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:


  1. Amen to that. Most people who do give MK jip have never been, it's not perfect but it's at an important juncture where it needs to hold its original nerve and continue to be itself, rather than trying to temper its more radical notions to suit the smaller minded concepts of urbanity and settlements.

  2. Yeah, it's pretty lazy eh? Though the motivation for that hostility against MK is interesting in itself. Fear is part of it, but I think a lot of it is very political as well.