The Quiet Beauty of Britain's New Towns
The KLF's Bill Drummond remembers a youth exploring Corby, Milton Keynes and Skelmersdale – all of them modernist, post-war "places to dream".
The Marie Curie roundabout, AKA Hope Island, in Skelmersdale (Photo: Rept0n1x, via Wikimedia Commons)
New Towns. Remember New Towns?
I used to be addicted to New Towns.
In my late teens and early twenties I would hitchhike hundreds of miles to reach a New Town that I had only heard rumour of. The only reason for the journey – the only purpose for the wasting of precious youth, which should have been spent out on the floor dancing to Dobie Gray – was to walk those streets of these distant and only rumoured New Towns, so that I could compare and contrast them with my own beloved one: Corby.
At the age of 11, in the spring of 1964, just as the 1960s were about to swing, my family moved from a rural corner of Scotland. The move was to several hundred miles south, to this thing called a New Town. This New Town had been dumped upon the rolling countryside of a very Anglo-Saxon East Midlands. This was Corby.
Corby, as with all New Towns, had history from way before it was deemed to be New by the post-war Labour government.
The very brief history of Corby was:
The word Corbie in Old English, or Danish, or something, means Crow, which also happens to be the bird that I am when I am not a human. And Crow was the first word my youngest son learnt to say, something I am very proud of.
Romans knew that under the ground around this Corby, in what is now Northamptonshire, was iron ore. But the iron ore was very low-grade. When the industrial revolution happened it was decided the low-grade iron ore was not worth bothering with. But after we nearly lost the First World War, the government of the day decided that we, as an island people, needed to become self-sufficient when it came to our production of iron and steel. This government of the day bribed a Scottish iron and steel company called Stewarts & Lloyds to head south and mine and smelt this low-grade ore, and turn it into a steel that could then be turned into things that could defend the island in future wars.
Stewarts & Lloyds didn't bother employing the local rural peasants, but brought their own hard-working workers with them, because immigrant workers always work harder than the local ones.
I may have come from a rural corner of Scotland, but I have very vivid memories from the late 1950s of the tenement slums in Glasgow and across the rest of the West of Scotland. What Corby Development Corporation had to offer in housing – with hot and cold running water and central heating and your own front door and even gardens – was a thousand times better than the squalid and miserable reality of what was being left behind.
Corby grew and grew as a one-industry town, a Steel Town. The local football team were known as The Steel Men. And we were. The Works is where nearly everyone's father went to work. At the Works you could work as many hours as you wanted to work. You could earn as much money as you could have ever dreamt of, unless you were to have won the pools, but that was never going to happen.
The world will always need steel. Jobs for life.
The vast majority of the population of Corby were Scottish or of Scottish parentage. And those that were not Scottish were Latvian. Nobody was too sure where Latvia was; even those who came from Latvia couldn't tell you where it was. Or where Latvia had gone. What we did know was that, like us, they were not English and they knew how to work hard. Not like the English.
But there lies the rub. Every time my mates and I decided to go to a dance in one of the surrounding towns, like Kettering, Wellingborough or Market Harborough, there would be trouble. We would be going there with smiles on our faces to meet the local and comely young ladies. The local lads, on hearing our accents, would turn on us. The young ladies in question understood instinctively that the local gene pool needed broadening and that we were the young men for the job. I guess that's why men have always felt threatened by immigrants – unless they are the ones doing the immigrating.
By my late teens it was me that was wanting to do the immigrating. It was only natural for me to be thinking about other New Towns. Thus me doing the hitchhiking to them that I've already mentioned.
I have gone on record as saying that I chose to go to Liverpool Art School because that is where my then-hero John Lennon went. This was a lie. The lie existed to hide the truth. The truth was something I was embarrassed about at the time. I chose Liverpool because it was surrounded by a plethora of New Towns, even if they were not all the official ones designated by the post Second World War government. There was Speke, Kirby, Netherley, Cantril Farm and, of course, Skem. Or Skelmersdale to give it its full and proper name.
The Magnetic North - "Ballad of Skelmersdale"
Skem was the El Dorado of New Towns. The crowning glory of the genre. I would make my escape out of Liverpool on a grey Tuesday afternoon, when I should have been doing life drawing in the art school. I would make this escape on the top deck of the 310. It took about an hour, but once the 310 got me to Skelmersdale I would wander its streets and wonder at the glory of all the modernist architecture. Nothing brutal about it all. Its beauty shimmered across the Lancashire Plain.
By the time I was fast approaching 30, my then-wife was keen that we should start a family. She was keen to move back south to be near her mother, for the starting of this new family. I was not keen to move from Liverpool. But my then-father-in-law worked in Milton Keynes. And although they did not live in this mythical city, they did live close by.
In the New Town league, Milton Keynes had taken things to another level. It was not merely a New Town. It was a New City. To drive the avenues and boulevards of MK – as we got to know it – was like driving in the future but now. Without the training of my teenage years in Corby I could have never fully appreciated the glories and vision of Milton Keynes.
New Towns are places to dream.
But all love affairs come to an end, even if the cold turkey of my addiction took some time. What brought about this end of a love affair that had lasted longer than any other love affair I have had in my supposed real life was an offer that I just had to walk away from.
New Towns famously never had football teams that achieved much. Everyone living in New Towns still supported the teams from where they or their families had come from.
Wimbledon FC was a football team in south west London. To their fans, they were known as The Dons. In the 70s and 80s they had a good run, achieving season-by-season promotion from the old Southern League to the heady heights of the old First Division. But then their finances started to come undone. A young music business entrepreneur had a vision. His name was Pete Winkelman.
I knew Pete via his sister Patsy. Pete pulled together a consortium that then made the owner of Wimbledon an offer he could not refuse. Winkelman then moved the team to Milton Keynes. This was not just moving the ground a few hundred yards from the old ground. This was moving the team 70 miles from their heart and soul in south west London to a new city, 70 miles up the M1. Something like this had never been done anywhere on this island before. This was breaking all of the emotional connections we have to football teams. This is not America. New Towns break rules.
By this point, Milton Keynes had a population of over 200,000, easily big enough to support a Premier League football club. Winkelman then changed the name of the team to The MK Dons.
Winkelman knew I already had an emotional relationship with Milton Keynes. He knew, also, that I had history with the making of pop records. He made me an offer. My part of the bargain was that I would write and record an anthem for this "new" football team. An anthem that the old faithful – and, far more importantly, the 200,000 that would be the new faithful, living in Milton Keynes – could rally around. An anthem that could be played before all home games, as the team mascots Donny and Mooie did a lap around the pitch before kick off.
Whatever the offer was, it was never going to be enough. The whole thing stank. That was the beginning of a very abrupt ending to my almost 30-year relationship with New Towns. It crashed and burnt. The wreckage was twisted and cruel. By the next morning there was nothing left, but the soiled sheets.
Since then I have not only never been back to Milton Keynes; I have never been back to any New Towns anywhere.
Okay, I exaggerate a bit – I have slunk back to Corby a few times under the cover of darkness. But those were just for the odd elicit one-night-stand, for old times' sake.§
This bit is maybe the morning after post-script to all I have unloaded above. For me and a couple of generations either side of me, New Towns were and still are a brilliant thing to be celebrated in all sorts of ways. These New Towns not only took risks with architecture, town planning and education, they more importantly saved hundreds of thousands of us from crumbling, inner-city slums. Mistakes may have been made, but lessons have been learnt from those mistakes. Those New Towns gave us new life and new horizons that our parents and grandparents could never have. With the comparatively recent flattening of so much housing in our redundant cities built during the industrial revolution, and the gentrification of what is left, people no longer have a memory of what the crowded squalor in our inner cities was like in this country, only a lifetime ago.
Corby was my Kathy Kirkby
Milton Keynes my Ursula Andress.
But Skelmersdale will always be my Audrey Hepburn – that possessor of fragile and unobtainable beauty.
If the New Town is dead, Long Live the New Town.
Bill Drummond wrote this piece in support of the band The Magnetic North and their new album, 'The Ballad of Skelmersdale'. The Magnetic North play Green Man, Festival No 6 and the Good Life Experience. Their next headline show is at Liverpool Central Library on October 16th.
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