Lauren Piko-University of Melbourne

“…there was little about Milton Keynes that seemed unusual…”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I speak to the University of Melbourne’s Lauren Piko about her interest in Milton Keynes; and what the much maligned the new town can teach us today.

What is your background?

I studied British history at the University of Melbourne as an undergraduate, yet despite the History department’s fine urban history tradition, I was very much a subcultural studies enthusiast at that time. After finishing my honours thesis in 2008 I spent a few years working in education administration in London, Bath and Melbourne, before returning to the University of Melbourne to undertake my PhD with Professor Andrew May and Dr David Nichols.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

My thesis examines the depiction of Milton Keynes in national British media and popular culture from 1967 to 1992, particularly with reference to ideas of national decline. This was specifically motivated by my experience of negotiating English urban spaces as an Australian. I moved to Milton Keynes in 2009 directly from Melbourne, knowing nothing of it other than that it was a cheap place to live while working in London. To someone who had grown up in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs, there was little about Milton Keynes that seemed unusual, and so I was taken aback by the scorn and derision directed at Milton Keynes whenever I happened to mention where I lived. I was intrigued by these tacit value judgements of “good” urban landscapes, which were somehow lost in translation to my Melbournian ears. To someone with a background in subcultural studies this set off all the requisite alarm bells about Gramscian “common sense”, and so the stage was set for me to explore this in my PhD.

“To someone with a background in subcultural studies this set off all the requisite alarm bells about Gramscian “common sense”…”

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

E.P Thompson’s “Time and Work-discipline in Industrial Capitalism” is a perfect model of the “world in a grain of sand” approach to history I find the most exciting and politically powerful. The work of Sara Ahmed, along with Stuart Hall, are also constant touchstones, for their ability to use the tiniest iterations of culture as entry points.

My supervisor Professor Andrew May has suggested in the past that there may be a specifically “Melbourne way” of doing history; a sort of Greg-Dening-esque focus on language and meaning. I think it’s very likely that my ethnographic instincts and curiosity about hidden cultural boundaries have been shaped by being based at Melbourne’s history department.

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

I hope it makes them think twice about the political implications of beliefs and ideas that they consider to be “normal”, innate, or automatic.

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

I have been constantly delighted by the range of subject material I get to cover; the realisation that I needed to go back to Lockean ideas of nationhood was a shock, but so too was needing to spend so much time listening to Cliff Richard records. I really relish following the strange journeys of source material in cultural history.

What specific challenges do you face as a historian studying a subject that is located on the other side of the world from you?

“…negotiating distance has forced me to work very efficiently and more creatively than I would have otherwise.”

My work is borne out of being an Australian in Milton Keynes, so I think it’s very appropriate to be writing this thesis from Melbourne, back to exploring the tacit language of Englishness from the outside. A substantial amount of my research was undertaken from Australia, though I was lucky to obtain funding for two on-site research trips. This meant an exhausting and frenzied workload during those two-and-a-half months! Though I would have loved to have had the luxury of losing myself for months in the archives, negotiating distance has forced me to work very efficiently and more creatively than I would have otherwise.

Do you think there are connections between the denigration of Milton Keynes and other new towns in British popular culture and wider shifts in society since the 1960s?

Absolutely. It is very much part of a wider ideological rejection that has led tower blocks, council estates, and other new towns to be condemned and ridiculed. Much like how “the 1970s” are regularly invoked as the “bad old days” of British politics, condemning postwar urban planned spaces helps reinforce the idea that “there is no alternative” to the neo-liberal state. It’s an ongoing rejection that legitimates the status quo.

Does your research lead you to see the plans for Milton Keynes as fundamentally a radical or a conservative project?

To give a stereotypical historian’s response, it depends on the context. In terms of urban planning, The Plan for Milton Keynes was a radical re-imagining of the very idea of the discipline and what it should do. Politically, however, the very “flexibility” at the heart of Milton Keynes’ planning goals has allowed it to move with the times very easily, and through doing so it has become more conservative than the Plan itself ever envisioned.

“the… ‘flexibility’ at the heart of Milton Keynes’ planning goals has allowed it to move with the times very easily…”

Given contemporary ecological concerns, are car-centric development like Milton Keynes worrying anachronisms or can they be salvaged?

This is a great question. In reality I don’t think Milton Keynes is inherently as car-centric as its reputation suggests. It’s also incredibly pedestrian and cycle-friendly, and while it’s been let down by public transport provision in the past, this is getting better overall. Milton Keynes is also a beautifully verdant town with a fantastically diverse urban ecology. Provided that public transport provision continues to improve, it will be exciting to watch how Milton Keynes continues to challenge preconceptions about density and urban functioning into the future.

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You can read more about Lauren’s research into the genesis and cultural impact of Milton Keynes on her academia.edu page. She can be contacted through the University of Melbourne’s graduate school. 

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