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/