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

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


  1. There was a time in my life when I could have stood on Seckloe Hill and possibly connected to the experience of my Saxon forebears 1,000 years ago. Not that I ever tried but then there was only the hedgerows of the land enclosures between us and the landscape of 1000 AD. Now there is a lot more interference.
    I probably still accept the truths about shared mythologies revealed by Frazer and Campbell but I suspect that it is much harder to do that when our only common experiences come from TV presentations like the X Factor.
    I'm glad you are in MK because it may be a great laboratory for exploring alienated living. Wherever you drive in Milton Keynes there is no sense of place; the tree-lined roads guarantee that. Every part of MK is equally accessible but also equally remote. It is small wonder that these newer villages like Fishermead develop a certain "character". People do tend to undermine planners by being human.

    I don't think Wolverton was too influenced by the arrival and departure of the navvies, any more than Newport Pagnell was influenced by their equivalents who built the M1. Wolverton, after the first decade of settlement, offered full and reasonably well-paid employment from generation to generation and developed its own ethos of what you might term "working class respectability."

    Bletchley, by contrast, never stood a chance. Having grown modestly after the railway junction was built, it was invaded after the war by swathes of people from London who brought with them their own sub culture and had no reason to adapt. And whereas Wolverton grew organically and almost accidentally, Bletchley was subjected to central planning, possibly aggravated by the MKDC.

  2. Interesting comparison of Newport and the M1 to Wolverton. You can tell my knowledge of the topic is glancing at this point.

    I don't have much time for the rhetoric myself, it does have the comforting familiarity of scares drummed up by the media about crime or Icelandic volcanoes. Though I agree that Bletchley got the short end of the stick.

    Funny you should mention the Saxons, as I was just thinking about them today. I was just up at the Brickhills which gave me a rare chance to look across Milton Keynes in its entirety and consider the history of the land. As I looked out I felt, well still no deep ancestral connection but, for the first time in my life I was able to look at the land without any sense of remorse, or complete unbelonging. It was the first time I didn't feel like I was an interloper breaking a deeper chain of custody that I could never understand. The guilt of the NZ countryside is overwhelming, sometimes to the point of severe psychic disturbance. Thus a strong tradition of a gothic gloom has permeated NZ film, art and literature.

    So should we wait in earnest for the ghosts of old Bletchley to rise up this month? I doubt it.

    Kia ora (thank you) for your excellent comment Bryan.

  3. You might wish to take a look at this blog
    He is currently reviewing, from an architectural perspective, some of MK's earlier creations.

  4. Thanks. I found Iqbal's photos through flickr and didn't know he had a blog until I saw the link from your website. Yet another boon.