Thursday 16 March 2023

A Very Modern Utopia

Chauncy House flats, Stevenage (demolished 2007)
We lived on the fourth floor, 1967-80

I read this in the Guardian earlier this month:
Recent(ish) history suggests there might be an alternative: council housing with lifelong, secure tenancies. Fifty or so years ago, thanks to investment by both Labour and Conservative governments, about a third of us lived in homes like that. This was not seen as proof of an over-powerful state, or people’s failure to stand on their own two feet: it was just a mundane and reassuring reality, and the foundation of millions of lives. If we are now a stroppy little island, full of a sense that precious things have been taken away from us, the deliberate decline of this way of living seems to me to be one of the key reasons. It is out there, waiting to be revived: if it was presented to the people currently locked out of the fading dream of property ownership, it might look like the basis of a very modern utopia.
John Harris, Guardian 5/3/2023
To say it rang a bell would be an understatement. Regular readers will know that I grew up in the first of the post-war New Towns: Stevenage, about 30 miles north of London, where an entire town was constructed on precisely the lines described by John Harris, on green-field sites in the windy, chalky hills of North Hertfordshire. Without doubt, Stevenage and the other New Towns were a first, substantial attempt to build a post-war utopia for the British working classes, in particular those looking for a better life than could be found in the blitzed slums of London. They were designed from scratch to be places with good council housing at sensible rents with guaranteed long-term tenancies, green spaces, safe pedestrianised shopping centres, reliable work in light industry, and above all good schools for children, who might even – following the opening up of full secondary and higher education to all – aspire to a university place and a professional career.

It worked and was wonderful for several decades but then, after the 1970s, things took a sour turn, and places like Stevenage became – in received opinion, at least –  a punchline to cynical jokes about nowhere places. Indeed, the whole idea of "town planning" fell into disrepute, seen as little more than brutalist prole-warehousing perpetrated by pipe-smoking architects who themselves chose to live in Hampstead. But I remember coming across a passage in a book which I copied into a notebook, now long-lost. In effect, it said, "we sociologists are studying these kids growing up in new-build estates and New Towns, and we see them as dystopic places, where only alienation and inauthenticity can flourish; but, one day, there will be a generation of adults who have grown up in such places, and for them these streets will have become sites of nostalgia and authenticity". Why, yes: hello! That would be me. 

Of course, our nostalgias are mainly false-memory constructs, and "authenticity" generally a fiction. The past is not somewhere we can visit, and the identity-based relativism that has become so dominant in academia insists that "the past" was an unknowable aggregate of millions of individually-experienced parallel and intersecting realities, anyway. I have no real idea of how different it would have been to have grown up as a girl, for example, born into the same family in the same town in the same year, with the same abilities and attributes. The typical "council-estate child" does not exist, any more than the typical "public schoolboy". Those of us born at the humbler end of society do tend to get studied more intensively, but our actual identities and experiences get processed into aggregated statistics and evidence that represent everyone and no-one. Nobody is as dull as their statistics.

So, not long before I retired in 2014, I was more than a little surprised when, opening a book being discarded from our university library shelves, I saw photographs of familiar faces and scenes I hadn't seen since I was ten years old. The book (Education For Living, by J.R.C. Yglesias, published by Cory, Adams & Mackay in 1965) turned out to be a study of my very own primary school, Peartree Spring Junior, illustrated with photographs taken by Margaret Murray during school activities before and during the time I was there (1961-5). I had no idea such a book existed. Amazingly, this was my school as I remembered it, described in exactly the way I had always thought of it. It is a book about a school as a lived experience and as a beacon of good practice, about ordinary children being valued and nurtured as individuals, and about good teachers being given the chance to do a good job with proper resources. It is a book about optimism. It is also, incidentally, a classic of terrible mid-60s book design.

Miss Hendey... Worth a whole post in her own right.

There's a telling autobiographical passage in the book:
I was at school with Trevor Huddleston and Peter Pears. Neither shone in the eyes of their contemporaries half as much as did the captains of cricket and of football. Today I cannot remember the names of those athletic giants, but I follow with admiration the careers of Trevor Huddleston and Peter Pears ... At the same school there were others, equally sensitive, who took a long time to recover from an education which allowed boys to value games and 'good form' so highly and to mock at deeper human qualities. To be clever and artistic and sensitive was to be scorned and humiliated.
It's a story you often used to hear from those who had been privately-educated in single-sex environments, and that deep sense of resentment against the bullying Masters of the Universe seems often to underpin the commitment to social justice of many activists. We shouldn't knock it: without middle-class reformers, we'd still be sending our kids up chimneys. But it's not my story. I don't have those particular ghosts to lay, mainly because I had Miss Hendey, Mr. Guest, Mr. Davies, Mr. Ruston, and a whole team of other first-rate teachers whose task it was to spot and nurture those, like me, with particular talents and inclinations: we were never scorned or humiliated, but encouraged, and regularly had our work entered into national competitions which (ahem) I did actually win a couple of times. In fact, one of my paintings used to hang, framed, on the assembly hall wall, but the original school building has now been demolished, and I doubt that picture survives anywhere other than in my own memory.

So look, here is a true relic, as objective a witness of those years as one could wish for. I have owned this photograph since bringing it home from school, rolled in its tube, in 1962; it is roughly 14cm x 85cm in size.  Quite a few will have been printed, but I doubt many will have survived the last 60 years intact. It shows the entire staff and pupil complement of Peartree Spring junior school in the summer of the academic year I joined the school, 1961-2, plus the caretaker, Mr. Jarvis, and his dog.

I remember that summer well. There were refurbishments happening in several classrooms, so we had lessons and sat our end-of-year exams in a marquee on the playing field, with grass beneath our feet, hot sunlight filtered through white canvas, and the gentle clucking of the school's flock of free-ranging bantam hens outside. Those were the first exams I had ever sat – I still recall the light-blue type and shiny paper of the duplicated question sheets – and just as some children feel the bounce of a ball or the heft of a bat and realise their destiny, I knew this was something I could do well. Although, in truth, to go from that primary-school tent to the Examination Schools at Oxford University was a daydream pretty much on a par with getting a trial for Arsenal.

I have scanned this photograph and given copies to various ex-Peartree pupils, and discovered that a lot more detail can be extracted by the scanner than is visible to the unaided eye. The picture must have been made onto a huge negative by a rotating panoramic camera, and contact-printed using a rig that could include the school's name and the date. Compared to the class photographs my children brought home from school each year – mere colour snaps, with half the kids squinting or with eyes shut – it is a small masterpiece of assured, special-occasion photography. The image is proudly signed by the specialist firm Ray Studios, all the way from Braintree in Essex.

What is remarkable, I think, is the way the photographer has engaged an entire school's attention and created a "moment". Notoriously, such cameras scan from left to right across a large group gathering like this at a speed which is 
sufficiently slow that, if you are minded to, you can run round the back and appear at both ends of the final image; which is probably why Mr. Jarvis and his Alsatian are standing guard at the extreme right. But, somehow, every child has been persuaded to offer a characteristic expression to the lens at just the right moment, and there is hardly a single shut eye.

It's the faces, of course, that engage your attention. 1962 is a very long time ago, now. These are faces from another world; a new, interesting, and experimental world still in the process of definition, like a photograph emerging in the developing tray. Boys were leaner, their ears seemed much larger and more prominent; girls were dressed with far less attention to fashion, and their hair was cut into practical, rather middle-aged styles. These are, almost without exception, the children of the aspiring working classes from those parts of London devastated by the war, seeking a new life and a fair deal away from the city. I remember a lot of Irish surnames, too: the children of the labourers who came to build the New Town, and who decided to stay.

Ah, the names. They stay with you for life, those names. A few boys in this photo were in the same classes as me all the way through our school career but, even though I have no idea of what happened to most of this motley crew, so many of their names leap back into my mind whenever I scrutinise those faces, even after 60 years. These are all mythical beings from my personal creation story.

Of course, what you see there is nothing more than a pretty good cross-section of average humanity; what you get once you have eliminated wealth, social class, and selection by ability. There are statistical outliers, of course. At least five children of exceptional intelligence, plus another twenty or so with what counted then as university-level academic ability. There are a similar number of gifted athletes and players of various sports. There are some very tough kids in there, too, who went on to build themselves a local reputation as hard cases (and at least two hard-hitting women, to my certain knowledge); those of us of a gentler inclination had to learn early on how to keep on their good side, but bullying was rare, not least because of headmaster Anstock's free use of the cane [1]. There is also a fair smattering of what would now be referred to as "special needs" children (check some of those faces in the extract above). I count just four Black and Asian kids; racially, Stevenage was far from diverse in those days. But the majority, the 90%, are just nice, ordinary people, born into an optimistic time, as yet largely unaware of the scale of the opportunities being opened to them that had been denied, systematically, to their parents. Such very lucky people!

But then the smug bastards all went and voted for Thatcher in the 1979 elections, bought up their council houses at knock-down prices, left or failed to support their trades unions, and generally set about trashing the place and its public services, so lovingly built by the previous generation, and bought by them at such a high price. Don't you just love nice, ordinary people? Personally, I find them difficult, and have always preferred the company of "outliers" of whatever stripe, hard-hitting women and all. Sadly, there are considerably more of them than us. It's the great unmentionable, irreparable flaw in democracy, isn't it? Clearly, to be in receipt of even the very best education available in the most auspicious of settings won't necessarily do the trick.

As a result my own story has two early chapters. First, it's an optimistic story about growing up in a brief window of opportunity when Britain came as close as it ever has to becoming – in some special places at least – a semi-socialist utopia, where resources were poured into public schemes: schools, housing, libraries, swimming pools, community centres, transport. Chapter Two is about how it was all taken away after the late 1970s, just as we came into adulthood. No more public investment, no more council housing, fewer jobs, not much future. Sorry. Were you expecting more? You did vote for this, didn't you?

So this is where my ghosts live. I'm 69 now, a graduate of three universities and retired from a rewarding (and, I hope, useful) professional career working in university libraries with a sideline as a trades union activist, and yet I still haven't really come to terms with the fact that Chapter One of that story was abandoned so easily and might never happen again. It's hard not to interpolate that national failure of nerve into a personal failure. Could I, could we – my generation – have done more to prevent this mass self-expulsion from Eden? Did we (as the accusation goes) enjoy the fruits of the post-war settlement without bothering to plan or plant for the future? I'm not sure. True, despite strong political views I have never belonged to any political party and, certainly, too many of the best of us were unwilling to make the uncongenial compromises required to take part in real-life politics, leaving the field open to the worst of us and the mediocrities. But, whatever the reasons, the failure of Britain to secure and build upon the social progress made in the 1950s and 60s is a remarkable and historic act of self-harm, not even matched by Brexit. We seem to have decided that we simply couldn't afford that Big Story any more. Despite an excellent start, we finally managed to become a nation as dull as our statistics, or – to adapt Oscar Wilde's formulation – a cynical society that knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing.

So, yes, John Harris, for what it's worth I applaud what you say about reviving the idea of mass social rented housing. It would be an excellent starting point, assuming all the legislative obstacles put in place precisely to prevent local authorities from building more council housing could be reversed. Clearly, "affordable housing" is not at all the same thing, and too much of the private rented sector is a swamp badly in need of draining. And let's not forget schools, libraries, swimming pools, community centres, transport, and the rest of the package while we're at it. But there is a wisdom in the Stevenage town motto: The heart of a town lies in its people. The real task ahead is to work on changing the minds of those nice, ordinary people so that they feel inclined to vote for changes that may not be in their own direct interest, the next time they're on offer. How, and how long this will take, I have no idea: I wish the current and future generations of activists lots of luck with that. You'll be needing it. I won't refer you to those over-quoted words of Antonio Gramsci, "Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will" (although I suppose I just have). Instead, remember these words quoted by saxophonist Charles Lloyd towards the end of his video, Arrows into Infinity [2]: "The winds of grace are always blowing, it is for us to raise our sails higher". Oh, and please don't live in Hampstead.

Stevenage Town Centre under construction
(image: Stevenage Museum)

1. I know those who did not see things the approved Anstock Way and were in regular receipt of a caning have very different memories of the school. What was that about "an aggregate of individually-experienced parallel and intersecting realities"?

2. Apparently adapted from the 19th century guru Ramakrishna.

[Apologies to long-time readers: you're not going mad, parts of this post were recycled from a couple of earlier ones, one of which has been getting a lot of views lately, presumably from ex-Peartree pupils (such as Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton).]


Zouk Delors said...

"Trevor Huddlestone and Peter Pears."

Who they?

Mike C. said...


Seriously? Look 'em up! (I mistranscribed Huddleston as Huddlestone, though; now corrected).


Stephen said...

Thatcher has a lot to answer for, though the people who voted for her and her policies are, as you point out Mike, also culpable.

Mike C. said...


In a democracy, they are entirely culpable... Nobody made them vote for those policies.


Zouk Delors said...

"Look 'em up!"


Peter Pears b.1910 d.1986

Trevor Huddleston b.1913 d.1998

They must have stood out amongst their classmates at Peartree, with their grey hairs and wrinkles.

Mike C. said...


Huh? Can't decide whether you're joking, or have misread the piece... Perhaps both?


Stephen said...

"…a semi-socialist utopia, where resources were poured into public schemes" — I'm wondering if that sort of utopia and the spirit that brought it into being will ever return. (I'm all for it personally, though most people seem to prefer a BMW and four holidays a year…)

Mike C. said...


According to KM (Critique of the Gotha Programme), under an advanced state of socialism (historically inevitable, apparently) it will be a case of "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs". You need a BMW or 4 holidays a year? You got it, comrade!


Zouk Delors said...


"the spirit that brought it into being" was largely created by the sacrifices of the working classes in the second world war. As it seems we may be heading for another, perhaps the same spirit will arise from the (radioactive) ashes?

"people seem to prefer a BMW and four holidays a year". I don't know how many in Stevenage have those things, but I'm sure an awful lot more have no car, no money and no holidays.

Stephen said...

"… was largely created by the sacrifices of the working classes in the second world war." — I didn't know that Zouk. (I didn't take Modern Studies at school and I haven't read much history. Need to remedy that.)

"I don't know how many in Stevenage have those things, but I'm sure an awful lot more have no car, no money and no holidays." — In this neck of the woods every third car seems to be a BMW but that might just be confirmation bias on my part. I suppose there will be, as you say, many people who have no car and no holiday.

I think what I was trying to say was that society is no longer quite as equal as it used to be. And I think that is largely because politicians since Thatcher have been looking to the USA for an economic template. Which is a big mistake if you ask me.