We are not afraid of the Continent
Much of the identity of Britain in the 20th century has rested on not being Europe. Robin Carmody has written extensively that both the Tory and Pop models (which are not as mutually exclusive as they might seem) have generally defined themselves against what Reginald Blomfield called 'the dubious continent of Europe' (towards America, in pop's case), but for a few odd exceptions, most of which are obsessions of mine familiar to anyone reading this blog: Vorticism, Festival of Britain, synthpop, yada yada. All of which makes the project Bata-Ville: We are not afraid of the Future even more strange and fascinating.
The starting point for the film is the Czech shoe magnate Thomas Bata (briefly mentioned here a while ago), who set up a company town in Zlin in the 1920s. The town was in the same mould as the company towns of the turn of the century in Britain: garden cities for the workers. The likes of Cadbury's Bourneville outside of Birmingham or Port Sunlight in Merseyside were a decidedly peculiar mixture of paternalism, humanitarianism and silliness. J.B Priestley's English Journey (a deightfully dry and inadvertently un-PC travelogue of Britain in the mid 30s) is flummoxed by the way these towns seemed on the one hand to offer a hope of society liberated from the yoke of laissez-faire, and on the other were really quite, quite silly: the very idea of the city of the future being built on Chocolate. What made Zlin different was that instead of filling it with vernacular chocolate box (ho ho) cottages, this time the factory town, right down to the houses, would be relentlessly cubic, unornamented and Functionalist.
This was all surprisingly successful, so Bata and his Czech architects built factory towns all over the world, and in England did so in East Tilbury, which is where Nina Pope and Katherine Guthrie's film starts. Most curious about the video footage on the site (I haven't seen the whole film) is that the residents of East Tilbury didn't seem to realise that they were part of an East European experiment in living, simply didn't register the sheer Un-Englishness of the situation: curious, as the photos on the site show the Tarkovskyan eeriness of East Tilbury, its boxes surrounded with scrubland, a situation described by one of the passengers on the film's coach of the place being like a dream you can't quite grasp. It doesn't look remotely like England, certainly not like Essex*. Then you're brought up sharp by clips of the 'Bata Library and Resource Centre', with its pasty and disconsolate youth cycling aimlessly around in a manner familar to anyone resident in the postindustrial UK.
East Tilbury is part of the Thames Gateway lebensraum-for-London project: bathos is provided by the clips of various regeneration specialists, all of whom seem amiable enough, yet who all purvey the same line that the postindustrial town has to reorient itself towards the service industry and tourism: the workers' paradise is over, so get in that Costa and serve lattes to the architecture buffs who will surely chance upon this place soon enough. At least it definitely looks like a possible destination for the Zone Tours...
* Although Essex does have its own Zone-like otherness at the edges: perhaps the most depressing week of my life was at a Militant Summer Camp (am not joking) at Mersea Island in 1995. The mudflats and sense of utter emptiness and desolation have stuck in my mind, particularly in weaker moments. A jellyfish got swept up once on the shore and it felt like some sort of Biblical portent.