or, You can (sometimes!) judge a book by its cover…
Is this the most beautiful book cover of 2019?
‘Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing’ by John Boughton is certainly important bringing, as it does, a reminder of just how vital council (or ‘social’ as it is now called) housing has been in supporting people since the late nineteenth century and in helping to create post-war British society. He goes on to show how those dreams of a fairer society were ripped apart by Margaret Thatcher’s governments, starting the inexorable decline of this once cherished resource into something to be demonised, neglected and, ultimately leading to such terrible events as the fire at Grenfell Tower in London which killed, injured and made homeless hundreds of people.
I love how the cover of the hardback – designed by Daniel Benneworth-Grey, below – used the font designed by Philip Boydell for the 1951 Festival of Britain, an event which allowed a war-weary Britain to look to the future with optimism, an optimism helped by the huge house-building programme set up by the Labour government, of which ‘Council Housing’ was part.
For the paperback, the publishers turned to ‘No Ideas’ to design a cover which harkens back to those early days of council housing which replaced many slum areas with bright, open, modern buildings with space and air. The design mimics the covers of many ‘Ladybird’ books, small books for children (again from the post WW2 period, but still published today, albeit redesigned) which aimed to help with reading and provide a peep into history, the world and other cultures through bright, positive imagery and clear prose. For many British people of a certain age, the frisson of childhood optimism and security summed up by Ladybird cannot be far way when they first see this book.
This is a fascinating book whose contents move away from the wraparound optimism as the story is brought up to date. Thankfully however, Boughton tries to bring a return to those early visions of hope (despite the current climate and our dreadful, self-serving Conservative government) as he draws his conclusions:
‘The form and nature of council houisng has been unfairly blamed for problems entrenched in our unequal society and exacerbated by the politics which reflect it. There are indications that public opinion is changing; that, as the failure of the free market to provide goods and affordable homes to all those who need them becomes increasingly obvious (the very reason why council housing emerged in the late nineteenth century), many people are revisiting both the past contribution of public housing and its current necessity.
I hope a fuller and more nuanced understanding of both past achievements and current follies may yet shift this politics and allow our municipal dreams to flourish once more.’
This is a book which is both beautiful AND important.