Saturday, 10 March 2012

In Basildon

Is David Eldridge's new play, In Basildon (at the Royal Court), the only play that celebrates a new town in its title? I don't know, but certainly the new town has often been caricatured as a place without history, meaning or soul, unfit for any kind of literary evocation. This is not only a British prejudice. The French theorist Henri Lefebvre's writings on the new town were provoked by his dismay at the development in the late 1950s of a new town, Mourenx, near his birthplace in the Haut Pyrénées. Lefebvre argues that the new town is a hyper-controlled place which brings together the worst aspects of technocratic urban planning. The gridplan layout of streets, the standardised street furniture and the sameness of the houses all suggest that life here is 'organized, neatly subdivided and programmed to fit a controlled, exact time-table'. The overriding aim in Mourenx seems to be the smooth circulation of people and vehicles: although there are not yet many traffic lights in the town, the place is in fact 'nothing but traffic lights: do this, don't do that'.

In his essay, 'Notes on the new town' (1960), Lefebvre contrasts Mourenx with his birthplace, the nearby town of Navarrenx, which is like a seashell in the sense that 'a living creature has slowly secreted a structure', a delicate casing which has an organic relationship with its 'soft, slimy and shapeless' interior. By contrast, all the elements of the good life are there in Mourenx, but they remain unassimilated ingredients rather than an integrated, evolving whole:

'Boredom is pregnant with desires, frustrated frenzies, unrealized possibilities. A magnificent life is waiting just around the corner, and far, far away. It is waiting like the cake is waiting when there's butter, milk, flour and sugar. … Here man's magnificent power over nature has left him alone with himself, powerless. It is the boredom of youth without a future.'

Even if it were true then, this idea of the new town as a non-place in which history has come to a standstill no longer applies, because the new town is no longer new. British new towns were inaugurated during a very particular historical moment, when postwar governments made a concerted effort to provide well-planned, collective solutions to issues such as housing, transport and employment. Over the last few decades, the British new towns have often been lodestones for political and cultural change.

The most famous example of the new town as political barometer is Basildon, which in the 1980s became indelibly associated with the affluent working-class Conservative voter ('Basildon Man'). This reputation was fully consolidated when Basildon reported its seat earlier than any other marginal on the night of the 1992 general election, making it hugely symbolic in John Major's surprise victory. One of the iconic images of that night was the sitting Conservative MP, David Amess, grinning manically as he was unexpectedly re-elected. On the BBC election night broadcast, the Labour spokesman, Frank Dobson, tried to put a brave face on it by uttering the famous words: 'I don't think even in Basildon they think the world is built on Basildon'. New Labour politicians soon made up for this slight by making Basildon, and other southeast marginals, a key element in their election strategy.

In fact, Basildon's reputation was as much to do with popular mythology as electoral science. With its high proportion of manual workers, it is not very representative of new towns in the southeast. Basildonians did not, as the myth goes, convert wholesale to Conservatism in the Thatcher-Major years; they continued to return a Labour council. But Basildon did follow the trend of other southeast new towns in switching to the Conservatives in 1979 and then reverting to Labour in 1997. The same pattern is evident in Milton Keynes, Labour winning both of its marginal seats from the Conservatives in 1997. The social mix of the new towns, and the tendency of newcomers not to identify themselves as strongly with tribal loyalties, has always made them politically volatile seats. New town voters tend to be more pragmatic than others, making their electoral choices according to their own short-term interests rather than traditional regional patterns or inherited allegiances.