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Paved with good intentions: John Grindrod

Interview by Andrew Stevens.

3:AM: Your first book, Concretopia, covered Britain’s post-war New Towns and urban planning – Outskirts is largely concerned with the post-war Green Belt?

JG: They are both attempts to explain bits of 20th-century history to myself. I’d grown up on a post-war housing estate outside Croydon, and I was interested in how places like that had come about. And so that inspired me to research and write Concretopia, which turned into an exploration of the rebuilding of post-war Britain. The house I’d grown up in was on the edge of that estate, looking out over fields. I hadn’t realised that it was green belt, but I was aware when I wrote Concretopia there was a whole other side to the story – the stuff the planners were protecting – and so that became the idea behind Outskirts. To explain to myself what green belts actually are, and how they came about.

3:AM: It’s a very personal account, as well as the considerations around the history of English land use planning, you recite anecdotes such as coming out to your parents during an ad break in Taggart

JG: I had included a few more personal elements in the first book, and in this one it struck me that my parents’ story – moving out from the slums of Battersea to the edge of the green belt in the 60s – did a lot of the work in terms of giving the book a narrative. And from there I realised there were echoes in so much of what happened to us as a family in the story of the green belt itself. The notion of outskirts, a feeling that life is elsewhere and of not fitting in, seemed to chime with the green belt itself – not the great passionate wilds or the drama of urban life, but somewhere in between, an unconsidered space. I’m keen on social history, and a remote ‘voice of god’ telling of the green belt story would have lost a lot of the charm and interest for me. After all, the green belt is a man-made thing, not a natural phenomenon, and so humanising it seemed essential.

3:AM: Both the new towns and green belt, as you document and is well understood, were of a certain sense of post-war idealism.  How was that experienced by you and your family and do you think it has any relevance today, other than as nostalgia?

JG: Well, we didn’t live in a new town, and the story of housing estates is much less idealistic on the whole, because unlike new towns there weren’t development corporations ensuring there was an exciting cultural and social life for everyone. New Addington had the slight sense of having been rather thrown together and abandoned by Croydon Council, and so it had a bit of a ‘frontier’ vibe. But the thing about being surrounded by all of this post-war infrastructure, and of having the dramatically rebuilt and exciting town centre of Croydon to visit was that it all felt pretty space age and modern. And of course we took a lot of that post-war settlement – NHS, council housing, welfare benefits – for granted. 

I suppose you can be nostalgic about that stuff but I also feel angry about the betrayal and erosion of the welfare state. The ‘big planning’ of the era (new towns and the like) and the welfare reforms are part of a coherent narrative, and we can see the effects their abandonment played out in this election, for example, where housing, the NHS and welfare benefits for pensioners and people with disabilities have been major issues. So rather than nostalgia I see them as live issues, and decent things to be fought for.

3:AM: As you say, this was all part of a post-war settlement – it’s surprising that the town and country planning system has survived so long, given Thatcher and Ridley had a good go at dismantling it, but it now seems politically unfashionable to champion it?

JG: What we do have is a diminishment of the planning system and the role of strategic planning. Even though many of the controls appear to remain in place, a lack of government enforcement and available planners means that the ability to make good and sensible decisions has been eroded. The market wants to put houses where it’s not a good idea for other reasons – environmental, creating town boundaries etc. – and cash-strapped local government isn’t in any position to resist.

3:AM: New Addington’s not a new town, as you say, but it was once ‘new’ and it’s detached from Croydon and all that speaks for.  You’ve spoken before on Croydon and its place in music history, but what of the new towns, which seemed to incubate subcultures within them?

JG: It’s fascinating that new town development corporations were very keen on setting up community arts organisations (choirs, theatre groups, bands, dance groups, orchestras, etc.) and I can’t help thinking that the result of that was that the younger generation growing up there came from families where this kind of cultural openness was encouraged. Also, there is something to be said for growing up somewhere that isn’t a bustling metropolis, where creating your own fun or rebelling is an attractive thing for young people to be doing. For anyone into the arts in new towns I’d recommend watching the 1964 film Faces of Harlow, or listening to The Magnetic North’s 2016 album Prospect of Skelmersdale.

3:AM:  Similarly, in terms of music, the green belt has inspired, I’m thinking here Paul Weller and ‘Thick as Thieves’ by the Jam?

JG: It’s interesting that the rise of British folk music in the 50s and 60s was incubated in folk clubs in green belt towns like Luton and Hemel Hempstead.  A lot of the best pop music is from the suburban fringe, the waste ground and council homes in songs by the likes of Suede and The Kinks. “Distant sound of thunder, moving out on the moor/Blackbirds flew in and to the cooling towers,” a lyric from Wilmslow band Doves’ song ‘Kingdom of Rust’ is a classic green belt lyric, combining rural and industrial. Elbow, from Bury, conjure similar images in their songs too. It’s a continuing strand in pop and rock music. The green belts came about in 1955, at about the same time skiffle, rock n roll and the folk revival were kicking off too.  Then there’s ‘The Road to Hell’ by Chris Rea, a rather different vision, inspired by that green belt monolith, the M25… It’s not always inspiring positive imagery in pop.

3:AM: Do you think that both the new towns and green belts taken together do point to a particular articulation of ‘Englishness’, that New Jerusalem?

JG: Northern Ireland and Scotland have had green belts since the 1960s, but the pressure on expansion of cities had been more acute in England, hence the heightened obsession with them here. Now that there are plans to expand Edinburgh quite substantially the green belt issue there has suddenly become a live one. But yes, on the whole, there is a particular sort of Englishness that the green belts evoke. Rolling farmland, pylons, villages, power stations. A contradictory version of the countryside, the sort of place that Ladybird books were great at illustrating. Modernist pastoral.

3:AM: Conversely, as a nation our new towns tend to be easily denigrated, ‘Crap Towns’ and the like?

JG: There is a political flavour to the denigration of new towns and post-war rebuilding. We’ve lived through decades of corporate interests ever-more keen to buy up state assets and government privatising amenities and houses through right-to-buy. Therefore, symbols of welfare state and post-war consensus are easy targets for hostile media and politicking grandstanders. New towns are varied, it’s true. There’s little in common between Harlow, Cumbernauld or Milton Keynes, including their relative success. Milton Keynes is still growing and has been a huge success. Those towns built around declining industry, like Newton Aycliffe, have really struggled. And a big problem for them was that once their development corporations were wound-up, jealous local councils asset-stripped these new towns and cut their funding. So as they have entered the modern era these towns have found it hard to remain the dynamic and exciting places they were imagined to be.

There’s more similarity between them and the green belts than you might imagine too: both the fruits of ‘big planning’, often seen as some kind of socialist utopia-building. The green belts have only lasted as long as they have because of the disproportionate amount of Tory voters in them, meaning that the very MPs who would ordinarily have voted to get rid of these strict controls are forced by their local voters instead to protect them. And so the roots of the green belts as part of this post-war planning movement are lost in arguments to defend them, because it doesn’t suit the narrative of small state anti-planning Tories.

3:AM: Docklands was heralded as some kind of totemic success, despite using the same model.

JG: It’s easier for them to champion this kind of urban regeneration as it’s all about luxury and gentrification rather than the needs of ordinary people. Tom Dyckhoff tells this story rather brilliantly in his new book The Age of Spectacle.

3:AM: You have a fondness for administrators and ‘big planners’, Frank Pick, Patrick Abercrombie and Evelyn Sharp, to name but three – you don’t seem as interested in the personalities and motivations of present-day figures undoing their works?

JG: My books are more post-war histories than contemporary state of the nation analysis, and so it’s not really possible within those stories to focus on the figures today without losing that focus. There seem to me to be plenty of brilliant journalist and non-fiction writers around unpicking the follies of today’s planning, from Anna Minton to Dawn Foster.

3:AM: You also seem very interested in your readers and their stories and are not content to just put books on shelves, but engage via twitter and your blog as updates and reframing of your work.

JG: I do love talking to people, readers or not, about this stuff. It’s the geek in me! One of the best things about the internet has been the ability to find like-minded souls to speak to about the geekier side of life. It’s very hard to be bored when there’s so many interesting people to talk to and so much to find out about.

3:AM: That also serves as a platform to share your love of the PR films made for all those new towns?

JG: New town development corporations had a budget for marketing these places, and so often made films to be screened before the main feature at local cinemas, particularly those of the nearby city they were hoping to draw people from. They tend to be a little starchy and formulaic, but every so often there will be a real gem. I love Faces of Harlow, which I’ve mentioned before – available on a DVD from the BFI. My favourite new town film is Cumbernauld Hit, an Italian Job-style caper set in the Scottish New Town where Carry On actress Fenella Fielding attempts to hijack the town to a 70s porn soundtrack. 

Living at Thamesmead is a semi-fictionalised story of a couple of teenagers from 1973 living on the new London estate. With the flares, long hair and dated slang it’s a real period piece. Barbican, a 1969 film, takes us through the luxury flats of the City of London, when carpets were dazzlingly patterned and concrete was rough. 

It wasn’t just new towns promoting themselves. Take Glasgow 1980, a 1971 film telling the story of the city’s rebuildings and projecting a decade into the future. With its shots of early office computing and discos it’s full of incredible period detail. So too is Sheffield, City on the Move, also from 1971, and familiar to anyone who’s seen the opening credits of The Full Monty. I love digging out these films and posting them, they are a constant delight.

3:AM: And, lastly, you recently provided a kind of reading list for Outskirts?

JG: There were all sorts of books that fed into the writing of Outskirts. Some were geekily factual, like Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan from 1944 or the Ministry of Housing booklet The Green Belts from 1962. But there were more narrative non-fiction books too, like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the 1960s environmental classic about the rise of pesticides, or New Lives, New Landscapes from 1970, by landscape architect Nan Fairbrother – my favourite writer on the topic, who brings a lively, witty and moving style to the subject. 

There were novels too. Greengates by R. C. Sherriff, 1936, is about those sprawling interwar suburbs of moderne semi-detached houses which caused the green belt to come into existence. And Stig of the Dump by Clive King is a brilliantly imaginative green belt novel, imagining a tribe of cavemen living in the woods and quarries of Kent.

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Stevens is senior editor of 3:AM and lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 19th, 2017.