A dissertation about garden festivals
Pre-web academic process

(12 September 2023)

Photo of two research papers laid on a table

In 1992, during the closing months of my 3-year undergraduate degree, I set out to research and write my final dissertation.

It was about garden festivals, the brainchild of 1980s Conservative minister Michael Heseltine. The Festivals were a way of turning abandoned ex-industrial wastelands into something more productive, by way of a public event lasting months. Prep for the event would mean cleaning up the wasteland; after the event, the land could be re-used. That was the thinking.

I can’t remember why I chose this subject. I was interested in urban geography, urban renewal, architecture and design - all subjects I’d studied a bit during the first two-and-a-half years of the degree. But I don’t remember having any particular interest in Garden Festivals, or much else dreamt up by the Tory governments of the 1980s. Like many decisions made my youth, I suspect this one was made on the spur of the moment, once an idea had popped into my head.

What’s more, I can’t remember the title of the dissertation itself, and I no longer have a copy of it anywhere. I used to have one, no idea what happened to it. Many years have passed. Hey ho.

But what I do have, and what I dug out of a long-neglected cupboard recently, is a pile of related papers. I don’t want to keep the papers any more, but I thought it was worth scanning some of them for digital posterity.

View the papers

The pre-internet era of research and writing

The papers include letters I received from local authorities, house builders, government departments, chambers of commerce and so on. There are articles I requested through inter-library loan, photocopied and delivered to me via a pigeonhole in the geography department building. There are maps and plans, newspaper reports, typewritten reports.

Looking at it now, it all seems so archaic. A pile of paper left over from a world of paper, an age of paper, when inter-library loans were the only way to see papers from obscure journals. The only way to get official information was to write to the people you thought might have it, and ask them. If you were lucky, they’d write back. It would take weeks.

And of course there are some of my hand-written notes. I’m pleased that I clearly did a lot of bad first drafts - there are snippets of ideas in extremely rough, scribbled form. Then there are chapters, or parts of chapters, with codes and other identifiers to help me figure out what goes where. After weeks of drafting, editing and re-drafting, I remember typing up the whole thing using my step-dad’s “word processor” - basically a fancy typewriter.

I’ve no doubt that writing a dissertation today is no easier than it was back then, but part of me looks back at this ancient history and wishes I’d had access to a decent computer and some internet. How freeing! How modern! I don’t think that I’d have written a better dissertation, mind you - I wasn’t a very good, or very motivated, student.

In the end, I scraped the bare minimum of an acceptable pass. A lot of the problem was that my dissertation wasn’t really an academic contribution to the field of geography - it was closer to journalism and reportage. Lots of well-meaning and much-agonised-over words, but none of them very useful for a geography degree.

Now these papers can go in the recycling bin too. I don’t want them cluttering up my long-neglected cupboard any more, but I don’t mind if scans of them clutter up a folder in Google Drive. For another few decades, at any rate.