Abercrombie and after

John Grindrod’s lively and engaging performance at this year’s Stoke Newington Literary Festival suggested there might be more to his new book about the history of the Green Belt than the subject, and the book’s title Outskirts, first indicated. There is. Much more.

Interwoven with a fascinating history of the controversial 20th century land-use planning device designed to stop cities spreading out and merging with each other is a moving and gripping evocation of a childhood lived on the edge of society, geographically and psychologically. Inside the erstwhile architectural historian is a fine novelist struggling to get out, for the personal story is by far the strongest element of the book, and is beautifully accomplished.

Grindrod grew up in New Addington, a council estate on the outskirts of south London, literally ‘the last road in London’, overlooking farmland and woodlands. This was both exciting and slightly scary for a young family, whose parents had grown up in the narrow terraced streets of Bermondsey. While most family members soon adapted to the sense of freedom, the large open skies of the adjacent farmland resulted in long-term agoraphobia for one of John’s brothers.

To make matters worse, both parents suffered from chronic illnesses. For all of John’s life his mother was confined to a wheelchair, except when out in her Invacar, while his father endured the anxieties of periods of unemployment, along with taking responsibility for his wife’s care. It was a loving family but a deeply troubled one, afflicted by illness and anxiety. The question at the heart of the story is: did being so close to the green belt version of ‘nature’ make things better, or possibly worse?

While many other recent books in this widening genre of landscape and nature writing mix a personal story with an effusive description of the redemptive power of the natural world, Grindrod’s book is more complex – perhaps because the terrain itself is so intractable. After all the greenbelt means all things to all people, and while it does have a material reality, Grindrod perceptively describes it more as a ‘thought experiment’, an imaginative construct that possesses more emotional resonance as an idea than as a distinct type of landscape character.

In his travels in and around the green belt, Grindrod is surprised to find that ‘much of it isn’t green at all, of course. Gravel pits. Landfill sites. Factories. Refineries. Motorways. Service stations. Caravan sites. Victorian mental hospitals. Sewage treatment works. Prisons. Airfields. Glasshouses. Solar farms.’ On the other hand it often possesses more bio-diversity than the farmland it is supposed to protect.

If the hybrid nature of the green belt is problematic, so too is its status as sacrosanct territory, especially at a time of increased population growth and household diversity. Sooner or later people will have to choose between even higher-density urbanism (more tower blocks anyone?), a second generation of new towns, or increased suburbanisation. Interestingly, the informal settlements established between the wars by the self-builders and working class plotlanders – the opportunistic shack and bungalow encampments, chalet settlements, houseboat communities so loathed by the planners and advocates of the green belt – are the initiatives now most admired by radical housing activists and libertarians. Surely some experimentation in low-cost, self-build settlements could be a valid use of the green belt in the future?

Outskirts is a good read, mixing land use history with an absorbing family story of growing up in difficult circumstances. The one story Grindrod misses is whatever happened to the ‘white belt’? This was the term used by planners after the First World War in London to describe the demand for a ring of cemetery land around the capital to cope with a need for more burial space. The rapid rise of cremation saved the day, amongst whose most fervent advocates were town planners themselves. But that’s another story.