Peter Hill: Imagining the City, 1957-59

…Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

So ends Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, sung at the Labour election victory of 1945. Between that date and 1957, the shape of Britain’s urban landscape had changed enormously, in large part due to the reforms of the Attlee government (New Towns Act, 1946; Town and Country Planning Act, 1947). Bombed-out areas of cities had been rebuilt wholesale; ‘New Towns’ had sprung up in rural areas – over a million new homes were built under the Labour government. The construction of council houses was continuing, though at a reduced rate, under the Tories. The Labour Party, in opposition, had just issued Homes for the Future: A Socialist Policy for Housing (London: Labour Party, 1956). But were the new towns and council estates a new Jerusalem, or merely another set of Satanic mills? This programme of town planning was strongly criticised from many quarters: the Architectural Review, in an issue entitled Outrage, and the art and architecture students who formed the ‘Anti-Ugly’ campaign, attacked the Philistinism of many new buildings.

At the same time, some on the Left deplored the failure to create genuine new urban centres. The Association of Building Technicians held a conference on ‘Housing the City Dweller’ in January 1957, where discussions centred on the regeneration of existing cities, against the concentration on New Towns. It was in this context that the two journals of the early New Left in Britain, the Universities and Left Review and the New Reasoner (soon to merge into the New Left Review) took up the issue of urban planning. Graeme Shankland opened the town planning debate in ULR with a quotation from D. H. Lawrence: ‘The English are town birds through and through today, as the inevitable result of their complete industrialisation. Yet they don’t know how to build a city, how to think of one, or how to live in one.’ (‘The Crisis in Town Planning’, ULR 1, Spring 1957. All back issues of the ULR and New Reasoner are freely available online at Lawrence, in the 1920s, had attacked vigorously the narrow-mindedness of ‘the Englishman’s home is his castle’ and deplored the lack of a true civic spirit in Britain (‘Nottingham and the Mining Country,’ written 1929, in D. H. Lawrence, Selected Essays, Penguin, 1950). This strand was continued by those who criticised much of the new housing for being insufficiently urban and likely to lead to ‘subtopia’. The ‘Anti-Ugly’ strand of criticism also found its place in ULR, with a set of photographs of new developments with comments attacking, for instance, the ‘these castles for Englishmen at Bletchinton [which] float eloquently in their turgid sea of black asphalt.’ (‘The Crisis in Town Planning’, ULR 2, Summer 1957).

To Shankland and Ralph Samuel, the concentration on New Towns was itself a shirking of the real issue: the existing ‘dead centres’. These were more intractable, due to the number of preexisting vested interests. Attlee’s planners, constructing new Jerusalems in the countryside, had turned a blind eye to the Old Babylon of the capitalist city. Samuel argued: ‘Public ownership of urban land sites is surely a minimum requirement of a socialist town planning policy.’ (‘Politics of town planning’, Left notebook, ULR 2, Summer 1957). This criticism of the New Towns links up with the wider New Left criticism of the reformist policies of those years, which purported to believe that general prosperity could be achieved for Britain without actually confronting the entrenched interests of capital: welfare would be financed out of growth, not by any substantial redistribution of wealth (see, for instance, the anatomy of British capitalism The Insiders (ULR 3, Winter 1957), and the criticisms of Anthony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism: e.g. Gordon Henderson, ‘Can Capitalism Survive?’, ULR 2, Summer 1957). Cutting across these debates around the aesthetics of town planning and the nature of the urban was another, sharper argument within the New Left over the contrast between the old, densely-packed working-class neighbourhoods and the more spacious but ‘subtopian’ planned developments to which many people were being transplanted. Here more than anywhere else, arguments about the shape of the city, about homes and lifestyles, were widening into arguments about the kind of people, the kind of society, then being created in Britain. Charles Taylor (the leftist Catholic philosopher) stressed the importance of the ‘salvage’ of existing communities over the creation of New Towns (‘Alienation and Community’, ULR 5, Autumn 1958) Citing the early classic of British sociology, Young and Wilmott’s Family and Kinship in East London, Peter Worsley drew attention to the disruption of communities caused by relocation from ‘slum’ areas: ‘From these slums, people are being removed as ‘elementary’ [i.e. nuclear] families on to new housing estates, where, despite physically superior conditions, they are often desperately lonely and lost without the relatives and friends who used to live around them. These are facts well-known to working-class people in their daily experience; they are not so well-known to the planners, architects and officials responsible for replacing, in their astounding ignorance, one set of miseries in the slums by another set in the new estates.’ (‘Britain – Unknown Country,’ New Reasoner 5, Summer 1958).

In a study of the early years of two ‘new towns’, Harlow and Crawley, by Ellis Salomon, Janet Hayes and other members of the ULR Club, we get close to the actual texture of these changes in people’s lives. In Harlow, Salomon noted the interesting fact that many new arrivals moved around the town quite often, ‘trying to replace the friendships of their former environments’ or ‘searching for neighbours with whom they could be friends’. In both towns, the vast majority also said that they would prefer to move back to London, if they could get similar houses there. In the desire to move back to London and the search for new friendships we can see, perhaps, some of the frustrated desires which the new environment could not fulfil. The most common pattern, however, was towards a greater emphasis on the home, and home-centred activities such as gardening and television, rather than the neighbourhood. The typical comment of a working-class woman was: “I say, what do you have a good home for if not to stay there?” (‘Impressions of Two New Towns’, ULR 5, Autumn 1958).

In reports like these we can see the shift away from the communal modes of densely-packed working-class communities, to a more private style of living. When it came to evaluating these changes, however, the debate became more heated. In articles by Gordon Redfern and Stuart Hall, sensitivity to existing communities seemed in danger of tipping over into nostalgia for ‘traditional working-class’ areas and their attendant virtues. Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy had given a picture of how the old way of life of working-class Leeds was now being eroded, in the 1950s, by the glossy new consumerism. Redfern and Hall now drew on this in attacking the new ‘materialism’ of the working class (Redfern, ‘The Real Outrage’ and Hall, ‘A Sense of Classlessness’, ULR 5, Autumn 1958). This drew a sharp rejoinder from Edward Thompson, who accused Redfern in particular of ‘misusing’ Hoggart’s work, asking: ‘What do we want the present generation of working people to fight for? We do not want to push them back into the old, cramped, claustrophobic community which was based on the grim equality of hardship. The aspiration towards community, if it arises in the present generation, will be far richer and more complex, with far more insistence on variety, freedom of movement, and freedom of choice, than in the old-style community…. I must confess to some impatience with this nostalgia for the “whole way of life” of the old working-class community….’ For Thompson, the old pattern of living was not in fact a ‘whole way of life’, but in many ways a cramped and damaged way of life. When Redfern picked on the washing machine as evidence of working-class ‘materialism’, Thompson retorted hotly that this was ‘not a symbol of “status” but a machine to wash clothes with. I do not know what moral and cultural values are attached to the kitchen sink, a washboard, and the week’s wash for a family of five.’ (‘Commitment in Politics’, ULR 6, Spring 1959).

In a similar spirit, John Harlow attacked ‘sentimental town planners’ who ‘work out plans based on new neighbourhoods, multi-level corridor streets, mixed development, and social centres – all drawn from an outsider’s view of cosy working class relationships which of course ‘must not be disturbed’…. Thus they conservatively attempt to perpetuate the urban society which sprung from an environment created for peasants by naked capitalism!’ The now more prosperous working class are aware of ‘wider cultural opportunities…. They find that most of what was good in the old pattern of life is now being superseded, leaving only all that was worst – the taboos, petty lawlessness and social frustration – all of which are now without balance. Their aim is to escape this frustrating and irrelevant existence so admirably entrenched in slum and low cost housing.’ And the ‘New Town’ had indeed given them ‘a measure of social and cultural independence, but the price is isolation from all urban activity and the fragmentation of the family…. The family has exchanged the tense, personal, integrated space/time relationship of the slum, with its abominable physical environment, for the slack, impersonal and frustrating space/time relationships of the New Town with its incongruous ribbon and crescent environment mitigated only by sunlight and greenery.’ (‘One New Town’, ULR 5, Autumn 1958).

In contrast to both the old ‘slum’ neighbourhood and the new ‘subtopia’, the New Left was trying to imagine what a genuine socialist city might look like. Again, D. H. Lawrence was central to their thinking. He had associated the old industrial village where he grew up less with working-class solidarity than with the narrow ‘cottager’ feeling of the English, as well as the ugliness of industrial capitalism. He had shown little enough nostalgia for ‘The blackened brick dwellings, the black slate roofs glistening their sharp edges, the mud black with coal-dust, the pavements wet and black’ which he described in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He went on: ‘It was as if dismalness had soaked through and through everything. The utter negation of natural beauty, the utter negation of the gladness of life….’ His own vision of the renewal of this landscape was bold and ruthless: ‘Pull down my native village to the last brick. Plan a nucleus. Fix the focus. Make a handsome gesture of radiation from the focus. And then put up big buildings, handsome, that sweep to a civic centre. And furnish them with beauty…. Make a new England….’ (‘Nottingham and the Mining Country,’ p. 122.) In this, ‘the bigger gesture of the citizen, not the cottager’, Lawrence envisaged a genuine civism superseding both the narrow individualism of the suburban semi-detached and the warm but cramped solidarity of the old working-class neighbourhood. In the same spirit Raymond Williams, in 1958, wrote of ‘the conversion of the defensive element of solidarity into the wider and more positive practice of neighbourhood.’ (Culture and Society, Penguin, 1961 (orig. 1958), p. 320).

John Harlow, in his vision of ‘One New Town’, tried to translate such suggestions into concrete proposals. ‘The object should be to create a truly urban town with the necessary high density and so reap the advantages of civilization, without at once organising it in such a way that tribal taboos and irrelevant social sanctions re-emerge; and further that freedom of association and activity is promoted. The basis of the New Town must therefore be the brotherhood of man, not fake precinct, neighbourhood or class solidarity.’ The new town would be built to last, by a nationalised building industry; it would use craftsmanship but take advantage of new technologies. ‘If we accept our new materials wholeheartedly there need be little maintenance to waste our future builders’ time and energy. We could build ourselves a light, graceful, dust-free architecture using glass, plastics, concrete and metal alloys. Flexibility will arise inevitably from the use of small mass produced components assembled in a great variety of ways.’ (‘One New Town’).

This vision, of a city or of a society, was never realised in those years. In the actual administration of social housing, as with other parts of the nationalised economy, the lack of democracy was all too clear. Raymond Williams noted later (1961): ‘the way [council] houses and estates are commonly managed, by supposedly democratic authorities. I have seen letters to tenants from council housing officials that almost made my hair stand on end, and the arbitrary and illiberal regulation of many such estates is justly notorious.’ (The Long Revolution, Parthian, 2011 (orig. 1961), p. 361). The failure of statist town planning and administration to achieve genuine democracy seems clear. Again, the wider social conclusion can be drawn from the experience of urban policy: supposedly open, democratic and egalitarian institutions were and are run in authoritarian ways. This failure accelerated the increasing privatisation of life and the appeal of consumerism: if the only significant unit was the family and its home (not the wider community), and if council estates meant only undemocratic regulation by rude officials, one can see the appeal of the ‘right to buy’. From Mervyn Jones’ criticism of Labour’s 1959 election propaganda – ‘Pride of place in the ‘glossy’ is given to Your Home’ (‘The Glossy Election’, New Reasoner 8, Spring 1959) – one can draw a straight line to New Labour in the 1990s and the ‘Conservatory Principle’ (‘no-one should be allowed to be leader of the Labour Party who does not understand the desire to own a conservatory’: The Purple Book). It was on these new estates that the new ‘mobile privatized’ lifestyle Raymond Williams was to identify was being created on a mass scale (see my article on ‘Mobile Privatization’, OLR 7).

In such details of urban experience we can see the cultural underpinnings of the decline of the labour movement and the aggressively individualistic ethos of Thatcherism. Fabian social engineering, as represented by the Attlee government, had failed to construct a new Jerusalem, while the Old Babylon of the capitalist city continued to grow. In Britain we were left, in urban policy as in other areas of social thinking, with an apparent choice between two false alternatives: the prosperity and freedom of consumerism, or the drab egalitarianism of what passed for socialism; the new ‘glossy’ style of advertising, Labour’s electioneering, and the 1951 Festival of Britain, versus ‘the grim equality of hardship’ of old-style working-class life, the ‘the hard, sharing world of the war’ (Raymond Williams, ‘Notes on Marxism in Britain since 1945’, in Culture and Materialism, Verso, 2005; Edward Thompson, ‘Commitment in Politics’).

This knot in our thinking has yet to be untied: in struggles over urban space, it is still all too easy for existing working-class communities to conduct merely inward-looking, defensive battles, while the creativity of artists and architects is co-opted into capitalist projects of gentrification (cf. Luka Boeskens’ ‘Return of the Gentry’ elsewhere in this issue of the OLR). Fabian social engineering has failed to construct new Jerusalems, while the Old Babylon of the capitalist city continues to reproduce itself. The vision of D. H. Lawrence, the plans of John Harlow, Graeme Shankland and the Association of Building Technicians, remain on paper.

As a final comment on this debate, and a contribution to the project of imagining better cities, and better societies, we might take a passage from Raymond Williams in 1983. Looking back to the communities that had once been the mainstay of socialism, he wrote: ‘What strikes me most about those traditionally militant areas is that people were not forced to define themselves along any single dimension. True, they were – as was always said – employees or workers in a common situation. But they were also, and insisted on being, neighbours, interconnected by family. They were inhabitants of a particular place, often with a very strong local consciousness. There were non-contradictory relations between being working class and being socialist, or between being locally patriotic and the family relation meshing with it.’ (‘Problems of the Coming Period,’ New Left Review I/140, July-August 1983).

Williams suggested, in other words, that it was not the homogeneous, levelled-down characteristics of these communities which gave them strength, but the extent to which – within such constraints – they could create fullness and variety in their social relationships. Different kinds of bonding came together into a mesh which was then strong enough to create a model of a genuinely alternative social order. In this way we can see the strength and potential of communities and social movements, not in terms of uniformity and simplicity, but in terms of the fullness, the variety and coherence of their common life. We still need to attend to this vision of what might lie beyond either the oppressive closeness of the Victorian slum and the privatised and fragmented society of the suburb. What we are now searching for is a principle of organisation which can allow such a strength – indeed, a greater strength – to be attained, without losing the flexibility and mobility which are the genuine gains of recent years. Imagining the urban – and perhaps also rural – forms this principle might take is crucial to the possibility of its realisation. It is in a sense the measure of our ability to make such ideas concrete.

Peter Hill is studying for a D.Phil. in Arabic literature at St John’s College and is joint Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Left Review.


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