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.

The Campaign for Shorter Crime Novels

A pile of slim crime novels.

Crime novels, current wisdom dictates, should be around 80,000 words long. That’s enough to fill 300-400 pages and so feel like good value to a contemporary reader. The problem is, that’s too long.

Most of my favourite crime novelists wrote short and lean. Ed McBain, Georges Simenon, Gladys Mitchell, Ruth Rendell, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Sjöwall & Wahlöö… All of these writers produced classics at around 150-220 pages, or 50-60,000 words.

Here are estimated word counts based on various sources including MetaFilter, readinglength.com and howlongtoread.com:

  • Chandler, The Big Sleep – 57,000
  • McBain, Sadie When She Died – 55,000
  • Rendell, A Judgement in Stone, 59,000
  • Sjöwall & Wahlöö, The Laughing Policeman – 60,000
  • Simenon, The Yellow Dog – 40,000

When I’m deciding what to read, I’m often drawn to slim paperbacks – the kind that fit in your inside pocket. It’s partly about time and patience, of course, but that tight page count also signals efficient writing.

Maybe longer crime novels are better

Perhaps the fact that crime novels have grown longer is good news. Perhaps it means they’re deeper and more complex. Well, not in my experience.

Last year, I made a point of reading a stack of recently published books to help me improve the commercial prospects of my own work-in-progress. While I enjoyed most of what I read, and even recommended some of those books to other people, I did notice quite a bit of what felt like padding.

For example, one character spent a lot of time in Waitrose browsing ready meals. Then unpacking her shopping. Then cooking per the instructions given on the packaging. Then eating while pondering an office romance.

The protagonist of another book undertook renovation work on a flat. This had nothing to do with the plot; it did not reveal anything much about the character other than that they weren’t very good at DIY; and slowed the story down when it should have been accelerating.

You might say diversions like the above add realism and make characters more relatable but I can’t help thinking that if the target word count had been 60,000 words, these would have been the first sections lost to the red pen of a surgical editor. Or, at least, condensed to a single line: ‘She spent too long at the supermarket choosing what to eat for dinner, ate alone, and fell asleep on the sofa.’

I’m a slasher… of words

The first draft of my current project is finished at just over 70,000 words. The voice of the industry is telling me to flog it to 80,000 words, somehow – perhaps by introducing an aimless sub-plot or two, a prologue that will probably annoy people, or some extended moping and brooding by my protagonist.

But my own instinct is in the other direction. I want to hack away at descriptions, get characters from A to B faster and make the dialogue more sparse. If I follow that urge, I reckon I’ll be left with – hey, fancy that! – about 60,000 words.

General writing advice agrees: kill your darlings, remove filler words, combine or remove characters, make sure every scene moves the plot forward or develops your characters, and so on.

I think I’ve decided that I want to write a tight, economical crime novel of the type I like to read. That might well reduce its already slim chances of getting published – “Yeah, thanks for sending us half a book – are you planning to write the rest of it at some point?” – but it will feel right to me.

Although evidence seems to suggest that readers are hungry for long books, I’m hopeful the tide might turn. There’s certainly a growing backlash against films that don’t earn running times of more than two hours and I’m certainly drawn to anything at 90 minutes or less.