Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Milton Keynes and Me

Gosh, it's been an age... Trying to catch up after the summer holidays. Feels like (and is indeed) weeks since I watched this programme, but never mind. Off we go...

I never expected to use the words "touching" and "Milton Keynes" together in the same sentence, but that's what this documentary led me to do.

It was a film about having a home town that you grew up bored by, and later embarrassed by, and that you ran away from as fast as you could as soon as you could. But a home town that you remain attached to simply because it is where your family made your roots, and where your parents stayed to grow old. And it was a film about how life turns full circle - suddenly, you have your own kids and realise what a nice place your home town might be to raise a family. Maybe you are merely trying to recreate your own memories for the next generation - memories which, as you age, acquire the rose-tinted spectacles of yore.

I possibly have similar feelings about my own home town. It was crushingly dull as a teenager - it didn't even get its own cinema until after I left home. Or rather it had had one years before, but that had long since been turned into a Marks and Spencer. Life only got marginally more interesting for us once we could start trying to drink underage, but it was never a place where anyone sensible would want to hang out on a Saturday night. But I've seen many friends, who shot off like the proverbial bullet to university in far-flung places as soon as they had the opportunity, move back there over the past decade to have their own kids. Possibly they just want the free babysitting that the grandparents offer. Alas that's not an option for me, with my mum dead for over 12 years, and my dad sold up and moved away back to his own childhood roots. But home is home. There are things about my childhood that I wish we could offer our daughter. A school with a large playing field and lots of trees instead of the concrete playground she has to make do with. The proximity to Hatfield Forest and Audley End children's railway. The opportunity to go to London every weekend. Sunshine in summer, snow in winter. An airport on the doorstep, the Suffolk coast and Channel crossings that much nearer.

I've only been to Milton Keynes properly once, on an organised coach trip from my own dull home town to do some Christmas shopping. It was possibly my first trip to a "mall". It was all terribly exciting and I remember stocking up on a Eurythmics tape, a bad lipstick that matched the one Annie Lennox was wearing on the cover of the Eurythmics tape, and a terrible pair of black and white '80s trousers from Chelsea Girl. But my only visits to the place since have been driving round its endless roundabouts en route between the M1 and my aunt's house in Buckinghamshire.

And Richard Macer's documentary began with those self-same roundabouts. There is a roundabout appreciation society, did you know that? It has its own calendar. And Milton Keynes makes them drool. They call a garden roundabout a "Titchmarsh" or a "Monty Don". They will risk life and limb to cross lanes of traffic and stand in the middle of them.

But there is a town behind those roundabouts. Hidden by trees, mounds and duck pond reeds are a multitude of houses which, at the time of building, were considered innovative and state of the art. (They haven't necessarily aged well, however.) They have unusual sloping eaves, a sense of light and space seldom found outside Scandinavia, and open-plan living. They were designed to lure people out of the London slums, where kids never knew darkness - without their own room and forced to sleep in the lounge, they had to put up with their parents staying up late in artificial light.  The families were helped to settle in by social workers. One recalls helping a woman who was dying of cancer to write letters to her young children. It still makes her cry after all these years.

Going back to the architecture, the original shopping mall, the centre of MK, has all sorts of features that you wouldn't necessarily notice unless you were given a tour by its actual architects, which thankfully in this documentary we are. They point out the reflections, the framework, the Roman marble. They sum it up with a "Milton Keynes - so there!"

Unfortunately a new shopping mall has been built bang in the middle of the Boulevard, the main thoroughfare through town, causing a diversion. This has upset numerous locals as the town has lost its sense of flow and order. The original planning corporation of Milton Keynes has been disbanded and replaced by a council committee desperate to make commercial money. So the grand plan has begun to slip. Admittedly, some parts of the original grand plan were a little way out, such as the Vegas style leisure centre, with its rodeo, wave pool and souk bar area that wouldn't have looked out of place on an episode of Star Trek. But these were never built.

There is however a lot of way-out art that has survived. It's a shame that the only sculpture people have ever heard of is the concrete cows, as there is a whole lot more. There's a gallery full of it. Enthusiasts will show you round. Artists and photographers are still lured to the streets and estates. A new piece is being commissioned to commemorate the town's 50th birthday - for a roundabout. It's a little telling that the council chooses to hold the 50th birthday party in the historical house at Bletchley Park, rather than say, the shopping centre, or on a roundabout. It's as if they're not quite as proud of the town's achievements as they claim.

The school tried to make the artists of the future. They would have themed days where the intended curriculum would be forgotten and pupils would be allowed to specialise in an activity of their choice, like art, maths, rollerskating or even golf. There was no uniform, the classrooms had carpets and the teachers and pupils were on first-name terms. Nowadays the pupils all wear ties and follow rules and whatever prehistoric lessons Michael Gove has made them learn. The vision of utopia has been snatched away from under them. Today's pupils find Milton Keynes "boring", just like the documentary maker (who attended the school at the height of its vision). But they do like the town's openness and tolerance, and multiculturalism. Which didn't exist in its early years. A famous advert with a clown on stilts carrying red balloons encouraging people to move to Milton Keynes had only white participants.

And after school the university - the Open University. That of the beards on early morning BBC2 and unfathomable equations. Local residents signed up in droves but were then disappointed to discover that physics is hard. Time to go and meditate at the first Buddhist peace pagoda in the Western world instead.

I grew up near another new town - Harlow. It was the first place my parents lived when they moved down south, in one of the country's first residential high-rise blocks. My dad worked in Harlow on an industrial estate making Latex for 30 years. Harlow had a similar ethos to Milton Keynes - lots of airy houses, green spaces and cycle paths. And roundabouts. But unfortunately it quickly lost its original aspirations and became a bit of a dump. Growing up, it provided our local A&E and cinema, though both were fairly nasty. That said, the town had its own cultural highlights - Carter USM were discovered at The Square, and the Pogues played Harlow Park. Harlow Playhouse had its annual pantomime where all my school friends seemed to get invited up on stage but I never did (oh, the trauma of being eight!), and a series of children's classical music concerts called Patchwork which attracted some pretty famous musicians (Emma Johnson, Malcolm Messiter) and instilled in me my love of early music and folk. The town's sculptures were by Henry Moore, who lived locally. Recently, a Polish man was murdered there in a racist hate crime after the EU referendum, which was far from Harlow's finest hour, and shows none of the tolerance and diversity so praised by the children of Milton Keynes. Sad times indeed. Though Harlow has apparently responded, like Milton Keynes would, with art.
Me and my mum hanging out in Harlow's green spaces in 1975

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