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:

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