Saturday, 2 October 2010

So many tapeworms

All the anniversary programmes about the Battle of Britain have reminded me of the ‘scrap for victory’ campaign that began in summer 1940, aimed at collecting and melting down scrap metal to build Spitfires. The most controversial part of this campaign was the removal of the railings around London’s parks and squares. The Times welcomed the scrapping of the railings on aesthetic grounds, as one would the removal of ‘an unbecoming pair of spectacles’ on ‘the face of a pretty woman’; others saw it as a democratic, egalitarian gesture, allowing access to squares which had been reserved for the well-to-do residents of the surrounding houses. Unsurprisingly, the inhabitants of the squares were less keen, believing that the removal of the railings threatened their property values, and presented an open invitation for the lower classes to play football and sunbathe on their private property. They pointed out that the scrap value of the railings was probably less than the cost of removal, and that less symbolically charged items, such as redundant tramlines, had not been uprooted. Since tanks and spitfires cannot be made from cast iron, many rumours circulated that the railings proved to be unusable and had to be secretly dumped into the English Channel, the North Sea or some remote Welsh valley.

In his Tribune column in August 1944, George Orwell praised the removal of the railings as a social experiment which had opened up more green spaces to ordinary people, allowing them to stay in parks until late without being ‘hounded out at closing times by grim-faced keepers’. He noted that, with the end of the war imminent, they were erecting makeshift wooden railings around London squares so that ‘the lawful denizens of the squares can make use of their treasured keys again, and the children of the poor can be kept out’. For Orwell, the resilience of England’s ‘keep off the grass’ culture was an acceptance of the legalised theft of land ownership, and a victory for the few thousand landowning families in England who were ‘just about as useful as so many tapeworms’.

Orwell used the railings controversy as a way of imagining what sort of society Britain would become after the war. If there was to be a true social transformation, he suggested, it would occur in the mundane spaces and practices of daily life, where inequities of money and class were naturalised. Orwell was not alone in thinking like this. In the Architectural Review, Gordon Cullen developed the concept of ‘townscape’ in articles about park railings, public squares and traffic roundabouts. One of his concerns was the needless restriction of access, the replacement of ‘Common Ground’ with an ‘Urban no-man’s-land, germ-free, hygienic but socially utterly sterile’. He particularly criticised the ‘railing mentality’ that cordoned off public space and then compensated with a token gesture towards amenity such as a flower bed or rockery.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘I like to have time and comfort in the loo. The bathroom is important and I couldn't live in a culture that doesn't respect it.’ – Tony Blair, A Journey


  1. Cullen is good on squares. In The Concise Townscape (various editions in the 1960s and 1970s) he pulls together the ideas he developed in the post-war period. He notices, for example, how many city squares no longer need private gardens in the middle because the houses are now occupied by offices, and he develops a whole typology of squares (enclosed and open, public, private, municipal, collegiate, and so on). His liking of public access is also connected to the way in which he sees our appreciation of townscape as constantly changing as we walk through a public space. Access is vital for this appreciation, but so are the kinds of spatial punctuation, if you like, that he advocates to help define public spaces - trees, changes of level, changes of paving, etc, etc.

  2. Our local park still has no railings and is much better for it. In our road, the houses on the other side have no railings, but our side has a big drop at the front, so they left our railings alone!

  3. I've tried but I can't respect the idea of Blair on the loo.