Magazine article The Spectator

Long Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Long Life

Article excerpt

Who would ever have thought it, but I have become quite fond of Milton Keynes.

Although I live slightly closer to the ancient city of Northampton than to this widely mocked 'new town' of the 1960s, I definitely prefer the latter. Northampton is a fine example of the ruination of an English market town by misguided post-war planners; Milton Keynes an example of the fulfilment of their utopian dreams. It is no utopia, of course. With its dual carriageways called 'boulevards' (lined with trees still looking as if they will never outgrow the sapling appearance they had in the architects' drawings), its notorious proliferation of roundabouts, and its bland low-rise office blocks (no building in Milton Keynes is supposed to be taller than its tallest tree), it still feels somehow unreal, as if the planners' vision of it had never fully materialised.

But it is now a town twice as big as Oxford or Cambridge, full of vitality, and boasting an improbable degree of pride and contentment among its residents. It seems barely to have noticed the recession. And its mile-long steelframed glass shopping centre, inspired by the architecture of Mies van der Rohe, may or may not deserve its Grade Two status, but it is unquestionably a good and efficient place to shop. Furthermore, there are three or four perfectly good restaurants in Milton Keynes, which is more than can be said of Northampton, and also plenty of easy places to park your car. It may have no identifiable centre (unless you count the shopping mall), nor even a cathedral or university (apart from the Open University); but it still exudes a feeling of self-confidence that Northampton somehow lacks.

But what of culture? Is there any of that in Milton Keynes? Well, apart from the famous concrete cows and other dubious examples of public art, there never used to be much of it; the original planners seem to have overlooked the need for culture. But in 1999, more than 30 years after the town's foundation, it was belatedly equipped with a splendid 1,400seat modern theatre and, immediately beside it, with a public art gallery housed in a large white, pink and yellow concrete box. The theatre has been a great success, attracting large audiences not only to pantomimes and other popular entertainments but also to serious drama and to first-class opera performances from Glyndebourne and the Welsh National Opera. The gallery has also been a modest success, especially under Anthony Spira, its charming and dynamic young director of the past five years, who had previously worked at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. …

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