Thursday, 13 July 2017

Forty-Seven Memory Palace

I have mentioned several times the block of council flats in Stevenage New Town, in which I spent my adolescent years. After my sister had left home we moved, in summer 1968, to a two-bedroom, fourth-floor flat in this seven-story block, known variously as "Stony Hall, Block C" and "Chauncy House". It was the last home I shared with my parents and, in Neil Young's words, all my changes were there ("There is a place in Northern Hertfordshire..."). It was there that I went from being a lonely, obedient swot to a gregarious, rebellious swot. Well, you can't change everything!

After I, too, had left home (about as hastily as I could manage it, I'm afraid to say), my parents finally moved out of that flat in the 1980s, at first into a council-maintained old-people's bungalow then, as they grew increasingly frail, into a mobile-home in my sister's back garden in Norfolk (we were under oath never to call it "the caravan"). My increasingly tenuous connection with my home-town had finally been broken.

Driving up from Southampton to my mother's funeral in 2007, I thought I'd take a detour through Stevenage to get a look at the flats, and maybe take some photographs. To my complete amazement I discovered that the entire block had been demolished, and building work was already starting on the site. It was hard to take in: my bedroom, the theatre of so many vivid teenage dreams, fears, aspirations, and fantasies, had simply become an empty, dusty space, fifty feet up in the air. It was a scene you wouldn't dare write into a film, for fear of being accused of heavy-handed symbolism.

Being of an obsessive bent, in the years since I have continually attempted to recreate that flat as a sort of exercise in mental archaeology. In idle moments, drifting off to sleep or travelling on trains, I have carried out many walk-throughs of its layout and contents, to the extent that I could probably use it as a "memory palace"; a memory flat, perhaps, for a more modest mnemonic store of material. The door was here, it had frosted glass, no pebbled wire-reinforced glass, it was dark red, next to the wall of the kitchen which looked onto the walkway, and so on. Somehow, though, whenever I tried to put the layout on paper, it never quite fitted together. I tried working from the few photographs I had, but these were all of the front elevation, not the back where all the walkways, lifts, entrances, and rubbish chutes were. Periodically, I would carry out Google searches, to see if any new images or information would show up. Usually, I would draw a blank.

But, recently, I finally hit paydirt. It turns out that the University of Edinburgh maintains a database of UK tower-blocks, including the ones that are no longer with us. Their entry for Stony Hall a.k.a. Chauncy House was very informative, giving front and – finally! – rear view photographs taken by Miles Glendinning in the 1980s, and useful things like the name of the architects, and references to some articles written about it in architectural journals back in the 1950s, when the design of "social housing" was a hot topic, and racking plebs like battery hens was considered a decent solution to the housing shortage.

A quick check showed that "my" library did actually hold two of the journals concerned, and a descent into the basement (where disruptive and noisy refurbishment is taking place over the summer) put the relevant volumes into my hands. I couldn't believe my luck: there was a ten-page article in The Architectural Review for December 1952 that included fresh photographs, front and rear, and the thing I had dreamed of finding: an architect's plan of the layout of the flats.

The curious thing is that there is almost certainly no-one else in the entire world who cares about this in the slightest. The even more curious thing is that the perfect solution to my self-imposed problem had been sitting in my former place of work, undiscovered and patiently waiting, all along.


Zouk Delors said...

How disappointing! When you said "your" library, I really thought you meant your personal collection.

Is it still a point in mid-air? Or is it now contained within someone else's habitation, I wonder? Not at that height, I fancy. Look! There's the point in mid-air where I first heard Wheels of Fire!

Speaking of fire, never heard of one there.

We do tai chi in the community centre on the new estate there now, btw.

Mike C. said...


Yes, that would have been something, to have owned the plans of Chauncy House without knowing it.

It's the mid-air thing that keeps me thinking about this: a few cubic feet in which so much intense experience was had, "Wheels of Fire" and all, now just virtually defined. It's a pretty good metaphor for life, I suppose.

I doubt fire would ever have been a problem, as it was built to nuclear bunker spec -- I'm amazed they *could* demolish it, you could barely bang a nail in the wall -- and there was zero communication between floors internally, even the lift shaft and rubbish chutes were tacked on externally.

Community centres were one of the things I loved about Stevenage, very true to the original spirit -- I have very keen memories of learning judo in the one in Shephall, and of my Nan running the Over-60s Club in Chells. Odd to think we could now be members...


amolitor said...

How did your memory match the actual plans?

Mike C. said...

In most respects pretty close, once I'd remembered (relatively recently) that the kitchen wall ran along the walkway, but that there was a six foot wide void that ran along in front of the rest of the flat, so you had to cross a sort of bridge to get to the front door. It was that forgotten offset that was responsible for things not fitting together. Visitors found the visible five storey drop a bit terrifying, ditto the narrowness of the railed walkway.

What I now need to do is make a 3D model...


Martyn Cornell said...

And there, mate, in that last sentence, if I may say so, is the plot of your novel ....

Mike C. said...


You may be right! although I think I'd rather it had turned up in the handbag of the beautiful Russian spy I had reluctantly shot with my Walther PPK after a long night of passionate argument about Stalin's legacy in public housing policy, but... "Write what you know" is what they say, isn't it...