Sunday, 15 May 2016

'Except when it began, I felt so happy, I didn't feel like me.'

So, following on from my previous post, Spontaneous Estate Excavations, we did our dig, and it turned out really well. Lots of wonderful people, young and old, turned up to do some hard digging (the Middlefield Lane estate was built on very dense clay). And we unearthed lots - and lots - of great archaeological finds: quite a bit of 17th to 19th century pottery alongside many bits of old clay pipes smoked by labourers who worked the land before the estate was built. The star find was a sizeable piece of Black Death-era pottery of a lovely olive green colour, and with a kind of 'handle' that was made by the potter squeezing the clay out between finger and thumb. Seven hundred years on, our twenty-first century fingers and thumbs fitted perfectly into the indentations made by our fourteenth century antecedent. At any given time, we had something like fifty estate residents, children, Cubs, Beavers, mums and dads, volunteers, all working away on eight pits. It was fabulous to be involved in doing something for my home estate, and for the people of Gainsborough in general.

Personally, one measure of how much I must have enjoyed myself lay in the fact that over the whole two days - in this age of constant, smart-phone captures of the most fleeting and trivial of our personal gestures and actions that only seem to confirm the doubt of our existence - I took just one photograph, of the activity around one pit on North Parade:

I was excited about digging around here because it is near to where the Precinct shops used to be. As it happens, we didn't find a cap-gun but there were a couple of marbles and a 1980s ring pull, which was just as good to my mind, because it is the material culture of us, of our recent everyday lives. From another pit nearby on The Walk, someone found an old plastic Smarties lid with the letter 'u' on it. The same pit unearthed a pretty much intact brick, with the inscription 'LBC' (London Brick Company) 'Phorpres' on it. Of course, the daft old internet has a website devoted to an A-Z of English bricks and brick-makers which brilliantly confirmed that the 'Phorpres' was most used at the peak of the postwar rebuilding period in the 1960s. So this was the type of brick that built the Middlefield estate (or not, in the case of this one, which was obviously dumped and turfed over as the estate was completed). For me, this was the find of the weekend because it is an example of what Freud called a 'screen memory'. A screen memory is a 'compromise' - a thing, or an image from the past which stands in for the actual experience of the past. As Freud put it in one of his papers from 1899, screen memories are 'not made of gold themselves but have lain beside something that is made of gold.' The same could almost be said about that brick - and, indeed, the whole project. The brick wasn't gold, but it might as well have been, because it confirmed the beginning of the history of the estate. It also brought back memories of playing on the estate before it was finally completed. Those bricks were everywhere when I was four or five years old. We used to play on the heaps of sand that were left at the bottom of our road, and we'd forage for stray lumps of putty which we used as ersatz plasticine. This was how we filled our childhood days.

In her book The Future of Nostalgia (2002), Svetlana Boym notes a type of nostalgia that she calls 'Reflective nostalgia', which is personal, and not tied up with 'Restorative nostalgia' which unfortunately tends to get tied up with reactionary tales of past glories. Reflective nostalgia is borne out of reverie and is therefore more intangible and poignant. I always love spending time on the estate, helping to make activities like the dig happen but, to be honest, all I end up seeing at the end of them is irrevocable loss, which is why I took that one photograph above. As I wandered over to the team working there, I was suddenly reminded of this photograph of the same spot taken back in 1967, and of the North Parade of my childhood, which today has almost completely disappeared: 

The other great thing about the dig however was seeing children getting involved, filling their childhood days with being an archaeologist, as they helped to work down through layers of soil and time. The need to keep going in the hope that something shiny or old would turn up in that next layer (or 'context' in archaeological-speak) was compelling, but sometimes it just seemed that sitting on the grass scraping up the soil from around something that was hard and very much stuck in the ground was all that mattered. It seemed to me that the children on the dig were lost in reverie, and happy in themselves. Memories were being made as they worked. Maybe the memory of the dig, and of their time on the estate, will become a future source of reflective nostalgia for them. I've written before about how I dream of the estate being 'reborn’, as Walter Benjamin put it, ‘into a present capable of receiving it.' There's a fighting chance that this might happen through the children who live there, via a project like this. It's their turn now.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Spontaneous Estate Excavations

Has anyone done an archaeological dig of a postwar council estate before? 

I don't think so but tomorrow and Saturday, I'll be on the Middlefield Lane estate with Carenza Lewis doing just that. We'll be aided by residents, Cubs and Beavers, and a team of archaeologists in doing several small test pits in people's gardens, and on the open, communal green areas on this Radburn-influenced estate. 

I have no idea what we will find but it'll be fun doing it. We've caught wind of a late nineteenth century amateur archaeologist-cleric claiming that there was evidence of an Anglo-Saxon burial on what is now the edge of the estate - so we're going to carry out some excavations around there for a start. You never know! 

Channelling the Anglo-Saxon spirit at Middlefield

We will also be doing a test pit near where the Precinct shops used to be, so I'm hoping to find bits of an old plastic cap-gun I lost there in the late 1960s. On the 27 and 28 May, we'll be on my old home turf, Dunstall Walk, so goodness knows what we'll find there, particularly as I had a reputation for digging fox-holes for my Action Men in other people's gardens - maybe the odd miniature Luger or two. If nothing else then, what we might recover is compelling archaeological evidence for the gun fetishes of a generation of postwar boys.

All of this is what Richard Gould and Michael Schiffer, in 1981, called 'the archaeology of us' - put simply, an investigation of the material culture of the postwar world. More recently, in 2009, Rodney Harrison embarked on an 'archaeology of the welfare state'. Harrison was interested in the effects of postwar reconstruction on the physical landscape of Britain, arguing quite rightly that there has been relatively little work done on the ‘material worlds’ of the welfare state. He too focussed on council housing, noting that the development of council estates in the postwar period was part of a 'brave utopian socialist experiment' that reached 'its zenith in the mid 1970s', by which time the state had supplied almost a third of the nation’s housing. 

Harrison didn't carry out excavations as such - instead he concentrated on the material changes made by residents to their council houses in the post-deregulation, right to buy period of the 1990s. Our more archaeologically-centred project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, under their 2016 Connected Communities: Community Futures and Utopias theme, and so our primary aim is to engage the Middlefield community in physically exploring the nature of where they live, which was designed and planned on a quasi-utopian 'garden city plus motorcar' model. Personally, I have considerable qualms about the ways in which the word 'utopian' is constantly applied to council estates, mostly because it tends to be used as a stick with which to beat these places as products of doomed-to-fail, pie-in-the-sky ideas and dreams. On the contrary, I believe that local authorities, their architects and planners were merely trying to build good, modern homes for everyone, which were intended to provide for the more prosaic, everyday needs of sociability, contentment, and well-being. 

From the Gainsborough Evening News, 4 February 1964

I think estates like Middlefield still manage to do that today - and that is why we will be there over the next couple of days - to help sustain that sense of sociability and well-being amongst the residents there. At the very least, I hope that we will have a good time because the rest, as Arthur Seaton put it in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, is surely just propaganda.