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?