John Grindrod’s last book, ‘Concretopia’, was a terrific gazetteer of modern post-war British architecture, those remnants of a time when buildings (and society) faced the future with optimism and hope. ‘Outskirts’ continues this theme, looking at those curious hinterlands intended to bring a balance between town and country: providing space and air for our towns and cities while ensuring the countryside wasn’t swallowed up in blind expansion. As with other progressive initiatives – architecture, health, education – the future of the greenbelt is uncertain and this uncertainty fuels (alongside destructive snobbery about housing estates), a seething anger in what otherwise is a book steeped in melancholy.
I have written previously about how lucky I feel having been brought up in a new town in the north east of England and how the concrete vistas and ginnels were fuel for young imaginations rather than the deadening dullness of popular perception. From both towns I grew up in it was so easy to reach what we perceived of as the country: My Nana and Granda had a caravan in ‘Happy Valley’ to which they went at weekends as a respite from a hard week’s work. As a child it seemed a glorious place, way out in the wilds of the country. Mere streets from my home in our concrete new town were farmers fields in which we would run and make camps and have terrific adventures as the Famous Five, Fantastic Four, or even better than them all, Doctor Who. In ‘Outskirts’ John’s brother Paul shares this perception:
‘Though Addington was a dump, still is, I don’t think I could have had more fun growing up.’ It was a reminder that for many people from the estate, the surrounding country wasn’t a dumping ground, it was a constant mystery and inspiration. ‘I never would have done half the things I did, Whether it’s made me a better person, who knows? Who cares, really? I had fun as a kid, and that was that. It’s what growing up’s all about, having fun and learning’
Of course the memory cheats: in reality ‘Happy Valley’ was about half a mile outside of Hartlepool, a large farmers field leading down to the trickle of a sour smelling beck, and our intergalactic adventures were as likely to have us stumble across lurid (and at the time quite frightening) pornography. But this sometimes bitter reality shouldn’t be allowed to taint the importance of those spaces: those sheaves of splayed genitals are now buried under a whole new estate of houses, leaving generations of kids with little or no space to expand their imaginations and learn about life – in all its vulgar and questionable glory. But without quality, affordable homes on such land, are we denying future generations that glorious concrete, those ginnels and greens which we took for granted and, more importantly somewhere they can simply call home? This is the conundrum at the heart of present day arguments around the green belt.
The other great spectre overlooking the green belt and these proletarian building sites is, of course, snobbery. From the early twentieth century onwards, there has always been a backlash against ‘the masses’ and the need to house them (I’m looking at you, H.G. Wells, and you E. Nesbit) with the intelligentsia yawning on and on about the loss of land, the ‘national character’ and some opaque and mythical ‘olde England’, when what really appalled them was the sprawling kerfuffle of the working class. (see John Carey’s excellent ‘The Intelligentsia and the Masses’ for an eye-opening account). Grindrod mentions R. C. Sherriff’s 1936 novel ‘Greengates’ as a surprising antidote to this, depicting an elderly couple moving from London to a modern estate with charm and a feeling for the excitement which such people must have felt (In 1977 I certainly did!) but, as Grindrod points out, this was a lone voice. Perhaps more indicative is Josephine Tey’s 1948 novel, ‘The Franchise Affair’
A strange little book, ‘The Franchise Affair’ concerns the case of a young girl, Betty Kane, who accuses a mother and daughter of having imprisoned and beaten her in their country house, ‘The Franchise’. Rather than a who-dun-it, Tey’s book is more of a why-dun-it, with a quite poisonous attitude towards the modern masses and the places in which they reside:
‘It was farming country: a land of endless hedged fields and few houses; a rich country but lonely – one could travel mile after mile without meeting another human being. Quiet and confident and unchanged since the Wars of the Roses, hedged field succeeded hedged field and skyline faded into skyline without any break in pattern. Only the telegraph posts betrayed the century
‘Away beyond the horizon was Larborough. Larborough was bicycles, small arms, tin-tacks. Cowan’s Cranberry Sauce, and a million human souls living cheek by jowl in dirty red brick; and periodically it broke bounds in an atavistic longing for grass and earth. But there was nothing in the Milford country to attract a race who demanded with their grass and earth both views and tea-houses; when Larborough went on holiday it went as one man west to the hills and the sea, and the great stretch of country north and east of it stayed lonely and quiet and unlettered, as it had been in the days of the Sun in Splendour. It was ‘dull’ and by that damnation was saved.‘
Tey cannot bring her characters to understand anything of those who live in these places. The attraction of a ‘dreary, rather grimy street – one of a warren of streets very like itself ‘ to Betty Kane is so beyond the realms of their taste that there can only be one explanation, one which at the time of writing would damn her as the true villain of the piece: ”I can tell you one thing about her. She is over-sexed.’ Many years later Sarah Waters’ ‘The Little Stranger’ would serve up a bloody repost to Tey’s bile and while the tone of ‘Outskirts’ – one of quite, considered calm – differs significantly to Waters’, an underlying current of anger is always present and occasionally scratches the surface:
‘The high downlands of Addington has been buried under boring modern housing’. complained the Shell Guide to Surrey. But as the beneficiary of this ‘boring modern housing’ I have to offer a heartfelt ‘fuck off’ to such snobbery’
‘Outskirts’ expertly guides us through the history, politics and debates of the Green Belt and then cleverly refracts this through the lense of his family history to show just how important, vital these modest houses and open spaces can be: his parents, Marj and John, finding a new life away from tenements and flats in central London; for Marj in particular, pootling around the surrounding land energises her intelligence when disability might have crushed it. Our author, the quiet lonely child, is able to feel at home in the fields and forests wherein his imagination soars and he discovers a maternal bond through a mutual love of flora and fauna.
This could have been sickly and sentimental, the tale of a displaced family, ill parents and a lonely gay child being rich pickings for TV movie of the week, but in Grindrod’s hands these stories are moving but not mawkish: take his ‘coming out’ scene, which is pure Alan Bennett :
‘I decided to do it during an advert break in Taggart, because I knew that afforded me a short window as everyone would want to be concentrating on the TV again rather than wanting to go into more detail. Marj didn’t bat an eyelid, and said, Oh, is that all while smiling supportively. John started to mumble something about phases before Marj told him to shut up. And that was that. It was barely ever mentioned again, partly because a distinct lack of boyfriends for the following two decades made it a rather barren topic.‘
Anger and melancholy permeate these pages: melancholy at what has been lost, anger at what the future might hold. They should be strange bedfellows, but Grindrod balances the two perfectly. Actually that’s not quite true – I could easily have read more about the delightful Grindrods and their quietly eccentric lives.
Alongside Lynsey Hanley’s ‘Respectable: The Experience of Class’, ‘Outskirts’ is evidence of a generation of people with a working class background fighting to reclaim their past from the insidious lies of ‘poverty’ shaming. It is everything good history should be: erudite, passionate, personal… and, on top of all this, is proud to acknowledge the importance of Delia Smith:
‘…Ebeneezer Howard’s book Garden Cities of To-Morrow. First published in 1898, this was the extraordinary work that created the idea of networks of verdant new towns. It’s a quick read too. At 128 pages this world-changing book is a fifth of the length of that other building block of civilization, Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course’
‘Middlewich: A postwar council estate in time’
For another poignant snapshot of life growing up on a housing estate in the 1970s and 1980s, you could do worse than Ian Waite’s touching and beautiful ‘Middlewich: A postwar council estate in time’, which can be purchased from http://www.uniformbooks.co.uk.
Here are some extracts…