A short review of Outskirts: Living Life on the Edge of the Green Belt by John Grindrod which I mentioned in a previous post. It is due to be out in hardback on June 1st. Although I got hold of an advanced proof copy, I did buy his previous book and would have bought this too if I had not been lucky enough to get an advance copy.
This book complements the same author’s previous book (Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain) very well and makes a very good companion to it.
In Concretopia he writes about post-war urban development, especially the new towns, and this book tackles the other half of the picture which is the development (or prevention and control of development) outside the towns and cities. Either book is worth reading on its own, but reading both give you the complete picture.
Having grown up in what he calls the last street in London, John Grindrod has a very personal affinity with both the new town developments of the 60s which he lived in and the green belt that his childhood home looked out on. As a result he has a real passion for his subject, and it shows.This personal perspective makes the book quite unusual as it is a mixture of historical detail and personal reminiscences. It could just as easily be filed under social history, autobiography, or planning. I would hate to be the librarian who has to decide where it fits in the Dewey Decimal system!
This book is a bit more personal than the other one, but still contains plenty of information about how the concept of the green belt came about, without ever being dull about it. The two strands of the book – the personal story and the historical elements – complement each other perfectly. Any book on this topic will say how families moved out of the inner cities to the new towns and suburbs, and talk about slum clearance, but here this puts a human face to it, describing how one particular family felt when moving from Battersea to New Addington, how it changed their lives and their what they felt about it.
The subject matter is also very topical now, because the debates about housing provision have never gone away, and reading this does give you another perspective on it, making a lot of it a whole lot less abstract.I am involved in planning, having spent some time on a council planning committee, and this book has made me look at some aspects of it in a completely new light.
One thing that cannot go without mention is the writing style. It is very accessible, but also full of delightful turns of phrase and gently funny descriptions. It is a quality of prose that you would normally find the better newspaper columnists using, which makes it a pleasure to read, and I really hope he can find a topic for another book for me to enjoy.
Having grown up at around the same time as the author, in a slightly similar environment – new town with countryside nearby – I do share some of his affinity with both ‘ugly’ concrete buildings and accessible green space, but I think I would have enjoyed both books even without that connection.
One point of interest is that I have been living in Crawley, a new town surrounded by countryside, for nearly twenty years, and have sat on the council planning committee for six years, but I can’t recall the term ‘green belt’ being used. The term that does crop up a lot instead is ‘strategic gap’ between towns.