Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Something followed us home

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Spectre or author messing about in the bathroom mirror with the flash?
I've always loved this introduction to Ishmael of Moby Dick, mainly  for the fact it shows how timeless is the desire to wallow in the mood of the season. In the past it may have been called melancholy, which looks similar to what we now call depression, but doesn’t map exactly to it. Soon night will dominate and SAD-preventing light boxes will have to be purchased. Until then we will revel in this feeling while it is still enjoyable. We must make the delightful first shivers of autumn last as long as possible. For this time of year is supposedly the most haunted and young, soulless Milton Keynes is no exception.

Last month MK Citizen’s erstwhile reporter Anna Sexton ran a series of ghost stories. It was the closest thing to news I’ve ever seen in this paper. After an appeal was made to the public to suggest haunted sites, Sexton and a twenty-strong team of Ghost Busters settled on the Swan Inn in Great Horwood, just a little south west of the city. The team was made up mainly of the local MK Ghostbusters. From their website one can gather their presence the evening of September 18th was to prove the existence of ghosts, while I suspect the MK Citizen reporter’s intent might have been to sell newspapers. The full YouTube video of the weekend of necromancy may be viewed here:

If Sexton’s scepticism doesn’t quite come across in the video “Do members have to pay?”, the write up from 23 September 2010 makes it clear.

Sexton paints a vivid image of a large number of people packed into a small space tearing about madly in the dark. Possible poltergeist activity is noted: a milk bottle is thrown across the room. Conveniently, it is heard only; there were no witnesses. Sexton considers the landlady’s son as likely a culprit as a spirit. In conclusion she says:

I am not convinced however, any of it proves the existence of life after death and of so-called ghosts. But I would happily repeat such an investigation, if only to observe group psychology, meet unfamiliar people, and reaffirm my belief that living human beings are infinitely more bizarre than the things that go bump in the night.
Well, one might argue that “Ghosts are people too,” but I agree that group reactions to hauntings are more interesting than the hauntings themselves.

More open ridicule of belief in ghosts was expressed  in the comments section of  the second story run by MK Citizen at about the same time. The paper claimed that a ghost at the MK Centre had been captured on CCTV, not an uncommon theme at all, as you will find after a quick search of YouTube:

This ghost was, perhaps, deliberately fake-looking, so as not to scare the public too much. The immediate reaction from people was “Whatever you’re selling we don’t want any!” (As it happens all the ghost was trying to "sell"  was free public participation in Art.) 

A recent newspaper article reported that four out of ten Britons reported that they believed in ghosts. You would think that, as we moderns are much more advanced than those who went before, in earlier times there must have been a consensus on the existence of ghosts and the percentage that believed would have been higher. In fact the opposite is true, with 28% percent saying they believed in ghosts in the 1980s and only 19% in the 1970s (Davies p.241), although there is some debate about whether these numbers reflect actual belief, or the acceptability of professing belief in public.

Owen Davies’ The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts provides a comprehensive summary of the commonest forms of hauntings in England and Britain. Of course in the medieval period ghosts were more often put within the context of Christianity. It has long been common for people who were murdered or had some fatal accident to appear before the living on unfinished business, many re-enacting their last moments on some perverse spiritual loop. Like today, people who died by their own hand were considered likely spectres. Great stigma was attached to suicide and victims were often buried at crossroads, sometimes with stakes driven through their hearts in the belief that this would prevent them from becoming ghosts. Also associated with the road were creatures called “shucks,” or black dogs, which were considered to be manifestations of the Devil. Dead highwaymen were also known to haunt the roads they once terrorised in life.

But usually it was the built environment that was the site of most hauntings: often people’s bedchambers, where spectres took the form of hags, demons, or succubae.

In modern England, tales like the following are told. Two children staying at a house in Lacock were frightened by an “ugly little man” who walked through their room. Many years later a skeleton was found under the bedroom wall. A woman slept head resting on her shoulder for two consecutive nights. Later when a wing of the building was pulled down, workers discovered the skeletons of five children. (Tuan Landscapes of Fear p.125)
Buildings associated with sadness in life, such as prisons and mental asylums, are common sites of encounter as are sites of former priories extinguished during the Reformation.

These common themes can be identified in local tales from Beds, Bucks and Herts. The older towns in and around Milton Keynes are the natural localities of these tales. Many contain the essential elements of ghost stories as discussed by Davies. A tale based in Aspley Guise tells of forbidden love, murder and blackmail. To add to the folklorish flavour of the tale, Dick Turpin features as a major player in the story. Indeed Dick Turpin was thought to have stopped off at the Ye Olde Swan Tavern in Woughton on the Green, where the ghostly hooffalls of his steed were once heard.

It’s no coincidence that famous people feature heavily as apparitions. Owen Davies points out the correlation between the kinds of figures that are seen regularly; Romans, monks, nuns, Cavaliers, Roundheads, soldiers, even phantom RAF bombers, and the British school curriculum.

The focus on such events was further reinforced by the popular histories that formed part of the Victorian school curriculum. The Reformation was obviously held up as a key moment in English historical progress, though some pedagogic texts recognised the brutality of the Dissolution. Similarly, the Civil War and the execution of Charles I was used to defend the righteousness of monarchy and the iniquity of political rebellion. Considering the emphasis on these events it is no wonder that during the early twentieth century ghosts continued to conform to the preoccupation with these periods. (Davies p.42)
I was not raised in the  British education system, I developed my notions abroad.  The ghost stories I grew up with in  New Zealand are clear descendants of European stories, as hauntings tended to occur in the same ways and in the same kinds of places as in England. Sadly, New Zealand has a comparatively limited historical palette from which to draw for its ghost stories. Romans, monks, nuns, roundheads and cavaliers, and headless horsemen are not available as stock characters. It would be geographically and historically inappropriate for these figures to make an appearance, and true to form these figures are not typically found either in the mainstream curriculum or the landscape.

Thanks largely to Jock Phillips, New Zealand history classes focus largely on how men (usually white) have shaped the national identity “from the shafts of strife and war”. In retrospect this does seem a strange claim, as when I was coming up in school I was led to believe that New Zealand had seen no conflict. It made perfect sense at the time. Not until after I finished school did ideas popularised on television by James Belich  filter through.

Indeed soldiers and wars are common figures in New Zealand ghost stories, some hauntings occurring in barracks. The army town of Waiouru features heavily as a site of psychic disturbance on New Zealand ghost message boards. Some ghosts take the form of Māori warriors. As always, Māori have had an impact on New Zealand’s spiritual perceptions. (Māori impact on NZ culture is routinely discussed as significant, well at least up until the point the tourists go home, and we can go back to dismissing Māori as an exceptional anomaly, or worse a foil, an ‘other’). Māori and Pacific Island narrators sometimes speak of being visited by relatives and ancestors.

Christmas had came it had only been a few days after the tangi (funeral). I was at my cousins and I was doing something I shouldn't of being doing. I felt sick so I went to the bathroom to chuck up when I looked beside me I saw Earl standing in the bath tube I was so happy to see him. But the strangest thing was we were in the bathroom but when I was talking to him we were in the kitchen out the marae he was saying to me common bro chuck up I could feel him helping me out. -KayWeezy18 from http://www.yourghoststories.com/real-ghost-story.php?story=6046
Māori people also feature in Pākehā (European settler) visions. As expected, Māori warriors make the odd appearance. It is telling that reactions to visions of Māori shades often depended on race, or familial connection. Though visitations could be disturbing or interpreted as evil among Māori, these narrators were more likely to find Māori ghosts comforting, reflecting the importance of ancestors within Māori tradition.
Pākehā, on the other hand, were more likely to find their encounter threatening, alien or somehow hostile.

Since then the voices have come on many occasions and are not confined to early morning visitations nor to myself alone, for others, aware of the mystery and aura of Arapawa, have been allowed a glimpse into the unknown. For some it is frightening but I do not find it so. When I spoke to a Maori friend about it, she listened patiently and said it was `Just the Old People'. She assured me there was nothing to fear. Betty Rowe from http://www.mysteriousnewzealand.co.nz/featurearticles/featart_arapawaghosts.html
Anyone familiar with New Zealand art, literature, film and music will be aware of a gothic pall  that supposedly hangs over the New Zealand countryside. Madness, death, violence and psychic unease are all heavily associated with the land. Popular culture is a particularly deep vein for this topic: Headless Chicken’s “Slice” (or just about any track from Stunt Clown); The Muttonbirds “White Valiant;”  or even Don McGlashan’s uplifting tale of Pākehā place-making, "Miracle Sun," which smacks of death with the spooky refrain “Are you going where we’re going?” (Beware the first person plural, it's never good.) Most famous, or maybe infamous, is “Cinema of Unease: A personal journey by Sam Neill”, in which Sam Neill demonstrates to us, using an inflatable globe, that New Zealand is indeed very far away and has lots of sheep, among other things.

There is a significant point of difference with England, where the landscape is seen as green and pleasant, something of a natural right to enjoy. But it is a common feature of colonial societies to view their land as dangerous. Tuan notes that the vulnerability of settler communities made them wary of boundaries and border zones. This is certainly where some of this sense originated and is common to New Zealand, Australia and the Americas (where the true masters of gothic reside). I think much of this fear of the land in New Zealand is also connected with “Exhibit A”: Māori, particularly the unknown Māori past, as well as related colonial guilt. A sense of a significant disruption in the chain of custody is imprinted on the Pākehā landscape. Evidence of prehistoric Māori landscapes is in plain sight for those who are willing to see. Nowhere is this truer than in Auckland. The many volcanic cones, their very silhouettes created by Māori, dominate the skyline.

Looking from heavily terraced Mt Eden across Auckland
Indeed there is a sense in the New Zealand countryside that the land itself is watching you. Hating you. Wanting to abort you. As a Pākehā, you are the unwanted cuckoo’s egg in Riroriro’s nest.

"It doesn't matter what you  do, we will always be here."

The following slight, but chilling tale seems to know more than its narrator:

But what really got me was when I asked "will you hurt us?"- The [Ouija board] went to territory.

After that night I had frequent headaches and I would often see things in the corner of my eye but maybe it was a coincidence. But was it a coincidence that the next morning Zach and I had very similar scratches on our backs the next morning?

What if something followed us home?

- Jginkx94 from http://www.yourghoststories.com/real-ghost-story.php?story=7063
As opposed to the British, many New Zealanders are disconnected from their past, having only a hazy understanding of their history. British history, on the other hand, is ubiquitous. It permeates British popular culture at home and abroad in ways that New Zealand history does not. This may be at the root of a relative comfort with landscapes and spirits. Perhaps when one is confronted with Romans or Saxons it is ‘just the old ones’. Furthermore there is no apparent guilt, or consequently horror, connected with the centuries of displacement that have occurred on this sceptred isle. (Those displaced would disagree.)

One could say that British ghosts, by comparison, feel safe or even twee. Something to keep visiting Americans amused, perhaps? Certainly our own Milton Keynes ghost story is in keeping with the short and not so time-honoured tradition of ‘ghost tourism’. Before the 19th century, there is no tradition of ghosts haunting inns and pubs. This tradition is kept alive by the media, who regularly encourage public interest in spectres. Local newspapers are among the best sources for reports of supernatural activity in any given area.
But before I get too smug about the superior psychic disturbance of the New Zealand landscape, I should remember that this England is a natural habitat for the gothic, Victorian or otherwise.

The night has long frightened us.

A recent novel by Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger draws heavily on the Victorian gothic tradition. The site of guilt and angst is the old country home of a Lastian family, the Ayres of Hundreds Hall. Attention is drawn to strange goings-on by the housemaid, Betty, who is frightened of the large and cold house. It is her subsequent illness which invokes the doctor, himself the son of a servant, thus inviting him in to the house with dire consequences for all. Set in 1947, the novel is about the mid-century cultural shift towards a dominant middle class and the unseemly decay of the upper class and its traditions. It forms a backdrop for my own understanding of how this area went from the control of the aristrocracy and church to the MKDC, highlighting the same social engineering that created the NHS, a figure that looms ominously in the novel as the landed gentry takes its last dying gasps. By the end of the tale it is difficult to know just who, if anyone, is responsible for the haunting of Hundreds Hall. One's confidence in the narrative agency of the living, the dead, or even the inanimate in the novel is severely shaken. It is one of the creepiest books I have read in a long time. Not since Janet Frame’s The Carpathians or Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, have I read anything this unsettling.

I think that Waters’s choice to introduce the maid, the doctor and his mother in the opening of the novel is deliberate. Owens notes that disgruntled young female servants were often at the bottom of poltergeist activities. Ghostwatch  also picked up on the stereotype of the young teenage girl as a site of paranormal angst, as well as a perpetrator of it. It’s possible British historical guilt may reside somewhere else. Without the narrative of colonialism to graft over it, the picture here is more complex, entangled in issues of gender, ethnicity, class, geography and religion. It is not easily explained by Sam Neill and his inflatable globe. Is anything?

One significant effect of a longer history is that ghost stories have had more time to settle, to become ossified in tradition. As with any narrative tradition the ghost stories gives its teller a sense making structure to work from. Wellington-based Ghost hunter James Gilberd argues that “ it is the culturally ingrained idea of a ghost being the spirit of a dead person that blocks our thinking.” The compilers of The Oxford Dictionary of English  Folklore agree:

Communal tradition shapes our expectations of how ghosts manifest themselves. Hence even a memorate is likely to include details highlighted because they fit a stereotype (e.g. a drop in temperature, sounds of footsteps, an animal refusing to approach the eerie place), and these become more numerous as the story spreads into the community as rumour. There it may become linked to other anecdotes about haunting set in the same house, road, etc., which ultimately may coalesce into a local legend  from A Dictionary of English  Folklore
To be fair, many of the stories I have read about in the United Kingdom are legendary in type, whereas those in my survey of New Zealand sources tended to be highly personal. And it is personal stories that chill, precisely because they do not always conform to expectations. The final story I shall tell was told to me. It takes place within a family of Pacific Island heritage, where stories of dead relatives saying farewell are an accepted norm. The person who related this story to me is a well-educated, rational person, who would generally be considered highly reliable. Regardless of your own beliefs, respectfully consider that the person who told me this believes it really happened.
It all happened in a place as mundane as South Auckland. The narrator picked up a young female hitchhiker in Manurewa. Soon the driver became unnerved; there was something unnatural about his new passenger. He began to notice that she would sometimes vanish from his rear view mirror, but when he turned, she was there. Sensing his agitation, the hitchhiker suddenly said “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you,” in a disturbingly calm and even tone. She then asked to be let out in an industrial part of Penrose, in the dark, where there was no sign of human habitation. As the story teller, told it, "there was just nothing out there," no obvious destination for her at all. The hitchhiker was a doppelgänger of the driver’s cousin. When he got home, he discovered the cousin had committed suicide, dying at the same time she appeared in his car.
The vanishing hitchhiker trope is familiar, which might make it easy to dismiss this as just another ghost story. But what was peculiar about this incident was that it was totally out of character for the driver to pick up a hitchhiker. It was not the sort of thing he would usually do. He had never picked up a hitchhiker before and never would again.

It is this that is the most eerie element of this story, for it implies that we may somehow be compelled by strange forces to do things against our nature that bring us face to face with things beyond this world. Similarly, the idea that we may invoke, or invite, spirits by mentioning their names or acknowledging their presence, that we may accidentally allow such forces into our homes, into our homelands, into ourselves, just doesn’t bear thinking about.

David Kidd-Hewitt explains in Buckingham Stories of the Supernatural:

“.. this is where we are fooling ourselves. There is no special context for a supernatural event. Culturally, we tend towards the Hallowe’en version of the supernatural – spooky places, the toll of the midnight bell, spectres of evil and wailing ghosts. Many of the stories and experience I have encountered are the exact opposite of this.” 
The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli 1781
In a strange way, Hallowe’en is a source of solace with which we fortify ourselves against the truly unknown. Perversely, it is our morose thoughts that bring us comfort at this time of year. We make the supernatural into a collective delusion, making straw men of the things that go bump, diminishing them to mere entertainment. By weaving our stories together we build unifying folklore and keep each other company in the dark. The truly unexplained is ruthlessly excluded from this holiday, and we are left in our bedchambers to fend off our demons alone, where even those who sleep peacefully beside us cannot save us.

As night descends here, I will leave you with one final song about precisely this time, to launch myself off into the darkness. Sweet dreams.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Nothing new under the sun

Traditionally autumn symbolises the harvest, and also the reaper. The reaper may be grim, but may also be the reaper of knowledge. Autumn is a time of reflection and introspection. Nature’s death drive reigns in my mind this season, not only because of the shedding of leaves, but also because of the faint rumbling sounds from distant parts of the earth. The seasonal shift flummoxed me as I struggled to explain:

“It happened in autumn, that is to say spring. Autumn/spring is a time of natural violence. The shedding of leaves/birth of new lambs scribble scribble cross cross. I dunno nothing is certain anymore. With time and distance this looking glass tomorrowland, my homeland in fact, seems less and less real.”
No matter how anachronistic our world is, the grinding force of narrative prevails to give structure to human thought. We can’t know if other animals do this so we assume they don’t (or prefer to think that we’re alone). Even if they do we can’t ever know if narrative has the same domineering presence as in the human mind. There is probably some brash scientific explanation for this prevalence of narrative, it may have been a tool to help us find food, avoid danger and raise our young. But from these base instincts has grown an incredibly rich and complex set of narratives that are the building blocks of our culture and personal identity. Narrative also helps us to put into order events and conflicting emotions to explain to ourselves who we are. Earlier this month I scribbled in my notebook:

“I arrived in Milton Keynes on the summer solstice and the equinox was last week. I am now seeing my first change of season. I am not prepared for it. The problem isn’t just that New Zealand is green, it’s relentlessly green. The dropping of leaves, the resemblance to winter is strange”
Central to personal narrative is the ego “I” which is both a fellow traveller and defier of destiny. Facts of life, particularly nature, must be accepted, assimilated and understood, so these too are woven into our stories. Creation myths and stories that explain natural forces were possibly the first non-personal narratives. Most people might know of Joseph Campbell’s work The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which builds on Freud's analysis of dreams and the symbolism of stories. Campbell is most famous for the premise that most heroic stories contain the same elements regardless of the story’s cultural origin. But more interesting is his idea of remembering the impossible, the destroyed:

“And more important, all the life-potentialities that we never managed to bring to adult realization, those other portions of our self, are there; for such golden seeds do not die. If only a portion of that lost totality could be dredged up into the light of day, we should experience a marvellous expansion of our powers, a vivid renewal of life. We should tower in stature. Moreover, if we could dredge up something forgotten not only by ourselves but by our whole generation or our entire civilization, we should become indeed the boon-bringer, the culture hero of the day—a personage of not only local but world historical moment” (from Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces)
Another Freudian commentator made a more direct argument about the interplay between creation and destruction in historical narrative. Much loved by archivists just for bothering to mention them, Derrida took the view that archives, and consequently history, build memories, while simultaneously discarding and destroying them. This is not quite the same argument made by, say, Nicholson Baker who fantasizes about librarians dancing around a bonfire of catalogue cards.  Derrida is not necessarily talking about the destruction of that which has already been acquired. Instead he is concerned with the forgetting that goes hand in hand with the act of remembering. As one develops a narrative and commits it to paper and place (the Archive), one overlooks, forgets or casts aside details that don’t fit the story. This is how human memory is destroyed. Contrary to Campbell, Derrida doesn’t think these memories live on somewhere in the subconscious. Instead they will sink into oblivion, never to resurface under hypnosis. There is no race memory.

Ruth Finnegan’s excellent book Tales of the City on narrative traditions in Milton Keynes, which informs much that I have written here, shows how our stories both remember and forget. The most common story is one of fatalism. With 20/20 hindsight it's easy to say that it was destined to happen. In this way headlines that trumpet the town’s inception are often used to kick off the story:
 “ STOP PRESS – New City Study: An 86-page report published to day favours new city expansion to the north of Bletchley…” (Bletchley Gazette: 3.12.65)
Images of such headlines proudly features in Lee Scriven’s Milton Keynes: 50 Greatest Moments. A collage with images from the book emblazons the back wall of the local studies section of the Milton Keynes Library. Scriven’s focus is on the vitality and modernity of the young city. Scriven pictorially interweaves the building of the town with rock and roll so that images of men in suits are juxtaposed with kids in Robbie Williams t-shirts. It is fitting that contemporary music is a central character in this Milton Keynes. Rather than resisting Milton Keynes’ newness Scriven celebrates the exuberance of youth. It shows the new town heedlessly meeting its destiny.

Scriven nicely conveys the playfulness and hopefulness of the new town which is a sentiment reflected in many personal narratives. Scriven’s earlier work, 3 Curly Wurlys and 106 roundabouts, focussing on the 1970s development of Milton Keynes, is an exemplar of the pioneer’s tale, depicting the trials and tribulations of settling somewhere completely new:

But as far back as the Bible, God said that there was no such thing as new: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:1). This does contradict Genesis 1:1 just a little, but it does help considerably to explain God’s attitude in the book of Job, where “… man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.” (Job 5:7). More than just a message to callow youth who assume they are the first to ever live a corporeal life, this is a warning not to become so obsessed with earthly matters that you fail to live a life that accepts God. An important message for our age is that we should not to be seduced by the glamour attendant on novelty. Nor should historians force a construct of origins onto the past.

Finnegan highlights Jonathan Flie’s book Not the Concrete Cows: a Kaleidoscope through the City of Milton Keynes as an example of another form of narrative that rejects Milton Keynes' newness. Like others of more historical bent (this writer included), Flie strives to emphasise Milton Keynes’ premodern heritage, pointing to the Roman and Medieval Period. Many others in the community share an interest in Milton Keynes’ more distant past. The City Discovery Centre is positioned squarely between Bradwell Abbey and the concrete cows, though it is much closer to the Abbey. It is a focal point for the local historical community, which like Bletchley Park offers re-enactments and educational visits.

Ironically Milton Keynes is one of the most well documented archaeological sites in the United Kingdom. The local studies department of the library is bursting with archaeological surveys bound in sensible green buckram. These were all conducted as part of a preamble to the building of new estates. Artefacts were removed, categorised and described assiduously before the newest, most substantial, stratigraphic layer was plonked on top. That  a single layer of new buildings cover over the past at once is peculiar to Milton Keynes. But another covering over, a la Derrida, is made with the construction of the story that casts Milton Keynes as “the new town”. The headline above alludes briefly to another tale of hopeful regeneration that did not come to fruition.

Bletchley long had ambitions to be a central player in the new city. In fact new development had been going on at Bletchley for a couple of decades before Milton Keynes came along. So even “new town-ness” is not wholly new. Not even in this quiet part of North Buckinghamshire. Milton Keynes was one of a long line of “new towns” developed on the site. The area now known as the Lakes Estate was built after the war to accommodate the population of London. Bletchley stories are dominated by tales of encroaching Londoners, arriving by the busload to take priority over locals (Clapson). Know as ‘the overspill’, interactions between Bletchleyites and new immigrants were to dominate how the town developed in the mid twentieth century.

Before Lake Estate in Bletchley there was the development of Wolverton in the northern sector of the town. This was an estate built to house railwaymen in the 19th century to address social issues of the time:

“One social problem created by the coming of the railway was the presence of groups of navvies in the area for a considerable length of time. These navvies were known during the Railway Age as the scourge of the countryside – moving from place to place.”
(from Bird, The Development of Wolverton, Buckinghamshire from Railway Town to New City 1838-1974)
Victorian logic presumed that it must have been their peripatetic lifestyle that gave the navvies such loose morals. Provision of home and hearth might smarten them up a little. This does sound startlingly like the idea of stitching up poor, usually Irish, girls and transporting them off to Australia to address the gender imbalance there, with the confident expectation that it would “civilise” all those rogue male convicts. The jury’s still out on whether it worked. The same debate rages over the effect of the presence of women in Papua, whether it brought a kinder form oppressive colonisation or just heightened sexual anxiety beyond all reason. Wolverton seemed to do okay. Its grid roads are a distinctive Victorian patch in the Milton Keynes mosaic.

Civilisation is often the intent behind new towns and the greatest new town that ever was (the one where all those buses that set Bletchleyites' teeth on edge came from) was established by a colonial force. The Romans gave to Britain, well let’s not beat around the bush, the world really, the grid system: that which Milton Keynes is based on, is actually a little bit old. Even London once had a grid, but the locals did their own strange things to it.

Natives are a messy business.

The decision to build Milton Keynes is seen among writers more sympathetic to Bletchley as a small death:

“We live in a funny age if, as would seem be the case the lusty town anxious to grow is neglected in favour of the embryo city so recently conceived and destined for a long period of gestation, if ever it is born … Bletchley’s own big town plan, like the County plan will never come to pass.” (from Bletchley Gazette 2.1.65)
In fact there is a strong sense in the literature of Bletchley being the embarrassing older brother; the one that got into scrapes and ended up in borstal. The consensus is that the planning that went into Bletchley was a failure, one represented symbolically by the monolithically ugly Brunel Centre. The abortiveness of Bletchley, its stillborn nature, is picked up by many Bletchleyite authors. The older sibling, the vanishing twin, or an imprint of such, as described on Wikipedia:

“Occasionally, rather than being completely reabsorbed, the dead fetus will be compressed by its growing twin to a flattened, parchment-like state known as fetus papyraceus” (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanishing_twin)

Historically, newness is often associated with violent events such as The Terror in France, or The Killing Fields, where the historian’s Year Zero was given a new and horrifying meaning. It would be considered inflammatory to place Lords Campbell and Taylor next to Robespierre, Napoleon and Pol Pot because it disturbs narrative tradition, but it is good to remember that starting anew is a radical act often frowned upon:
“A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”
(from Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1791.)
So why is it inappropriate to frame this story this way? Obviously the humour of degrees is at play here, but also there is an established tradition of new towns that fits into a greater narrative tradition of Britain being a rather mild-mannered place. This tempers the audacity of the idea of Milton Keynes, the idea that town planning could rectify societal problems.

This brings us to another common tale of Milton Keynes, that of complete social malaise. In this story, estates like Fishermead, Beanhill and Netherfield are held up as examples of urban failure. The grids and terraced housing that were supposed to foster a sense of community have created a Panopticon of crime, racial tension, poverty and general misery. Exactly the things that they were meant to help people escape from.

Frustratingly, Milton Keynes has succumbed to the same urban patterns as any other city, old or new: the impoverished inner city, the neurosis inducing white flight to the suburbs, gentrified dormitory towns desirable and therefore only affordable for the few. It is as if there is a greater design at work that defies human intervention.

What both Bletchley and Milton Keynes stories do tell us is that you cannot cheat fate. Despite the best of intentions, cities and towns all develop the same urban dysfunctions. Fate has many faces, Oedipal, Christian, Marxist; it cannot be escaped even in the supposedly atheist sciences.

Former resident of what has now become Milton Keynes, Alan Turing, opened our eyes to the fact that there are grand mathematical designs to nature. His discovery of a new branch of science, called morphogenesis, showed that patterns in nature could be mathematically explained. What he was talking about is something called “self organisation,” which is nature's ability to organise itself without any central planning or authority. You may see this in the way sand arranges itself in dunes as it is blown across the plains, or how swallows dart in formation above a motorway, or even in the way in which drug traffickers arrange networks across borders. Even in the sections of society with the least opportunity to access Greek tragedy, it is known. (This has its own TV reflection in the The Wire, whose creator, the consummate story teller David Simon, passes on the wisdom from the streets: "It’s all in the game".) Where each individual grain settles cannot be predicted, but the overall design can be. By looking closely enough at Fibonacci patterns in pine cones and black splotches on cows, Turing was able to show these arrangements could be predicted.

Today we are all familiar with Mandlebrot’s fractals, but at the time Turing’s application of mathematics to biology was unheard of. Indeed, Turing had seemed to have come tantalisingly to unlocking the deepest secrets of nature. But as we learn more we find the truth to be further and further out of our reach. It seems order and chaos are inextricably linked in ways that defy popular comprehension.

Inevitability pervades our natural lives. Autumn will pass. Winter will follow. We all will die. That chaos reigns concurrently with order is small relief. But just when you start to feel morose, remember that creation accompanies destruction. If you make a story it may live. If you commit it to record, it may even live longer than you. Depending on how your life goes, it may be your only redemption. It’s true that you must live, and die, in that order, but in between there are infinite chances.

Detail from Turing, Morphogenesis AMT/K3/image 8 at Turing Digital Archive

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Filaments of the Dead

Before one can tell the story of Milton Keynes, one must tell the story of Bletchley. The unlovely name means ‘Blaecca’s clearing’. Neighbouring Fenny Stratford is no less prosaic: the Latin strata is the most literary constituent of the name, most likely referring to Watling Road, which stretches from Dover to the Roman city of Chester. Ford refers to a river crossing, and Fenny means that the area was, well, fenny, muddy and flat. Following much the same history of the rest of South West England, Bletchley’s main redeeming feature is that it is roughly halfway between London and Birmingham, Oxford and Cambridge.

For an understanding of Bletchley’s preindustrial history one must consult the modest books that are easily missed next to brassier titles such as Colossus(!) and Station X(!!). Local rector F.W. Bennitt’s prosaically named Bletchley is a gem filled with passages about local industry, entertainment and even a compendium on local dialect. Written in the mid thirties, it relies on personal recollection to describe early Victorian life. What are just as interesting are the elements Bennitt takes for granted as general knowledge that will now have to be explained anew to modern audiences:

“Going round the lacemakers cottages and buying lace was a regular profession, just as an eggler today visits the farm and collects the eggs”
Children were as charming then as they are now, chanting with gusto every  Guy Fawkes:
"Guy Fawkes, Guy,
Stick him in the eye
Hang him on the lamp-post
And there let him die"
 Even further back The History of Fenny Stratford , written by William Bradbrook in 1911, has a prickly, half page-long opening sentence on the nomenclature of Fenny Stratford, “Fenny Stratford is a name the two disyllables of which do not appear capable of much or great variation in spelling; and however diverse may be the same name being intended ….” Thankfully Bradbrook finds his stride by page eight and warms up enough to say “During the 5th and 6th centuries the undesirable alien immigrant had the time of his life, until the 20th century set in.”

 The life of Riley for Johnny Foreigner indeed! Though it is hard not to take Bradbrook’s attitudes to my forebears personally, I cannot resist a curmudgeon. He clearly had no time for Pope Gregory I's "they won't notice" approach  to spreading the word:
"St Martin's  Day, 11 November, is an example of the coincidence of a saint's day  with a pagan festival viz., that of the vinalia or celebration of Bacchus. The coincidence may  be the result of the recommendation of Gregory the Great, that Church festivals should be made to  occur on days of heathen celebrations with a view to obscuring and displacing the latter. As the rites of Bacchus are festive and mundane, it is not surprising that S. Martin has suffered somewhat from the loose companion with  which he is associated."
(Speaking as a heathen-Irish mongrel I know which I'd prefer to celebrate this November.)

Bletchley voices have often been lost in the din of neighbouring London and its attendant modernity. The road brought many things to Bletchley over the years; Romans, Saxons, Londoners, civil war, plague, industry, and yet more Londoners. Caught at the crossroads of much more important places, Bletchley was a transport hub, first the road, then the canal, then the railway. Aside from that Bletchley’s main output was bricks made from the heavy sod at Water Eaton. By 1921 Bletchley was home to the greatest number of brick-workers in the county.

The men who lived and worked in Bletchley’s industrial hub had surprising connections with the sod on which they worked. Des Tunks was a railwayman on the Bletchley to Buckingham line. He recalls:
“Wild flowers! We used to take bets on how many heads you could find on a cowslip. I found a double-stalked one with thirty-two on, but they wouldn’t have that. Bee orchids in June and July were a rare sight. They’re just like bumble bees with pink petals around, looks like a bee going into a flower … You couldn’t beat what we saw along the branch line …” (from Bletchley  Voices compiled by  Robin Cook)
Reg Knapp describes some of the finds the brick-workers made in the clay pits;
 “Another day he came in with a big rock. You could make out this squashed fish, its eye and skeleton. They reckoned it was fifty million years old.” (Voices)
Heat belched forth from many sources and was omnipresent in the lives of many. Sweat streamed off the backs of those who worked in the kilns and engine rooms. In winter the warmth of fire drew men to the forges like moths. Bubbles Field remembers:

“One old brickyard worker, ‘Jimmy Dig Deeper’, would choose one of the warm empty kilns to sleep in, he went missing once. They thought he’d been bricked in and burned with a load of new bricks. His job was to tar the walls inside the kilns. A big old colonial boy, no-one knew his age. Nearly sixteen stone he was. Lovely old fellow… Living in the kilns, he said made him better off than king or queen because he has a different room every night.” (Voices)
But not everyone remembers twentieth century Bletchley quite so fondly. Through the eyes of an outsider things looked different:
“Bletchley is now absorbed into Milton Keynes but then it was a railway junction surrounded by brickworks with no redeeming features and populated entirely by railway workers or men who worked in the brickworks. I might as well have found myself in outer Mongolia.” (from  Bletchley Park People by  Marion Hill)
After being called up for mysterious and urgent war service, this Wren had expected to go on to Oxford or Cambridge when her train stopped at Bletchley. She could barely contain her disappointment at finding for some strange reason this was her final destination. Conditions for the many women who worked in this cradle of modern computing was no less dirty or hot than those of the brick workers down the road:
“The cleaners came in about 6am. There was a rush to go to breakfast at 7am as the whole room was a fog of dust which settled on your papers so they always felt gritty”(Bletchley Park People)
“Even now when I smell ionization I am again in that hot, low-ceilinged room in the early hours of the morning, watching the machine in a haze of cigarette smoke trying to keep my eyes open through the interminable runs, half mesmerised by the slow rhythmic clicking as the drums crept round on the spindles. In those days sleep on watch was a greater crime than murder.” (ibid)

Doomed always to be the aggregate of something greater, Bletchley seems an unlikely nursery for the Information Age. Exactly halfway between Oxford and Cambridge, Bletchley drew on the best brains (well those of a certain class, of course) in the country to decipher the German Enigma code at Bletchley. The most famous of these men was Alan Turing, who is often blamed for the idea of the modern computer.

Turing possessed an intelligence that is so unapproachable at times it seems inhuman. He is most famous for the Turing test (and consequentially the hash tag #turingtestfail) and the Turing Machines, the theory of which Turing described in 1936 as:

“...an infinite memory capacity obtained in the form of an infinite tape marked out into squares, on each of which a symbol could be printed. At any moment there is one symbol in the machine; it is called the scanned symbol. The machine can alter the scanned symbol and its behavior is in part determined by that symbol, but the symbols on the tape elsewhere do not affect the behavior of the machine. However, the tape can be moved back and forth through the machine, this being one of the elementary operations of the machine. Any symbol on the tape may therefore eventually have an innings” (On computable numbers - available at the Turing Digital Archive)
This paragraph snags in practice ever so slightly on the second word, and possibly the third. No such machine exists, yet. Bogged down in semantics, we are still a long way off. But truly I am glad Turing had such ambitious theories. No really, I am.

In 1950 he wrote further on the topic in Intelligent Machinery in which he advocated for artificial intelligence. The idea that we are not alone in our possession of intelligence is disturbing. The idea of consciousness within machines is even more unnerving. Most know how The Matrix clumsily draws the cybernetic connection between human life-force and machines. Nabokov did it more deftly in his novel Ada where electricity is mysteriously banned and never to be spoken of, its origin too shocking for polite conversation. Clues as to what Nabokov might have been getting at there can be found in John Shade’s poem in Pale Fire:
“The dead, the gentle dead–who knows?–
In tungsten filaments abide,
And on my bedside table glows
Another man's departed bride.
And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole
Town with innumerable lights.”

Whatever the connection, it is unearthly and wrong. This consideration of sentient electricity was not all that distant from Turing’s thinking. At Bletchley Turing noted the new symbiotic relationship had changed the rules of thought:

“Bombes ticked away getting on with the work by themselves – and while the Wrens did their appointed tasks, without knowing what any of it was for. He was fascinated that people could be taking part in something clever in a mindless way. Machines, and people acting like machines, had replaced a good deal of human thought, judgement and recognition. Few knew how the system worked, and for anyone else, it was a mystical oracle, producing an unpredictable judgement.” (from Alan Turing: The Enigma)
This heavily influenced his work in Intelligent Machinery, where he countered the general arguments against the possibility of intelligent machines. Turing later took an interest in morphogenesis, particularly Fibonacci patterns in nature. Andrew Hodges argues Turing had a lifelong fascination, and perhaps dissatisfaction, with explanations given by Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know by Edwin Tenney Brewster. Whether a case of causation or correlation, extracts from the book support this argument well:

“For of course the body is a machine. It is a vastly complex machine, many times more complicated than any machine ever made with hands; but it is still after all a machine.”
And Brewster explains mitosis as such:
“So we are not built like a cement or wooden house, but like a brick one. We are made of little living bricks. When we grow it is because these living bricks divide into half bricks, and then grow into whole ones again. But how the find out when and where to grow fast, and when and where to grow slowly, and when and where not to grow at all, is precisely what nobody has yet made the smallest beginning at finding out”
Not everyone believes that electricity immortalises. Some argue that computers have poisoned that well. For years we have become accustomed to working with objects that have bested human life spans. Virtual time travellers, they have an advantage over us, of having had the same position in the time space continuum events in the past that we call history. Touching such an object can make the hair stand on the back of one’s neck. Caroline Steedman best describes this in Something She Called a Fever, as she daily visits archives and breathes in and is sickened by the particulate of the author. The new conduits, however, do not play by the rule “for dust you are, and to dust shall you return”. And they do not even lend themselves as hosts to carry tiny specs of our remains into the future.

Yet words like rot and decay have entered the daily parlance of modern recordkeeping In a short time our digital creations have proved more fragile than the corporeal world. Turing’s theoretical machines may have inadvertently robbed historians of the future of the experience of inhaling the dust and smut of the past in more ways than one. Some think there may be little primary for future historians to build histories from at all. Although I’d argue that some of this anxiety is ill-founded. It is these blotches however that provide that which tantalises, which makes history attractive.

Most mysterious are the circumstances surrounding Turing’s death. There’s an urban legend that the bite from the apple in the Apple computer logo is a tribute to Alan Turing. Ahead of his time in more ways than one, Turing saw no reason to be apologetic about his homosexuality. It was this that eventually got him into trouble, for homosexual activity was criminal in Great Britain until 1967. After being found guilty of ‘indecent acts’ in 1952, he was ‘chemically castrated’, by having to take large doses of female hormones. Two years after this sentence was passed he committed suicide by eating an apple dipped in arsenic. There is much debate about the meaning of the choice of poison by apple, whether he was inspired by the apple-poisoning scene in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, whether it represents knowledge or innocence, even whether the poisoning was accidental. It was Turing’s daily habit to have an apple each night before bedtime and this begs the question of how remote the thought of suicide was in his mind, or worse, how frequent.

The truth behind the Apple logo is more prosaic however. At the time the apple logo was designed no one knew about Turing or Bletchley, the secret was tightly sealed for many years. Designer Rob Janoff explains:

“Anyway, when I explain the real reason why I did the bite it's kind of a let down. But I'll tell you. I designed it with a bite for scale, so people get that it was an apple not a cherry. Also it was kind of iconic about taking a bite out of an apple. Something that everyone can experience.”

I gather the men who created popular computing sleep soundly at night.

It is a shame that such a beautiful word as enigma is so common in Bletchley. An enigma should be intricate, diaphanous, incandescent, not a great emblazoned green blotch haphazardly planted by every other dual carriageway. Brilliant, unknowable, intellectually self-contained, and in possession of a halting and high-pitched voice, Turing must have stood in sharp contrast to claggy Bletchley. Indeed he did strike an odd figure, especially in summer:

"Near the beginning of June he would suffer from hayfever, which blinded him as he cycled to work, so he would use a gas mask to keep the pollen out, regardless of how he looked. The bicycle itself was unique, since it required the counting of revolutions until a certain spoke touched a certain link (rather like a cipher machine), when action would have to be taken to prevent the chain coming off.” (from Alan Turing: The Enigma)

Now when I go out cycling on the lonelier roads of Milton Keynes I will forever wonder not if, but when I will be swiftly overtaken by a clattering, wheezing vision, left coughing on the dust of its wake.

Enigma comes from the Greek ainigma meaning to speak in riddles or fables, though I think the explanation that it is “a truth nature will never relinquish” is more fitting, for despite the sophistication Turing has bequeathed us, omniscience continues to ever recede into the distance.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Britain's farm

Evidence of Britain’s colonial past can be found in any English supermarket. The wares of her former colonies jostle for your attention, and there nestled between the more exotic Tikka Massala paste and Jamaican Jerk sits the humble packet of Anchor butter. New Zealand long regarded herself as Britain’s farm. Despite the huge distance, our connection with the Mother Country was strong from the very beginning. We invented refrigerated ships to facilitate it. Most of all I think our export of butter and cheese to Britain after the war was a great source of pride for our country; just imaging the pleasure it brought people after years of rationing, a little dollop of happiness on every meal. These were the sunset spoils of empire.

Now the things that stock British supermarket shelves are more likely to be made by people named Pierre and Giovanni than Kevin or Trev. Every New Zealand schoolchild knows the year Britain joined the EEC: 1973. It was a bitter betrayal. After that, we had to send Mike Moore off to try to convince the Americans they would like ‘lamburgers’. They don’t. Americans tend to think cooked lamb smells like feet. It was embarrassing. Now we trade mainly with our cousins across the ditch. Both countries do a roaring trade in banjos.

Still, a variety of New Zealand goods can be found in the supermarket, including the staples one would expect: butter, lamb, and wine. Seeing these makes me think of specific places at home. It will be lamb season soon; they’ll all be standing out there just on the road outside Taihape, their knock-knees shivering in the cold.* The NZ green-lipped mussels take me back to a part of the country where they are sold fresh on the roadside. Coromandel is only a short drive from Auckland but psychically as far away as Middle Earth.

Even more potent symbols of displacement are the New Zealand flora commonly found here. For years I have been nurturing a New Zealand Cabbage Tree; the poor thing endured six flats from St Lukes to Newtown before I finally had to abandon it to a fire escape in sunny Thorndon. When I left the drenched, moth-eaten, iconic New Zealand tree behind I thought I would never see one again. You can imagine my surprise when I found one in our next door neighbours front garden in Monkston, sitting unobtrusively next to a New Zealand flax bush. Milton Keynes teaches you to expect strange juxtapositions. However, this phenomenon is not limited to Milton Keynes.

The New Zealand Cabbage Tree (and New Zealand flax) is a common ornamental plant in England. Renamed the Torbay Palm, it is favoured because of its resemblance to a palm and for the necessary hardiness against frost. The original name Cabbage Tree has little to do with how the tree looks and more to do with the fact early New Zealand settlers ate the soft young leaves of the plant which tasted like, or had the texture of, cabbage. I look at those trees now and think they must have been rugged, those early settlers.

Like most New Zealanders, I have a set of hardy seafarers to thank for my existence. Among the dramatis personae of the settlement of New Zealand are the Polynesian navigators, the greatest naval power of the 19th century, famished pirates turned domestic servants, and an odd scattering of ex-Vikings. Less dramatic, though just as arduous, was the six week journey, mostly below deck, that many of New Zealand’s settlers made from Britain. Conditions below deck for most were unhygienic and some did not survive the journey. Quite frankly I would have preferred to arrive on a nice civilised outrigger.

Alas, my ancestors hailed from Yorkshire, Ireland, and Denmark. This, according to my husband, means that I must be at least 80% Viking. I can imagine, like me, they were also itching to jump out of bed every morning, propelled by the sense of purpose derived from the hectic raping and pillaging schedule they had set for themselves. Most people from Milton Keynes also have varied backgrounds and it is rare to find someone who is an original inhabitant.

I've always known about the impact British colonialism made upon the New Zealand landscape, but until now I had never stopped to think this might be a two-way street. Nor did I really give much thought to the lives of those left behind, those who eventually chose alternative solutions to 19th-century urban problems.  Britain herself of course has been colonised many times, the latest  being the new-town movement, which met considerable and deserved resistance from those who were here before.

In terms of right of occupation, autochthony is hard to trump. The Maori name for themselves — “tangata whenua – people of the land” has a double meaning that is visceral. Whenua means both land and placenta, showing a biological of connection of body with land, ancestors and gods. In contrast to this spiritual worldview, the European emphasis has been on the possibilities, dreams and hopes that could be imprinted upon occupied lands. Over the years people have come up with all sorts of wild ideas legitimize the displacement of indigenous people. Tabula rasa and terra nullius are the more egregious forms of justification. Civilisation, otherwise known as conquest driven by technological and economic dependence has had wider acceptance, even among the natives:

"Reg: All right ... all right ... but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order ... what have the Romans done for us?
Xerxes: Brought peace!
Reg: What!? Oh ... Peace, yes ... shut up!"
(from Life of Brian)

This very argument applies to Milton Keynes. The new town proved an opportunity for the British to play frontiersmen at home. The following public information film "Charley in the New Town" by Halas and Batchelor was made in 1948 maps out the thought process

Of course this was years before MK was planned and built, and no names are mentioned, but the resemblance to real places is striking. Milton Keynes owes much of its history to both World War II and the growth of London. Of course, most know the significant role Bletchley Park played in the war as an intelligence hub. Perhaps more significant, though, was the pressure on housing in London precipitated by the Blitz. Local artist Bill Billings remembers the horror:

“Born in London 1938 [...] hung around Mummy’s apron through the war, Daddy was away for six years. Wasn’t evacuated – Mummy didn’t know how to read the paperwork. We hid under the bed while bombs were flattening the city.” (from The Universal Man’s Tale, Tuner and Jardine.)

One third of homes were lost in the fire-bombing of London. After the war many Londoners were left living in cramped, run-down homes, often sharing with extended family. The conditions described are reminiscent of those seen on "Who do you think you are?", the kind of thing Kiwis watch, shudder and think 'thank god they  chose to get on that boat'.  The quality of the housing was often poor:

“it was a terrible house. For a start off it was running with mice. The mice were in the beds, in the furniture, and it was making my children’s lives a misery, and mine as well, ‘cos I suffered badly from me nerves.” (from “Moving to Milton Keynes” in New Society, 22 August 1974)

From this background people came with a sense they were making better lives for themselves. This feeling still permeates the city. Without any idea of what the new town would be like, Londoners made the intrepid journey up the M1 to settle here. It was a wrench, as many had strong familial, even ancestral, connections with the ancient river city. For those habituated to accept old as normal, the novelty must have been vaguely frightening. “Pioneer Tales,” by Jane Turner and Bob Jardine, captures the spirit well. Each “Tale” depicts the consciousness with which people build their lives here. Vacuum implies emptiness, but it also liberates people to make life anew. My inner Viking cannot help but like the pull-your-socks-up attitude of the unattributed quote: “If you can’t make it in Milton Keynes you’ll never make it in heaven.”

There are few true frontiers; most have impinged on some pre-existing inhabitants. Milton  Keynes is no different. Local farmers were unhappy at the prospect a new city: "It's no use trying to  carry  out intensive farming with a great city right on your doorstep." Farmers of Britain, like many others around the world, have long connected their farms with family and ancestry. Thus when global agricultural decline hit, the toll for farmers was very personal. Among the pressures was competition for land use, consolidation of larger farms, foot and mouth scares and subsidised imports from other countries. The latest chapter in the story of Britain's farm has been one of depression and decline.

Today pastoral names such as Deer and Acorn Walk adorn the glass shopping mall in town. In reality most farmers took compensation and moved away. A university study noted, "in different circumstances the adjustment problems could have been far worse," glossing over  the grimmer outcomes of agriculural decline.  Suicide rates among farmers worldwide has been higher than for other occupations. This is attributed to the access farmers have to means of suicide, but also to the nature of their lives. Relationships, life and livelihood are not separated. Perhaps also farmers have a relationship with their land more akin to indigenous people as farms act as their familiars. For Utopos there is always a price to pay.

Milton Keynes may take a more European concept of land, but just beneath surface lies a spirituality that is not appropriate for this modern, glassed-in, English city. Whether pre-existing, or smuggled in by Londoners in the 1960s, it quietly lurks in the ley lines of the city. I know like everyone else I imprint my own hybrid notions upon the land. I look at the viewpoint at Campbell Park and see a gateway to the spirit world. I'd like to  think I  inherited it and carry it with me wherever I  go as much as I learned it from the place from which I've sprung.

Goodbye Acorn Walk

*New Zealand's sadistic approach to housing extends to livestock as well.
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Friday, 13 August 2010

New world eyes

To me many things in England are unspeakably old. I know this is a tiresome and somewhat embarrassing observation to make. It is really quite gauche to stand outside the thatched pub in Milton Keynes village and gawp like an American tourist. Of course it is old. This is unremarkable. But bear with me while I make two general arguments in my defence. Firstly I come from one of the last patches of the terrestrial crust to be inhabited by humans. Settled by Polynesians as an afterthought and founded by Europeans in 1840, my country as it stands now is quite young.

Secondly I live in Milton Keynes, the largest of the “new towns” built after World War II. I had been prepared for the fact that everything in this city was built circa 1969. I was trained to assume anything that looked old was a Milton Keynes chocolate box rendition of something I would have to go a long way out of town to find. I now know that the new suburbs incorporated ancient villages into their grids. I am slowly adjusting my expectation of the age of any given church. Previously I had simply grafted a New Zealand expectation of timeframe onto any building that ‘looked old” (no dear, more likely 1590, not 1890). Luckily the majority of the rest of the city was built relatively recently or my tiny mind would burst at the thought of the omnipresent layers of human occupation.

As a New World inhabitant I feel a certain affinity to Milton Keynes. In terms of adjustment to living in the UK I should say that I have fallen on my feet. Much of Milton Keynes offers a certain comfort in familiarity. This is because, not just MK, but all of Britain has shared the same past with New Zealand in terms of American cultural imperialism. I appreciate that my attitude is not shared by many British people.

Most every Englishman (a couple of Scots, and one Welshman as well for that matter) gave a pitying laugh when I told them where in the UK I was moving to. Further conversation proved that few had actually been to Milton Keynes, but its reputation apparently precedes it.

Dissed by everyone from Beryl Bainbridge to The Prodigy, the city is variously known for being an artificial, consumerist, Thatcherised, roundabout-ridden hell populated entirely with calving chavs and concrete cows. The bad publicity is longstanding, dating back to at least the town’s inception if not earlier. A journalist named Christopher Booker visited Milton Keynes in July 1974, just after the oil crisis, and did not like what he saw. He declared the town was “the utterly depersonalised nightmare which haunted Aldous Huxley just forty short years ago.”

I will try not to take that too personally.

Of course this division between old world and new world is a false dichotomy. If you wish, you can fool yourself that Milton Keynes is Britain’s own little piece of the New World to be enjoyed at home. The city offers a simulacrum of new world cities for those who have not yet been there. It’s true that MK reminds me of newer parts of Auckland or Sydney. However the reality of new world cities, at least for me, is somewhat different.

It does well to remember that my country was founded at one of the most inauspicious times in urban history. Established in the mid-nineteenth century when cities were polluted, unsanitary, poverty-stricken hell holes, the isolation and poor resourcing did little to enhance the development of New Zealand cities and towns. Many cropped up opportunistically, either as a result of dodgy land schemes or in the wake of local Maori tribes who were run off their land or annihilated by their warlord neighbours during the Musket Wars.

The British obsession with deep harbours can also be blamed for much of the poor placement of New Zealand’s cities. Most carry some risk of natural disaster, be it earthquake, floods, or volcanic eruption. For example, the government is always poised to decamp from the capital for the long overdue “big one” and Wellington’s citizens are drilled on earthquake readiness on their first day at any given workplace.

To be honest Auckland, built on an isthmus universally prized for its strategic importance (the city’s Maori name translates as “Tamaki of many lovers”), is about the only city that makes much sense. Even then the CBD itself was nonsensically placed. An open sewer, which you can still smell today on warm summer days, ran down each side of the main street until it was covered over in the 20th century. Today Auckland is a prime example of the higgledy-piggledy mess that results from a “this’ll have to do until we get something better” approach to construction. Held together with strategically placed breeze blocks and adhesive marmite, New Zealand’s largest city is always on the brink of some sort of catastrophic failure, owing to the complete and utter surprise of those who run the place that the population is continually growing.

The tendency to have placed cities in the wake of devastating natural disasters, when considered alongside the difficulty in getting decent building materials to that end of the world and the recentness of the human occupation, gives the whole place an overwhelming sense of temporariness.

It is this prefabricated temporariness that is the distinguishing character of most Pacific Islands. More permanent though than tropical islands, New Zealand oddly adopts an almost atavistic, most certainly masochistic, approach to town planning and housing. Even the older buildings in my home town are prefabricated mould boxes originally shipped out in bulk as cheap housing for the working classes. A hundred years on these houses are still as dark, damp, and drafty as the day they were built. Only now they have become highly prized status objects, all because they “have character”, i.e. they are old.

Confirmation bias is prevalent among Milton Keynes’ detractors. Most get what they’ve come to see by disembarking at Milton Keynes railway station and wandering up Midsummer Boulevard to be disgusted by the capitalist pigs at the mall before sloping off home again after only a few hours. The basic assumption is that Milton Keynes is a Californian-style city built for three things: cars, shopping and the quiet cultivation of suburban neurosis. Truth be told, most of these critics, many from London, could likely find any of this in their hometowns. The thought that went into the town planning of Milton Keynes has been very influential in the development of new suburbs in old cities and towns throughout the western world: the supremacy of the car; local shopping and business parks; separation of housing from industry; the setting aside of green spaces to create a so called ‘garden city’.

A closer look at the inhabitants of the mall however, does not present the mouth-breathing, vacuous clamour to accumulate that you see in the average suburban mall in the big smoke. Overall the atmosphere is laidback and friendly. Most people have the time to stop and exchange a few words, even with complete strangers. For lack of anywhere else to go, the Shopping Centre provides a comfortable place to spend time with family and friends. On weekdays when the mall is populated by those not trapped in the 9-5 rush, conspicuous consumption comes second to socialising. This blend of designed urban living and the unintended uses people bring to that is what gives Milton Keynes Central its own peculiar character.

Milton Keynes is a testament to people’s ability to adapt as communities in what might otherwise be described as a sterile environment. The casual observer might complain that Milton Keynes is soulless, synthetic, and has no sense of place. However there is no place quite like it in Britain, or anywhere in the world for that matter.

My attempts to capture MK's character on film can be viewed here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/7167484@N07/4887445113/