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a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces



reverie and anarchy

I’ve started detecting one of those biological changes that no-one can quite prepare you for, even though their existence is almost a cliché: in this case, the increasing clarity and number of my early memories. In bed, trying to sleep, I can bring up for the first time in decades my old primary school, or the shopping center I’d walk to when I was six or seven. Names like Mrs Turberville, and Tavistock Road pop into my head. When I close my eyes, I move through Street View and View-Master imagery of where I grew up.

I’ve always moved, in largely increasing distances, away from where I was born. In 1979, when I was ten, we moved away from my birthplace of Basildon to Chelmsford. Then I went to Oxford, and spiraled around to parts of London, then gravity-assisted out to California in 2000. I’ve been firm all this time that I don’t want to go back. I’ves wanted to go onward, further, never stop.

I was pulled toward cyberpunk, fringe technologies and anticipated states. At Ford’s research center in Basildon in 1977 or so, I looked wide-eyed at a vector graphics depiction of a stick man jumping on a rope. I’m staring in the dark in a long wooden garage or shed behind a chip shop, clustered around Eugene Jarvis’ Defender, newly arrived in Essex. I’m sitting in Dave’s room at college, reading William Gibson for the first time, around 1987. They all pushed me away from my current location, into the future, into unexplored space.

But my imagination about what forward means seems embedded in the origin, much more than I thought. The first joke that I noticed being played on me was in 2000, when Havenco, the short-lived cypherpunk offshore data haven, opened a few miles off the coast of Felixstowe. If only I’d waited, I could have caught a bus from my hometown to an arcology of sorts. Then I found out that the current wave of dystopian futurism, was being spun and incubated by Warren Ellis, who had stayed in Southend to wrote of the future city of Transmetropolitan. I would have been closer to my fictional vision of the future (undisturbed by reality) in Essex than in San Francisco.

I’m more comfortable now that I’ve just been chasing bright shapes on the horizon that were always being projected from just behind me. Perhaps it’s because that past, hidden behind my back, is now coming into easier focus

My latest foray is a reading as much of Colin Ward as I can. Colin Ward was an anarchist, whose writings I’d never before read, but who was born twenty miles from me. He loved to write and think about the New Towns, the planned communities build after the Second World War. One of them, Basildon, is where I was born and lived until I was ten. It’s always been one of the places I’ve imagined myself running from — and I’m not the only one. When I grew up, the New Towns were a running joke of austerity and dismal modernism, horrible sink estates for the working classes, where they were locked out of newly profitable cities, and made to fend for themselves in barren housing and an unsympathetic paternalistic “development corporations” that planned and ran the city with technocratic disdain. It would be a throwaway line of mine at Oxford to confess my roots. No-one was snobby about it, but I had no interest in defending the place.

Colin not only looked for the good in the New Towns, but also saw it under the substrate they were built upon — the sheds and trailers of an older pre-urban Essex that were homesteaded by Londoners so unhealthy and desperate that they’d rather set up a tiny home with no electricity or hot water than and grow their own food, than live off tea and tinned peaches in the slums.

These were the plotlands. Here’s Colin’s description, plucked from the comments of a site devoted to the even more obscure corner of Basildon I was born in, Laindon:

“In the first half of the twentieth century a unique landscape emerged along the coast, on the riverside and in the countryside. more reminiscent of the American frontier than of a traditionally well-ordered English landscape. It was a makeshift world of shacks and shanties, scattered unevenly in plots of varying size and shape, with unmade roads and little in the way of services.

To the local authorities (who dubbed this type of landscape the “plotlands”) it was something of a nightmare, an anarchic rural slum, always one step ahead of evolving but still inadequate environmental controls. Places like Jaywick Sands, Canvey Island and Peacehaven became bywords for the desecration of the countryside.

But to the plotlanders themselves, (an) Arcadia was born. In a converted bus or railway carriage, perhaps, and at the cost of only a few pounds ordinary city-dwellers discovered not only fresh air and tranquility but, most prized of all, a sense of freedom.”

To everyone else, both the New Towns and the Plotlands, were, and are, eyesores: terrible mistakes in centralized planning, neglect, and urban decay. If they are a celebration of anarchism, it’s only through how they highlight the ability of distant state-planning to make even the worse conditions of humanity more horrid.

Here’s an upcoming trailer for a documentary on Basildon, New Town Utopia, kickstarted into existence because no-one else wants to even think about the place.

This is as positive a view of Basildon as you can get, I think, and even so, the air of surviving in the face of an experiment gone wrong is clear.

What’s left of the Plotlands has an even more lurid modern reputation. When Reddit recently discussed the most depressing place in Britain, they quickly settled on Jaywick, whose holiday homes, now decayed, were typical of the plotlands movement.

Jaywick is definitely the new Basildon in terms of being the go-to target for English concern and disdain. It’s the most deprived town in Britain, and a popular tourist destination for media graduates wanting to make documentaries or reality TV shows seeking lurid tales of welfare recipients.

I don’t remember any of this: I’d never thought of Basildon or Essex as failed utopias, or heartlands of self-sufficiency. I didn’t like them, for all the reasons everyone gives: the poor urban planning, the lack of opportunity, the oppressive and reactionary politics. When I close my eyes I can see the closeness of the Essex sky, the flat rough land, the soiled concrete and blinking orange fluorescent lights. And wanting to leave. Not wanting to leave my bedroom, but somehow wanting to leave.

But it’s great, now my brain is replaying it all for me, to get a chance to see it through Colin Ward’s eyes.

Here’s a poor quality digitization of a TV appearance by Colin Ward from the Seventies, talking about the New Towns. I love how he interviews: his quiet questions, his interest in the complaints and praise and the histories of the town’s inhabitants. I can’t tell if his hair is naturally blonde, or that’s the shade the years of nicotine clouds in anarchist printshops got you. But I want to listen to him more, especially from Italian anarchists who adore him and reprint noble woodcuts of his genial town and country face.

One Response to “reverie and anarchy”

  1. Reading Talking Anarchy – Composite Says:

    […] book called Talking Anarchy which is an extended interview with a guy named Colin Ward, because Danny is obsessed with him right now and made me watch a documentary about New Towns with him in it. This book looked a little boring, […]


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