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.


  1. Ian - an interesting and thoughtful post. I'm pleased to see you taking on Lynsey Hanley, as it were. It's a valuable book - and one of the few there is, as you point out - but I think she gets a bit of a pass on her particular and very personal perspective. One thing that always strikes me about the book is just how easily she slips into the caricaturing and demonising portrayal of 'chavs' that she in principle deplores. Seems to me to be quite a lot of personal angst as the self-consciously 'clever girl' outsider in play there but maybe I'm being harsh.

  2. Thanks for your kind comments MD. No, I don't think you're being harsh about Hanley's self-consciously 'clever girl/outsider' stance - it seemed to me that it really is angst-filled. She really does resent where she grew up, and she's clearly disgusted by the supposedly 'chavvy' state of it now. I didn't even go into the final chapter which is naively Blairite, but all too real today: 'Housing Choice' (remember that?), Wayne Hemingway, the notion that demolition/redevelopment 'has' to happen, 'affordable' this and 'affordable' that. The new edition of the book (has it been updated? I'm not sure) has a brighter cover than the one I've got/posted here - wonder why?