Early Saturday morning. I’m talking to one of the people who works at the station. We are always comparing notes as to when we might be able to retire.
‘I just want to go now’, she says, ‘I like my job, but there’s too much politics and too much unfairness’.
I totally agree with her. And by politics we both know it to be about ‘the way things are run’ at work. No matter what the management mantra is, we all know that there is little, if any, fairness in the workplace. There are millions of people in England who experience and understand this. A situation made worse by the daily propaganda which claims that all is well.
Without any haste the train moves through the countryside. It is particularly slow in the section of the line between Sandwich and Ramsgate. If you’re not in a hurry it’s rather enjoyable. White flowered hawthorn lines the tracks, fields rolling away into a green hazy distance. Clumps of trees where it would be pleasant to sit within their cool air. I get slightly lost coming out of the station and study the map closely. A woman passing by stops to ask if I need any help. I start a conversation but I then realise she might be in a hurry to catch a train. All the time she’s talking she has one foot which is dragging itself away towards the station.
The walk towards the Newington Estate is along a relatively minor road with a relatively large amount of traffic. The volume of cars, the number of cars which drive way over the speed limits, the modified exhausts, the noise, pollution, danger, risk; the whole dirty grime of motorism. It’s all become normalised as if this amount of motorism is a natural characteristic of each and every streetscape. It dominates in an oppressive way and the impact on people’s physical and mental health largely undiscussed.
A great deal of high-quality low-cost housing was once built in England and the Newington estate to the north of Ramsgate is an excellent example. It was build just after the Second World War partly to resolve the housing problems caused by aerial bombing. The histories of such places can be difficult to trace in terms of who the architects were, what principles underpinned the building, where the money came from, what sort of labour built it (unionised direct labour or non-unionised agency labour). What sort of discussions happened in the local press and council committees and among the local people? Did people talk about Homes Fit for Heroes or development and profit opportunities? There is no single archive for this history but part of the archive is in the imagination, ideas and lived experience of people who live here, or who have lived here, or worked in the building of the estate or delivery services to it. Even small amounts of such research can be rewarding and illuminating.
The first person I speak to is a postman. Delivering letters is described as manual labour but postal workers are knowledge workers. They know a huge amount about what goes on across the area of their delivery round. I wonder how often they are consulted about community development and new builds and land development and property speculation. This postie tells me he grew up on the estate and that the quality of the buildings is very good.
‘You couldn’t hammer a nail into the wall to put a picture up, they were too solid. Not like now, you can punch your fist through the wall of the new stuff’.
‘All concrete floors, proper skirting boards. In the roof, all done by hand with proper roof beams and trusses. Now it’s all pre-made and just slotted together. It’s not the same. It’s not as good by any means’.
I am struck by how much it reminds me of Siedlung Schillerpark and Siemenstadt in Berlin. Not because of the style (those are blocks of flats rather than semi-detached housing), but there is something Bruno Taut about this which is both lovely and difficult to pin down. Is it because it is from an age when public housing, community housing, council housing was taken seriously? The atmosphere cannot be weighed or poured into a jar or measured in any way. But there is a quality about this, a quality without a name. You know it when you find it and here it is. Some of the houses look as if they are thatched, a curious trick of the light. None of the photos I take do any sort of justice to the pleasant harmony of the buildings and the space they’re in. Or the overall impression of the whole, not just individual houses and streets but of the whole estate. There is something here which I thought had been lost. We grow up with an image of England – or at least we did. It’s a little bit chocolate box and jigsaw cover. But there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not reactionary to wish for houses and cottages with gardens and leafy surroundings and space and peace and quite in residential areas.
But what are we growing up with now? High rise, high rise, more high rise. Eccentric facades and poor-quality build. Orange boxes on the edges of towns with two super-size cars in the drive. Each house separated by an inch or two of space so it can be described as ‘detached’. A lack of architecture, design, character and therefore a lack of atmosphere and aesthetics. Weak and puny ornamentation with no grand designs. And alongside this a whole industry of PR advisors, brand executives and media management companies telling everyone that their real dream is a badly built squashed up rabbit-hutch like flat which will cost a fortune. The expansion of capital is always accompanied by the expansion of advertising.
Most of the current practice of house building is nowhere near the principles of garden cities or modernism. The nostalgia however continues to exert influence on people’s imaginations and hopes and fears. But what must be understood is that it is the right wing of the political spectrum which has worked to smash this image, and this reality, and this experience. The featureless eccentric high rise and the orange box vernacular is a direct product of neo-liberalism. The core dynamic is capital accumulation and profit making and it is surrounded by an Orwellian language in which the words can only be properly understand by studying the antonyms they create.
The Newington Estate doesn’t just look different because it was build in the 1940s, it is different because it was designed and built according to a different set of principles. The primary purpose was the provision of good quality, low-cost, well designed housing with the provision of ample green space. It worked to express the ideas of a better future, of progress, of an end to war, to a more equal society, to a world in which health care would be free and available to all, with modern schools and health clinics and advanced practices for the care of mothers, children and the elderly. This housing was part of the whole movement towards the creation of a welfare state. This is in marked contrast to the increasingly privatised dystopia where poor quality health care, poor quality housing and academy-ised education is provided at great cost by cynical profit-obsessed companies based in tax havens.
The estate isn’t perfect. There is rubbish in places and I wonder if estate has a caretaker, and whether it used to have caretakers, and what might have happened to them. There is one house which has a huge pile of bin bags in the garden. The impression is of someone with mental health problems. But such things can easily be solved. Proper care provision and decently paid caretakers and street sweepers.
Dappled light adds a great deal to open space. I have never seen it referenced in the glossy brochures and pixelated images created by property developers. I don’t read much by EY, KPMG, PWC and Deloitte but I doubt they reference it either. They have other buzz words and of course their private interests. Virus like they have infected not just the ideas of municipal government but the practice too. They are paid large consultancy fees to suggest how estates and places might be changed and developed. The post workers, the housing workers, the delivery workers, the local teachers; why no one asks them at all. And residents consultations can mean many different things.
Two women are talking over a low wall that separates the garden from the pavement. A casual start to a conversation. Just a few words and half a question. The older of the two women has always lived on the estate. She tells me she is seventy and that her parents were among the first to move in, ‘to that house there’, she points, ‘in 1948’. She outlines another part of the estate that ‘used to be pre-fabs’.
‘These are good quality and well built’, she explains. ‘My son’s a builder and he put on a porch for us. He said even the bricks are better quality than what they use now’.
Her friend joins in the conversation. She tells me that she also grew up on the estate.
‘My sister lives in a new build. It’s like IKEA flat pack’.
‘All the kids used to play out. Not so much now because of all the cars’.
‘Everyone felt safe, just leave your door open and the kids would just run in and out. And the older kids looked after the younger ones’.
‘It was great growing up here’.
Is it all just nostalgia for an age that never was? A national myth? Cars have played a major role in driving children off the streets and play spaces of their own neighbourhoods. It’s almost taken for granted that this is ‘normal’, as if motor vehicles are natural parts of the environment like the sky and the weather. The conversation that never was, how the motor car wrecked local communities. There are several vehicle movements while I’m there. Some are what you might expect and hope for. People driving carefully but others are fast and aggressive, in super-size cars. Alienation, isolation, immiseration.
‘These are nice big houses. You get three proper double bedrooms…’
‘…and a garden…’
‘and they have a good loft space…’
‘…you could make it your home’.
‘The council used to come every three years and paint it (the outside). They don’t do that now. When you moved in you got a rule book. At least everyone knew where they were. And if you didn’t look after your garden you got a letter. My dad went out to work one day and said, ‘I need to fix the gate when I get back’ but the next day he got a letter about it. ‘Blimey’ he said, I had to go to work’.
I asked about the colours. I rather liked the fact that this had a real Bruno Taut paintbox feel to it.
‘The council painted everything in a cream colour. The new colours are all done by people who bought theirs. We were renting, but when right to buy came in we thought perhaps we should do that too. But my dad said ‘they were always council houses for working people. That’s what they should have stayed as’.
The younger woman explains that she previously lived in a one bedroom flat with her husband,
‘That was £750 a month – and you couldn’t put your washing on the balcony’.
‘It’s all Londoners coming down now, buying everything and then letting it out’.
Eventually it was the moment to part. They both gave me such a warm goodbye and stood there waving as we parted.
I walked up and down the streets. A man covered in tattoos stopped and bent down to stroke the chin of a black cat. In one large area of open space there were plenty of kids playing and people sitting around chatting, looking at babies in prams, bumping into each other and exchanging personal updates and gossip.
At one edge of the estate there is a busy road, a single tower block and a Tesco superstore. This area is part of the environs of the estate and yet it feels disconnected. Most of the movement is vehicle traffic, but with all such places, if you stand and watch for a while, then the people who walk everywhere start to become visible. They carry what they can and are forced to walk along busy roads because there is no other way to get to such places.
A small car with a noisy motor. It spits out a bang-bang-splat-bang noise which has become popular with some people. This car can probably be heard 600 – 700 metres away. The driver constantly races up behind the back of the skip lorry and then is forced to apply the brakes.
I spent the rest of the day tracing out the topography for the proposed Radical Ramsgate Walk. Sitting in the graveyard of St Augustine’s church. It was so peaceful eating lunch. A home made cheese sandwich and some tomatoes and figs and cashew nuts and cold water from a steel bottle. When this was finished I drew the church. The quality was here too. But it was impossible to describe. Instead, it was just something to absorb. A bang-splat-bang car went past and even this little space of quiet was gone.But inside the church itself there was peace and the delicious experience of being in there alone with the architecture, the space and Pugin’s aesthetic sense. Sunlight poured through the stained glass windows. The red, green, blue and yellow light splashed on the stone work. It felt like a place for healing, redemption, forgiveness, upward movements, of greater powers.
Walking through the town, planning the route. Should we go up this hill? What about here? It works out generally ok. I spent a lot of time talking to a man who runs a curious second hand bookshop in King Street. He tells me about John Le Mesurier and Hattie Jaques, Tony Hancock, Joan Malin, Sid James.
‘Hancock used to live over there’, he said pointing to a flat. ‘And an Irish bloke lived downstairs. He always used to say he had a ghost in the flat’
We make eye contact. He had blue eyes and short grey hair and red cheeks. The eye contact is to establish something. Whatever it is, it works.
‘Tony Hancock was thrown out of that pub down there’, he says, pointing to the Kings Arms.
‘He was lying on the pavement and Sid James just stepped over him and went on in’.
‘This used to be a butchers’, he said about his own shop. ‘It was called ‘The Golden Pie’. Do you remember that bloke who did Opportunity Knocks?’
‘Hughie Green’, I say
‘That’s right, he was the father of her who got married to Bob Geldof’.
‘I can see her face but can’t remember her name’ (it came to me later, Paula Yates).
‘…he used to come here and get a pie and peas’
Then it all became hazy and complicated. Something about Bob Geldof in a taxi (he pointed to the road) and someone being sick and Hughie Green appearing and perhaps Sid James turned up and Paula Yates was there too. And then we got back on track again.
We talked about Marx staying the Plains of Waterloo and his daughter Jenny living in Artillery Road. She gave birth to her son Edward ‘Wolf’ Longleut there on the 18th August 1879 (he was given the nickname ‘Wolf’ because of his appetite).
‘What’s your name?’ he asked me as we parted. ‘I’m Martin’, he said.
There was one last encounter. A man was sanding and sanding the wood of some window panes. He wore a blue t-shirt with an England football team badge on it. We started talking. He was originally from Bermondsey and told me that his house used to be a bakers and the next door was a sweetshop. We had a long chat about this and that
‘Are you going to watch the cup final’, I asked
‘What, is it on today?’
‘It’s quarter to five, Chelsea – Liverpool’
‘Oh I hate Chelsea’, he said
‘Are you Millwall?, I asked
We both had a good laugh at this. It turned out that the Liverpool fans booed Prince William. I’m not sure what he would have made of that. But a ground level there is always a lot of complexity. A lot of things are never as solid as they seem. And for the left to win we need to be able to pull a lot of unexpected people with us. Building socialism from ground level is never easy but will always be much more interesting and potentially with much greater rewards than the strange sales-rep watery nothingness of Starmer & Co. And it is certain that a socialist approach to housing would be far superior to the current approaches.
It was an interesting day and enjoyable to experience the first wave of the Welfare State in such a way through the housing of Newington estate. And to meet and discuss so many different things with a range of people. And to imagine Marx and Engels and Jenny and Jennychen and Eleanor and Laura Marx and Lizzie Burns in Ramsgate. All mixed up in discussions about dialectics, political economy, the development of capital and a new born baby.