Friday, 28 November 2014

Form, Function, and Society

Last week, I was able to resume my periodic/sporadic trawl through old issues of the Gainsborough Evening News, looking for references to the Middlefield Lane estate. In the edition for Tuesday 26 May 1965, I found a short article on the installation of the estate's communal television aerial. I wrote about this aerial way back in March 2012 in a post called Open Channel D (written in fond remembrance of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.). At that time, I reckoned that the aerial was a typical example of postwar, modern, municipal benevolence which would allow the residents to relax in front of the TV without having to splash out on having their own aerial fitted to their chimney. 

The newspaper article began by celebrating what it referred to as 'A new amenity for Middlefield Lane': a 'communal aerial' which was 'installed to serve the entire estate'. Then it went on to quote the County Surveyor, one 'A.B. Whittingham', who opined in a somewhat high-handed manner that "The new aerial scheme ... removes the need for individual aerials. This will give a tidier look to the estate".

This made me think of the fantastic opening titles to the 1966 Francois Truffaut film, Fahrenheit 451 (highly innovative at this time because a dead-pan voice efficiently recites the film's credits over the abstracted appearance of various TV aerials). It gives us some idea of the clutter of wires and poles that Whittingham was obviously trying to discourage on our new estates (Fahrenheit 451 was shot on the famous Alton East estate at Roehampton). But why would Whittingham feel this way? Was it because he was a Modernist planner maintaining an aesthetic desire to keep the architectural lines of the still-new Middlefield Lane estate uniform and free of extraneous matter? Was he some kind of Leavis-ite, surreptitiously hoping to suppress the vulgarising influence of the Telly? Or was he somehow relating to national concerns about the degraded look of our streets as these aerials were beginning to proliferate on the top of people's homes?

I'm not entirely sure what the answers to those questions are, but what I do know is that, by the park where I played as a kid, the estate's 'communal aerial' was in fact a 60 foot-high mast, and it was a futuristic thing of wonder to me back then. We certainly relied upon that communal aerial until about 1974 when we finally got our own aerial fitted, along with the (hire-) purchase of our first colour TV. And I also know that the mast is long gone - removed over thirty years ago now. 

But this is where it used to be. Here, where our recent past - of 'council estates', 'communal' TV aerials, and of not quite so paternalistic planners - has miraculously left a faint trace of itself in the form of a circular mark. So Modern, yet also so strange, so very ancient:

Thursday, 13 November 2014

A 'new' era ...

The New Era estate, Hoxton 

12 November was Housing Day, a day that was intended to celebrate the positive impact of social housing on thousands of people across the UK. However, the venal Policy Exchange think-tank, with their usual posh-boy, fuck everyone but themselves and their chums, arrogance, shamefully attempted to scupper this celebration by publishing a report entitled 'Freeing Housing Associations: Better financing, more homes' on that very same day. 

At a time when, for instance, families on the New Era estate in Hoxton, London are facing enormous rent hikes and possible eviction after Britain's richest (Tory) MP, Richard Benyon, bought the estate and announced plans to charge “market rents", we need to vigorously challenge the kind of egregious claptrap produced by the likes of Policy Exchange. 

I'll leave it to Colin Wiles, of the excellent, crusading 'SHOUT - The Campaign for Social Housing' to comment on this which is taken from SHOUT"s Facebook site: 

'Housing Day on 12 November was tainted by a report from Policy Exchange which purports to give housing associations the "freedom" to unlock themselves from government debt, to set their own rents and to choose the tenants they want. Policy Exchange is, of course, the government's favoured think tank and many of their past policy proposals have been taken up by the coalition government. But this is a step too far and should be resisted by all those who believe in social housing as the bedrock of a civilised society. The term "Free Housing Associations" is a clever use of words that disguises the real intent of the free marketeers at Policy Exchange, which is to oversee a massive privatisation of public assets. The lesson of the New Era estate is that the market cannot and will not provide for the people at the bottom of the ladder. No doubt there are many well-paid chief executives in the housing association sector who would relish the prospect of a commercial world free from regulatory interference, and it is disappointing to see senior figures in the sector welcoming this report. But if they think that they could survive for long in the cutthroat world of commercial property I am afraid they are deluding themselves. 

The overriding message of the Policy Exchange report appears to be that housing associations could double their output of homes if only they were set free from regulation. But it is not regulation that is hampering housing supply, but lack of government investment, and the policy Exchange report is nothing but a cynical ploy to conceal the fact that the housing investment budget was cut by 60 percent in 2010. A key theme of the report is that regulation is overwhelmingly a bad thing, yet it provides security for tenants and stability for lenders and it has created a sector that is a relative success story. Housing associations only exist in their present from because the British taxpayer has supported them for decades past. Their assets should remain under public control and should not be sold off to the private sector.'

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Both Sides Now

Recently, I've been working my way through DVDs of the marvellous Mad Men series. Mad Men is set in the 1960s, at the fictional Sterling Cooper advertising agency on Madison Avenue in New York City. Apart from its focus on the everyday successes and failures of the agency itself, the series beautifully and subtly refracts the personal lives of its characters, in a most Updike-esque manner, through the troubled and increasingly melancholic lens of 'The Sixties'. For me, one of the most affecting scenes comes at the end of series (I can't quite bring myself to say 'season') six when the central character, Don Draper, a highly successful advertising creative whose life is as much a fabrication as the ads he produces, takes his children out to what one of them nervously describes as 'a bad neighbourhood'. Don nevertheless gets them out of the car and they walk up to a dilapidated nineteenth century clapperboard house that is surrounded by postwar public housing 'projects'. The house used to be a brothel where Don was kept as an orphaned child, and as the wind whips leaves and rubbish around their feet, he simply turns to his children and says "This is where I grew up." 

The episode is set in late 1968, and as Don's thirteen year old daughter looks up at her father with a face full of both enlightenment and disgust, Judy Collins' version of Joni Mitchell's 'Both Sides Now' starts to play over the scene. Overlaying a fictional, historical, melancholic moment with a piece of popular music from the time is an easy device for pulling on the heartstrings and, in this case, I fall for it every time because it has everything: wistful '60s folk-pop playing out a virtually unspoken but beautifully visualised meditation on place and memory, and of a moment where past, present, and future seem to coalesce.


I've also been re-reading bits of Lynsey Hanley's 2007 book, Estates, An Intimate History (Granta) - one of really only two books in existence (the other is Alison Ravetz's 2001 Council Housing and Culture: The History of a Social Experimentthat fully attempt to explore the wider social and cultural ramifications of the council estate in Britain today. 

Estates is a trenchant, if somewhat journalistic, attempt by Hanley to combine personal memories of living on a late-1960s/early-1970s estate in Birmingham with an historical account of public housing policies and architecture. But what came across more forcefully than ever on dipping back into this book is her sheer hatred of the place where she grew up. Like Don Draper's son, she thinks that it is a 'bad neighbourhood'. The first, short, sentence of Estates - 'We lived in Area 4.' - bluntly sets the tone, immediately conjuring up an image of being trapped in a dystopian, once upon a time in the English Midlands THX1138-like hell, and of 'inhuman' Modernist planners stamping their functionalist mark on 'ordinary people'. The residents of this estate would certainly be aware of those numbered areas, and of which 'area' they lived in, but more probably they would have referred to the streets where they lived by their actual names (in the case of this estate, Alder Drive, Walnut Close, Birch Croft, and so on). But you would never know this from Hanley's book. 

The estate itself is referred to throughout as 'The Wood', in a deliberate attempt, it seems to me, to give it a pejoratively gangsta-ish, "typical council estate eh?" spin. Its proper name is Chelmsley Wood but, again, Estates never once affords the estate this privilege (the pop group Broadcast however were not afraid of doing so in their song Michael A Grammar: "Michael. Michael, Michael. Wake up, we're going back to Chelmsley Wood"). This post is not meant to be a review of Hanley's book as such, nor is it meant to be an historical assessment of the Chelmsley Wood estate itself (built on the site of an ancient woodland called Chelemundesheia, hence the tree-derived place names), but I really did find it odd, to say the least, that Hanley is content to carry out her own de-personalisation of the estate where she grew up while arguing that so many people's lives were apparently blighted by the supposedly impersonal and dehumanising consequences of postwar housing and planning. But then she also feels - sincerely I'm sure - that the estate repressed her own social and cultural development as a teenager, and she frequently evokes this feeling through a filter of descriptive disdain and mild horror (as well as a line from a song by Bill Callaghan/Smog): ‘seeing the estate [today] … induces too many of the old feelings – “the type of memories that turn your bones to glass” ... a cold, grey outpost, full of houses but devoid of people’.  

I don't doubt that many people would feel exactly the same about the Middlefield Lane estate, especially after looking at this photo:

Photograph courtesy of the Gainsborough Heritage Association

It's pretty unavoidable: a monochrome scene of a monchrome day on a monochrome council estate. A black dog is loose, that patch of grass is as bleak as ever. When I look at the boy hiding away from the camera's gaze with that graffitied wall behind him it always somehow reminds me of a photo from around the same time as this one (early 1970s?) of a kid hiding alongside a wall in Belfast with a British soldier crouching behind him. I also look at this view and wonder a little where all those 340 trees for which the council paid £510 back in May 1965 were actually planted. Nevertheless, I still cherish this view as yet another precious window into my memories of the estate, and I suppose I'm lucky that, unlike Lynsey Hanley, those memories have never turned my bones into glass (but then I much prefer Joni's late 60s/early 70s Laurel Canyon musings over Bill Callaghan's millennial, miserablist Americana). And we've all come a long way from all of these places in any case. The place where 'Don Draper' grew up left him with no other choice but to create a completely new identity for himself. Lynsey Hanley is a successful journalist so Chelmsley Wood couldn't have done her that much harm. And me? Well, I guess that growing up on an estate like Middlefield didn't do me much harm either, although my social circumstances at that time perhaps held me back to the extent that I didn't manage to get where I am now (a middle-class, moderately successful academic in a good university) until I was well into my forties. Even now though, years after I left the estate, I'm not sure that I should be here at all. Joni/Judy had it right: something's lost and something's gained in living life that way.  But Middlefield is still where I grew up.