too isolated from the centre of town and its amenities. The front page of the Gainsborough Evening News on Tuesday 29 December 1964 held a report on 'The Likes and Dislikes of a New Estate'. According to this piece, the Middlefield Lane residents had 'few complaints'. 'Top of the list' of 'likes' was the 'fresh-air feeling', as one woman put it. High on the list of 'dislikes' ('the biggest bone of contention') was the lack of an adequate bus service into town. The Lincolnshire Road Car Company diverted a service that ran through the nearby Heapham Road and White's Wood Lane estates to the Middlefield estate, but the service was reported as being 'infrequent' and over crowded. The 'News reported however that the company was planning to put on extra buses at peak times, and a new bus stop was created on Thurlby Road, against the end wall of the North Parade flats. 

The stop consisted of a steel, flat-roofed, shelter that stood on a broad paved area which was built up in order to connect to the road where the bus stopped. I remember sheltering under there as a kid with my Mum, waiting for the bus in the rain, but it is another one of those original features of the estate that has disappeared over time, and the photo at the top of this post shows where it used to be. Against the end wall you can see a rough rectangle of lighter bricks and a darker line above where the bus shelter roof was. The patch of grass wasn't there in those days and the old ground level of the former paved area is indicated by the line of lighter bricks along the bottom of the wall just above the grass.  All quite boring, I know, but I become obsessed with finding these almost archaeological traces of the estate - they act like conduits in space and time, carrying me to the place as it was in its hey-day.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

'We'll drift through it all, it's the modern age.'

The account of the Failed Architecture Lenton flats workshop is now online:

Nottingham City Homes naturally seem to have the economic numbers stacked up against retention of the blocks but again there is hardly any mention of the tenants and nothing really about where or how they would be re-housed. Perhaps they thought they'd leave that to JTP architects who are doing something or another with the site (with a plan that only involves a fraction of new council homes being built there compared to the current number within the tower blocks) but it all really isn't good enough from a body that purports to provide 'homes and places where people want to live'. Taking various 'dystopian' cultural artefacts out of their context without any real consideration of what they actually mean in order to justify their decisions ('Control', which is cited almost in terms of 'wasn't the 1970s grim?' and 'these flats must be bad if they're being used to represent Macclesfield' - and Ballard's 'High-Rise' which, rather differently to the situation at Lenton, is actually filled with tenants who are smug, educated, wealthy, bored, and socially dysfunctional) also shows a particularly narrow understanding of our recent past and of the realities of social division and disenfranchisement in Lenton and elsewhere. 

There's so much more to take to task here: 'our dystopian present' anyone? That NCH have to make some 'difficult decisions' and that we should also 'try to look at the problem from a company perspective' tells me all I need to know about our 'dystopian present'. That old chestnut about people not sharing a ‘sense of place’ due to the 'lack of homeownership'? As though council tenants are simply not capable of forging communities because they are somehow hampered by not conforming to the great (and now surely discredited) English middle-class yardstick of aspiring to owning a home. And as for the NCH representative asking the FA Lenton researchers if they would like their gran to live in the Lenton flats ...  

All of this would not necessarily matter if the current tenants at Lenton were being guaranteed some sort of alternative accommodation nearby. Back in the late 1960s, tower blocks like those at Lenton gave ordinary people significantly better housing than what they previously had. Perhaps the current tenants do need better housing than what they have now, but sadly it still doesn't seem as if the new masters of these tower blocks are even going to give them that. 

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

'A paradise, what an idea!'

Spent a stimulating evening with the 'Failed Architecture' people yesterday (see my previous post), who have been busy talking to the current residents of the Willoughby Street flats in Lenton, Nottingham (the original site plan of which is above - I like the 'Sitting Out Area'). 

FA seem to be quickly finding out that the built legacies of the welfare state are thankfully not quite as easy to dismiss as the cityfathers would like - or should I say 'Nottingham City Homes', a 'not-for-profit' (according to their website) organisation tasked with 'managing the city's 29,000 council homes'. Soon, if NCH get their way, they'll be managing 28,520 council homes once they've demolished these flats. In a curious bit of doublespeak, NCH say "Because we want our homes to stand for a long time, we are starting a process of demolishing more than 900 properties over the next five years". This does seem like a particularly odd way of managing people's homes, especially after they do not seem to have any firm plan whatsoever to completely rehouse the residents of the Lenton flats, or to even rebuild new 'social' housing on the site (apart from some sheltered accommodation that might offer alternative homes for the residents of just one of the five blocks). Hmm, could be a nice site for a private developer to build some new student homes - perhaps the development could be called 'Aspire' or something obliquely meaningless like that. NCH are not-for-profit, but it is the City Council that still own these homes and, presumably, the site ...

Worse still, the residents of the Lenton flats will not be immediately rehoused - they will have to 'bid' for a new home, like everyone else in this sad, sorry, undemocratic and unfair society we have today. On Friday 5 October, Failed Architecture will be holding a final debate with local inhabitants (hopefully), students and experts, when the project will also present their findings, and a timeline of the history and experiences of the Lenton flats and their residents - in a year's time, that might be all that remains of this little, local, example of a future that was never quite allowed to come off.

Sunday, 30 September 2012


Tomorrow evening I'm going to talk about my work at Nottingham Trent University, for a group of architects, planners, historians, students and others who are associated with a project called 'Failed Architecture', and who are researching the history and current state of the Willoughby Street flats at Lenton, Nottingham, in a five-day workshop from the 1st until the 5th of October (see

Nottingham’s Labour-controlled city council predictably considers the Lenton flats to be 'obsolete and outdated', but this workshop will hopefully "try to answer questions such as as why these flats have to go, why some people resist the redevelopment plans, and especially, how it came to all this."

The flats, designed by the city's first architect, David Jenkin, and completed around 1967, can be seen above in a photo from the October 1 1969 edition of The Architects' Journal in an image that is infused with the usual carefully landscaped hope for the future (complete with a 'station wagon' in the corner - why don't they make 'station wagons' anymore?). Adrian Jones, in a piece on Nottingham within his always rational and uniformly excellent website, Jones the Planner, rightly refers to the Lenton flats as being greener than any new 'starter home' private development (see 

Adrian is spot on - the Willoughby Street flats were landscaped like a mini Alton East. But this counts for little to a neo-Blairite 'what can we do, these are hard times' council who are determined that this estate is to be demolished and - as far as I can tell - without any prospect of any new replacement 'social housing' being built there - shame and shame again. 

Tuesday, 11 September 2012


Along with the privet hedge, pebbledash has been construed as being somehow parochial, suburban, middle-class. The presence of both on the Middlefield Lane estate can be viewed as an example of how the architects and planners of the post-war years supposedly tried to infuse a little bit of middle-class gentility into the lives of those who were rehoused on estates such as this one. As anyone who has read some of the posts on this blog will know, that's not an argument I have much time for. I suppose that might have been what the planners wanted to do, but for us at the time, the house, the estate, its situation, and its fabric, were all wholly, literally, new to us - any class connotations, imposed, implicit, or otherwise did not signify - in the mid-1960s, it was always just about newness, and modernity.

In any case, for me back then, privets and pebbledash were purely, childishly, tactile and sensual things. When I think of the pebbledash that adorned the front facade of our house, I recall small shards of white, yellow, orange and grey-blue flint, embedded in soft concrete. I need to find out how it was applied - sprayed on somehow I guess - and I don't know if it was easy to put on, but it was certainly easy to pick off, and just as easy for my Mum to know that I was doing it. As I prised a piece off, it would make a little soft click and a thud that she would always hear, no matter where she was or what she was doing, and she would always come out and tell me to go away and do something else.

Pleasant childhood memories conventionally seem to be cast in warm amber sunshine. I always recall the pebbledash glinting in the sun as it shone high above me and onto the south-facing front of the house. Some bright and very warm early September sunshine was beating down onto the estate when I was there last week. Most of the houses there have been refurbished by ACIS, the social housing group responsible for the estate. 

All windows have been double-glazed now, in uPvc frames that keep the same window arrangements and proportions as the original ones. The pebbledash has largely gone, covered by brick cladding as you can see above on this house which is three doors along from my old abode, and the old, original concrete curved canopies that once sheltered  the front doors have been replaced by others like the one seen here or - worse - horrible frilly, pedimented ones wholly out of keeping with the time when these houses were originally conceived. There was never any high-Modernist intent with these houses. With a few notable exceptions that I must write about soon - the majority of the houses on the estate were designed and built by George Wimpey and Co in a fairly straightforward traditional style that the company was particularly known for replicating in vast numbers across the country at this time. I do like to think however that these houses were defined a little by a certain post-war-modern simplicity which has been lost to some extent now, both physically and conceptually.

But not quite so. Wandering around last week, I found that one or two more original examples actually still remain, with their pebbledashed fronts and their concrete canopies (though sadly sheltering some recent and very grim, indefinite days-of-yore-style uPvc doors) such as this one here, on Middlefield Lane itself:

And this one, on Heapham Road:

Echoes then, of how this estate used to look, left untouched now at least by childish, fidgety, destructive hands. On this hot day however, some other parts of the estate seemed in poor shape. A lot of houses (such as the brick-clad one above) were empty. Many of the South Parade flats had been shuttered up since I was last here in July, and looked as if they might be demolished any day now:

'Next door' to my old house - 38 Dunstall Walk - was also boarded up. This was home once I remember, back in the early 70s, to a middle-aged couple who were both staunch Salvation Army members, and to whom I was always sent to dutifully buy a copy of the junior version of the War Cry just as I was beginning to want 'Sounds' and the NME instead:

Now ...

... and then.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Disappearing garages

While wandering around the estate last week, haunting the places that haunt me, I saw that a number of garages round the back of Priory Close had been removed, leaving clean white spaces where they used to be.

You can just see them in this photo from a few years ago:

And on the left-hand side of this detail of the road from a 1972 aerial photo:

The council originally built 142 garages on the estate to cater for an imagined increase in car ownership in those modern times, but they always struggled to be let. The Gainsborough Urban District Council Housing Committee met on the 11 January 1965, where it was noted that a number of garages were still unoccupied. Car ownership never flourished here in my day at least - my family never had a car, everything was local and in reach and so we either walked or, if we were feeling decadent, took the bus into town. 

I don't know why ACIS (the company responsible for managing the town's 'social housing', including this estate) have taken these down. I suppose people wouldn't rent them, but then this road is one of the more deprived parts of the estate and I also doubt that many people here actually own a car. My friends and I used to play a ball game we called 'Spot' against the side wall of that block of two end to end garages you can see near the bottom of the aerial view (with a white van at one end). But now it's gone with the rest of them and another bit of the old fabric of the estate I knew has vanished forever.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

There is a happy land

The view from Dunstall Walk, 1975ish.

There Is A Happy Land

I'm finishing off a paper about my childhood on the Middlefield Lane Estate, that I shall be giving next week within a session on the geographies of enthusiasm, at the Royal Geographical Society annual conference in Edinburgh. This is my mood music for the moment - the lovely and rather sad 'There is a happy land' from Bowie's very first album released in 1967.

Monday, 18 June 2012

The Revised Plan 3

'This then, I thought, as I looked round me, is the representation of history. It requires the falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and we still do not know how it was.' 

(WG Sebald, The Rings of Saturn)

Following on from my last post, I should direct you to some sound correctives to those fleeting doubts that were raised in my mind about the post-war modernisation of our towns and cities by that BBC programme on Deptford High Street. First is a letter in The Guardian here from the son of Nicholas Taylor, the former LCC planning director who 'appeared' on the programme, stitched up it seems as a supposedly unrepentent planning official. Secondly, take a look at the latest post on the Deptford Misc blog, 'Secret History or Fisherman's Tale'.

Finally, there's also Owen Hatherley's Guardian Comment is free piece, 'The secret history of sentimentality about two-up two-downs' which appeared today, and from which I'll gratefully take a couple of lines because, in the context of this blog, they might have almost been written for the Middlefield Lane estate itself:

'The worst thing you can do is always to imagine that things could be made better. We're unable to imagine that once – as was verifiably the case in many places – modernist planning and architecture was welcomed as a spacious, verdant deliverance from slum landlords and their oh-so picturesque period properties.' 

I don't know about you, but I'm still imagining.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Revised Plan 2

This little photo shows the site of Popplewell's Row in Gainsborough, just after the row had been demolished in 1964. By this time, as you, constant reader, will know, we had recently been rehoused from here to the new council house on the Middlefield Lane estate. If you look at the photo of me in my pram in my post of 6 December 2011 here, you will also see the spire of Trinity Church in the background, which means I would have been sat more or less in the middle of that pile of rubble above.

Tonight, I watched the first instalment of the BBC2 series The Secret History of our Streets, that concentrated on Deptford High Street, and the streets that ran off it. In the 1880s, so the BBC website blurb for this series goes, Deptford High Street was 'the Oxford Street of South London'. The blurb goes on to state that 'Today, marooned amid 70s housing blocks, it is one of the poorest shopping streets in London.' It was a compelling programme, not least because at one time it threatened to spill over into an odd, evangelist-driven, psycho-geographic study of the area (it's only a matter of time before BBC historical productions really take up the dérive as the next big stylistic trope for their programmes). It was also based on some deeply personal accounts of a huge extended family that lived together in one of Deptford's streets, which then led to an examination of the bigger story of Patrick Abercrombie, the LCC and Lewisham Council's role in clearing these streets at around the same time as Popplewell's Row was demolished. 

The last twenty minutes or so of this programme however were pretty astonishing because it went on to decisively give the lie to the notion that modernity was essential at this time because these streets were slums and had to be cleared. In the case of one street, the health inspector's report from the early 60s couldn't find any reason to condemn it as a slum ("My Mum had lovely curtains" exclaimed one former resident of the street). It was demolished regardless. 

This blog is intended to extol the virtues of the post-war council estate - for me as a kid it was excitingly new and modern - but this programme tonight led me to wonder what Popplewell's Row was really like. If you look carefully at one old aerial photo of the houses there that someone posted on the excellent Gainsborough Flickr group's set of photos here you'll see the row centre-left of the view, and that it has an architecturally interesting central bay with an arch. What was really wiped away in the name of progress? And where is the health inspector's report for Popplewell's Row?

Monday, 23 April 2012

Einsturzende Alt Sozialwohnung

At the moment, the BBC Radio 2 presenter, Jeremy Vine, is promoting a project that invites people to celebrate their particular part of the United Kingdom. The project is called 'I love where I live'. The trailer for this is interesting in how it invites us to produce a one-minute love letter to our town, place or village, and even - quote -  your 'crumbling council estate' - unquote. As Charlie Brown often said - *Sigh*

A crumbling council estate

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The motorcade sped on

Jackie Onassis Walk

I've been reading the minute books of the Gainsborough Urban District Council from 1962 to 1965, tracing the development of the Middlefield Lane estate, and was amused to find that a Housing Committee meeting in December 1963 considered calling the estate 'The Kennedy Estate' as a tribute to JFK after his assassination. The committee decided however that ‘no action be taken on this suggestion but that the use of the late President’s name be borne in mind when the naming of future recreation grounds or housing estates is under consideration'. It would always be a bit of a stretch - from Dallas to a half completed council estate in rural Lincolnshire - but those were the times, it seems, the energy, the faith ...

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Open Channel D

By the park that used to be on the Middlefield Lane estate - captured below in my post Where did your heart go? - there is this small triangle of land. 

In the 60s this land was fenced off, and on that square of concrete was an electricity sub-station that hummed quietly to itself all day. As a kid, the fence appeared to be magic: no matter how much all the kids around there grew, the fence always remained too high to climb over. Within this compound, there was also a tall steel mast that soared some sixty feet up into the air. 

The mast is gone now, but back then it was adorned with a tangled mess of H-shaped TV aerials, in a time when the 405 lines were still alive. This was the estate’s communal television aerial, another little piece of post-war, modern, municipal benevolence on an estate where only a few tenants had their own aerial fitted to their chimney. This communal aerial transmitted my first eye-popping taste of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I used to stand outside the sub-station, pick up the big padlock on the compound gate and imagine that the back of the padlock could slide away to reveal a secret key-pad. I'd pretend to punch in a five-digit number and stand by as both the gate and sub-station door simultaneously clicked open. I'd walk through the door, and straight into a secret lift that took me underground into the Lincolnshire H.Q. of U.N.C.L.E. At the reception desk I'd pick up my identity badge – No.6 for Napoleon Solo of course – which could invisibly attach itself to my jumper, next to my Milky Bar Kid badge. A childish imagination perhaps, circumscribed by a very adult environment, but those times, and those everyday spaces helped to create my identity - new spaces and new things, from the strange and very modern mast that loomed over the estate, to Solo's pen that opened Channel D. It was the future then, full of promise. Where did it go?

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

A new estate just like the old estate, only NEW!

This is 'John Jenkinson Close' which is on or - rather - within the Middlefield Lane estate. Unlike the rest of the estate which was completed in 1965, John Jenkinson Close was built in early 2009 by the local social housing company that is now responsible for Gainsborough's former council housing. The close consists of 21 sheltered housing bungalows that are part-rented, part-shared ownership. So far so reasonable, but JJ Close raises a number of questions and problems in relation to the estate's history and its continuing survival and preservation. Here's the Close from further behind where I was standing above:

This shows some of the original flats in the foreground with the new development ahead - and what is, to all intents and purposes, a new, half-hearted, gated/fenced community, segregated from the 60s Modernist housing that remains. The rural historian, Jeanette Neeson, once referred to the eighteenth century parliamentary enclosures that enclosed and privatised England's common land as having 'a terrible and instructive visibility'. The same can be said for these fences here, which are clearly meant to 'instructively' demarcate the nice new bungalows from the nasty old council flats beyond.

But what used to be there before John Jenkinson Close was built? Well, this:

This was 'The Precinct', a Modernist block of shops with some nicely recessed, balconied maisonette flats above. For a remote Lincolnshire market town, this building was adventurous and impressive in its time - as a child it always reminded me of Marineville. The flats that are now segregated from the new-build bungalows can be seen here in their original setting to the left of the shops. I have a whole load of stories about these shops that will have to wait until another time, but I do want to briefly consider the original landscape planning around here. This is The Precinct on a 1975 map ... 

... within what is a plain but clearly ambitious example of council estate landscape planning that is akin to a baroque country-house landscape garden in scale and geometry, with the Precinct set centrally within the estate as its focal point, and with green avenues reaching outwards from it: the ‘Parades’ either side and ‘The Green’ ahead. 

Gerry Anderson's beautifully designed 21st Century world was made manifest in The Precinct, but they are aberrations now, a strange, lost, parallel alternative to what we have in the real 21st century. On Wednesday the 18th of October 2000, a meeting of the West Lindsey District Council Planning Services Committee granted consent to demolish The Precinct. The minutes of that meeting noted that the application to demolish was made by the social housing group responsible for John Jenkinson Close, who stated that The Precinct and its flats had "a long history of low demand, serious vandalism and unlettability [sic] and, in view of the declining condition of The Precinct in recent years the applicant considers it important to look to replace such buildings with higher quality and more appropriate accommodation."

These minutes give us an insight into the attitudes of those who had spent the previous 20 to 30 years running down the estate they’d created: "In view of the applicants’ wish to carry out a proactive role in regenerating and redeveloping the area, it is considered that this demolition work is appropriate and acceptable and helps to open up the centre of this residential area, creating a more pleasant and less enclosed environment."

I’m at a loss as to understand how the apparently ‘enclosed environment’ of The Precinct and its environs needed ‘opening up’. By the 21st century however, places like these had come to be perceived as ‘enclosed’ not only because the type of Modernist planning involved here had been discredited, but also because it was now negatively equated with the ‘communal’ and the ‘sociable’. From a corporatised council’s point of view such qualities are now viewed as dangerously progressive and backwardly ‘socialist’ - whereas the ‘opening up’ of the area was clearly understood to create a more ‘appropriate’ spatial environment of individualistic self-determination. 

And so The Precinct was demolished to make way for a development that turned out to actively reinforce the notion of an 'enclosed environment' rather than to open up what used to be, in any case, the open-plan centrepiece of the estate. In the 1960s even an ordinary market town like Gainsborough could have its own exciting and progressive Modernist structure in a carefully designed landscape, but not any longer. There is a particular lack of vision in John Jenkinson Close that has created nothing other than a dull, bland subtopia. 

Monday, 30 January 2012

Over the hedge 2

Occasionally, I do manage to get out and about and beyond the deeply internalised musings that can be found here, thanks to many kind people who ask me to talk about my work. A couple of weeks ago, I went along to the annual show of work presented by the staff from the School of Art and Design at Nottingham Trent University, in the Bonington Gallery. It ends on the 10 February so go and see if you can, if only for Jonathan Gillies' 'In Orbit', a fab, sound based animation which "reimagines place as a stellar abstraction" but which also has some lovely swoony electronic sounds from a 1960s/70s Italian electronic arts collective, the magnificently named Gruppo Nuove Proposte Sonore. As part of this exhibition's events, I participated in a live and informal panel discussion on preoccupations with place and the role it plays in our different practices. Others who took part were Kate Genever and Steve Pool, artists who have recently spent time working in Parsons Cross, a council estate in Sheffield, the photographer Katja Hock who has been documenting decaying ex-Nato bases and housing in Germany, and the aforementioned Andy Lock, who convened it all. A lot was said about the differences between our practices, and our different approaches to a common subject, and all to a small but very select audience of about 10 people - all I remember saying is that the younger members of the audience should go and 'download' 'Sugar Sugar' by The Archies, a lovely, soulful and joyous pop song (handclaps are always the key here) that I will defend to the hilt with anyone who cares to slag it off.

In May, I shall be at the University of Derby, taking part in the 'Affective Landscapes' conference, giving a paper entitled ‘Places in which I forgot things: memory, identity and the English Council Estate in the paintings of George Shaw'. People seem strangely reluctant to get their head around Shaw's work (which is more complex than we think) and this paper offers a few tentative perspectives on what might make Shaw tick.

Later on, in June, more of my dubious pop references crop up in a paper called 'Sharing horizons that are new to us: planning, freedom and growing up on a 1960s English council estate' which will make a contribution to the 'Geographies of Enthusiasm' session at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference in Edinburgh. A taster for this can be found on the admirable 'Conserving the Twentieth Century' website.