The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, June 13, 2011

Why concrete smells like victory

Some time in my early teens, i.e. around 1970, a friend's family had to move house. They'd lived until then in a tenement flat which I recall dimly as maybe a little cramped for two parents and two boys, but perfectly respectable and comfortable: the father was a train-driver and the mother a housewife with a part-time job. But the building was being knocked down because a big new container port was being built just across the street. They moved to a maisonette in a newly-built block a couple of miles away, where blocks just like it were spreading up and over the hill. That Saturday, I helped them move, lugging chairs and boxes down the old stairs and up the new stairs time after time, and enjoying the van rides in between. The estate had a fresh raw feel: new-laid turf, new-planted beds, and the stairwell smelled of concrete. By evening the move was complete, more or less, and I suppose I had a cup of tea amid the cardboard boxes and went home. The next time I visited, everything was in place and it was great: bright and airy, with wide windows and central heating and wall-to-wall carpets and room, and probably rooms, for everybody.

The stairwell still smelled of concrete. There was plenty of green space around, but you knew that the new housing had just been built where a year or so before there had been nothing but green space, grass and gorse. For me at that age there was a thrill in the thought that this hectare or two of habitat had just been hacked out of raw nature. That increment of suburban sprawl felt like a frontier.

In the past few months I've seen documentaries about that time - a series about Scotland on film, a piece on Harold Wilson - and remembered what it was like when visible, tangible progress just kept happening. We didn't appreciate it enough, and I think I know why. Millions of people moved out of much worse places than my friend's family's old flat, out of slums and ruins and into new towns and suburbs. For the generation who'd been through the Great Depression and the Second World War - our parents - this and all that went with it was as good as socialism. For them the war was the revolution. This was their victory, this was what they'd fought for. It was their kids who didn't appreciate it.

Some guy who'd grown up in a New Town - it may have been Pat Kane, talking about Cumbernauld - said that it was a great place for young families with young children, and a great place to be a kid. You could scoot out the door on your bike and ride for miles and never worry about traffic, because the pedestrian lanes swooped over and under the roads. The school buildings were new and as bright and airy as high-tech factories and office blocks, which they often looked like. But once you'd grown up a bit and stopped being a kid and became a teenager, the new towns and suburbs had a lot less to offer.

My friend and I and the rest of our clique spent a lot of teenage Saturdays up in the hills above the town, looking down on the new high school and the gigantic IBM factory just a mile along the valley from it, loftily despising those of our cohort whose highest ambition was to move from the one to the other, and to live in one of the little boxes on the hillside. Most of us made haste to live in bedsits and squats and inner-city tenements, until we had kids and jobs ourselves and of course moved out to the suburbs, where ...

I want to breathe that air again and the smell of concrete and victory.

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Grew up in Toronto, as a beneficiary of the Canadian version of the British New Model Welfare State. I remember being shaped by that, as well as many, many interesting bits and pieces of the postwar British Labour consensus: Penguin Books and Pelicans, Doctor Who, BBC docs like Bronowski's Ascent of Man...

There were distinctively Canadian bits like the National Film Board, founded as a wartime propaganda film board under the brilliant Scottish director John Grierson and often offering up a standing "critical montage" of a very Americanized late capitalism, in the name of a left-liberal Canadian nationalism (here's a piece on Grierson and his role:
It's interesting to note that this glowing tribute to Grierson was written by a right of centre journalist. Aspects of the Canadian version of the post-war consensus survive in the strangest places)
My family, Communists and Socialists all, fled from the Greek military junta in the late Sixties. They settled in a heavily immigrant west Toronto, railroad yards belonging to government owned Canadian National Railways on one side, extensive factories on the other. The neighborhood smelled of "the smoke of useful industry". In these days of deindustrialisation I'm missing that smell. For me, THAT was the smell of progress.

Jimmy, that's funny -- as soon as I read Ken's piece but before I saw your comment, I thought about how similar it was to my childhood in Toronto (I'm also, unsurprisingly for that place and time, the child of immigrants).

My childhood in the "white heat of technology" doesn't have your romantic associations, Ken. We moved from tenement living in Edinburgh to a "proper house" with a garden front and back in Grangemouth because my father got a job in the BP refinery there. Dad's job was technical support to a research project creating foodstuffs from oil substrates - very SF, very progressive and just a bit "Grimbledon Down". He brought us all up to be good little socialists for the modern age. Grangemouth however was having none of it. Whatever measurable increase there might have been in some of our living standards the distinctive smell of Grangemouth will never mean progress to me; it smells of a cultural desert filled with bigotry and hate, engendering madness as well as respiratory disease.

...And now we have, in America, the devolution of urban spaces. Detroit, home to Henry Fords sprawling factories, is becoming depopulated, "a city of parks" -- more like it, a dangerous urban forest. In Tucson, Arizona, where I live, a suburban home is a growing liability as the time cost of the commute is becoming burdensome. (For some reason, our gasoline prices are among the lowest in the nation -- which only encourages more commuting.)

I remember fondly growing up in Los Angeles on the beach (Beach Boy days) when things were not so organized and commercialized, when it was wondrous to watch a Constellation or 707 jetliner fly overhead, and Disneyland still felt like it was shared between Walt Disney and his park-goer guests. I'm not sure exactly what replaced it -- neighborhoods that once were delightful in their differences, now unreachable due to traffic, merging one into the other without discernable character or form.

MadeleineS: I hear you- goodness knows, industrial life in the Seventies etc. was no utopia. There always were (and are) lots of people who respond badly to "the shock of the new", who hate that quality of modern life that dissolves all that is solid into air (see what I did there?)
Maybe yours was the truer vision: the harsh description of life in "the old country" that was expounded to me at length by grandparents contrasted with the definitely gritty, yet hopeful present. Hiding in cellars during bombing runs by Stukas, being drafted as corvee slave labour, having Waffen SS officers billeted on your household; later being harassed and treated as second class citizens for having Communists and Macedonian speakers in your family- all this was painted (accurately) as being far worse than having to learn a new language and enduring the harsh stink of blood and shit from the stockyards next street over on hot humid summer nights :)
I suppose I was spoiled as well by there being a lot of community and class solidarity in the old neighborhood, even with it being as racially mixed as anything: Italians, Greeks, Maltese, Lebanese, Chinese, Punjabis, West Indians along with a large remaining population of working class Anglo Canadians of British descent, of the type that once got Toronto labelled as "the largest Anglo-Saxon slum in North America". It was a great place to be a kid as well: parents were content to allow kids to play outside til after dark, satisfied that there were trustworthy and responsible "eyes on the street" among the neighbors at all times. Street crime was marginal and low profile (though I didn't realize until later in life that the many Italian "social clubs" in the area probably had something to do with it as well. The local Mafiosi probably didn't look to kindly on outside competition)

Debcha: once I finished, I kept thinking about more examples of the modernist "white heat of technology" era in Ontario: I remember being told how the entire city was looking out their windows and sitting on their roofs watching the completion of the CN Tower (Toronto's landmark gigantic modernist television broadcast antenna, simitar to the one in East Berlin.) by a Sikorsky skycrane helicopter carefully lowering the final piece of the antenna aerial. And remember TVOntario? Sophisticated, high quality public television on a shoestring (here's a Metafilter link to an online archive of classic TVO programming :
also, TVOntario played Doctor Who! Yes, TVO is partially to blame for my sf geekery.
Sorry for the logorrhea Ken, but your post really struck a cord with me.

Now the song's stuck in my head:
"Little boxes
on the hillside.
Little boxes
made of ticky-tacky."

For the generation who'd been through the Great Depression and the Second World War - our parents - this and all that went with it was as good as socialism. For them the war was the revolution.

Didn't work out that way in the US though.
The closest thing for me was the mid-70s when I was 5 and my mother had joined the Army. We moved from Florida to North Virginia, lived in a cheap apartment, where the neighbor's brats kept trying to steal our stuff. Then into Army housing. It was safe, my brother and I could roam around in the woods and stay out till dark. We got along with our neighbors. School was nearby, and there was healthcare for us. The closest thing to 'Socialism' we've got.

JamesPadraicR: Stan Goff, a Special forces soldier who became a Maoist and radical feminist, has argued that the US Army is the closest many Americans get to experiencing socialism ... and he meant that in a good way.

Everyone else ... yes, I remember the air pollution too. Greenock's smogs were terrible, back when it had industry - and, to be fair, coal fires in almost every house.

Special Forces. I think The Onion once had a piece on the Special forces.

the US Army is the closest many Americans get to experiencing socialism ... and he meant that in a good way.

So do I--except for that being in the military part. I've always thought it rather ironic that our Democracy is 'protected' by a socialist institution. Though, if you asked an average GI (or civilian, for that matter) about it they probably wouldn't have realized that's what it is.

My late-teen Maoist phase (had the t-shirt) didn't last long, the more I learned about him the less I liked.

if you asked an average GI (or civilian, for that matter) about it they probably wouldn't have realized that's what it is.

Or another way: There are plenty of conservative American politicians who go on and on against socialism, but are all hoo-rah for the military.

Lovely piece Ken. Which part of Greenock was the new house in? I also wonder what it looks like and feels like now - did it stay nice or did it decline thru lack of infrastructure, investment, tlc, etc? Presumably eg the Gibby smelled great in the 30's but degenerated [though I now see it's being regenerated].

Hi bro! The flats were I think at Mallard Crescent, which google has still standing at least! and it looks a nice part of town, but I haven't been back to look.

Our whole block here was originally social housing (SSHA) and is all in good shape after over thirty years. Apart from my window frames (sigh).

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