I sit and watch as tears goes by …

by David Adams

Keith Richards by Nico7Martin
A forthcoming documentary draws on Keith Richards’ experiences of growing up in wartime and post-Second World War Britain. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nico7martin/8805498640

An hour-long documentary, directed by the film-maker Julien Temple, is shining light on Keith Richards’ formative years growing up in post-war Britain. According to recent media accounts, the Rolling Stones stalwart, a native of Dartford, Kent, will star in the film Keith Richards – The Origin of the Species, directed by Julien Temple, which will be at the centre of the BBC’s My Generation season exploring the importance of popular music in the mid-to-late-twentieth century. The film draws on Richards’ recollections of how he evaded being killed by a bomb in the Second World War, when it is reported that his cot was showered with bricks and mortar. The documentary also explores Richards’ attitude to the various physical and societal changes of the 1950s and 1960s: “There was a feeling in the late Fifties and Sixties that there was a change coming […] I certainly felt […] it’s time to push the limits”.

What happened to the post-war Britain, as elsewhere in parts of the developed world, especially between the late 1950s and early 1970s, is incontestably a resonant subject – even, it seems, with popular rock stars! It is an issue that has directly and indirectly affected the daily lives of almost everyone ever since. Keith Richards’s account of growing up in suburban Dartford promises to add a high-profile personalised perspective of some of the underlying driving forces of that profound physical transformation included well-meaning, patrician values and assumptions of the newly-created welfare state. And there were other forces, too, of course: a belief in the loftier virtues of state-sponsored planning, the beguiling influence of European modernism on groups of architectural students, a passionate repudiation of antediluvian Victorianism and its associated ills, an unfettered belief in modernity and progress, and an opportunity for insentient property developers and local authorities.

Post-WW2 Britain
Growing up in wartime and post-WW2 Britain. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Blitz#/media/File:WWII _London_Blitz_East_London.jpg

By the late 1960s, however, especially following the infamous Ronan Point high-rise disaster of 1968, a public and professional reaction was palpably setting in; by the mid-1970s, amid economic crisis, much of this post-war optimism was in retreat. And yet, Keith Richards’ perspective on post-war modernity also resonates with recent reassessments of the values associated with post-war Britain: the architectural style of ‘brutalism’, for example, which lasted roughly from the 1950s to the mid-70s, has generated a burgeoning ‘industry’, following assessments of the style in the writings and popular broadcasts of prominent architectural commentators such as Calder, Clement, Grindrod, Harwood, Hatherley, Meades, and many others. Elain Harwood, for example, offers a dense and authoritative exploration of English architecture from 1945 to 1975: her assessment goes some way, perhaps, towards correcting the common misgivings about the unsustainable nature of much post-war construction, the plundering of historic towns and city centres, and the top-down, and the bureaucratic nature of post-war modernism.

On a more intimate level, Orazi’s Modernist Estates takes an inside look at remarkable and sometimes controversial estates in Britain and examines the continued impact they have on the lives of contemporary residents of prominent post-war buildings such as the Barbican and Park Hill. Like Keith Richards’ recollections on the post-war landscape of London and its environs, other recent accounts offer a much-needed personalised insight into the sense of emotional attachment people have towards living, working and socialising in ‘modern’ Britain. New and innovative work reveals something of people’s on-going engagement with the post-war environment. If anything, interviews with prominent public figures – like Richards – perhaps offers fertile, yet perhaps underdeveloped, lines of inquiry for those researchers and practitioners interested in this period, and moreover, in how the post-war built form continues to influence people’s perceptions and experiences of towns and cities.


i) Music News (2016) ‘Keith Richards to front new film for BBC’. Available from: http://music-news.com/news/UK/98563/Keith-Richards-to-front-new-film-for-BBC (last accessed 1 July 2017).

ii) Plunkett, J. (2016) ‘Keith Richards to tell story of early years in BBC documentary’, in The Guardian 29 June 2016. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jun/29/keith-richards-rolling-stones-story-early-years-bbc-documentary (last accessed 1 July 2017).

iii) Richards cited in Harding, L. (2016) ‘How the Nazis almost stopped the Stones’, in The I Newspaper 30 June 2016.

iv) Kynaston, D. (2015) ‘A crushing case for brutalism — with the people left out Elain Harwood’s Space, Hope and Brutalism reflect the heavy impact of its subject, and some of its callousness’ in The Spectator. Available from: http://www.spectator.co.uk/2015/10/big-is-beautiful-a-crushing-case-for-brutalism-with-the-people-left-out/ (last accessed 1 July 2017).

v) Harwood, E. (2015) Space, Hope and Brutalism, English Architecture, 1945-1975, Yale University Press, Yale.

vi) Orazi, S. (2015) Modernist Estates: The buildings and the people who live in them Frances Lincoln Limited, London.

David Adams is a Senior Lecturer in Planning at Birmingham City University. He is particularly interested in how urban landscapes are shaped and the impacts and contested nature of post-Second World War reconstruction planning. His PhD focused on Birmingham’s and Coventry’s post-war planning.

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