A Social History of Milton Keynes, by Mark Clapson

Alan Partridge would have loved it here
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The Independent Culture

One miner, who battled with the police during Arthur Scargill's disastrous 1984 strike, told the BBC anniversary documentary last month that, after the inevitable defeat, he decided to leave his doomed pit village for "a better life" in Milton Keynes. And that, though not always so melodramatically, is the story of this extraordinary social and urban experiment, established in the middle of the Buckinghamshire countryside.

As Mark Clapson points out in his punctilious retrospective on MK's first 30 years, this culmination of the New Town movement offered jobs and houses, space and freedom. On a site designated in the late 1960s, it embodied the best aspects of that decade's passion for starting everything afresh. There was no dogma then that aspirations could be best met by cramming new homes into former industrial sites in the darkest corners of old cities.

Mild, everyday success is difficult to sing passionate songs about. MK (the acronym pays homage to Los Angeles' influence on the layout) is a kind of Anglo-American suburbia, as Clapson says: a green Arcadia for all. Its jobs are predominantly in the burgeoning service sector. MK is as typical of late 20th-century England as the Art Deco factories of the Great West Road were for that century's middle years. What's so wrong with that?

The devil always has the best tunes, and you could call Milton Keynes the Slough of today. If Betjeman returned, he'd pen a poem against it. Bill Bryson and Christopher Booker both derided it. Apparently, Steve Coogan intended to place here the radio station of his hopeless DJ, Alan Partridge, but decided the jokes against Milton Keynes were wearing thin.

As they are. Most of MK's detractors have either never been there or else see it as a useful target for attacks aimed at all aspects of suburbia. This is a strange form of national masochism. It comes in a country whose inhabitants, Clapson rightly notes, "are predominantly suburban and who, in the face of official or intellectual dismay, continue to flock to the suburbs and to new housing estates". Better try to understand this mass movement, not deride it.

Clapson is a Milton Keynes resident as well as a respected historian of planning. He painstakingly records every step in MK's growth, from a cluster of academic ideas to a city of 209,000 people which John Prescott plans to expand yet further. It now has a hospital, a prison and some beggars outside Marks & Spencer: all the emblems of a "real" city.

Clapson is almost boosterish in MK's defence. Socially, I would have welcomed more direct observation and interviewing of residents, but it's not that sort of book.

The photographs omit the city's best-known feature, the concrete cattle erected in 1978 which MK officialdom prefers to play down. Clapson claims that Milton Keynes has become, culturally, "a hip and happening place". His evidence includes the gigs of local bluegrass singers. They called themselves the Concrete Cowboys.

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