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Park Entries: Travis Elborough

Interview by Andrew Stevens.

3:AM: Is there a vocation as a historian or more just a kind of mission to explain?

TE: I guess it’s a mixture of those Reithian BBC ideals of informing, educating and entertaining – and I do hope that my work, while serious, is enjoyable. I know when we made How We Used to Live one of our ambitions was to create a kind of Spirit of 45 for people who might listen to Kent 45s. Political but fun, as it were. I think I am just a curious person, perhaps, alas, in every sense of the word. Most of my books begin with questions, really. Why did people (myself included) love the Routemaster bus so much? When did we start taking seaside holidays? How come we have public parks and why do they look the way they do?

3:AM: That way of doing so comes across as quite gentle and respectful. Are there any past writers you admire in that regard?

TE: Well, all the greats. Asa Briggs, E P Thompson, Colin Ward et al.  But the one writer I go back to again and again is Joseph Mitchell. I am sure you know of him, but he was a pioneer of the kind of novelistic reportage later christened ‘New Journalism’ by Tom Wolfe. He specialised in chronicling the wilder sides of New York, a city he moved to at the outbreak of the Great Depression and instantly fell in love with. From 1938 until his death in 1996, he was a staff writer on the New Yorker and filled its pages with pen portraits of steelworkers, street-preachers, bearded sideshow ladies, tavern keepers and their assorted and unseemly clientele, fish-stall holders and impecunious flop-house philosophers.

But after 1964 when Joe Gould’s Secret, his second profile of a Princeton-educated would-be poet turned street bum and supposed compiler of an oral history of New York, appeared, he never completed and never published another article for the magazine again, despite keeping regular office hours for the next twenty-odd years.

My copy of Up at the Old Hotel, the anthology of most of his best pieces, is beyond well-thumbed. He is also someone I consult when the words are failing me and the will to write is proving elusive.

3:AM: You’ve written well-received histories of the Routemaster bus, English seaside towns and now public parks, to name but three.  There’s a respect for a lost age of civic-ism there?

TE: I certainly think we need to think seriously about the civic realm, which has been under attack and under-resourced in more recent times. I think the most recent election has shown that I am not alone in being concerned about the state and funding of our much-cherished public resources and amenities. Though it’s worth remembering that both public transport, the seaside resorts and the pleasure gardens that helped beget parks as we know them, began as commercial ventures. Shillibeer started a horse-drawn omnibus service in London to make money (he failed!) and similarly the likes of Brighton, Eastbourne, Blackpool and Hunstanton grew from fishing towns to resorts thanks to speculation by wealthy landowners and jobbing property developers, sometimes in cahoots with commercial railway companies. Perhaps a recurring theme in these books is that in each case the market alone was not enough to ensure either of these things thrived and that they all enjoyed something of a heydey arguably when the municipal spirit was at its strongest. With our parks, after all, it was lottery funding in the late 1990s that stopped the rot, while now they are again struggling to find resources for their upkeep and management.

3:AM: A certain sense of Englishness, as well as that lost civic ideal?

TE: Perhaps.  I am English, but my wife is a Swedish-born American and I have pondered things like Anglo-American relations in my book London Bridge in America. And the initial spur of my seaside book, was, in matter of fact, two films about Atlantic City, The King of Marvin Gardens and Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, when there was a scheme to build a super casino at Blackpool. Atlantic City is the basis for the original Monopoly board, and has regenerated itself since the late 1970s by legalising gambling, and this combination of poker and property seemed then also to be at heart of a revival of the British seaside too.

3:AM: But it wasn’t just civic improvement, the book also shows the utopian spirit or tradition at play here?

TE: Yes, the park-movement, if we can call it that, really emerged in the 1830s and in response to industrialisation and urbanisation and the arrival of Asiatic cholera. It’s on a par with the more general drive toward improving sanitation, and building of new roads, and public institutions like schools, libraries, museums and so on, and also the extension of the franchise, and the establishment of local government, trade unions, organised sports. The watchword of the period is ‘improvement’, with Pip from Great Expectations the perfect example of the lad who wants to better himself. Darwinian evolution is another element of this.

Historically and especially in England, as Asa Briggs’ Victorian Cities pointed out long ago, there’s bias against the city, which is associated with worldly sin and artifice, versus the supposedly godlier country which is ‘natural’. So social reformers, temperance campaigners and well-heeled philanthropists put great store in pockets of verdant beauty having a civilising effect on the masses. In place of drunken pugilistic contests in tavern gardens and dog fights and other rough and ready entertainments on patches of common land, carefully landscaped parks and public walks were promoted as health-giving means of supplying morally improving ‘rational recreation’ – to use the jargon of the day.

3:AM: You include the visionary works of William Morris and Ebenezer Howard in that tradition?

TE: William Morris and Octavia Hill were both involved in the Commons Preservation Society and helped ensure that Hampstead Heath and Epping Forest were preserved as open green spaces. So he and Hill are incredibly important to the story of parks in Britain. We can see them and radicals like the great Edward Carpenter, a socialist and openly gay apostle for sandal-wearing who denounced shoes as ‘coffins for feet’, as proto-environmentalists.

Morris’s advocacy of Tudorbethan Olde English or Shakespeare, Gardens, using the indigenous plants that the Bard or Francis Bacon might have known, was something that also became a feature of many of the London County Council’s public parks, some of which, like the one in Brockwell Park, are still with us today.

But in his lecture ‘Art and the Beauty of the Earth’, Morris had argued that industrial England had to be turned ‘from the grimy backyard of a workshop into a garden’ and wished for ‘the town to be impregnated with the beauty of the country, and the country with the intelligence and vivid life of the town… the town to be clean, orderly, and tidy; in short, a garden with beautiful houses in it’ Which in effect is pretty much what Ebenezer Howard also proposed with his idea of the Garden City.

As it happens both men were hugely influenced by a now little-read science fiction novel by Edward Bellamy entitled Looking Backward, 2000–1887. Morris wrote News from Nowhere as a direct response to the book, which he believed put too much faith in technology, hence him positing a kind of re-wilded neo-Medieval London of the future where handicrafts and stone bridges are back and iron and heavy industry have been banished from the realm. Whereas Howard took the book almost as a blueprint for how we might build a better city and society. Howard was also inspired by Adelaide in Australia which had expanded around its parks. And in a way the Garden City is in effect what having a town or city inside a park could or should be like.

3:AM: Carpenter was, of course, famously pilloried by George Orwell, who you record in the book as utilising London’s parks for other purposes during wartime.

TE: Yes, he was. It is Carpenter, clearly, who Orwell has in mind when he fires off that rant in The Road to Wigan Pier about socialist meetings attracting all the cranks, the fruit-juice drinkers, nudists, sandal-wearers and sex-maniacs. And that passage was written after Orwell had attended the Independent Labour Party summer school at Letchworth – Ebenezer Howard’s original Garden City. Though he conveniently fails to mention that fact, implying instead he’s just passing by on a bus and earwigging fellow passengers voicing their disgust at short-wearing socialists.

Still…. as for Orwell and parks… he does describe kipping in one in Kent with the tramp called Ginger in Down and Out in Paris and London. But at the outset of the war, Orwell joined the Local Defence Volunteers, the forerunner of the Home Guard, and he and his ‘platoon’ dug trenches and conducted drills in Regent’s Park.

3:AM: You also mention the National Spinsters’ Pensions Association agitating for greater women’s rights in Hyde Park during that period, which is an interesting confluence of gender, space and politics.

TE: Completely, I think it’s one of the most fascinating things about them. They are, as I write elsewhere in the book, tame wildernesses that were widely deployed as tools to tame supposed wildness among the population, ease alienation and see off social discord etc. But cultivated wildness can unexpectedly cultivate wildness, and much as rebellious peasants had once conspired to steal game from royal preserves, so disaffected urbanites would consistently use parks as a place to gather to misbehave, often disgracefully, and forcefully challenge authority.

3:AM: Authority in the post-war era, Fabian planners and the like, was however to an extent influenced by those earlier utopian visionaries?

TE: To an extent yes. People like T. H. Mawson, who at the turn of the 20th century wrote The Art and Craft of Garden Making and designed Hanley Park in Stoke-on-Trent and Wolverhampton’s East and West Parks among others, moved from gardening and landscape architecture into town-planning, when this was still something of novel disciple. He wrote one of the first primers in the field, the book Civic Art. Mawson knew Patrick Geddes, who defined ‘civics as an art not to do ‘with U-topia but with Eu-topia; not with imagining an impossible no-place where all is well, but with making the most and best of each and every place, and especially of the city in which we live.’ So I think the inter-war town-planners saw themselves more as practical do-ers rather than romantic dreamers but many held progressive views and had the backing of municipal authorities whose rate-levies were put at their disposal.

They were pushing town-planning as a serious academic discipline, believing it to be something akin to a science. The idea being that if towns were better designed, it would lead to better, healthier lives. The chance emerges with the sense that a better world must be built after the war but also the country is beset by high unemployment and the threat of a Russian-style revolution, so government works schemes are undertaken to provide work, and some of that does take the form of new parks, like those built in the inter-war years in Norwich.

3:AM: Around the time of the crumbling of the post-war settlement with the winter of discontent, you record that many parks and lidos had succumbed to vandalism and decay, a fate which also befell many seaside towns’ civic amenities, to mention your earlier book.

TE: There are several reasons and a number of complicating factors and some, in a sense, unintended consequences related to the improvements in living standards that resulted from the post-war settlement. As people’s leisure options widened, car ownership rose and consumerism took hold, there were just other things to do. Instead of going to the local park, you might now go to the shopping precinct, drive out somewhere else entirely, or head to an indoor leisure centre or swimming pool – and from the 1970s on, councils often lumped parks in with broader new leisure departments, where they had to battle for funds against such new sporting facilities. Increasing suburbanisation and the boom in new homes, both council and private, means that pursuits like DIY or gardening – and enjoying your own garden rather than a public one – reduce the time many spend in old school parks. There are of course plenty of new recreation grounds and new forms of parks in this era… But as the economy starts to falter a lot of parks, like some seaside resorts now that there are these new continental holidays to enjoy, gradually become places where those with nowhere else to go, go.

And by the 1980s and into the 90s when budgets are slashed and contracts for their maintenance are privatised and their upkeep is outsourced to often roving gangs of gardeners, who only visit the various parks they manage intermittently, parks start to go into quite a steep period of decline. Not all parks, obviously but in 1994, for instance, less than 10 percent of the UK’s urban parks had cafes or refreshment kiosks and only 25 percent still had working toilets.

3:AM: As you say in the book, Victorian parks were seen as “unsafe and uninviting” by the mid-90s.  Around the same time, Patrick Wright records in his A Journey Through Ruins: the Last Days of London that it was possible for a dead body to float undisturbed for three weeks in a Hackney park pond as it was indistinguishable from other debris. Then things changed?

TE: That is a great book, a strand of it, of course, considers that much bandied around phenomena, gentrification, that process of middle-class re-urbanisation that in London and elsewhere had been underway since the 1960s. Though Jonathan Raban in Soft City traces it right back to Orwell moving to Islington in the 1940s. But, yes, parks in Britain are effectively saved in the mid-90s when funds from the National Lottery, as I have already mentioned, are devoted to them. This arrives at the point when green space is also being promoted as part of various urban renewal and environmental schemes and there are some heroic grassroots efforts by volunteers and user groups into the bargain.

3:AM: As the book ends and we can all observe, the trend appears to show greater commercialisation of public space, demunicipalisation of council services and that green space seen as an asset class by developers?

TE: I am afraid that does seem to be the more general drift… but we should remember that in the past parks like Victoria Park in London and Birkenhead Park on the Wirral were partially funded through the speculative development of park-side villas and the belief that a park would boost property values. One of the things about the real nadir years is that parks are seen as liabilities rather than assets and residents even object to the creation of new parks as they fear undesirables will congregate in them.


Andrew Stevens is an associate editor of 3:AM and lives in East London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 21st, 2017.