I caught a snippet of a programme about war time London last night. The flickery, charmingly dated footage, (almost too vintage to be true, was I sure it was not a reconstruction of a period piece?) showed well turned out work men in white shirts with sleeves rolled back cutting down railings from a round a London park and loading them onto a horse drawn truck (save fuel).
And in London, the railings are removed from around our parks and gardens and the fronts of our houses to be turned into armaments.
At least that is what the people of London were told. They thought that by sacrificing their railings they were making a real and tangible contribution to the war effort. A big sacrifice in some ways. Railings were an elegant marking out of privacy. A stately finishing touch to a home or a garden.
It is true that aluminium pots and pans were important. If you, as a householder, could sacrifice your kitchen ware, then perhaps you could feel that despite the traumas of the blitz, you were making a real contribution. However the sacrifice of the railings around your ‘area’ , your park or town square, unbeknownst to you, was less useful.
From the London Railing Company official website we learn that these railings had originally been painted invisible green, designed to chameleon into the masses of foliage that they supported. They may also have been in natural browns or bronze colours. It was only with the death of Prince Albert that the railings, and anything else that didn’t move , was painted black as an Imperial gesture of mass mourning. So in the post war years, when railings could be restored, they were, and still are painted black, traditional to the residual pre- war memories.
But sadly, the removed railings were useless. They were harvested, gathered and then dumped off the Isle of Dogs. The pile of sunken curlicues was of such a size that boats had to be guided by pilots around them to safety. The lightermen saw this happening and reported it in the post war years. The sacrifice had been staged for utterly cynical effect, propaganda reasons. A governmental move to make the public feel that they had helped with the war effort, whereas, in fact, they had just created additional energy consuming labour.
Maybe the bonus came, as it often does, from the unanticipated outcomes of the opening of public space. The plus points gained by this sacrifice was the democratisation of green spaces in London. Suddenly greenspace was not locked away and accessible only to the key holding wealthy, any one could walk in and play in or take a picnic lunch hour.
Lincoln’s Inn fields became a cardboard city for rough sleepers in later years.
In the postwar reconstruction period, housing estates were designed with the railing fully reinstated. Social housing designed to mimic the grandeur of the former town squares or the practical space use of tenements, or the bold new Corbusian vision of streets in the sky, had greenspace built into the design, even if those visions were populated in the conceptual stages, with obligingly co-operative small plastic people illustrating the idealistic usage of green.
Hardship is over.
We will reinvent communal living.
We all have a glorious new world with a welfare state to hold us and nurture us and we are all dukes and duchesses. Children were to play in shared gated gardens. The more railings the greater the status of the community… An echo of the former status implied by the cast iron railings of yore. The once green to snuggle into leaves and then black to imply a shared grief at the death of the Consort, there was a sense that the architectural detail of the railing looked nostalgically dignified and classically English. Once again status was implied as an open space was framed with the recently appreciated luxury of a bracelet of railings.
And then something new and old happened. The spaces railed off, became cut off, like ringing a lambs tail, the spaces held by railings died.
The old London squares on which they were modelled had been maintained as private gardens and secret spaces. They had survived because of the lines of privilege that they marked out. They were invested in, and tended.
In the social housing of the postwar year this was at first the work of the council with the support of the residents and the philanthropic interventions of social campaigners who understood that the new look tenements and high rise blocks needed the green space around and in between to ensure the success of this bold, perhaps foolhardy, social experiment on a grand scale. But because the council, (the LCC London County Council then the GLC then the local arms Length Management Oranisations ALMOs or Registered Social Landlord RSLs businesses spawned by Thatcherite selling off of what was not available to be sold, – cause of long lasting deeply set social strife,) and not the people of the housing – had to maintain these spaces. It became easier for them to be padlocked shut, for no one rather than every one to use them . They became backdrops of probable conflict. Socialisation and playing were criminalised, (‘no ball games.’ ‘no loitering’ no benches because ‘people will gather on them’ ), and the railings started to breed, keeping people ( all people, but especially children and young people) out because the maintenance task was easier to manage that way. Dog and dog-walkers alone were allowed to access the green spaces. So the grass became fouled and unusable.
So playable spaces were now No Go areas. Undesirable, dirty, with prohibiting and dictatorial signage, No No No. No spaces for the community to muck about in by their homes, no space to grow together, No liminal meeting places to chat and get to know your immediate neighbours.
The Council said No, and if you disobeyed The Council could chuck you out. So you kept your head down and put up with it.
And the railings bred. Some massive franchises must have operated. Look at the layers of fence on fence on fence.
ACPO, Association of Chief Police Officers, an unelected,unrepresentative, play illiterate body, developed Secured By Design, a system of social control through arbitrary place design formed by general principals of fear, is used as a way of enforcing, buying and installing more and more fencing. Cutting off the ‘rat runs’ that were designs and used as streets in the sky. The railings rule. Railings are safe. Railings are good. People are, by their very nature a threat to each other.
On the estates near me they are fed up with the sight of the interminable rows of railings.
A toddler grasps a post in each hand and peers through.’ Blimey mate… You training him up for prison already?’
There is a patch on the Isle of dogs where perhaps they have exhumed the railing graveyard and reused it in a veritable maze of metal to be negotiated before you can enter the shopping area, or leave it.
Railings could be replaced by hedges. The hedge breathes life into a space. It can be gorse, japonica, hawthorn whatever, but each would create a natural experience, a Bee route, a smell, a beauty. The railings are signifiers of social control and assume criminal intent .
Imagine yourself standing in front of a railing.
Can you climb over it?
It shouts ‘ keep out ‘ at you.
If some one says keep out , then you wonder why. You feel impelled to disobey.
Tell a child, ‘don’t you dare do that’ and the child is bound to do it.
Imagine yourself standing in front of a hedge or presented with an open piece of grassy land. You smell the hedge and touch it, you amble through the green space. You have no desire to break into it and abuse it because the intent, the message of the hedge is such that you do not want to do such a thing.
By creating a railing enclosed area, we create a conflict. The act of doing this is hostile and provocative . We are causing trouble by expecting it.
There used to be a round topped wall on Eric street where generations of young people had sat and been a nuisance in an annoying teenage way. This was pulled down and replaced by galvanised railings, before any real research was done into the space.
An older resident tells me that she and her mates used to sit there as kids.
That pattern continued until the Secured By Design philosophy was employed. The wall came down. The railings went up.
The word on the street is that the kids still gather and chat in that spot and that when the wall was demolished, one of the managed to keep a brick from the wall as a memento of the space where the teenagers could belong.
A historical landmark.
A sad souvenir.