manchester modernist society

Is the Past a foreign country? a personal reflection….

In background, ideas, society, uncategorized on June 14, 2012 at 12:15 pm

We are delighted to include a Guest Post by Modernist magazine regular and Chair of the C20 Society North West Group, Aidan Turner – Bishop, a personal reflection of what UMIST means to him….

Is the Past a foreign country? Perhaps it’s more like Danzig/Gdansk: the original landmarks are still there but their context, and often the original people, have changed or gone. We see, sure, but do we get it? As I, a fifties child, get older I feel this increasingly. Did we then really enjoy vintage cup cakes, mismatched china crockery and hatless, ungirdled, red lipsticked ladies? What about the damp, cold and smell of gas and soot? The darned shabby clothes and food rationing?

UMIST campus makes me feel like that. We see a peaceful oasis of smart modernist buildings and mature landscaping set away from the busy city centre. But we don’t feel its original context: striking modern architecture next to endless small sooty workshops, corner pubs, slum housing stretching all the way fromLondon Road railway station to theStockport boundary. Many poor people with bad haircuts, shabby frocks, faded headscarves, and poor teeth. Red Corporation trolleybuses. Steam and soot from jangling goods trains on the viaduct. Yellow smog.

UMIST was revolutionary. It was Change: electric –nuclear electric – clean and plentiful, promising so much. It evokes the promise of the post-war “white heat of technology” era: electronics, nuclear engineering, chemicals, artificial textiles, aeronautics and computing. Hope after so much austerity. New buildings on cleared rubbled bomb sites. UMIST was led then by Lord Bowden appointed in 1955. He made UMIST – as it was to become – an international centre of high technology. Have a look at his biography  at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B._V._Bowden,_Baron_Bowden and his entry in the Oxford DNB.

He used to appear on the wireless programme “Any questions” [BBC Home Service, chaired by Freddie Grisewood] or on jolly serious, two-pipe, programmes on Granada TV, probably interviewed by a young Brian Redhead: authoritative, calm, brainy, modern. He knew where we were going. He was the arch-boffin in a time when delta-winged Vulcan bombers were being tested at Woodford (I lay on my back in a field to get a good view of one). When Ferranti’s was a large employer and Metro-Vicks made electrical equipment for the USSR or Southern Rhodesia. Vickers were selling their successful Viscount and Vanguard aeroplanes across the world. Britain even had a space programme then with intercontinental Blue Streak rockets being tested at Spadeadam in Cumberland. Dan Dare flew his personal spaceship ‘Anastasia’ in Eagle.

Lord Robens, Chairman of the National Coal Board, argued in his no-nonsense Yorkshiregrowl, that our resources of coal –although plentiful and growing – should be used to produce oil and plastics. Those were the days when chairmen of nationalised industries, and their counterparts the great trade union secretaries, were satraps in the land. Courtaulds led the world in rayon production. Leyland lorries and buses were sold widely throughout the Commonwealth and Empire and South America. I still remember being shown one of the newly imported Xerox ‘photocopiers’ at Warwickshire County Library service. It was all heady stuff, eh?

When Eddy Rhead and I visited the staff room at UMIST it reeked of that atmosphere: Danish-style 1960s wooden armchairs, pipe-smoked fabrics, shabby tweed jackets, chaps reading the Manchester Guardian and muttering about NationalService inMalaya, CND wallahs in duffle-coats, and undergrads in striped scarves. “Fancy a wad and a jar, old man?” Perhaps there were a very few lady boffins on campus: white coated hearty types, mostly unmarried, of course. They worked in fearfully modern architecture, generously funded by the UGC. Did you know that in 1948 there were 25,000 students in all British universities, fewer than in one modern ‘uni’ today? UMIST was elite and very special.  It still is.

Aidan Turner-Bishop, Chair of the C20 Society North West Group, www.c20society.org.

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