This set of essays starts with the well-known image, in Gill Sans type, with a crown at the top and plain lettering saying KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. This annoying slogan, Hatherley found, seemed to follow him everywhere, sometimes with varied text, even to street markets of Eastern Europe. Good job he had not come to Nottingham where you can see a poster outside the type of hairdresser I could never go into saying KEEP CALM AND GET YOUR HAIR DID. Or even Five Leaves Bookshop where we stock a similar card says KEEP CALM I’M AN ANARCHIST. Once, in Forest Fields (a local Asian area) I saw a T-shirt saying KEEP CALM I’M A MUSLIM. So far, so annoying, but Hatherley turns this into a general public desire for “austerity nostalgia” as that image became a staple in museums and gift shop harking back to better, more innocent times when “we” were “fighting the Hun and eating SPAM”. Hatherley goes to town exploring the vacuous and reactionary nature of such nostalgia.
More challenging, for any of us on the Left, is his like-minded attack on Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 film, with its use of black and white, brass bands, the absence of the impact of Windrush and avoidance of the downside of the Labour Government that gave us the NHS but also brought us nuclear weapons and dirty colonial wars. His objections are aesthetic as well as historical. I like a brass band as much as the next person but began to feel a little shifty when Hatherley moved on to the film on Tony Benn, Will and Testament, as, though it does not overlook colonialism, in parade “more brass bands and mournful marches”. Are we, too, guilty of what EP Thomspon called the “enourmous condescention of posterity”?
Moving on, Hatherley picks out the London Underground, which itself was no innocent in selling nostalgia with its there-will-always-be-an-Engerland posters advertising “Golders Green: a place of delightful prospects” or “Live in a new neighbourhood – Dollis Hill” with suburban satisfaction only a Tube ride away. Many pages are devoted to the Tube stations. Despite Verso’s dreadfully printed pictures I’ll make a point in visiting Arnos Grove, described lovingly by Hatherley. At this point I lost the thread of his main argument but cared not at all as modernism, constructivism and other such “isms” whizzed along. Hatherley mentions in passing that the foremost Tube station designer, Frank Pick (excuse my laboured pun in the first sentence of this paragraph), advised on the Moscow Metro and picked up an Order of Lenin for his troubles. Now there’s an answer for some pub quiz question sometime. Pick also worked for the now forgotten Empire Marketing Board, some of whose imagery is described but, thankfully, not shown.
In the longest chapter, “Family Portrait” Hatherley sifts out information showing that the public did not “keep calm and carry on” in wartime, not least in occupying the Underground against the wishes of their rulers and in one choice incident, shouting down someone who tried to get some community singing going. If you are going to have to sleep in a deep underground shelter with your home being blown up above ground you might not want to celebrate by singing.
The book is on strong ground when it comes to housing, reminding us that Bevan also built houses as well as the NHS, insisting on good housing, well-built and spacious such as at Spa Green and good buildings for health such as the Finsbury Health Centre. Bevan was less keen on the more revolutionary preventative work of the Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham, this being mentioned here in passing. Hatherley has a lot to say about the designer Berthold Lubetkin, one of many architects and designers who either originated from mainland Europe or whose practice would draw on European modernism. Of course most of Bevan’s Council houses have been sold off on the cheap and now resell expensively as the well-heeled of London have come to appreciate that former Council housing, much of it, was well designed and well-built. Indeed, Hatherley remarks that increasing London commercially-built housing is designed to blend in with and look like Council housing, which was often appropriate to the environment unlike the Degeneration/Regeneration of the New Labour years. Ironically, after taking a swipe at the “free Boris Johnson propaganda and property porn rag, the Evening Standard” Hatherley gives credit to the mayor’s London Design Guide for improving standards.
The London mayor of course. And this – together with Verso’s awful muddy photographic reproduction – is the book’s main weakness. Most of the book is about London, London and more London. Hatherley is also week on solutions – housing, especially in London, is in crisis, but however much deserving of support we need bigger solutions than the Focus E15 Mums however much they “have not shown the Blitz spirit, they have not kept calm and carried on, and their iconography and slogans reflect that”. Not that Hatherley alone has to come up with solutions. That’s a job for all of us.
The Ministry of Nostalgia does, occasionally, show the signs of a publisher approaching an author with a book idea based on a couple of magazine essays. Sometimes you can see the sellotape holding it together. But that’s a trivial complaint because Hatherley can write. His demolition job on Norman Foster’s Imperial War Museum is a treat. There you can see the tired atrium (Foster loves atriums), the steps that go nowhere, the inaccurate captions on exhibitions, wonder about the brushing aside of inconvenient narrative and end up in the gift shops where you can buy a new catalogue featuring a foreword signed by Prince William. It’s a place “to pig out on Gill Sans, muted colours, Blitz spirit, crown logos, wartime cooking, duplicate ration cards – whatever your fantasy about living in genuine privation and fear might be … in a building that evokes a Bravo Two Zero version of a PFI hospital. The Museum of Keeping Calm and Carrying On.”
“Scarp” is an overlooked area on the North Middlesex/South Hertfordshire border, comprising parts of outer London that people might just have heard of but never go there save, in places like Bushey, to be buried. Papadimitriou wanders the fields and streets of the area, sleeps out, eats cheese sandwiches, examines the flowers of the area, reads up on local history and then imagines the full, personal stories of participants of events.
These events include car crashes, a murder of one vagrant by another and, from time to time, the story of his own wasted youth as a petty arsonist and his childhood bullied by a tyrant father. This is, I suppose, psychogeography and there on the back of the book are favourable quotes from Will Self and Iain Sinclair. Papadimitriou rambles through the landscape and through history – in one long sequence an immortal rook visits incidents and people over several centuries, reporting their stories in the first person. His tales are not always so fantastic, but, finally, I give up at the appendix. It’s not the cheariest of books – the final chapter starts “I stood bare-headed in the churchyard at Little Berkhamstead and watched the raindrops bounce off Reginald Maudling’s gravestone and drop into the soaked earth beneath. I longed to follow them.”… “That day the whole of Hertfordshire had seemed a shimmering blinding plain of wheat. I’d ended up spending the night exhausted and dehydrated by the side of a disused farm track off Bragbury Lane, near Stevenage, where, so the story goes, the Virgin Mary is said to walk every Lady’s Day. Waking the next morning exhausted and broke, I’d been overwhelmed by feelings of loneliness.” Hmm.
Yet the author’s parambulations do tell us a lot about the countryside, particularly the broken lands at the end of town lanes where the countryside begins – or used to begin before it was swamped by things like the private Moor Park golf course whose Doric archways “represented everything I resented about privilege and wealth” and even walking on the course “is to slip into what feels like enemy territory.” Papadimitriou’s book is like Jonathan Meades for the maudlin.
For many years I’d holiday in Suffolk, walking the salt marshes, risking all as the old seafarers’ paths changed with the tides and the storms, under big skies, flat seas and always with a consciousness that the sea was winning, most famously at Dunwich.
One day my then partner, dog and I came across Shingle Street, a hamlet facing the sea on one side or, as Blake Morrison says “A row of shacks in stone and wood, / The sea out front, the marsh out back, / Just one road in and one road out, With no road in and one road out, / With no way north except the spit, And now way south except on foot … A wrecking ground, that’s Shingle Street.” It’s a place where, for a moment you think you would like to live, but know you never will and never could. Like WG Sebald, I never saw a soul there – a position Blake reports then negates with reference to an article by the writer Tim Miller, who does live there.
Shingle Street opens with a “ballad” of the street, which leads on to other Suffolk poems. The collection then turns to a sequence, This Poem, whose star poem is Redacted, the report of a death of a soldier in Afghanistan. The collection concludes with a selection of individual poems, but most readers will return to the opening, elegiac sequence which gives the book its title.
Expanded from their ‘Jones the Planner’ blog, Jones and Matthews’ Towns in Britain presents what I’m tempted to call a whistlestop tour of urban planning, architecture and civic redevelopment … only “whistlestop” seems something of a pejorative for such a rich and detailed work.
Starting in Jones’ adoptive hometown of Nottingham, the pair set out to assess the various successes and manifold failures of two dozen British towns and cities (London gets four chapters, while a single chapter covers five key locations in the Hertfordshire Metropolis). The pattern that emerges is one of compromise between visionaries and quangos, aesthetics and red tape. Guess what? – the quangos and red tape usually win.
The authors pull no punches in their findings: Nottingham University’s Jubilee Campus Phase 1, designed by Michael Hopkins, is a “carefully considered, quietly confident and slightly flawed essay in sustainable design”. However, “the second phase by Make is all vacuous glitter … based on a grand axis that leads nowhere … It is all an academic Vegas.” I pass through this development on the way to work: the description fits perfectly.
Elsewhere it’s not just individual buildings or developments that get the sardonic treatment; sideswipes are taken at entire cities. “Leicester has a bit of a problem with its image,” begins the chapter on that city: “it hasn’t really got one.” Cardiff loses points on account of its “parallel urban universe of such crassness and banality that it disgraces the capital city of Wales”. Their reaction to Hatfield can probably be summed up by a photograph caption: “promise unfulfilled”. Ah, yes, the photographs. Towns in Britain is lavishly illustrated. I’m guessing there are in excess of 500 photographs spread across its 324 pages, often satirically captioned.
But I’d be doing Towns in Britain a disservice if I made it sound like nothing more than The Grumpy Old Buggers’ Guide to Crap Architecture. Jones and Matthews praise as often as they damn, and even when they’re indulging in criticism it’s leavened by suggestions towards improvement (here’s hoping town planners read and take heed). Behind the throwaway one-liners and witty captions is an intelligent, discursive and eminently readable prose style. If you’ve never given a thought to urban planning beyond cursing the ring road during rush hour or averting your eyes from some tombstone-like office block, don’t let the subject matter put you off. Towns in Britain offers some fascinating perspectives: if your home town’s featured in the book, it’ll change the way you look at it.
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