Thursday, 31 October 2013

Bread and circuses

I was wandering around the estate yesterday enjoying a day off work (strike action but not researching/working necessarily – I went to Gainsborough to see my Auntie Gwen, then I went home and spent much of the rest of the day catching up on a couple of episodes of Homeland) and I was amazed to find that a circus had pitched up on the playing field by Aisby Walk:

 This is a first as far as I know. The field was created in the early 1970s with a number of football and rugby pitches, and a changing pavilion. You can see how much it used to be a well-used, sociable spot here on an aerial photo from that time:

From the 1980s however, its use as a sports field went into a decline and the pavilion was eventually demolished due to vandalism, the slow death of the social and so on – and now it is clearly seen as the type of wasteland space that can typically be used as a site for a circus. This is all fine and good I suppose, but if Joan from the superb but cruelly underrated BBC comedy series Early Doors ever got around to asking me her favourite question, “do you like circuses, Ian?” then I would have to answer in the negative. The lights of the circus tent on this gloomy autumn morning also reminded me of a scene from near the end of Patrick Keillor’s film Robinson in Space, when Robinson reckons that Blackpool, with all its glitter, lights and amusements, held the key to his Utopia. It’s never made especially clear why the character feels that way. I always thought it was a bit of a situationist-hipster line to take on Keillor’s part, but I guess it’s really something to do with the resort being on the edge of the supposed revolution of everyday life, where the amusements there still have the potential to purely amuse rather than manipulate and abuse us. The same might apply to circuses, but for me this ...

... is more than incongruous.The landscape architect Thomas H Mawson, who designed Blackpool's Stanley Park in 1922, reputedly once said “Blackpool stands between us and revolution”. Essentially, places like Blackpool distract us, divert us away from revolution. But the Middlefield Lane estate is emphatically not Blackpool, and I wonder why this circus should be here at all, if not to do anything other than to deliberately prolong that process of distraction. Even in a small market town like Gainsborough, the Middlefield Lane estate was actually intended to be revolutionary - the Gainsborough Urban District Council proudly saw it back in 1964 as a sign of how the town and its people were forward-looking and progressive. Back then, the creation and constitution of new spaces like those found on this new estate were meant to be socially transformative. The GUDC's motto then was "Strive for the Gain of All'. The authority that replaced it (and which would have allowed this circus to pitch up on the estate) is the West Lindsey District Council - which now prides itself on being 'The Entrepreneurial Council'. 

It could be that the older I get, the more I'm turning into Tommy, another magic character from Early Doors who, when asked by Joan whether he liked circuses, replied "Nooo, they're shite". But the appearance of this circus on an estate where real social, economic and material deprivations persist is shite. This circus is certainly no indicator of a revolution of everyday life. Its presence not only stands between us and revolution, it sticks one big top finger at the possibility. For me, it also makes it that little bit easier to imagine the end of this estate as it was originally conceived.

Sunday, 27 October 2013


Not an attractive photo of a very old 'No Cycling' sign on the wall of the South Parade flats to introduce what is a bit of a holding post, keeping the blog ticking over while I deal with the demands of teaching and spending hour upon hour writing applications for a bit of research funding so I can begin a proper study of the Middlefield Lane estate.

This sign almost certainly dates from sometime after Monday 12 July 1965. I know this because the Gainsborough Urban District Council Housing Committee minutes for a meeting on that day noted some ‘complaints received' about the 'nuisance caused by children riding cycles on footpaths near to old people’s developments on estate’. The committee agreed to put up some ‘No Cycling’ notices around the estate, and this is one of them.

The research money I'm after will fund a project that aims to analyse the design and planning of the estate to see how successfully it functioned as an environment for childhood play and development. I want to use Clare Cooper Marcus and Wendy Sarkissian’s brilliant but undervalued 1986 book, Housing as if people mattered (1986), which presented a comprehensive set of site design guidelines for medium density estates like Middlefield Lane. 

The plan is to critically ‘map’ the designed visual, physical and spatial characteristics of the Middlefield Lane estate onto those guidelines that related specifically to children’s needs. Perhaps more evocatively, I want to supplement this by using memories and experiences of childhood on the estate during the 1960s and 70s to find out how the children themselves interacted with the adult-configured planning of the estate, and how they were able to create and construct their own spaces and places there.

They did this in part by bombing around the pedestrianised estate on their bikes, up and down the 'parades' and the 'walks', gleefully exemplifying what Robin Moore, in his 1986 book Childhood’s Domain, describes as a child’s ‘intimate, fluid and intense’ interaction with a ‘flowing terrain’. Adult planners would refer to all of this as 'non-conforming use'; the adults on the estate however would just tell us to clear off if we were bothering them - and we would do as we were told, we'd move on, grumbling a little to ourselves, but I'm sure we'd be out there again the next day. But you don't have to take my word for it - if I can get some research money I can ask some others who lived there too. Fingers crossed.