About natalierosebradbury

Writer, researcher, editor and sometime musician based in Manchester.

Love in a warm climate

Stephen Hale – Sigi and the Italian Girl (2018)

The first novel by Manchester-based writer Stephen Hale transports us to the small hillside Italian village of Madonna del Bosco.

Though fictional – or perhaps a composite of real places – it’s grounded in Hale’s own experiences of living and working in Italy. This sensual novel displays a deep knowledge of the region’s landscape and culture and a clear affection for ways of life in rural Italy.

Hale also takes us back in time. Firstly, to 1944, when Madonna del Bosco is occupied by German soldiers – the story is told from the viewpoint of the titular Sigi, a naïve nineteen-year-old army officer – and secondly to 2010, when we’re introduced to his grandson, British single dad Ben, who has his own story to tell.

The characters speak in impressively polyglot voices, and the narrative moves seamlessly between the past and the present.

The wartime story is far removed from the frontline. Instead of fighting, we’re presented with bureaucracy and boredom. This war plays out in everyday life, and through small acts of resistance, rather than through direct action.

In the contemporary story, meanwhile, recently widowed Ben has relocated from London in search of a better life for him and his young son, also named Sigi.

Both stories share a sense of being away from home – or finding a home – and navigating the strangeness of a new culture. The importance of friendship comes across strongly, and finding commonality across cultural and generational distances; Hale deals adeptly with memory and its transmission. Both men – grandfather and grandson – fall in love in Madonna del Bosco, each relationship encountering its own challenges, although the outcomes are very different.

Despite its references to Italian neorealism, Sigi and the Italian Girl avoids cliché and sentimentality. Although the ending to old Sigi’s story comes as no particular surprise – I felt myself willing it to end differently – it leaves us to form our own conclusions about the characters’ motivations. The book suggests that there’s no such thing as clear cut goodies or baddies, or rigid ethical and moral codes. Hale passes no judgement on the characters: we are invited to make up our own minds. Sigi and the Italian Girl makes the case that most of us are neither heroic nor cowardly, but somewhere in between.

– Natalie Bradbury

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An Englishman’s home is his castle

Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova – Prefabs: A Social and Cultural History (Historic England, 2018)

Up and down the country, in between areas of traditional brick housing and shiny new builds, it’s still possible to see the odd row of small, single-story rectangular cottages made of concrete and corrugated metal. Whilst they often look unassuming and sometimes shabby, these dwellings are remarkable survivors from the years following the First and Second World Wars, when there was a pressing need to provide housing quickly, cheaply and on a mass-scale. One solution, as a new book by Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova shows, was prefabrication.

Prefabrication, either of entire buildings or of particular components, has a long history, being applied to everything from the construction of the Crystal Palace, to ready-to-assemble houses which were exported to residents setting up home in the colonies, to dormitory housing for factory workers. Over time, materials changed with technological advancements, from timber to corrugated iron to steel and concrete, as did designs. Prefabs situates British prefabs in this historical context, as well as within a wider international survey of approaches to prefabrication, driven by varying circumstances and ideologies.

When prefabrication really came into its own in the UK was immediately after the Second World War, when hundreds of thousands of new homes were needed to house a boom in newlyweds, as well as those who had been bombed. Prefabrication was regarded as a quick and temporary solution to this need, at a time when both materials and labour were in short supply. Factories which had previously produced aircraft as part of the war effort were repurposed to create components for housing. Rubble from bombed houses were used for foundations. Furthermore, construction didn’t require skilled labour – sometimes prisoners of war were put to work erecting prefabs.

Although they were meant only as a temporary solution, these houses often vastly exceeded residents’ former living conditions, offering a self-contained (if small), detached house with front and back garden at a time when many families, especially in the inner cities, were still crammed into rooms in houses shared with several others.

As the book shows, these houses not only offered a roof over residents’ heads, but changed their ways of living. In many ways, prefabs were at the forefront of modernity, incorporating then-innovative features such as built-in furniture and storage space, indoor bathrooms, electric appliances, and labour-saving devices such as refrigerators. They also offered self-sufficiency, with space to grow food; the book describes a Women’s Voluntary Service scheme which distributed plants and seeds to the prefabs from gardens in country areas. This goes some way to explaining their popularity, and the fact that some continue to be lived in today, extending their predicted life-span by more than half a century.

Of course, prefabs weren’t without their problems. They suffered from issues such as damp, and it was sometimes difficult to regulate the temperature inside; early designs, demonstrated at experimental show homes on prominent central London sites such as the land behind the Tate Gallery, were improved and refined as their faults became apparent.

The book goes on to show how elements of prefabrication, such as cast concrete and the use of mass-produced, machine-made elements, were applied later in the post-war reconstruction effort to housing intended to be more permanent. By the 1960s, the low-rise bungalow of the immediate post-war years was replaced with the high-rise block of flats as the preferred choice for meeting the need for mass housing; many of these proved less popular and durable than the apparently temporary prefabs, and turned out to have design flaws with far more serious consequences.

Prefabs brings these homes to life, incorporating testimonies from past and present residents as well as illustrations of their construction and their changing place in the housing market as the areas around them have been redeveloped; controversially in the past couple of years Catford’s Excalibur Estate, one of the last major areas of prefab housing, has been largely cleared by the council to be replaced with high-density (and higher-cost) housing in the name of regeneration, despite the objections of residents.

The authors even suggest that prefabs might have a role to play today, in addressing issues such as the shortage of affordable housing and homelessness. Updated with new materials and methods of construction, prefabs benefit from being portable, cost-effective and eco-friendly, and can be easily slotted into the existing city fabric – attributes that made them attractive to planners and councils more than seventy years ago.

Natalie Bradbury

Ode to Sussex

Shirley Collins – All in the Downs: Reflections on Life, Landscape and Song (Strange Attractor Press, 2018)

The 2017 documentary the Ballad of Shirley Collins followed the cult English folk singer as she recorded Lodestar, her first album in nearly four decades. Filmed largely around her home in Lewes in East Sussex, and the surrounding area, the film told the remarkable and poignant story of how Collins lost her voice – leading from her withdrawing both from performance and recording for many years – and unexpectedly found it again.

All in the Downs acts as a thoughtful companion piece to the film, with Collins drawing out her experiences in greater depth, writing from her own, opinionated perspective. It follows a previous volume of autobiography, America Over the Water, published in 2004, which told the story of Collins’ travels across United States with the musicologist (and her then partner) Alan Lomax. All in the Downs, by contrast, remains closer to home to focus on Collins’ career in her own right, and the way in which it was informed by her early years in the working-class seaside town of Hastings, East Sussex and later in her retreat from the town and city back to a rediscovery of the rolling countryside of the Sussex downs.

All in the Downs shares with the film a strong sense of loss and absence; it begins with a chapter on the breakdown of Collins’ second marriage, as a major contributory factor in the loss of her voice, before detailing her relationship with her father, who returned from the Second World War only to leave again, and the premature death of her sister and artistic collaborator, Dolly.

As well as sharing her personal and professional memories, All in the Downs offers a rich glimpse into the shared experiences of mid-twentieth century Britain, from the freedom of a semi-rural childhood, to post-war culture and politics, to the sometimes difficult personalities of the British folk scene, to work and motherhood. Looking back, Collins can’t help but reflect, sometimes caustically, on how places, lifestyles and entertainment have changed (not to mention what passes as ‘folk music’ these days!).

Above all, All in the Downs is an ode to the south eastern English landscape, showing what we can learn and pass on about the places around us by paying attention to working people’s voices. It’s written with the passion and in-depth expertise of someone who has dedicated her life and career to understanding, interpreting and transmitting traditional song, the words of which run through the book entwined with her own.

– Natalie Bradbury

Beyond the ‘Basildon Man’

Radical ESSEX (Focal Point Gallery, 2018)

If the tone of Radical ESSEX is at times defensive, it’s because it has reason to be. The book is upfront about popular perceptions of Essex, from its reputation as a county characterised by its purported brashness, to the right-wing, Tory-voting ‘Basildon Man’ invented by the newspaper industry in the 1980s as a supposed archetype of a shift in working-class political allegiances.

Radical ESSEX sets about showing us a different side to the county, and introducing us to alternative figures from its history. Published by Focal Point Gallery in Southend, and resulting from an exhibition and programme of events of the same name, Radical ESSEX brings together essays on various aspects of the county’s landscape, architecture and culture. There’s a strong emphasis on not just telling alternative stories about Essex, but highlighting the ways in which the county, which is within easy reach of London yet retains a sense of cultural and geographical isolation, has provided the space for the development of radically new social, political and architectural experiments. These include both planned communities, driven by ideological, political and moral motivations, as explored in a fascinating chapter on communitarianism by Ken Worpole, as well as more ad hoc settlements such as the plot lands, initially developed as DIY country escapes yet ultimately and illicitly settled more permanently, which are visited by Gillian Darley.

Radical ESSEX rises to the provocation, set out by writer Tim Burrows early on in the book, that ‘to infer anything intellectual from the county has at times seemed like a radical act’. A real highlight, therefore, is the chapter on the University of Essex, one of a 1960s generation of ‘new’ universities, and the way it embraced the new not just architecturally, but in the types of subjects that were taught and its approaches to teaching them, which ultimately aimed to generate students capable of thinking for themselves. As the chapter notes, this quickly resulted in a reputation for radicalism and free thinking – students set up their own ‘Free University’, and played an active part in political and social protests.

In general, the place of modernity in shaping Essex comes across strongly in Radical ESSEX – from the marsh-draining techniques, borrowed from the Dutch, that enabled the land to be reclaimed from the sea, to the bold modernism of planned towns and estates such as Silver End, Bataville and Frinton Park. However, modernism is also emblematic of the tensions encapsulated within the county. Although it’s home to some of the earliest and most innovative built expressions of modernism in the UK, which rightly take their place in the book, Essex is also a county of suburban sprawl, and an early adopter of the increasingly prevalent out-of-town, shed-type genre of architecture. In his chapter, architect Charles Holland makes the case that architectural modernism both began and ended in Essex: the county ultimately rejected modernism with the influential Essex Design Guide of 1973, which promoted a return to vernacular architecture and traditional building materials.

Essex has also been shaped by movement, particularly as expressed in successive waves of migration. No story of Essex would be complete without a discussion of the Essex new towns, built to house former East Enders post-WWII, and we’re also reminded of the arrival of the Windrush at Tilbury docks and the large numbers of international students attracted to study at the University of Essex. It continues today as young people are driven from the capital as London’s living costs become increasingly prohibitive for those looking to set up home or raise a family.

Although – or perhaps because – it’s not regarded as being conventionally picturesque, the look and feel of the book makes a feature of the county’s distinctive landscape, in which oozy, marshy creeks and inlets, which ebb and flow as the tide changes, leave behind large, shifting banks of mud. Instead of marbling, we have watery imprints, saturated in surreal colours, like an aerial or satellite view of the county gone psychedelic, aptly capturing the county’s strangeness. Catherine Hyland’s photos, which run throughout the book, on the other hand, offer a gentle, soft-edged view of the county and its architecture, old and new: remote country church and brutalist university campus alike are imbued with a hazy, pleasant familiarity, as if Essex is a county where anything is possible, and it’s always a bright early summer day.

Natalie Bradbury

Homes for all?

John Boughton – Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing (Verso, 2018)

I woke up in a youth hostel in Oxford in June 2017 to the news of the Grenfell fire. I was there as an attendee at an academic conference themed ‘Architecture, Citizenship, Space: British Architecture from the 1920s to the 1970s’. The grim extent of the catastrophe unfolded as the conference went on, and its repercussions are still being felt now, nearly ten months later.

One of the attractions of the conference was that John Boughton, author of one of my favourite blogs, the meticulously researched yet accessibly written Municipal Dreams, was speaking about his work visiting, documenting and exploring the history of the country’s council estates, one of the key areas of architectural and social development in twentieth century Britain. This work took on a new dimension in the light of Grenfell, which opened in 1974; the conference was both subdued and emotionally charged. There was a general sense of shock. As well as being close to home as a research interest, it was also an area several of the London-based conference participants knew well – many had passed close-by North Kensington on the London to Oxford bus that very morning.

The Grenfell fire, perhaps inevitably, also frames Boughton’s new book, Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing, which both starts and ends by reflecting on the implications the tragedy has for the future of council housing. Although these implications still haven’t become fully clear, Municipal Dreams builds the case, culminating in Grenfell, for a return to a strong state, with both the regulatory capacity and oversight to protect us from the commercial agendas, cost-cutting and failures of neo-liberalism and private enterprise that, Boughton argues, have increasingly characterised the provision of housing for the masses through the late-twentieth and early twentieth centuries.

Municipal Dreams acts as a history of the large-scale provision of housing by local authorities in England. Boughton sets the scene after the First World War, when housing was provided for returning soldiers not just as a right and reward, but also to quell potential disloyalty and unrest. In the inter-war period, council housing proliferated, but after the Second World War military camps were squatted in protest about the lack of availability of housing. The post-war period was characterised by large-scale slum clearance and the dispersal of many former city dwellers to new towns outside of London – although often the accompanying facilities and sense of community took longer to follow. As the 1970s progressed, local authorities brought private rented homes into public ownership, and further into the closing decades of the twentieth century and early twenty-first century, public-private partnerships began to dominate the financing of public resources such as housing. Today, Boughton suggests, the state’s efforts to remove security of tenure through widespread and unpopular welfare reforms are the latest in a series of economic, social and cultural developments that contribute to the spread of precariousness and instability into all aspects of life, from employment to housing.

Those familiar with the blog will appreciate the thoroughness with which Boughton approaches each estate and development he visits, often drawing heavily on archival research. The book, too, pays brief visits to key estates, but uses these more as examples to illustrate much bigger narratives about the changing motivations behind the provision of homes, the ideologies that underpin public housing, and the political and economic developments that have changed and influenced state-led approaches to house-building over time.

One of the major shifts identified by Boughton concerns changes in public perceptions and cultural and media representations of council housing. It can be easy to forget that most council housing was aspirational, aimed at the upwardly mobile working-classes and ‘respectable’ communities; it’s only relatively recently that it’s become regarded by many as housing of last-resort and become associated with problematic behaviour – partly, as Boughton observes, because of changes in who is housed, and the responsibility of local authorities to house groups such as the homeless.

Other ideas which have been in the headlines recently, conversely, have been around for longer than we might think: Boughton identifies precedents of the so-called ‘poor doors’, for instance, designed to separate residents according to their occupancy and economic status, early in the history of social housing, along with debates about who has the ‘right’ to live in areas such as Hampstead. Boughton questions some of our assumptions about political attitudes towards council housing, too: for example, the Labour party promoted right to buy as early as the 1950s. He also offers a more nuanced view of some of the terms used in contemporary debate around changes to housing, and social housing estates. For example, he seeks to understand the motivations behind processes such as ‘social cleansing’, and challenge the broad catch-all nature of terms such as ‘regeneration’, which often ignore the roots of poverty and deep-rooted issues such as unemployment.

Ultimately, Boughton sets out two poles, between conservatism and socialism in a broad sense. In practice, this equates to a difference in opinion between those who regard the state provision of housing as a safety net, for the neediest in society, and those who regard housing as a fundamental right, access to which should be ensured by the state as part of its duty to ensure basic human needs are met for everyone.

Municipal Dreams the book is a worthwhile counterpart to Municipal Dreams the blog. Whereas the latter visits and responds to individual estates and cities in detail, the former pulls all this together to present a much bigger picture, of national and historical significance.

– Natalie Bradbury

Shades of grey

Lynda Nead – The Tiger in the Smoke: Art and Culture in Post-War Britain (Yale, 2017)

Lynda Nead’s new history of art and culture in post-war Britain borrows its title from a novel by crime fiction writer Margery Allingham. Whilst Allingham’s ‘tiger’ was a vicious killer who lurked in the grimy shadows of post-war London, it’s the smoke that is the important word here; Nead frames her study within the fog of 1950s Britain, beginning with the ‘Great Smog’ that hung over London for five days towards the end of 1952, the year The Tiger in the Smoke was published.

It’s significant, too, that Nead borrows from the mass cultural form of the detective novel to set the tone of the book, which emphasises the ordinariness and continuity of experience that characterised much of life in post-war Britain. Nead’s early focus on the atmospheric qualities of smog begins a search for the other collective social and cultural events that set the tone for the period. Although the Festival of Britain of 1951 features as a national focal point and a spectacular showcase of modernity, most of the details she highlights are far more everyday, from the illustrated black and white Picture Post articles that captured life in the streets of derelict and war-ravaged Britain, to the tedium of Sunday afternoons, to family life that was increasingly brought together around the TV set, to the dressing gowns worn by bored housewives up and down the country, to the domestic details captured by the ‘Kitchen Sink Painters’. These humdrum reference points are used as entry points into bigger narratives, from gender and race to national identity.

Underpinning this exploration of post-war culture is the work of cultural theorist Raymond Williams. Nead convincingly draws upon the term ‘structures of feeling’, which Williams used to characterise the intangible shifts in culture, meaning and atmosphere that subtly occur from one generation to the next. Although she focuses on the years between 1945 and 1960, ultimately Nead exposes the impossibility of identifying a neatly delineated time period in this way; as she points out, the new developments of post-war Britain, such as the welfare state and physical reconstruction, existed alongside residual aspects of culture dating not just from the war – rationing, she reminds us, continued until 1954, and towns and cities continued to be haunted by empty bombsites many years the war had ended – but from the Victorian period, both in the country’s crumbling built environment and in lingering social attitudes and artistic influences. The overall picture painted by Nead is far from the colour and experimentation of the swinging sixties; instead, she suggests that for most of the population British life existed in various shades of grey.

The fact that there’s been considerable interest in the post-war period in recent years, from Owen Hatherley’s writing on nostalgia, to the inception of Manchester’s own Modernist magazine, to the restaging of the Independent Group’s famous exhibition Parallel of Art and Life at the ICA in 2013, hardly needs restating. What Nead adds to this return to the post-war era is a rare talent for combining in-depth research and academic analysis with a style of writing that’s interesting and pleasurable for the general reader.

She also ventures beyond the standard texts of the period to offer up reading – and viewing – lists of less-known books and films from the era, providing a starting point for further explorations into the culture of Britain at a time when the country was simultaneously in thrall to its past, absorbing increasingly international influences, and exploring new ideas of what it might become.

– Natalie Bradbury

Back to school

Sam Thorne – School: A Recent History of Self-Organized Art Education (Sternberg Press 2017)

Sam Thorne’s School is not just, as its subtitle suggests, a ‘recent history of self-organized art education’, surveying the ‘sudden density’ of alternative of art schools that have emerged since the early 2000s. It’s also a timely contribution to an ongoing debate about the nature and purpose of higher education, who should bear the costs – and the expected and desired outcomes for those who participate.

Implicit is the conundrum of the role an art school might usefully be expected to fulfil, given that somebody cannot be taught to ‘be’ an artist. Josef Beuys’ famous saying ‘everyone is an artist’ recurs again and again in the book. If everyone is an artist, then, the purpose of art schools is not to create artists, but to provide an environment in which artists might develop and realise their potential, meet other artists, have time, space and resources to test and experiment, and to challenge and be challenged.

For this reason, the overall emphasis of the art schools featured in the book is less on practical and vocational training and more about creating a discursive environment which is flexible, collaborative and self-directed. The school in this sense is less a place where the student is a fee-paying customer, taking on crippling debt in order to purchase an off-the-peg education delivered in expensive buildings, and more a place to go to learn and change through process and experience. This is an education which is not separate from the real world, but takes place throughout the everyday, and concerns not just knowledge and skills but thoughts and attitudes to life. It’s interdisciplinary: art schools are not just a place where one might find painters and sculptors, but activists, writers, cooks and musicians. This education does not end at the close of the school day, once students have left the building or graduate, but is something students take with them into the future. It’s less about giving students the keys to enter elite international art networks, and the ability to participate in global art markets, than about developing artists’ abilities to criticise, critique and suggest alternatives.

In School, Thorne explores the different approaches that have been taken to providing this education. He grounds artist-led education historically in initiatives such as the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, before presenting a series of interviews with alternative art schools around the world, from European case studies to projects in Cuba, the United States, Latin America, Russia, the Middle East and Africa.

Sometimes these schools mirror the formal education systems, whether in language – several adopt the name of ‘school’, ‘university’ or ‘academy’ – or in their expectations of the students, such as writing a formal dissertation. These alternative schools may also have symbiotic relationships to the academy, through affiliation, funding or staffing. Often, too, students have already been through post-graduate education – the alternative art school is supplementary to it rather than a replacement.

Thorne shows that what does separate these schools from established institutions is their tendency to be small-scale, rooted in community and specific in their response to local context. Among the case studies highlighted are universities that are nomadic, moving to different cities, those which take place within the domestic space of the home, and those which suggest the atelier model, with students acting in a role that is akin to assistants within a studio system.

The more interesting interviews are those in which the challenges faced by artists and art students are most apparent, due to economic, social or political constraints, or which take place in areas with little tradition of mainstream non-academic art education: it’s in cities such as Ramallah and St Petersburg that alternative, critical education feels most daring, urgent and necessary.

Thorne made the conscious decision to focus on the founders of alternative art schools. In a book expounding non-hierarchical and collaborative education it feels a little odd that key, driving individuals and personalities are highlighted at the expense of those who have participated in, taught at or graduated from alternative art schools. The ideas and motivations behind the schools therefore come across much more strongly than the feeling of actually studying there.

These alternative art schools, too, appear as a series of experiments and one-off projects rather than long-term, sustainable alternatives to the market-driven system of higher education. However, as Thorne points out, even if they don’t offer an alternative route to the established system they offer ‘modest proposals’ for the type of education that might be delivered in the art school of the future.

– Natalie Bradbury