To what extent does the place we live, and the community we are a part of, shape the person, musician and teacher that we become?
That’s a question that I have been reflecting on, prompted by the recent BBC documentary ’Milton Keynes and Me’, in which filmmaker Richard Macer returned to Milton Keynes to reflect on his childhood growing up here and celebrate the town’s 50th Anniversary.
Macer’s film was at times thought-provoking, informative, personal, historical, and moving. I didn’t agree with his sometimes negative perspective (and nor did many in Milton Keynes, it would seem), but that hardly mattered. What was so much more important is that the programme inspired me to reflect on my own experiences of living here over the last nearly three decades.
We probably all wonder from time to time what impact we have made for the good. Hopefully piano teachers such as myself can recall students who gained a lifelong love for music, which sometimes defined their future. But this post isn’t about my contribution, but rather the imprint that has been made on me.
Having lived in Milton Keynes for 28 years, more than half of my life, and more than half of the city’s existence, how has this shaped who I am today?
A City of Pioneers
Milton Keynes incorporated the old towns of Bletchley, Wolverton and Stony Stratford, as well as some 15 pre-existing villages. Many who live here have deep roots. But thousands more have flocked here to make a new start, to begin a new life, to pioneer.
Progress is of course always a matter of “two steps forward, one step back”. And Milton Keynes has had its share of steps back. Better that though, than the entropy and stagnation that is found in too many parts of the UK.
Macer expounded the tale of how, in the 1960s, an area of 34 square miles of farmland in Buckinghamshire was earmarked by the UK Government as the site for a new city to house 250,000 people. The vision was shaped by the MK Development Corporation, who used the opportunity for some serious experimentation in town planning, future proofing and social engineering.
Viewers were undoubtedly amused by the story of our infamous concrete cows (an artwork which is surely as ironic as it is iconic), and I hope inspired when shown around the surprisingly spacious and beautiful MK Shopping Centre (now a Grade 2 Listed Building) in the company of its visionary architects.
The reminder of the many roundabouts that keep traffic flowing around our system of grid roads was treated as a source of mirth, but how many other cities can one drive around without getting stuck in traffic jams? And indeed, much of the programme failed to do proper justice to the huge success story of Milton Keynes, and the many brilliant reasons that so many of us have chosen to call this amazing place our home.
Here are three aspects of the pioneering spirit which I believe have, to some extent, rubbed off on me:
Built for Speed
While Milton Keynes covers a large area, it is easy and fast to get around. The grid roads provide 60mph driving citywide, allowing access to sheltered estates that are safe for pedestrians and children playing out. The network of foot and cycle paths that criss-cross the whole of Milton Keynes make this a relatively safe place to explore, whatever your mode of transport.
Living here has I think fostered a sense of getting things done, and fast. And as the internet age dawned for us all, it perhaps helped prepare me for the sort-it-out-now mindset that has become so important for us all.
Embracing the New
Milton Keynes is of course home to “Bletchley Park”, famous for the Enigma Machine that not only made such a decisive impact on the outcome of World War 2, but which paved the way for modern computing and information technology. Even before Milton Keynes itself, this area was a place of technological innovation.
In the world of music, Milton Keynes was the home of Jim Marshall, whose amps have become legendary worldwide, and was quickly adopted by musical instrument and technology innovators Yamaha, Korg, and Kawai for their headquarters.
Is it simply a coincidence that from the start of my music teaching career here I have embraced the latest in cutting edge equipment?
Optimism and Engagement
Starting afresh brings hope, and I have certainly been impressed with the many people I have met who share a commitment to making the world a better place.
I see no reason not to stay optimistic, to keep believing for better, and sharing my life alongside those whose will is to make it so.
A City for All
A founding principal in the design of Milton Keynes was the concept of “mixed housing”, in which social and private dwellings coexisting on each estate, encouraging cohesion within local communities, with people from all income groups sharing the same schools, shops, and facilities. To what extent this “social experiment” has worked is certainly debatable, but personally I have encountered elitism far less in the years I have lived here.
In fact I often forget the extent to which elitism exists elsewhere. Within the classical music world, sadly, it remains rife. I wasn’t quite sure whether to laugh or cry when I read the following comment from arts critic Andrew Mellor, tweeted directly from a BBC Prom concert this August:
It has certainly never occurred to me that people from the provinces should be excluded from engaging with the arts, and it utterly astonishes me that anyone would give voice to such an ugly attitude. Real or apocryphal, this quote points to a potentially terminal malaise at the heart of our classical music scene.
We need elite performers, teachers, conservatoires, qualifications, and arts provision. But there is a world of difference between an elite organisation and an elitist one. We stifle all potential for growth if we simply surround ourselves with like-minded people from a similar background.
Living here, one would have to be daft not to realise that music education and cultural engagement must be for ALL, and not just the special talents and the well heeled.
A City for Learning
And indeed, Milton Keynes started out with a strong focus on education and a priority on lifelong learning and personal development for all.
Perhaps the epitome of this, the pioneering Open University was founded here in 1969, taking in its first students in 1971.
One of the world’s largest Universities, the OU is an international landmark success, paving the way for a modern delivery of further education using a variety of creative distance learning methods. It has helped diminish background, circumstance and wealth as obstacles to personal progress, allowing more than 2 million people worldwide the opportunity to work for and gain a degree.
Meanwhile, Stantonbury Campus was established as the first new secondary school for Milton Keynes in 1974, and was the first in the UK to have no uniform.
From the start, Stantonbury introduced a policy of students calling staff by their first name rather than surname. The school’s guiding principles were revolutionary, founded on an ethos of giving equal value to all members of the school community (regardless of whether they are pupils or teachers), summed up in the mantra:
- Respect for All
- Respect for Learning
- Respect for the Environment.
The Campus was the first school in which I taught, initially as a stand-in music teacher with their sixth form, and subsequently as a peripatetic piano and keyboard teacher for many years. I ran an ensemble there, took part in the school’s concerts, accompanied their A’ level music students, and was deeply impacted by the school’s refreshingly radical ethos.
Stantonbury Campus was also home to the MK Music Service, where I was Head of Piano and Keyboard for several years. Sharing the same egalitarian values, the Music Service provided instrumental lessons and ensembles to thousands of children and young people across our growing schools population, and provided an environment in which many of my own initiatives and much of my expertise developed and flourished.
To say that the atmosphere, ethos and approach that Stantonbury enjoyed back in those days had a major impact on my teaching would be an understatement.
A City for Culture
Rather dismissing the massive effort that has gone into the cultural development of Milton Keynes, Richard Macer quipped that,
“The problem is that culture always has to come naturally, you can’t force it in a place that is new.”
That is perhaps true, but having worked here as a musician for nearly three decades, I would hope to have contributed to the thriving centre for the arts that Milton Keynes has become.
Milton Keynes is home to an industry-leading Theatre, Art Gallery, dozens of smaller theatres and venues, and of course the famous outdoor Milton Keynes Bowl.
Perhaps most exciting of all, The Stables was founded nearby in 1969 by the world-renowned jazz musicians Sir John Dankworth and Dame Cleo Laine, with a vision to engage the widest range of people with music in all its diversity.
A City in the Forest
“I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green and pleasant land.”
William Blake (1757-1827)
Perhaps the most striking thing for any visitor of Milton Keynes is the lush greenery everywhere. Wherever you drive, you will find yourself surrounded on all sides by embankments of thriving trees.
There is much talk these days of establishing a healthy work/life balance, and Milton Keynes provides an extraordinary environment for doing so. At first, each resident moving to Milton Keynes was given their own tree to grow, and today any aerial view of the city proves that the vision of creating a “City in the Forest” is coming to fruition.
My next-door neighbours, who moved into the area to enjoy an active and varied retirement, have collated a book of nearly 200 dog walks that they have enjoyed together, encompassing the glorious Linford Wood (which covers 101.5 acres and is a three minute walk from our house), several other ancient woodlands, the many parks and lakes, the River Ouse, Grand Union Canal, and nearby farmland and nature reserves.
If concrete cows aren’t your thing, most Milton Keynes residents don’t need to walk too far to see real ones grazing in the fields!
The local authority have sought to look after this gorgeous environment with care, both for the benefit of today’s citizens and for future generations. We have also had one of the earliest and most successful recycling programmes in the UK, and a commitment to the green agenda from the outset.
Milton Keynes became the first place in the Western World to have a Peace Pagoda: a Buddhist monument built as a symbol of world peace, intended to promote unity among all peoples regardless of race, creed, or border.
How appropriate that this place should have anticipated the new openness and thirst for spirituality which has become such a positive oasis within our contemporary civilisation.
And I am sure it will not be lost on readers that Pianodao, with its interest in Chinese philosophy, Daoism, Qigong and other aspects of Eastern wisdom and culture, should feel perfectly at home here in Milton Keynes!
Milton Keynes and Me?
And so I find myself absorbed in this question: which came first, my own values and personality, my decision to move here, or the ethos upon which this city and its communities and institutions were founded?
I don’t think that there can be any easy answer. Perhaps the truth is simply that each and every one of us is deeply affected by the environment in which we have made our homes, the communities in which we have formed ties, and the social construct in which our lives take root.
But ultimately as I look back (and forward!) the most extraordinary impact of all is that for me, Milton Keynes is where I met and married my wonderful wife, where we have brought up our two children, and where we have made our most precious memories.
Milton Keynes is indeed OUR Jerusalem. And were William Blake alive today, I rather suspect that he would be bloody amazed by what has been achieved in this green and pleasant city!
If you live in Milton Keynes and wish to share something of your own story, do feel free to leave a comment below! And thanks for reading this, my story!
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