Asbestos in the Memory Cupboard

An unknown tower block shot with black-and-white film c.1998.

Reading Katrina Navickas’s post about what she calls ‘Brutalgie’ I felt a momentary pang of guilt: am I being dreadfully superficial when I swoon at a photo of a tower block?

To some extent, yes, clearly. When all I have to go on is a picture and my only response is ‘Phwoar!’ then I’m reacting to it almost as a piece of graphic design — it’s the contrast, the geometry, the texture that’s titillating me.

But, at the same time, that strikes me as a political act in itself — a way of saying, ‘This is beautiful’, in defiance of people who are scared of public buildings and municipal housing, who can only see failure in it. Finding something to appreciate in the bus station, the tax office or a squat tower block is a way of flicking the Vs at those who insist the true England is only that of stately homes, Victorian townhouses and Cotswold villages.

The Ponds at Cranleigh Gardens, Bridgwater

I spent the largest part of my childhood in a house made of slabs of precast reinforced concrete on a council estate in Somerset. I generally resist extreme or simplistic points of view which means, in practice, I irritate everybody by responding with some variation of, ‘Well, to some extent yes, but…’ In the case of life on a council estate, here’s the fence I sit on:

First, my experience was apparently less rosy than some people’s. We didn’t leave the doors unlocked and wander in and out of each other’s houses as I’ve seen some people I was at school with suggest through shared ‘Do you remember when…’ memes on Facebook. In fact, anything we left outside the house (or in the shed) after dark got stolen — clothes on the line, a garden bench, the bike I got for Christmas, Dad’s toolbox, and so on. Some neighbours were friendly, sure, but slightly too many were damaged, violent and scary. The back door would rattle ominously in the evening when Dad was working nights so that Mum ended up sitting with the riot club my Uncle brought back from Northern Ireland at her side. I can therefore understand why people tend towards a narrative of ‘escape’ when they talk about growing up Council — if you’re anything less than a raging hard-case, it’s a constant challenge.

But, at the same time, it’s not hell on earth. In my town there were two big estates and the residents of each thought the other was an Escape from New York style no-go wasteland, which I think illustrates the problem. If you don’t live on a particular council estate, or even occasionally walk through one, it’s easy to see photos of burned out cars and ‘hooded youths’, or hear grim stories of psychos and drugs, and think that’s all there is. You don’t see the old bloke tending to his gooseberries, the summer afternoon barbecues, or the quiet kids indoors drawing their own comic books. They can be tranquil places with lots of air and green space — pleasingly repetitive and well-ordered, with outbreaks of personality in the garden ornaments and decor. When my parents decided it was time to ‘escape’ when I was a teenager I went into a furious sulk — the estate was my home and I loved it. Or maybe I had some form of Stockholm syndrome. Who knows.

New Cross, South London, I think

The photos that accompany this post weren’t snapped on a smartphone and then processed with some retrovision app or other. (Although I am guilty of that.) They were taken around 20 years ago using the second-hand East German SLR my parents got me for Christmas one year. (Not because they were hipsters — because it was cheap.) I didn’t really know how to use it and most of the pictures I took were under- or over-exposed but this handful make me realise just how long I’ve been looking at the supposedly grim and grey and seeing something else.

When I went to university, which was all wood-panelling and classicism, I took photos like this with me as a reminder of the landscape that made me. Fuel for the chip on my shoulder, I suppose.

The point is I can honestly say that when I stand in the cathedral-like space under the motorway bridge at Dunwear, the M5 blasting its white noise overhead, or walk through a ‘blighted’, ‘troubled’ estate in some strange part of the country, that the feeling of peace I feel might not be contextualised or politicised, but nor is it ironic or superficial. It’s emotional. For better or worse, that’s how I’ve been programmed. Concrete makes me calm. That’s my kink.