Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The First of May

Like everywhere across the country at the moment, Spring is still struggling to happen on the Middlefield Lane estate, even on the first day of May. Both the leaves and the blossom here seem to be battling it out with one another in order to catch up with the late stage of the season. But who wouldn't want to live here, as it was this morning, within this very (whether you like it or not) English council estate scene? It would suit me but then, as you are fully aware constant reader, I am biased. The romantic eye is always selective but I am fully cognisant of the fact that the estate does have problems, and not all of it is as well-tended as here, along The Walk.

This below is a photo of our back garden. I'm not sure when it was taken - late 1960s I think - but it is full of all the things my mother loved, such as rose bushes, bits of crazy paving. A gnome or two, and a gnome-sized windmill appeared later.

It's all very English, and suburban really, and all concerned with the keeping up of appearances, of neatness and beauty (although the privet hedge needs a clip by the looks of it). Here is more or less the same view taken this very morning, on the first of May 2013 from over the gate:

The old house was in a bit of a state, with (naturally) no vestige of the garden as it was, just some rubbish, a pool of water in front of the back door, and this disgusting fencing which really does blight much of the estate as a whole. These days, such fencing seems to be necessary, particularly across some of the more unruly parts of the estate, in order to prevent intruders etc etc, but it does coarsen the place, and makes it seem bleak and arid. 

I've posted about the remnants of privet hedges before now, and of how the greenery softened the landscape of the estate, but they were also very good in a defensive, protective way. Imagine trying to get over or through this hedge on the left compared with the fence opposite:

It would be impossible, and I know from many childhood attempts to breach a hedge like this one here. The era of slackening council control and maintenance of the estate from the 1980s onward gave tenants (or owners, post right-to-buy) the choice to grub up these hedges and to replace them with fences. Why they should want to do that is largely beyond me, but there are two reasons I suppose, the first being that you no longer needed to bother cutting the hedge, while the second would be borne out of the relative novelty of being allowed to do your own thing, and of wanting to put your own stamp on your home. But the cost to the fabric and environmental coherence of the estate has been great. Many of the fences there, such as the one that is now around my old back garden, have almost certainly been provided by ACIS, the social housing group responsible for the upkeep of the estate. They seem to be solid enough, and necessarily protective, but imagine the difference, visually, materially and psychologically, to the look and feel of the estate if the privets were reintroduced. 

The local council used to have high expectations for the estate; tenancy conditions relating to the upkeep of the houses and gardens were reasonably stringent while, in return, the council themselves were responsible for the general external maintenance of the houses and the spaces around them. Today, many might say that such notions were over-paternalistic, and that they produced individually restrictive and uniform environments but I imagine that ACIS quite rightly have their own, similar, terms and conditions. To reiterate what I've stated so many times over the course of this blog, the Middlefield Lane estate was carefully and thoughtfully created - privet hedges, green spaces, 60s space-age lamp-posts, pebble-dash, and the deliberate separation of the pedestrian and the car, all contributed to the sense of well-being that my family certainly experienced there during the 60s and 70s. What if ACIS contemplated the restoration, part or full, of Middlefield Lane as it was originally planned, designed and developed in the 1960s, and made a lovely PR-driven, heritage-y, communal fuss about it? How might this transform the national and local view of the post-war council estate and, more importantly, of how the tenants felt about living there. They could start on what used to be the North Parade Community Centre, seen here as it was in 1967:

Note the Modernist coherence of the block, it's simple symmetry, the lovely wide, circular door handle, the tile-hung wall decoration, and the paved landscaping around. 

In contrast, this is how it was this morning, on May-Day:

It’s very easy to spoil the original design of this building by replacing the tiles with some cheap cladding and that pitched roof. We recognise the problems of a flat roof and the possible problems (heat loss, damp) that might come of a tile-hung wall but there must be ways and means these days to counter such things. What could be achieved here if we started to remake/remodel the estate as it was, in all of it's 60s glory? In any case, a  beginning might be to make this a community centre again - sadly, at present, it's a conveniently and thoughtfully placed, I’m sure, local office for NACRO (National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders). 

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