I was completely and unexpectedly captivated last night by the first in a new BBC2 series, ‘The Secret History Of Our Streets’.
It presented some quite touching personal stories of the inevitable way that a community changed in the early 1960s when a new breed of idealistic town planners were inspired by the concept of rebuilding our capital city ‘as a machine’. According to location and associated affluence (or lack of it), big changes to London's urban landscape were proposed. Compulsory purchase orders were issued on many houses and entire streets of Victorian terraces declared as slums, leading to their demolition and the relocation of residents to modern estates and new towns. For some this may have been a very good thing, but for others it clearly wasn’t. Whatever your political views and opinions, or perhaps personal experiences of such situations, there is no doubt that such extensive measures had a massive impact on close-knit communities, where many families had lived and worked together for generations and then found themselves split up and moved into different areas.
Archive footage showed young and no doubt ambition-driven representatives from the council being sent to inspect houses and report back on the state of them. I can’t imagine how humiliating, imposing and surely intimidating that must have been for most residents – to have a judgement cast on the condition of your home by an officious stranger who didn’t live in the area, and for that judgement to have such a potentially irreversible effect on your future.
I expect that, for several families, the opportunity to move out of damp, cramped and insanitary homes into brand new apartments was very welcome, but it seems it wasn’t always the case. The kick in the teeth for some one-time residents of Reginald Road in Deptford, who were surprised when their homes were considered to be slums, is that fifty years later original papers have been unearthed in which the houses were noted as being perfectly fit for human habitation and that any remedial work could have been easily and cheaply done. But, at the time, these reports and recommendations were ignored. It was a poignant revelation and a reminder that, in the face of an authority that has already decided its intentions, the ordinary man in the street barely stands a chance.
My parents were born and brought up in East London and were children at the time of World War II, experiencing the trauma of being evacuated during the Blitz and then returning to streets damaged by bombs. I have difficulty relating to how life must have seemed for them - and particularly for my grandparents - with such destruction going on around, so close. Perhaps, even if only to a very small degree, it was those thoughts that resonated as I watched last night's programme, particularly the scenes in which the bulldozers turned family homes on Reginald Road into dusty piles of rubble (even when some occupants still refused to leave) - and I felt quite moved by it all.
Anyway, it was a very promising start to the series and I’ll be watching the remaining five episodes with great interest.
Well, it's just such a good song....