The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Concretopia: A Journey around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain

by John Grindrod (Old Street Publishing, 464pp, £25)

Reviewed by Catherine Croft

What was (and is) it like to live and work in Britain’s post-war buildings? How has architecture impacted on people’s sense of self? John Grindrod presents himself not as an expert in architecture, planning or sociology, but as a questioning traveller, seeking out the parts of Britain that tourists never reach (John is a C20 member, and some of his ‘journey’ was on Society trips). As much as anything this is a very funny travel book, exploring many of the places that I myself have found challenging and thought-provoking (including some, such as Cumbernauld, where friends have flatly refused to get out of the car). I like to think of him planning a chapter with a heap of C20 Journals, a stack of battered 1960s Penguins and a copy of Crap Towns in front of him (though, as a prolific blogger on his website, he’s probably doing a recce on Google Earth, zooming in on underpasses and elevated walkways, before heading out with a satnav to meet contacts made on Twitter).

His previous book was Shouting at the Telly, and architecture as the setting and inspiration for TV, film and music is a recurring theme in Concretopia. He’s also a great collector of period propaganda, booklets, YouTube clips and newspaper clippings, official versions and subversive critiques. The journey is thus a flamboyant collage of quotes from interviews with current occupants and experts, as well as the story of his own life, from a 1970s childhood in the Croydon suburb of New Aldington (pre-war red brick maisonette), out via the mini-Manhattan of the centre, which made him want to be a robot: ‘Croydon makes sense as a town to be approached by jet-pack, where paranoid androids hum early Human League songs in the underpasses and flying saucers land on top of shopping centres, transforming Terry and June into George and Jane Jetson at the zap of a ray gun.’ Your response to that sentence should tell you whether or not you will love the book. (Our recent listing application for No 1 Croydon noted its appearance in the Terry and June opening titles – but that still didn’t swing it.)

One of the best quotes is from a 1969 ad in The Times for the Span estate at New Ash Green: ‘Happiness is an adopted frog’. It’s a perfect evocation of rural longing and the desire to build a positive sense of community – along with the paternalistic assumption that the frogs will want to cooperate. Grindrod is excellent at finding funny and relevant material like this (and he does footnotes). Concretopia is slightly dizzying, verging on the manic, packed with fact and opinion, and constantly on the move, yet with an engaging warmth and humour. It had me engrossed.