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

River of Orchids: the M32 in Bristol

M32 sign.

A version of this piece appeared in The Modernist magazine for spring 2019 which had the theme of ‘Infrastructure’. You can buy a copy here.

Throughout the 20th century, Bristol’s civic leaders bet everything on roads.

First, they ran a dual carriageway through Georgian Queen Square in the 1930s, bending it around an equine statue of William III.

Then in the 1960s, “it was decided to provide for UNLIMITED CAR ACCESS to the City Centre”, as Dorothy Brown explains in her 1975 booklet Bristol and How it Grew. Planning was dominated by road engineers who were allowed to create out-of-scale 6-lane throughways, enormous roundabouts and motorway-standard curves, right in the middle of the city.”

In 1967 they installed a flyover near Temple Meads, simultaneously dominating and pathetic, resembling a rollercoaster as much as a road.

Plans for a grand Outer Ring Road, with a projected completion date of 1975, were abandoned, but parts did appear – stuttering into existence at the Cumberland Basin and Hotwells, and at Lawrence Hill roundabout.

Everywhere pedestrians were shoved into underpasses, herded along streets in the sky, or forced to wait at at anxiety-inducing crossing points.

The M32 was part of this unfettered road-building strategy and one of few parts that was completed, and that remains in place. The first stretch of motorway opened in 1966, then a second in 1970, and the final length in 1975. It is generally spoken of as a scar, an eyesore, or even a ‘dagger into the heart of Bristol’, reflecting the trauma of its birth.

Cars on the M32

To enable its construction, families were forcibly relocated to new estates, houses were demolished, streets cut in two, and communities broken apart. The new borderlands, bristling with brambles and dead ends, attracted graffiti, fly-tipping, muggers and caravan shanties. In 2018, the outrage might have died down, but resentment lingers.

Puschchair by the side of the motorway.

Infrastructure is usually intended to be invisible, or hidden, or at least ignored. Accordingly, pedestrians are held at arm’s length from the M32 for much of its four-and-a-half miles, as it cuts through Bristol, up the Frome Valley, and out into the Gloucestershire countryside.

Frome Valley sign.

It grows out of a dual carriageway in the city centre, like a river taking on tributaries, finally bursting into full being at Junction 3, in a frothing tumble of looping slip-roads and subways.

Land of Hope and Glory.

This is where the fences and walls go up, grey blocks and corrugated metal, protecting walkers from the roaring road, and the road from the strange behaviour of pedestrians. LET BRISTOL BREATHE reads repeated graffiti; LAND OF HOPE & GLORY says a banner on the bow of a concrete bridge, promoting a YouTube channel.

Twisted old trees.

Between St Werburghs and Easton, the motorway is pushed down into a deep cutting, and the path is pulled away from the road’s edge. Through black branches in buffering parkland there can be seen the odd glimpse of grey, the blue shimmer of overhead signs, the roofs of lorries whipping by. But the sound – the waterfall rush of rubber on asphalt – is swallowed.

Then it rises again, shooting above the rooftops, launching traffic into the sky, and pedestrians are allowed back, this time into the void left beneath the road. The space is extraordinary, a world of monumental columns and holy reverberation. People live here, in permanently parked caravans or converted vans, or curled up next to shopping trolleys full of possessions.

Trolley under the motorway.

Thin men in broken trainers conduct urgent, secret business in underpasses. In the deepest shadows, children, teenagers, young adults, and adult adults, send skateboards scraping and clattering, up and down graffiti-covered ramps.

The M32 cafe.

And then a symbol just too on the nose: the River Frome emerges from its man-made tunnel, following the course of the motorway for a few hundred metres, fenced in and covered.

Subway at Eastville

At Eastville roundabout it reaches a crescendo of on-ramps, off-ramps, levels and layers. Pedestrians are directed to hostile above-ground crossings, or channeled into subways where leaves and litter drift. One one side is the landscaped anti-wilderness of Eastville Park. On the other, soot-soiled suburban houses, and Pur Down, with the ever-watchful telecommunications tower like something from a Simon Stålenhag painting.

Caravan and Purdown communications tower.

As Eastville becomes Stapleton, the motorway curves off across Bridge Farm, where trespassers are not welcome. It doesn’t appear again until the bridge at Heath House Lane where parked vans advertise breakdown services and fly-tippers ignore ‘No Fly Tipping’ signs.

The motorway below.

Scrambling up to wind-battered Stoke Park reveals the stroke of the motorway laid out almost in its entirety, headlights like tracer fire connecting the city with its target.

Even if the Queen Square carriageway has gone, even with the Temple Meads flyover demolished, the 20th century at least left its signature here – careless, but with a certain elegance, and distinct vigour.

Brutal Bristol

Prince Street car park.

Brutalist architecture isn’t so called because it is harsh or bullying but because it emphasises the use of raw concrete, via the French: béton brut. Bristol’s brutalist buildings, as well as being a pragmatic response to the post-war need to build quickly and cheaply, are powerful, sometimes even beautiful presences in the cityscape.

At first glance the Shot Tower on Cheese Lane might be mistaken for a Cold War watch post. Its actual purpose was the manufacture of lead pellets. Designed by Underwood and Partners in 1968 it succeeded the world’s very first shot tower which occupied a nearby site. It demonstrates how varied and interesting concrete buildings can be, the chunks from which it is constructed given texture by the casting process, and used to create futuristic forms. It reminds me of the Discovery from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but it is perhaps also somewhat, just to the tiniest degree, phallic. It is now part of an office complex.

Shot Tower
The Shot Tower.

Concrete fetishists are about the only people who get excited by multi-story car parks which offer plenty of opportunity for bold design and abstract forms. NCP Prince Street, designed to serve the hotel next door by Kenneth Wakeford Jarram & Harris in 1966, is a much-admired example, made mesmerising by the saw waves and diamonds that cover its bulk, brough alive by the shifting of light and shadow. Another of note is NCP Rupert Street, the first multi-story car park in the city, designed by R. Jelinek-Karl in 1960, which sits above the street like a coiled concrete python.

Repeating concrete patterns on a car park.
NCP Prince Street.

Car park at night.
NCP Rupert Street.

Among Bristol’s most exciting buildings of any style or vintage is the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Clifton by Percy Thomas & Son. The thrusting spaceship-like spire can be seen for miles around and the more-or-less hexagonal church was apparently unpopular with conservation-minded locals and worshippers when it arrived from its home planet in 1974. It was built using especially fine, pale concrete and so hasn’t aged as poorly as some similar buildings.

A modernist cathedral in concrete.
Clifton Cathedral.

Nobody can have missed Castlemead, the tower that rises over Castle Park. It is part of the last gasp of brutalist building, conceived by A.J. Hines in the early 1970s but not finished until 1981. It looks like the kind of building evil corporations in Hollywood films choose for their bases but there is at least a little humour in the concrete battlements at the top of the tower.
The Arts and Social Sciences Library of the University of Bristol on Tyndall Avenue (Twist and Whitley, 1975) is another building often described as ‘fortress-like’. Its windows, angled to control the entry of light, and its top-heavy structure, do give the impression that it is peering down on passing pedestrians.

A tower block surrounded by trees.
Castlemead.

Underneath a motorway.
M32 at Eastville.

I’m going to finish with a leftfield suggestion: take a closer look at the M32 motorway from beneath, at somewhere like Stapleton, where the song of the traffic between concrete columns brings to mind the interior of a cathedral, with mile after mile of the rawest béton around.

A Place Called Nowhere

Until I read the below passage in a 1945 edition of the Taunton Courier it had never occurred to me that the place where I grew up had once been nameless.

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. [1]

Not a place, then, but a void between places, and that’s certainly how it looks on historic maps of Bridgwater:

A map of field patterns.
SOURCE: Know Your Place West.

But maps, and especially this type of administrative map, do tend to reduce anything but the densely urban to an off-white nothing. The abstract above – that snow drift and irregular fishnet – actually represents a pattern of fields stretching out behind Bower Farm. (The buildings of Bower Farm were demolished years ago, swallowed up by another estate – private, this time – and on its site are now a shopping arcade with a Tesco Metro and a Chinese restaurant.) Thought not named on the map I’d bet anything those fields were known as Bower Fields, even if the mapmakers didn’t know it.

Bower Estate would have been a good a name for the council development that grew there in the 1940s and 1950s but instead it took its name from the Manor of Sydenham, on the other side of the main Bath Road.

1947 aerial photo in black and white.
Bower Farm (rear) and the first houses on the new Sydenham Estate, 1947. SOURCE: Britain from Above.

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 fateful Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685, and was later the site of a noted incident of nocturnal levitation, but otherwise sat quiet and alone in the flat landscape. Then, in the 1930s, Bridgwater burst its boundaries and the British Cellophane factory was built on land adjoining Sydenham House. Trapped in a no-mans-land between this huge new development and the railway line the house became inaccessible and invisible, and was largely forgotten. The name lingered, though, having been given to Sydenham Terrace, a row of red-brick workers cottages built in 1865, and to the grander Sydenham Villa.

Oh, yes – brick. Bridgwater was a brick-making town, and the West Country a brick-making region, and the fact that the houses at this new place, the Sydenham Estate, were to be built in concrete caused some controversy. BRIDGWATER WANTS BRICK HOUSES read one 1948 headline [2] and the town council were repeatedly criticised for failing to take advantage of a supposed 10 million local bricks ready for use. Not Bridgwater bricks, though, replied the council, and anyway, where are the bricklayers to turn them into homes? [3] The town wanted to build 2,000 houses, public and private, as quickly as possible and there was no room for sentiment. [4]

Drawing of a council house.
SOURCE: Me.

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 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? Later on, in the late 1950s, when permission was given for a brewery to build a pub on the estate, magistrates quietly objected to the suggested name, The Lorna Doone. It was changed, accordingly, to The Withy Cutter in reference to the Somerset levels willow industry. [5] Too little, too late.

Drawing of a council house.
SOURCE: Me.

When Sydenham really became a place, it was 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 – it was hardly South Central Los Angeles – 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.)

But Sydenham, barely baked, seems to be fading away. Sydenham Villa, on the other side of Bath Road from the estate, was demolished as long ago as the 1950s. 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”. I wonder if this place, conjured into existence in 1945, will make its hundred years.

1. 6 October 1945, p.5.
2. Taunton Courier, 4 December 1948, p.3.
3. Taunton Courier, 5 January 1946, p.6.
4. Taunton Courier, 6 October 1945, p.5.
5. Taunton Courier, 29 March 1958, p.8.

Striking Out

Underneath a motorway bridge.

One day when I was about 13 I realised I could just walk out of town whenever I liked, with the only limits being time and the weather.

My home town is really one big outskirt – not confidently urban, but not quite rural either; a place where you can stand surrounded by concrete and factories while enveloped in the stink of manure.

I was raised as a town boy – the countryside was a thing you sped through in a car on the way to the seaside or Taunton – but couldn’t help wondering what was out there, beyond the sign that announced our twinning with La Ciotat and Uherské Hradiště. What was on those hills I could always see in the distance, where snow sometimes sat while town was as grey as ever? What was up that lane? Where did the filthy old river go?

First, I tested the boundaries, walking a little further each time. The motorway felt like a barrier but I crossed that easily enough, my flat feet slapping their way across a pavement barely used. On the other side, just barely, I found the hamlet of Horsey and thought, well, there it is: I’ve walked to another place. I tried the same on the other side of town, passing under the motorway this time, and found Dunwear.

Then I really stretched myself, walking beyond the point where the pavement ended, past the absolute feathertips of town. Trudging alongside the A39 was dangerous which added to the thrill but I knew the rules (face the traffic) and there were verges to retreat to if need be.

A tractor on a country road.

It’s impure countryside out that way: stalked by crackling pylons, littered with fast food wrappers and fly-tippings, and with the constant sound of the motorway boring away like a dental drill. At certain stretches it feels as if there’s more roadkill than road. But compared to the estate it was open, wild and fecund.

That time I made it to the King’s Sedgemoor Drain, which looks like a river but was built by men. There was a path that I wanted to follow but it seemed as if I’d already gone too far from home so I turned back.

Next time, I did go that way, stopping to eat a sandwich with a view across fields of gaudy yellow rapeseed, with the tower of Sutton Mallet Church in the distance. I may have read some poems, which was the kind of thing done by the kind of person I thought I wanted to be then. It was warm and insects as big as shuttlecocks made ceremonial flypasts. I thought, ah, there it is — this England I’ve heard so much about.

I went out time and again, taking different routes, going beyond and beyond again, until one day I was taken with the most pathetic, suburban version of exploration mania you can imagine and didn’t turn back when I should have. Stranded in Huntspill as night fell I found a payphone and called to be picked up. In the car home, with aching feet and muscles, I felt like Edmund Hillary.

All of this, I suppose, was training for life, a kind of straining at the leash. Timid and reticent as I was, and am, I never wanted to stay at home forever.

First stop Bawdrip, next stop the world.

War Still Echoes

Inside a shelter.
The Spitfire base at Perranporth, Cornwall.

The recent surge in the visibility of fascism and fascist imagery is depressing. It’s become a cliche to say it but here goes: we had a war and settled this a while back, didn’t we?

What I’ve been thinking about lately, in particular, is how that ‘while back’ doesn’t even feel all that far back.

Yes, that feeling is partly a result of my being a relic of the 1970s but, really, you don’t have to look far, even in the leafy suburbs, small towns and countryside of Britain, to see great concrete chunks of World War II just lying around, like tombstones.

I went for a run up and around Purdown in Bristol the other day. My aim was to get to the base of the telecoms tower I’ve been able to see on the horizon for the last few weeks. Once I’d got past that, however, I was amazed to find myself picking a path through what were obviously the overgrown remains of gun emplacements.

Officially known as the Purdown Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery this site was first militarised in 1939 and the concrete structures were erected in 1940. Locally it was the source of the legend of ‘Purdown Percy‘, a supposedly secret, supposedly massive gun that could be heard across the city.

Fantastic as I found this survival I wasn’t surprised by its existence because, honestly, it sometimes feels like a challenge to go for a walk or ramble without stumbling across something like this.

Spitfire base, Perranporth.

On the Cornish coast in April my other half and I found ourselves diverted through the remains of a Spitfire base at Perranporth — overgrown, yes, but so complete that a Battle of Britain fighter squadron could probably operate out of it by this time next week if need be.

In my home town of Bridgwater pill boxes surround the railway station and line the canal all the way Taunton — brutal brick and concrete structures designed for no purpose other than war and preserved at first, I’ve always assumed, because no-one quite believed the peace would hold with Russia rampant; and then just forgotten about.

Even in London, built on and overbuilt and developed to a high shine, you can still see painted signs on Smith Square pointing to air raid shelters, and the remains of shelters themselves in parks and on side streets. Just look at the Citadel in St James’s Park, as I used to do on the way into work most mornings for about a decade — a bunker so bullying and intrusive, like a beached warship, that it has almost become invisible.

The war is still with us, even as those who remember it firsthand slip away from us.

The war is still The War.

The warning still rings.

Smiling Somerset

Grey concrete in black-and-white.
The sea wall at Burnham.

When I tell people I’m from Somerset they usually say, ‘Oh, lovely!’ recalling holidays they’ve had. But my home town, Bridgwater, isn’t lovely. I mean, I love it, but it’s a working town, with barely a touch of twee about it.

When I bumped into one of my former A level tutors in a pub in London years after leaving home he described Bridgwater as being ‘Like Barnsley or Bolton dropped into the middle of the rural West Country.’ Someone else once summed it up as ‘a small town with inner-city problems’. And a graffito left in the town centre, on display for many years, was pithier: ‘All this town cares about is fucking carnival.’

I should explain Carnival. It takes place every November and is the town’s pulse — an obsession for many and something of which the town is rightly proud. To understand the scale and drama of the event you can do worse than listen to this excellent episode of The Untold narrated by Grace Dent and produced by Polly Weston which goes behind the scenes of  a friendship rent asunder by competing carnival club loyalties.

One of my favourite things is to make habitually unimpressed sophisticates watch videos of Carnival on YouTube; imagining bumpkins prancing about on the back of flat-bed lorries, their jaws drop when they see the fully illuminated mechanically animated behemoths thundering along in clouds of noise and steam. It is amazing. Barmy, brash, camp, yes, but truly amazing.

Then there are the holiday resorts of Burnham and Weston where the sea is merely a concept, once popular with working class Brummies and northerners who would pass us on the motorway as we headed towards Fleetwood and Blackpool. Again, there was no twee in Burnham, just full-throated fun when there was sufficient booze and sun, or oppressive uniform greyness when there wasn’t.

Wintry scene with morning colours of pale purple and orange.
Frozen nettles on the Somerset levels.

When I started to take myself for long walks as a teenager, it was along the banks of drainage ditches, in the orbit of the sinister Royal Ordnance Factory. However far I walked, I could always hear the sore throat of the motorway and occasionally military aircraft would thunder low overhead. There were pillboxes everywhere, unremarked upon, brutalist cubes in the middle of otherwise pretty fields.

As a young man my council estate conditioning and a comprehensive school cringe made even the most ordinarily pleasant town or village feel intimidatingly posh so that for many years the prettier side of Somerset felt all but inaccessible. It didn’t matter, though, because I liked the flat, grim, gritty, gleefully tacky version that I understood. I never called it a ‘shithole’ like some of the other aloof university-bound kids. I never really wanted to leave.

More recently, fuelled by homesick reading, and with the chip on my shoulder finally beginning to disintegrate as I enter middle age, I’ve begun to explore — to appreciate the nature, architecture and deep history of a place I thought I knew. I’ve realised it’s not all institutional severity — there are orchards, forests, cliffsides, ancient churches and a thousand other delights. And I like that version of Somerset too, even if I still feel like a tourist there.

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.

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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.

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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.