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Utopias

I have a life-long interest in failed utopias of one sort or another chiefly because I am the product of one myself.

Unfinished apartment block in Spain. Photo: bridgendboy, Canva Pro.

In 2002 I went to live in Spain. It was all the rage back then. British TV schedules were clogged with programmes advertising indistinguishable vistas and villas and barbecue patios over and over again. I might have felt little kinship with those caught up in the great property swoop on the Costas, heading as I was for a rented flat in central Barcelona, but in truth my motivations were essentially the same: the sun, the sea, the cheap menu el dia. Spain seemed a kind of utopia and I like many other Britons was seduced by the idea that happiness could somehow be purchased and geographically located.

It didn’t work out that way. I found that the breathtaking beauty lasted only about ten weeks for me before becoming humdrum and then invisible. It took even less time than that for days with nothing to do but write to become freighted with anxiety and boredom. But the price for those other ex-pats who had eagerly bought properties all over Spain was higher. The crash of 2008 saw property prices fall through the floor. The TV schedules were still clogged with programmes about moving to Spain but now they all had ‘nightmare’ or ‘hell’ in their titles. It was too late though for second thoughts; thousands were stranded in their unsaleable place in the sun fondly remembering days of grey clouds and Greggs’ pasties and longing for the mossy coolness of their old garden sheds.

I was living back in England, when I first heard about the ghost towns — unfinished new developments with sprinklings of settlers left abandoned all over Spain as contractors went bust. Out in the middle of dusty plains with little or no infrastructure, people were living in stillborn urbanisations with electric cables snaking through the streets and empty swimming pools colonised by feral cats. Settlers were left to try and rig up their own connections to basic utilities. There was something simultaneously post-apocalyptic and utterly suburban about the ghost towns: Ballardian dystopias filtered through a Mail on Sunday colour supplement. I read about them, watched endless programmes about them and ultimately went back to Spain and visited some. I found something beautiful in the empty rainbow-coloured playgrounds and dense thickets of weeds bursting through fresh tarmac. I came home and wrote a novel in which a ghost town was the main character. 

My passion for these sources of other people’s misery wasn’t entirely reprehensible. I have a life-long interest in failed utopias of one sort or another chiefly because I am the product of one myself. I grew up in Birmingham with its unique second-city blend of ambition and insecurity. Birmingham was and remains a hopeless addict of reinvention, locked in an endless cycle of building and then tearing down its libraries and shopping centres. The city’s motto is ‘Forward’ and above its coat of arms is the emblem of an arm swinging a hammer. Sir Herbert Manzoni, the City’s Engineer and Surveyor between 1935 and 1963, steered the development of postwar Birmingham. His approach is best summed up in his own words:

“I have never been very certain as to the value of tangible links with the past. […]

As to Birmingham’s buildings, there is little of real worth in our architecture.”

Manzoni oversaw the demolition of much of the city’s Victorian heritage. The fustiness of 19th-century ornamentation was reviled and replaced with clean lines and concrete. Birmingham was where the future would be built. Growing up in the city, this infatuation with the future was clear to see. Birmingham couldn’t stop dreaming about how wonderful tomorrow could be. As a child I would stare at the artists’ impressions of yet another proposed development covering the front page of the local paper. Every week it seemed brought a new architectural serving suggestion of faceless people gliding through glassy landscapes. Here were tree-lined plazas, elevated walkways, monorails!

Photo credit: Birmingham, UK. peeterv | Canva Pro.

Photo credit: peeterv | Canva Pro.

I grew up with a soft spot for this restlessness. What interested and inspired me about the city’s utopian dreaming wasn’t whatever happened to be the current phase of development but rather the overlooked fragments of former dreams. As a teenager in the 1980s I loved exploring the bizarre and melancholy landscaped public spaces in the centre of the city’s countless traffic islands. There was something heartbreaking about the care that had been lavished on picnic areas, public artworks, fountains and gardens in which no one had ever chosen to pass their time.  

Recently I watched a film called Breathing Spaces. Made in 1964 by the Public Works Committee of Birmingham it documents the attempts to create a verdant utopia for children amidst the inner-city council estates then being built to replace Victorian slums. 

The film shows the immense care and thought that went into the enterprise. Large expanses of rolling tree-capped hillocks were landscaped to surround the tower blocks and maisonettes. The council transplanted many mature trees from other parts of the country. In rather troubling scenes the film shows alder trees being dug up from the Hampshire countryside by burly men in leather gloves, sewn into sacks and then taken to inner-city Birmingham. The arboreal equivalent surely of transportation to a barren penal colony. 

The film closes on a rather puzzling shot of a baby and a kitten lying together on a blanket in some unspecified location. It is schmaltzy and heavy-handed propaganda for the hopes and dreams the planners held for the generation that would inherit these green spaces. The film has a special resonance for me as I was part of that generation and grew up in the exact landscape it depicts. Watching the film, I might have expected it to feel odd to see the planning and actual physical construction of spaces I should have taken for granted or considered eternal, but it didn’t at all. That landscape always felt manmade and modern to me, it was palpably contrived for better or for worse.

The Breathing Spaces project wasn’t just about trees and grass, it was also about public art. The greatest revelation for me when watching the film was to learn the name of an artwork that remains just down the road from where I grew up. It’s a concrete sculpture mounted on a brick plinth, overlooking, of course, a traffic island. I passed it daily when I was a child and it troubled me greatly. The subject was a hammer-headed, faceless form sitting in what looked like a painfully contorted position. I always found it unspeakably malevolent. Having watched the film, I now know that the statue is called ‘Youth’, or as the narrator says in wonderfully clipped tones: ‘”Youth” – cast in concrete’ – which I may borrow one day as a title for a memoir. I’d grown up though thinking it was called something entirely different. Fearfully I asked my Mom once what it was and she answered: ‘The mind boggles’. Having never heard the expression before I took that to be its official title. It seemed a suitably sinister and mysterious name for it.  

Needless to say, the utopia dreamed of in Breathing Spaces failed for various reasons. By the time I was playing out in the mid-70s the Hampshire alders remained as fragile looking as the day they had arrived over ten years earlier. I’m not sure if the trauma of transportation stunted their growth or if they were naturally spindly but they never looked like the kinds of trees with which you could have fun — you couldn’t swing from them, or climb them, or build treehouses in them. As children, we only ever noticed them when there was a carrier bag or forlorn anorak flapping in their branches. We found the wide-open carefully landscaped spaces windswept and barren. They made us feel isolated whilst at the same time exposed and observed. Most of all they were boring. We avoided them. Instead we played on the stairwells of the flats and maisonettes, on building sites, in half-demolished factories, in the storm drains and on the railways. I suppose what we wanted were dark corners, secret cut-throughs and underground passages. The trees had been transplanted from Hampshire, but we hadn’t, and we had no real interest in open spaces for their own sake. They’d cleared the slums long ago but we seemed to have been born with some aching nostalgia for them. 

It would be natural perhaps to watch the film and feel anger at how far reality veered from the dream, but I can’t find anything obviously flawed about the plans themselves — they seem guided by good intentions. The failing I suspect was in the planners’ understanding of the people who were going to inhabit their plans and in particular the children. My overwhelming response towards the failed experiment of my childhood, along with the many other broken utopias I’ve found myself drawn to since, is one of tenderness and melancholy. Utopia-building may be driven by megalomania, it may be driven by greed, but most often and most affectingly it is driven by optimism. The utopians miscalculate in endless ways, they fail to fully grasp the nature of people or the world around them, but in this and in their optimism they seem essentially childlike.  

Fierce winds howl around the bases of tower blocks. When I was at primary school I’d stare out of my classroom window at the litter whipped from surrounding bins and sent flying through the air. It was a beautiful and exhilarating sight. Eventually the airborne rubbish would snag on bushes and trees where it would become trapped. I always assumed that was the purpose of the otherwise pointless greenery that surrounded us: litter catching. It seemed clever to me. Failure is after all subjective.


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