Unhomely: new towns on film

A shot of Bracknell with its flyovers and tunnels with the caption UNHOMELY: New Towns on film

On film, the post-war British new town is an uncanny space – heaven, hell, or somewhere between, but certainly not quite real.

The idea of the new town was born out of hope and optimism. With population growth, cities half-demolished by the Blitz and increasingly demanding expectations around quality of life, ordinary working people in Britain needed new and better homes.

The British government set about identifying sites across the UK where large residential towns could be built from scratch, or by drastically expanding existing smaller settlements.

This was revolutionary, contrary to the usual British wait-and-see gradualism, and not everybody was convinced by the idea. It’s certainly difficult to find wholly positive depictions of the new towns project on film outside government propaganda.

Contemplating life in the post-war Britain to come in They Came to a City, 1944.

Right at the beginning, when the new towns only existed in plans and papers, Basil Dearden directed a film based on J.B. Priestley’s 1943 play They Came to a City. Released in 1944, it’s not explicitly about new towns but rather about the need to reorder British society along fairer lines after the war.

It just so happens, however, that Priestley’s metaphor for this new society is a city. A new one.

Priestley’s script acknowledges that not everyone wants to come on this journey – and those who choose to stay behind have their reasons. Nonetheless, the argument is clear: things need to change and someone needs to have the guts to explore the frontier.

Almost as if they couldn’t help themselves, however, Dearden and Priestley make the new town not only ambiguous but also unsettling, alien and even a little threatening. A supernatural, spiritual force rather than the product of pure bureaucracy.

Dearden’s previous film, Halfway House, had a similar structure – strangers gather to solve an existential mystery – only in that case, the twist is that they have all gone back in time to fix their mistakes. Here, they’ve gone forward, and are being given a chance to prepare for Things to Come.

We never get to see the town, only the giant portal and staircase that lead to it, and the alternately appalled or euphoric faces of the visitors as they return. That makes it all the more unnerving. What on earth can be at the end of that staircase? Surely something more exciting than, say, Harlow.

After the war, the New Towns Act of 1946 triggered the building process. Development of the first wave was focused on London and the South East.

From then on, the idea of the new town as a point of tension – new versus old, planned versus organic, urban versus rural – would be played out on film, consciously or otherwise, time and again.

An alien colony or a home counties new town? (Quatermass II.)

Some filmmakers were drawn to new towns because, half-built in the 1950s, they offered plenty of unsettling atmosphere off the peg. They were strange spaces. Silent. Disconnected from the world. Alienating.

Literally so in the case of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass II.

The original 1955 BBC television series features scenes set in a ‘prefab town’ built for workers at the sinister secret facility around which the plot revolves. By the time Hammer adapted it for film in 1957 (dir. Val Guest) the setting was very clearly a more permanent new town, filmed on location at Hemel Hempstead.

It is presented as bleak and windswept, like a colony on Mars. The houses, in rippling rows, are surrounded by moorland. From one angle, it is urban. From another, rural. Both, and neither.

This plays on a feeling that new towns simply should not be. Towns should grow over the course of decades, over centuries – not overnight.

In his 2016 book The Weird and the Eerie Mark Fisher wrote about a container port in Suffolk as “a weird phenomenon, an alien and incommensurable eruption in the ‘natural’ scene”. Its silence, when viewed from a distance, contributes to this sensation. New towns can have a similar effect.

There’s also cold war paranoia in Quatermass II, and a suspicion of anything resembling socialism. The people of the town are unwitting worker drones for alien invaders, their servitude bought with these bland, identical homes, and the promise of food on the table in return for no questions asked.

A later television production, Danger Man, took a more head-on approach to the same idea. In the 1964 episode ‘Colony Three’ John Drake (Patrick McGoohan) is kidnapped and taken to Hamden New Town. (Played by Hatfield.) It’s perfectly clean, perfectly civilised, but of course it’s not an English town at all – it’s an unnamed Eastern bloc country and is a training ground for spies.

X marks the spot. (The Big Job.)

This sense of the uncanny, of the new town as an unnatural invader, is even present in ostensibly comic films.

In The Big Job, a not-quite-Carry-On from 1965 directed by Gerald Thomas, Sid James (also in Quatermass 2) plays a gangster who buries the spoils of a robbery in a country field. Fifteen years later, when he is released from prison, he returns to find that a new town (Bracknell) has been built on those very fields – and a police station right on top of his treasure.

It’s a funny setup but it also underlines the pace of change in post-war Britain. Who would expect deep English countryside to become a settled English townscape in such a short span of time? Turn your back and the very fabric of the country will shift.

This leads us to another question: what does the new town bury or replace?

All this used to be fields. (Requiem for a Village.)

In the American film Poltergeist (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1982) a Spielburbian planned community (housing estate) is built on the site of an old burial ground that was never cleared, which is the source of its haunting.

But almost every inch of Britain is a burial ground or battlefield.

Requiem for a Village (dir. David Gladwell, 1975) is almost a ghost story, or perhaps an example of folk horror, built around the growth of a new town around a country village.

In the opening scenes we see an old man set off from a modern housing estate on the edge of the town, wobbling along on his bike. He negotiates roundabouts and a dual carriageway, eventually finding his way to a secluded village church. While tending the grounds, he has a vision of bodies rising from the graves, returning to the pews in the church. He follows them and so begins a trip through his own memory, and a collective memory of a lost rural life.

The new town here isn’t bad – the houses are large, clean and comfortable. And the past is murky, too, blighted by war, poverty and rape.

But, still, there’s a suggestion that the modern world has rolled concrete, closes and crescents over something richer and more complex. The bulldozer is an existential threat.

New town madness in The Alf Garnett Saga, 1972.

A less arty but perhaps no less heartfelt take on some of the same ideas can be found in, of all places, the second film based on the TV sitcom Till Death Us Do Part.

Released in 1972, The Alf Garnett Saga (dir. Bob Kellett) relocates Garnett from the East End of London to a tower block in a new town – Hemel Hempstead, once again. He not only dislikes it but cannot cope with it. It has the trappings of a community, such as a pub, but is configured in a way that leaves him bewildered, imprisoned and humiliated.

At one point, he takes LSD, imagines himself to be a chicken and nearly falls from the balcony: “Out the window, fly away… Open the window, open the cage…”

In an essay translated into English as ‘The Uncanny’ Sigmund Freud actually uses the German word unheimlich – ‘unhomely’. Are new towns homely?

A common criticism of new towns and overspill estates is that they lack soul or character. “Rows of houses that are all the same” are contrasted with the individuality of the buildings found in towns which developed organically over centuries. And because these houses are built in clean, straight-line modernist style, they seem to lack individual texture.

There’s another kind of place they call to mind, especially when seen in their pristine state in films from the 1960s and 70s: the ‘tin towns’ in which the British Army trains for urban warfare. Or, of course, standing sets on studio backlots, whose houses are usually hollow shells.

Beige, white, oatmeal and ‘elephant’s breath’: the bland perfection of a new town flat in I Start Counting.

In both I Start Counting (dir. David Greene, 1969) and The Offence (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1973) the new town is dangerous in another way: as the hunting ground for a serial killer.

I Start Counting makes explicit an alienating quality in new town life. “The rain don’t even fall on us here,” says Granddad, looking forlornly from the window of the family’s tower block flat. The flat is actually a studio set and, painted beige and white throughout, evokes the alien simulation of a bland hotel room where Dave Bowman ends up at the end of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

If the new town feels unreal, like a simulation, then what might that do to the mind of a psychopath already struggling to ascribe real feelings to, or empathise with, his victims? They’re just non-player characters in an open world game.

Then there’s the would-be utopian landscape of pedestrian underpasses, footbridges and green space. A dream in the promotional films made by new town corporations to market themselves to the young city dwellers they hoped to lure. But also appealing to parasites looking for opportunities to kidnap, maim or kill.

Something something liminal spaces something something. (The Offence.)

In I Start Counting it’s parkland at the end of the bus route – the new town’s weirdly hard edge – where young women are most vulnerable. In The Offence, it’s tunnels running beneath brand new roads where a child-killer strikes.

Built-up but sparse, populated but somehow empty, this new town (Bracknell, again) feels especially psychically dangerous. Look what it does to Detective Sergeant Johnson (Sean Connery): he loses his grip on reality and morality, brooding in his tower block flat and the new-build brutalist police station like a man in purgatory.

New towns are appealing to criminals of other varieties, too. As a composite of both Kray twins in Villain (dir. Michael Tuchner, 1971) Richard Burton plans the perfect payroll robbery to take place on the beautifully empty roads of (yet again) Bracknell.

For the East End villain, this is ideal: do your business out of town, on the wild, distant frontier, with only provincial policemen in your way.

Bloody kids. (A Clockwork Orange.)

And then, of course, there’s Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), which used Thamesmead, marketed as “London’s new town!”, to represent a dystopian future.

More than any other film, this cut through the PR and foresaw problems to come. When footbridges and underpasses cease to be cared for, when the gardens become overgrown, and the concrete sickens, the shine can go off a new town pretty fast.

Despite the recurring portrayal of the new town as uncanny, unsettling and alienating, it’s not all bad news. In two notable sex comedies, it’s not a training ground for aliens, spies or criminals but for randy teenagers. It’s a playground. A safe space to practice being an adult.

A backdrop to young love in Gregory’s Girl.

In fact, rewind: there’s even some of this in I Start Counting. It offers glimpses of a town centre where young people are given places of their own – record shops, cafes, nightclubs – and where there are plenty of precincts and arcades, squares and parks. They’re new and shiny, too, not yet haunted by Alex and his droogs.

In Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (dir. Clive Donner, 1968) and Gregory’s Girl (dir. Bill Forsyth, 1980) the focus is entirely on the struggles of young men to understand young women.

The bland, clean safeness of their new town backdrops (Stevenage and Cumbernauld respectively) saves us from the heavy ‘issues’ that so often bog down British youth films. We don’t need to think about urban decay when there’s love in the air. In Forsyth’s film, Cumbernauld looks positively California, its concrete bathed in golden hour light. Shangri-La.

Christopher Ian Smith’s 2017 documentary New Town Utopia, about Basildon in Essex, gets the balance right. With time, it argues, memories have accrued and traditions have developed. If they aren’t paradise, these Pinocchio towns, have at least achieved their dream of becoming real places.

Sources and further reading

Staying afloat

A cartoon of a bald man with his head just above the waves

Everyone manages their mental health differently. For me, it’s about treading water to keep my head above the waves.

As a teenager and twenty-something I was a wreck: depressed, often thinking about suicide, prone to panic attacks and insomnia.

Now, in my mid-forties, I still have low days, still don’t sleep well, and sometimes catch myself saying “Ugh, it would be easier if I was dead.”

But it’s under control, generally speaking.

That’s thanks largely, I think, to a single course of counselling on the NHS. I know that doesn’t work for everyone, or isn’t enough, but it worked for me.

It helped me stop worrying about what I can’t control (sleep); to let myself step off the high-achiever treadmill; and to address the scars left by childhood poverty.

I’ve also learned to talk to my other half when things feel bad – which isn’t often. Sometimes just verbalising it makes it go away.

That’s especially true of what I call, coyly, “the old SI” (suicidal ideation). Mostly, it’s an escape valve thought, an extreme form of “Ah, fuck it all.”

Stability and routines help, too. A wise friend once told me there are two types of people in the world: those who want a rollercoaster ride and those who want a steady life.

I’m the latter.

I wake up at the same time, seven days a week.

I know my plans days and weeks in advance.

I run on a set schedule.

Oh, yes, that cliché: I hate running but I have to take my medicine. If I skip a run, my mood dips noticeably.

I can also be thrown out by working late or at weekends, which doesn’t happen often; by too many social occasions in a row; or by, oh, you know, global pandemics.

Things like that interrupt the rhythm of my little legs, churning away under the waves, causing my head to dip below the surface.

That need for stability has probably prevented me being successful as a writer, to a degree. I need a nine to five job to cling to and it’s hard to write when you’ve been working all day.

But I also know that I’ve been lucky to enjoy 15 plus years of relative calm.

I don’t take it for granted. After all, it might only take one bad day to drag me right back down.

This quick post is a risk in its own way. “Talk about your mental health!” we’re constantly told. It’s good. It’s healthy.

Well, not for me. It’s like picking at a scab. I’ll decide when to do it, thanks, and might never do it again.

Playlists are my secret weapon for writing

A Rhodes electric piano.

When I’m working on a novel or script, playing an imaginary soundtrack snaps my head back into the project and gets me ready to write – a kind of hypnotic trigger.

As a teenager, I used to make over-elaborate compilation tapes. Then I got into making complicated iTunes playlists. Since 2011, though, Spotify has been my go-to playlist playground, with what feels like all the world’s music a click or two away and clever algorithms to help me find pieces connected by mood.

The first book I recall making a soundtrack for was a now-abandoned conspiracy thriller police procedural called Long Knives. If you’re curious, here’s the playlist:

Although it’s one hour and forty minutes long, the most important tracks are the first two. The first track, ‘Electroconvulsive Shock’ by Peter Broderick, is a kind of instrumental overture that sets the mood – forlorn, minimal, ever-spiralling.

The second is a song, ‘You are a Knife’ by Danish band VETO, which I imagine playing over the opening credits of a TV adaptation or film version.

The funny thing is, neither of these is the kind of music I usually listen to. They were chosen purely because they seemed to work for the book, as if I was the music editor on that imaginary TV adaptation.

I used to make visual mood-boards and sometimes still do; this is an extension of that.

In this particular case, I think I was also after something that would help me picture the action as if it was a Scandinavian crime drama on BBC4, all washed out colours and frosty cityscapes. The theme tune I choose doesn’t sound unlike the one from The Bridge.

The book that eventually got published, The Grave Digger’s Boy, also has a soundtrack. This is more melancholy, with lots of solo piano and mournful cello, as befits a book about memory and obsession. Here it is if you fancy a listen. The same thing applies – I probably wouldn’t wander around listening to most of this music for fun and couldn’t tell you much about most of the artists.

The single most important track – one that I ended up playing on repeat for hours, sometimes – was ‘Theme’ from the 2009 soundtrack album And in the Endless Pause There Came the Sound of Bees by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

There’s a passage in the book where the protagonist, Ben, is with his mother on a beach. I found it difficult to write and extremely emotional. This music – quite cheesy, now I listen back – seemed to suggest ‘bittersweet’ perfectly and helped me access feelings that I keep buried most of the time.

Sometimes, I berate myself over the time I spend tinkering with these playlists. Why have I just wasted fifteen minutes trying to find just the right piece of music when I could have been increasing my word count? Classic displacement activity, you idiot!

Except the more I think about it, the more I think my brain knows exactly what it’s doing.

First, it’s a way of engaging with and meditating on the project without jumping straight into writing. I’m restless with a short attention span – not great for a would-be novelist – and struggle to spend time thinking when I could be cracking on. An hour spent in Spotify focusing on the mood and tone of the book, with the plot and characters slowly marinating, is progress, even if it doesn’t always seem that way.

Secondly, the playlists are important because they help me envision the finished product and conceive of it being credible and successful. If there’s a TV or film adaptation it must be good, right? And it’s certainly no worse than some of the stuff that does end up on TV. This tactic is vital in overcoming impostor syndrome and the fear of the blank page – of the 80,000 words left to write.

Once I’ve got the soundtrack, it also makes me more productive. I can listen to it while I’m walking and thus force myself to think about plot or character problems. It also means that wherever I am – the canteen at work, a hotel room, a train – I can immediately slip back into a virtual version of my own work space.

There are a couple of bits of music that I use in less specific ways.

The first track from Brian Eno’s Music for Airports has become a sort of magic reset button I can hit when I’m suffering from writer’s block. I don’t know exactly how I trained myself with this habit but it works: I hear the first couple of cycles of the piano loop and the tap comes unstuck. It also seems to magically slow my heartbeat when I’m stressed. Handy, that.

My other half isn’t a fan of Michael Nyman or Philip Glass and I’m not sure I am, necessarily, except when I’m writing, but I do find them useful.

Glass – specifically this slightly weird playlist I made myself – doubles my productivity in short bursts. Repetitive, insistent… A kind of amphetamine for writers.

Nyman, on the other hand, is where I turn if I’m working on characters and need to give my emotions a prod. In particular, his soundtrack for Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland is a go-to, giving ordinary lives a kind of poetic grandeur it’s easy to deny them.

And his song ‘If’, written for a Japanese animated adaptation of Anne Frank’s Diary, is similarly soupy but what can I say – I’m a sap. It makes me well up and sometimes I need to be in that state to write what needs writing.

One of my current works-in-progress, the title of which I’m going to be coy about for now, has a soundtrack and theme tune already. The score is a mix of Shostakovich, Bernard Herrmann and David Shire – dark, moody and just a touch spiky. The theme is this wonderfully wonky piece from Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols:

That should give you a clue about what you can expect from the book when it’s done.

And my most recently published book, a collection of ghost stories called Municipal Gothic, has its own playlist, too. It’s a mix of genuinely unsettling field recordings, discordant modern classical music and synthesiser instrumentals. I don’t listen to it for fun but when I want to get into the right frame of mind to write about revenants and ghouls, it’s just the thing.

You’ll notice that I go to quite a bit of trouble over the cover designs, too. That’s another version of the psychological trick I described above: if I can see something that looks as if it already exists, that feels as if it’s got a physical form, it encourages me to make it happen.

Municipal Gothic: the other type of scary

An underpass covered with graffiti

Ghost stories are about the uncanny and, of course, about fear. But when do you ever feel really scared?

As in, fight or flight. As in, heartbeat up, breathing shallow, nerves twitching.

For me, it’s in subways, when I’ve committed to the tunnel and have nowhere to go, and I see someone blocking the exit up above.

Or when I find myself on a street I don’t know on an estate I don’t know, maybe walking towards a dead end, while whispering men stop whatever they’re doing in that alleyway to watch me pass.

That reminds me of the most scared I’ve ever been, I think, on the top deck of a bus going through Clapton after midnight. Between Central London and the east, it emptied, until it was just me and some hyped-up lads making a lot of noise about someone who was going to get shanked, if he wasn’t careful.

After a while, they noticed me on my own on the back seat.

“Excuse me,” one of them said, with surprising politeness, “but are you a police officer?”

Back then, I did kind of look like I sort of might be – a sturdy bloke with a shaved head, often wearing a white shirt and black trousers.

What was the right answer? Which would make them less likely to want to beat me up, or stick a knife in me?

While I thought about it, my heart began to thump. I knew my voice would wobble if I spoke.

So, after a moment, I smiled slightly and gave a slow shake of my head.

They stared. I stared back.

After a moment, their leader shouted, “Five oh”, and they scattered off the bus as it pulled into the next stop.

It was a while before I breathed again.

That’s logical, sensible, real-world fear. The fear of actually being injured and, perhaps worse, humiliated.

In my case, this is at least partly the result of growing up on an estate, in a town, where, if you weren’t careful, you’d get a ‘smack in the face’ for glancing at someone for too long, or failing to say hello, or for saying hello with the wrong tone.

It wasn’t so bad, not really – not as long as you remained hyper-vigilant at all times, took no risks, scuttled everywhere by the safest paths, thought constantly about your escape routes, didn’t make eye contact with anyone at any point, and got home before dark.

The problem with that is, you go into adulthood hyper-vigilant, taking no risks, scuttling everywhere… I’m in my mid-forties and still carrying it with me.

On the upside, all that internalised terror means I’ve never been mugged, touch wood, or even beaten up. I’ve got no shame about crossing the road if I don’t like the look of what’s up ahead on this side. I’d rather my face be intact than my masculine pride.

Writing ghost stories with resolutely real world settings, as in my collection Municipal Gothic, I want to draw on some of that energy.

Because when a ghost appears in a place or situation where you’re already on edge, it feels all the more horrifying.

But it’s also important not to lapse into the cheap cliché of the ‘faceless hoodie’ as a stand-in for zombies or ghouls.

And I certainly don’t want to write stories about gentlefolk wandering onto the wrong side of the tracks and forced to confront the ultimate horror: The Working Classes!

I’ll leave that to H.P. Lovecraft.

“He brings a quality that is rarely found in stories that have a genuine power to disturb – wit. Sharp, focused and never to the detriment of atmosphere, his deployment of raillery and even snark, gives his characters a depth of believability.”

David Southwell, Hookland Guide
Municipal Gothic is out now as a paperback via Amazon UK, Amazon US and around the world.

Municipal Gothic: 13 ghost stories

The cover of Municipal Gothic
Council estates, motorway underpasses, bypass hotels, concrete cathedrals and run-down pubs. Places we all know, that we see where we live in suburbs and towns. Why shouldn’t they be haunted?

Municipal Gothic, my new collection of ghost stories, shows that they very much can be. It is now available as a paperback via Amazon, at £8.99 in the UK, $12 in the US and around the world at various prices.

In these thirteen stories you’ll meet a demonic black dog tasked with administering a lineal curse in the age of sperm donation; a witch’s familiar forced to live off fried chicken bones; an architect whose buildings can drive you mad; headless villains, and more.

It includes a revised version of ‘Modern Buildings in Wessex’, originally published as a zine or chapbook to some acclaim in 2020. It’s ghost story in the form of an architectural guide – M.R. James meets Ian Nairn.

David Southwell, of Hookland fame, is a fan of this particular piece which is how I got up the nerve to ask him to supply a foreword for the collection. He has plenty of interesting things to say about how ghost stories work, about working class fiction and, of course, about the power of plausible fake ephemera to conjure places that don’t exist.

In a similar vein, you’ll also find a new piece: ‘An Oral History of the Greater London Exorcism Authority’. Inspired by the kind of self-congratulatory in-house publications put out by public bodies in the 1970s and 80s, and by my love of institutional branding, it started life as a few mocked-up images on Twitter…

…but before long, I knew I’d have to write something more substantial to back up those ideas. It became an exercise in tone of voice – could I write first-hand testimony from multiple people? (Neville Hutchinson, the GLEA engineer who does not believe, and his colleague Ernest ‘Cabbage’ Lacomber are my favourites, I think.)

‘The Curse Follows the Seed’ is, as they say, ‘a very personal piece’ for reasons you might be able to work out when you’ve read it. It was the first story I wrote with the concept of municipal gothic in mind. Has anyone ever before set a key scene in a story in the area by the bins in a supermarket car park? I can’t help myself.

Other stories in the collection evolved from an abandoned novel. Why, when I try to write social realism, do ghosts, premonitions and black dogs keep turning up? See ‘Who Took Mary Cook’ for evidence of this.

Certain pieces emerged slowly, over the course of years, as I worked on them with my Wednesday night writers’ group. I must thank Andy Hamilton, Corinne Dobinson, Mike Manson and Piers Marter, and others who have come and gone, for their encouragement and advice. They saw scraps of ideas and helped me find the way, as with ‘Protected By Occupation’, which first landed with them in 2019 as a scrappy period piece inspired by the Lamb Inn haunting (PDF, bris.ac.uk).

Please do buy a copy of the book and let me know what you think. Or, more importantly, let Amazon and Goodreads know what you think – a quick rating and review is worth more than you can imagine.

Learning to love movies again

In 2021, I taught myself to sit down and watch films like I used to as a kid.

Not just easy films, or comfortingly familiar ones, either – films I’d never heard of; often old, sometimes slow, frequently strange.

Through work weariness and pandemic funk I’d drifted into some bad habits: evenings spent watching two or three episodes of some American police procedural or other that I didn’t even like or enjoy. Mentally chewing gum as I waited for bedtime.

Then I moved house and, for the first time in years, my collection of DVDs was where I could get to it. I found discs I’d forgotten I had and which I’d never got around to watching, or not seen in 20 years.

And, as it happened, the winter-spring lockdown was the perfect time to explore.

It wasn’t a resolution, as such. I’m not good with resolutions. But I did find myself thinking, come on, now, Ray – if you’ve got time to watch sodding Bones, which is terrible, you’ve got time to watch The Fifth Cord. How bad can it be? (It was great.)

I also got better at resisting the urge to dither: just pick a film; it doesn’t matter all that much.

Before long, watching films had become a new habit. Or, at least, a revived one, because I used to do this when I was a teenager, too.

Back then, I’d tape films from the TV with the VHS recorder I inherited from my grandmother when she upgraded. I had stacks of tapes, each with two or three films on, carefully labelled.

I’d stay up past midnight watching oddities on BBC2 or Channel 4, and spend Saturday and Sunday afternoons with canonical classics such as Casablanca or The Third Man.

At sixth-form college, I ran the film society, choosing films and writing programme notes for the other five or six attendees to snigger at. (I was a pretentious little berk.)

This year was about scrambling to catch up on a lost decade or two.

To some degree, I’ve trusted the curatorial instinct of labels such as Arrow Films, Indicator, Masters of Cinema and the Criterion Collection. If they’ve bothered to release a film on a pristine Blu-ray disc, you can be sure it will be worth a couple of hours of your time, in one way or another.

Podcasts like The Evolution of Horror, Second Features and Pure Cinema are a great help, too, suggesting films I’d never think of watching if it wasn’t for the enthusiasm of their hosts.

They also led me to books such as Danny Peary’s Guide For the Film Fanatic from 1986, which provided yet more items for my watchlist.

The watchlist isn’t just a scrap of paper, either: it’s on Letterboxd. Using that platform properly for the first time has really worked for me. Making myself log, rate and review each film I watch has kept me focused on my target of watching 150 films this year.

Not every film I’ve seen this year has been a joy – others may love Alice, Sweet Alice but I did not. But learning to sit through the duds, and think about them in context, is all part of the fun.

There’s a long list of films I’ve enjoyed and would recommend on Letterboxd but here’s my top five:

  1. Fallen Angel, dir. Otto Preminger, 1945
  2. Naked City, dir. Jules Dassin, 1948
  3. Deep End, dir. Jerzy Skolimowski, 1970
  4. Sunset Boulevard, dir. Billy Wilder, 1950
  5. I Start Counting, dir. David Greene, 1969

If you only get time to watch one, I’d say I Start Counting was the standout – an unsettling coming of age drama with a serial killer on the side, all set in a post-war English new town.

And if you’ve got recommendations for 2022, I’d be delighted to hear them.

The Church in the Marsh

Street sign: Chapel Street

Dead in my tracks, I look up from the street sign and along the deserted industrial estate back street: what chapel?

St Philips in Bristol is industrial and has been industrial for a long time. Marshland reclaimed for railways and factories, now turned over to great sheds in corrugated metal and red brick – car dealerships, waste recycling plants, garage door salesrooms and the like.

There’s not much evidence that people ever lived here which is why Chapel Street, which I’ve never noticed before, grabs my attention.

Then, almost opposite, I notice Victoria Terrace, too, where there is no terrace – only brambles, vans and vicious anti-climb fencing.

Chapel Street.

Chapel. Terrace. Here?

In 2021, there’s no need to wonder. I take my phone and call up a map from 1902. It turns out I’m standing at the centre of a crowded neighbourhood. Short Street, the main artery, has terraced houses wedged together on either side.

Victoria Terrace has houses on one side, opposite the gates of the Saw Mill.

York Street and Aberdeen Street, are gone, homes and gardens lost beneath workshop buildings and car parks.

And, sure enough, there’s a church. St Silas’s. It once fronted onto the Feeder Road and was hugged by its own terraced streets – St Silas Street and Arthur Street. You can see it here in an aerial photo from 1926, round-tailed and imposing.

St Silas Street is sort of, just barely, still there, as the main entrance to Auto Choice, a huge dealership in a space-age box. Arthur Street, cut in half, is its side passage, with garages and parked vans.

St Silas’s wasn’t around long – it didn’t even make a century. Built on a bog in 1868, it was already falling down by 1872, and had to be rebuilt on new foundations. In 1941, it was blitzed, and never reconstructed. What remained was knocked down in 1959.

Although it was that street sign, Chapel Street, that led me to St Silas’s, it turns out the reference was… what’s the opposite of a red herring?

Chapel Street was diverted when the trading estate was built and didn’t originally run as far as Short Street. Its chapel is a Methodist one which, astonishingly, perhaps, is still there, in body at least. One of a handful of reminders of when this was a place, not a space.

FICTION: War Wound

Despatch riders.

The memory of the motorbike sustained John Patrick Fletcher through five years of war.

At Dunkirk he set fire to the Triumph 3HW the Army had given him when it ran out of fuel and, from the foxhole he had dug, watched it burn. It was a fine machine but nothing like the BSA he had at home. The Triumph was a workhorse, drab green and thick-set. The BSA was a leopard.

When the German soldier dragged him out of the hole, kicked and shoved him aboard a grey Opel truck with twelve other men in tattered battledress, John floated over it all. He levitated above the bad suspension that bounced them eastward over the course of days. Past the armed guards who sat by the tailgate, through the aperture in the canvas roof, he saw his favourite sight: open road.

This road wasn’t right. Too dusty and too wide. Surrounded by plains, with strange arrow-straight trees that looked more like telegraph poles. But it was enough to remind him of flying alongside dry stone walls, over kinks in the road that caused his gut to lurch, and past fields of sheep.

At the camp in the woods, staring sleepless at the bottom of the bunk above, he plotted routes in a dream-trance, forcing himself to move through each straight and turn in real time, ticking off the names of towns and villages: Stacksteads, Waterfoot, Cloughfold…

Shivering in the snow on a road building work party he would grip the shaft of a shovel and, with gloved hands, twist it, imagining throttling up on the wide road out of Blackpool.

Through four years of boredom he fed on memories of the vibrations and the growl, his physical imprisonment countered by the solidity of a remembered feeling: that he could go anywhere as long as he had a shilling for petrol. The war was a mere intermission in the spooling out of real life. A waiting room.

He broke his ankle playing football and spent two months in hospital reading the same pulp western novel over and again. Much better than working.

The work got harder. The rations got worse. The guards got both younger and older.

After five winters, one February, smoke appeared on the horizon. The guards told the prisoners to start stretching their legs and began to make them walk in the cold for a few hours each day. When the smoke got close enough to smell, they were ordered to start marching.

John dragged a sledge loaded with canned food. Shivering and scared, his feet pounded to tenderness in ragged, frozen boots, he watched as anyone too slow to walk was dragged into the forest and executed.

His consolation was that every step westward took him nearer the motorbike in the shed. It would need a service after all this time and there might even be some rust but he didn’t mind that – he’d enjoy sitting cross-legged in front of it with wire wool and a pot of delicious-smelling paint.

When what was left of the marching party reached its destination, John found himself working on the construction of an oil refinery. It was hard, dirty, shirtless work. Almost every night, the RAF would bomb flat the previous day’s efforts. More men died but John had got used to that. On the whole, he was pleased: Germany was faltering which meant that soon the war would be over and he could put on his helmet, goggles and leathers and roll her out onto the road.

One morning, there was silence. The guards were gone and the gates had been left open. A few hours later, Sherman tanks and Chevrolet trucks rolled through the town. Everyone cheered, even the German civilians. Even John. His eyes were drawn to US Army despatch riders on their low-slung Harley-Davidsons. The Americans handed out cigarettes and paperwork to the thin, weak British soldiers. John struggled to cram his bruised and shredded feet into a brand new pair of GI issue boots. They’d be good on the bike, he thought, flexing his ankle on an imaginary pedal.

After a month of waiting for something to happen, in late summer, he was ordered onto a truck with twenty other men and taken to an airfield. There, he was loaded onto an olive green C-47.

‘It’s a waste to send ‘em back empty,’ said an American military policeman as he herded them aboard.

John had never flown before. The fierce vibrations that shook his innards excited him, as if a hundred motorbikes were roaring at once.

The plane flew over fields and farms, harbours strewn with boats stranded on the mud, and then across the Channel, thick with steaming vessels, both military and civilian. Then the sequence repeated in reverse. Harbours and jetties, the Thames Estuary and London shining on the horizon. The fields looked different – smaller, less tidy, unmistakably English. As the plane dropped down towards another airfield he began to pick out details rushing past: the thatched roof of a cottage, the low flat tower of a country church in yellow stone, and a hedge-lined lane. The plane tracked the lane for almost a minute and, drifting and exhausted, John envisioned himself below, like a black-backed beetle racing at full throttle, tight into every curve.

Aboard a train to the North he couldn’t decide if it felt as if he’d been away a long time, or no time at all. The war had fixed things. The girls he couldn’t help but stare at wore the same kinds of clothes as in 1939, only more ragged, dyed brown and grey so that they resembled army fatigues. Everything was tired and dull, dented and run down. Birmingham, Sheffield and Leeds had gaps like open graves where there had once been buildings. The bricks looked blacker than ever.

Under the grey cloud that always sat on the valley, his home town was the same, barring a sentry box at the station and camouflage paint on the Railway Hotel.

With his cardboard suitcase in hand and an oversized suit hanging off his body, he walked. People stared at him and he stared back.

As the light faded, he walked along Ouseburn Street, passing Mafeking Road, Kimberley Terrace and Gordon Street. His heart began to beat harder as he reached the chip shop on the corner of Milepost Road. He could smell hot vinegar and stopped to stare in wonder at the blazing window which ran with condensation and beyond which dark shapes moved.

Milepost Road seemed as long as the war itself. Halving his pace every ten steps he put off arriving at the front door until it was truly dark. A neighbour in sagging trousers darted by, late for dinner, pumping out clouds of sweet smelling smoke from a short cigarette. ‘Now then,’ he said, by way of greeting.

‘Hello, Mr McCarthy,’ said John.

McCarthy waved over his cap but didn’t stop.

With a sigh John reached up to knock on the door and waited.

A light came on in the hall, visible in the sun-pattern stained glass above the door.

‘Who is it?’

‘It’s me, Mother.’ There was no reaction. ‘John.’

After a moment’s fumbling the door opened and there she was, pinch-faced, her black eyes glinting in the dimness caused by a low-wattage bulb and too much dark Victorian paintwork. She wore a grey dress with a lace collar and heavy black shoes that looked distinctly orthopaedic. Her hair was no longer brown but grey and her back had become hunched.

He leaned down to kiss her cheek. It was like brushing cold stone.

‘Well, there’s no dinner spare,’ she said.

‘I’ve eaten,’ he said. It was a lie.

She bellowed into the house as if announcing the arrival of a tradesman or some other nuisance: ‘It’s our John!’

There came a thundering on the floorboards above and his sisters appeared on the staircase. Evelyn, first, followed by Doris. They stopped halfway down and fell into the same pose, their faces with the same bland expression.

‘Well, he’s not having my room,’ said Doris.

‘Bloody hell – can I come through or not?’

He’d never sworn in front of his mother before. He saw a shock run through Evelyn and Doris. Their eyes switched to Mrs Fletcher.

She pursed her lips but stepped aside.

John walked past her, dumped his case on the floor, and marched straight through the kitchen. The three women followed him and dropped into formation, Mother in front, sisters behind, and watched with arms folded as he fumbled with the back door key.

‘If you need the lavatory,’ said Mrs Fletcher, ‘it’s indoors now.’

‘What’s wrong with this bloody key?’

Doris gasped.

‘I suppose this is army language,’ said his mother.

‘Here, let me,’ said Evelyn. She shoved John aside and carried out a manoeuvre which required her to hoist the door upwards as she turned the key in the lock.

John strode across the yard to the brick shed and opened the door. It was dark and filthy inside, foggy with dust and strung with cobwebs. Even so, he could see one thing clearly enough. He stared at the oil spots on the concrete floor.

‘Where’s me bloody bike?’

He turned wide eyes upon his mother and sisters who were now gathered around the back door as if to guard the entrance.

‘Well?’

His mother folded her arms.

‘I sold it.’

She shifted her chin up.

‘And the leathers and helmet.’

The wound in his ankle began to ache as an invisible weight settled on his back.

Concrete and tall grass: inventing a place

After World War II, a second great wave of housing estate building began, with off-the-peg urban landscapes pushing up against the shrinking countryside. The Sydenham Estate in Bridgwater, Somerset, was one such manifestation.

Until I read this passage in a 1945 edition of the Taunton Courier it had never occurred to me that where I grew up had once been nameless – not a place but a void between them:

Regarding Eastover housing scheme, it was reported that the Minister of Health agreed in principle to the proposal to acquire 75 acres of land between Bath-road and Weston Zoyland-road. The District Valuer was instructed to negotiate for acquisition of the land, and it was decided that the site should in future be referred to as the Sydenham Estate.

On pre-war Ordnance Survey maps it is just a series of numbered cells – digits afloat in paper snow. But maps, and especially administrative maps, tend to reduce anything but the densely urban to an off-white nothing. In fact, those numbers represent individual fields on farmland stretching out behind Bower Farm. Bower Estate would have been a good name for the council development that grew there in the 1940s and 1950s but instead the authorities got its new name from the Manor of Sydenham, on the other side of the main Bath Road.

The present Sydenham House was built c.1500 for the Percival family. It was marched past by the Duke of Monmouth on his way to the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685, and was later the site of a famous incident of nocturnal levitation, but otherwise sat quiet and alone in the flat landscape. Then, in the 1930s, Bridgwater burst its boundaries yet again and the British Cellophane factory was built on land adjoining Sydenham House. Trapped in a no-man’s-land between industry and the railway line, used by Courtauld’s Ltd for hospitality and meetings, it became inaccessible, invisible, and forgotten. The name lingered, though, having been given to Sydenham Terrace, a row of red-brick cottages built in 1865, and to a grand Victorian house called Sydenham Villa.

Oh, yes – red brick. Bridgwater was a brick-making town, and the West Country a brick-making region more generally, and the fact that the houses at this new place, the Sydenham Estate, were to be built from concrete caused some controversy in the late 1940s. BRIDGWATER WANTS BRICK HOUSES read one 1948 headline as the town council were repeatedly criticised for failing to take advantage of a supposed stockpile of 10 million local bricks ready for use. Not Bridgwater bricks, though, replied the council, and anyway, where was the manpower required to turn them into homes?

The town wanted to build 2,000 houses, public and private, as quickly as possible and there was no room for sentiment, so concrete it would be.

Perhaps this was a mistake. A place being created from nothing, in the middle of nowhere, literally on the wrong side of the tracks, could have used something to tie it to the town of which it was supposed to belong.

As it was, those Laing Easiform and Cornish Unit prefabricated concrete houses not only seemed alien but were also the same as thousands of others up and down the country, which meant the Sydenham Estate could have been anywhere. Shown photographs with only the name for a caption, wouldn’t most people guess that it is in south London?

Sydenham was constructed around a kilometre long boulevard called Parkway, down the central green spine of which marched crackling pylons. The streets that branched off Parkway were closed loops, leading nowhere. Sydenham Road, one of the four half-mile-long crescents, had an advantage, however: it formed the eastern edge and backed onto what everyone called The Fields.

The Fields were what remained of Bower Farm, overgrown and beautiful in their own way, with waving blonde grass and the remains of orchards, like something out of Laurie Lee. There was no formal access to The Fields from the estate because, after all, why would we want to wander there when we had public greens and playgrounds? All that meant, though, was that kids clambered over back-fences, crushing the chain-link to the ground over the course of years, while certain enterprising residents installed their own back gates in breach of the tenancy regulations. During the day, and especially during the summer holidays, that meant cousins and friends could run in and out of each other’s gardens using folk paths worn through the vegetation. At night it facilitated more sinister goings-on – muttering, scurrying, cold torchlight, clothes-line raids, and outright burglary.

As a frankly cowardly child The Fields scared me. There were things concealed in the grass that I didn’t care to encounter – hunks of rusting farm machinery, plastic bags full of hardened glue, all sniffed out; the remains of illicit bonfires; and, most terrifying of all, nests of adders. In autumn, low mist would lie on The Fields, and only on The Fields, like gatherings of ghosts.

They started building on The Fields when I was about 11-years-old, and I wasn’t sure if it was good or bad news. On the one hand I knew it would bring the wilderness into line – no more snakes or child traps, and an end to the sinister whispering of the grass beneath my bedroom window. On the other hand, I disliked change. I sulked when they installed double-glazing and pebble-dashed the council houses, but this was more drastic again – a fundamental reordering of the very landscape. Much as The Fields unnerved me, they also provided a contrast to the concrete and municipal repetition of the estate, and it felt simply wrong to turn them into yet more streets. Within a few years The Fields became the Bower Estate. Hundreds of just-too-small red-brick private houses arranged in whorls and loops along dusty new artery roads. 

Sydenham, meanwhile, became a place, but one defined by negatives. It was referred to on the news as ‘the troubled Sydenham Estate’, and my peers called it The ‘Nam. This was a self-deprecating joke, of course, but also reflected a low-key ghetto mentality. We’re stuck out here together, us versus them, and it’s a combat situation. Who ‘they’ were depended on context. Within the estate, Sydenham Road and Longstone Avenue had a wary rivalry, each convinced the other was a no-go area; and the Sydenham Estate as a whole was set against the Hamp Estate on the other side of town, where we kids were warned never to go. Of course when I did go, I found a twin – approximately the same kinds of houses, an exact clone of the shopping arcade, and a secondary school which looked like an off-kilter version of mine.

Because of this reputation, steps, as they say, were taken, and Sydenham seems to be fading away. In around 1991 my secondary school ditched the doubly toxic Sydenham Comprehensive label in favour of ‘East Bridgwater Community School’. Then, in 2011, Sydenham ceased to exist as a council ward, replaced by Fairfax and Dunwear, two new wards that split the estate through the middle and effectively deny its existence. Estate agents marketing houses in the area tend to refer to them as being “on the east side of town” or, even more vaguely, “a popular residential location”.

But those Cornish Units and Easiforms, designed to last a few years at best, are still there 70 years on, albeit with raw concrete disguised by paint and pebble-dash. They invaded, they persisted, and they saw the countryside off. There are no orchards anymore – no adders, no whispering grass, no wild frontier.