Proust had his madeleines; my unexpected memory rush came from walking through the corridors of a nearly abandoned Victorian hospital. Dulwich Community Hospital opened as St Saviour's Union Infirmary in 1873, and in the coming months, what remains of the functioning hospital will be killed off for good, as the site is given over to a new free school (Dulwich already has thousands of school places – many of them are private). Even in the half of the hospital that remains open to patients, the corridors are almost completely empty, and substantial parts of the buildings are closed off, their windows boarded up with black wood. On a 500 metre walk through its corridors to my physiotherapy appointments, I normally pass at most two other patients or NHS employees – the equivalent stretch in any modern, fully operational hospital would be in the hundreds. It is spooky enough in its own right, reminiscent of the pastiche nostalgia of the hospital in Garth Marenghi's Dark Place, but the feelings it provoked in me spoke to something far more personal.
The shape, size and décor of the corridors took me back to Ravenstone Primary School in south London, a similarly towering brick building which just celebrated its centenary last year. (Following a quick flurry of mental arithmetic I can tell you, I was a student there 1985-92.) What came flooding back, walking down those municipal hallways, is a clear memory – a little too clear – of primary school dinners. The clamour of several hundred tiny voices, but more clearly, the smell. Spam fritters. Liver and mushy peas. Over-boiled potatoes and a cloud of rank cabbage odour wafting up from metal urns to the dinner hall ceiling. Thick, tepid custard – sometimes distinguished by an unorthodox colour (and in theory at least, by a matching flavour), brown or pink. I suspect this wretched tasting menu doesn't sound at all remarkable to people of a certain age; what is remarkable, is that age is surely about 50 or 60, and I am 34. Was our food really so grey, unhealthy, and bland, as late as 1980s London? I mean come on: liver and mushy peas? Spam fritters? It sounds like something from the rationing era.
Let's project backwards from a point where I expect to find fresh udon noodles in my local Tesco Metro, and travel through a millennial time tunnel via a thousand ever-more-worldly cookery shows, the epochal Jamie's School Dinners (he may be a twat, but it was) and extravagant gastropub menus as a high-street norm. It is hard to imagine that what we consider modern, cosmopolitan food didn't arrive in what were – in my experience – modern, cosmopolitan schools, in a modern, cosmopolitan city, until at least the late 1990s. According to the Ravenstone School website, the menu for this week includes Cajun chicken, celeriac mash, paella, and cod Provençale; provided, unsurprisingly, by a private catering company.
What has bothered me, beyond the faint sensation of boiled cabbage ghosting through my nostrils, is the struggle in disentangling the delayed arrival of modernity in the school dinner hall from the wholesale privatisation of the once-great, once-public assets that surrounded them. Correlation doesn't equal causation, but the two have both happened in the couple of decades since my schooldays.
The landscape of the south London I grew up in was dominated by looming, dark-brick municipal institutions that all looked like Ravenstone School, or Dulwich Hospital. These include half of my secondary school, Chestnut Grove (now an academy), the Adult Education Institute in Clapham where my mum worked (now closed), Walworth School in Elephant and Castle where my dad worked (built 1891, now an academy). Even Clapham Baths (built 1932), where I had swimming lessons as a kid, were constituted of – and contributed to – that same atmosphere: a sense that there was such a thing as a public good, and that nobody needed to make a profit from it. Like many leisure centres, run by the council to support a healthier populace, Clapham Baths' municipal spirit lives on only in its bricks and mortar, the architectural half-life of socialism – it has since been de facto privatised, and is now run under the icky brand name Better, owned by sprawling "social enterprise" GLL, an enterprise so social that they've been criticised by trade unions for their prolific use of zero hours contracts.
All told, the buildings I spent most of my childhood in – those that were not either my home or the homes of my relatives or school friends – were these gigantic, unvarying monuments of brickwork, their insides coated in uniform style with cheap white, or sometimes blue paint. Walking through Dulwich Hospital as an adult, I can see that it wasn't just the fact of being a child that made me feel dwarfed: these buildings are all characterised by ridiculously high ceilings, and impossibly tall, frosted glass windows. Underfoot, cold linoleum floors. Musty, windowless corridors marked only by the occasional bulletin board, or student work mounted on sugar paper. They say smell is the sense most apt to act as an aide memoire, and everything then – as it remains now in Dulwich Hospital – was accompanied by a strong whiff of disinfectant. These buildings always felt as clean as they did impersonal.
And while the buildings are still standing, the municipal spirit inside them is mostly gone – albeit, it did not disappear without a fight. My first political memory is of being taken on a demo to save Inner London Educational Autority (a memory composed almost entirely of the chant "I-L-E-A, we-want-to-stay"), the directly elected education board which ran inner London schools. It was overwhelmingly dominated by Labour, and thus a target for Margaret Thatcher. It was finally disbanded in 1990, four years after its parent organisation, the GLC, suffered the same fate. "Do you remember taking part in the Festival of Light?" asked my mum, when I brought this up with her. "It was ILEA's multicultural answer to the nativity play. You were Edison's assistant, and wore a white coat." I do not remember this, nor which of my classmates got to be Edison, but that sounds about right. Diwali lights and Harvest festivals were abiding memories – I can still sing you some very specific songs about vegetables, if you ask nicely.
The question of who owns modernity is a vexed one, and rightly so. Right-wingers will say that it was the same millennial progress responsible for privatised public swimming baths, compulsory academisation and free schools that finally, some decades too late, killed off the liver and the spam fritters. They will say that technological innovation and social change can only come through the neoliberal mantra of "choice" and "competition". There are retorts to this that are growing in quality, as well as volume: they needn't be as glib as "Corbo-futurism" or "socialism with an iPad", or arguments about whether Brewdog and Uber herald the end of capitalism. Nor should we let nostalgia get the better of us. We shouldn't just look only forlornly backwards, to a past that can never be built brick-by-brick in the same way, again; whether it is the public buildings of a century ago, the revolutionary Spirit of '45 that created the welfare state, or even this welcome new project exploring the radical 80s municipalism of the Greater London Council.
Navigating a path between these historic pillars of the public realm, and the search for a more democratic and egalitarian future, will mean getting the balance right. Spam fritters and dettol-flavoured corridors may not provide quite as fond a memory as the madeleines did for Proust, but as a tenuous link to a municipal public spirit buried under 25 years of wholesale privatisation, it will have to do.
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