Wednesday, January 24, 2007

This must be the Place I waited Years to Leave

Disorganised thoughts on Lynsey Hanley's Estates and 'Classist Jouissance'

(NB- some of this post repeats points made a while ago here.)

Jenny from the Block(s)
The three Moscow council housing blocks above are each emblazoned with words that, when read out in full, declare GLORY TO THE WORKING CLASS. Ignore for a moment the obvious gauche Ostalgie of this and the shabbiness of the context, and imagine a society where the building of social housing was intended to be exactly this: 'an eldorado for the working class', as Berthold Lubetkin once put it. Then consider the place of council housing in the British socio-cultural conjuncture - as Lynsey Hanley points out in Estates: an Intimate History, it's used as a shorthand for general lumpenproletarian venality and violence, something for a celebrity to mention when laying out their rags-to-riches credentials. The intriguing thing is that there are two real survivals in present-day Britain of the brief rush of Bevanite Socialism that followed the war: one, the National Health Service, is considered so sacrosanct that even while dismantling it, New Labour or Tories have had to pay it fulsome tributes. The other is the council blocks that still stand all over Britain's cities, making monolithically their point about its essential failure.

Blocks at Weston Shore, Southampton

The really interesting thing about Lynsey Hanley's book, and which I didn't manage to get across in my review, is how much it chimes in with the notions of 'working class self-hatred' and ambiguity discussed by K-P. The trajectory of child prole to adult columnist necessarily creates a sort of dual nature. While her entire book is a defence of the idea of social housing, her experience of it is marked by a feeling of alienation from her fellow estate inmates. One of the central ideas of the book is that Estates couldn't help but create a single class environment, and that this then turned in on itself, replacing class pride with a doggedly conformist culture of casual violence, deliberate stupidity and determined ignorance. So while in one respect wanting to resurrect the notion of workers' housing, Hanley is in no way dishonest about her feelings of total disconnection from working class culture (the glimpse of an outside coming from her obsession with the Pet Shop Boys, rather cutely, and making middle class friends at 6th form) and general desire to get the hell out as soon as possible. The current model is to get out, then act as if that won't change you, to act up as much as possible to the appropriate stereotype.

Chavism and Chavistas

Library at the Dorset Estate, by Skinner Bailey & Lubetkin

If you don't read books you have been fucked over in a major way. You have been castrated and conned. To read, voluntarily, is the first step to asserting the fact that you know that there is somewhere else.
Julie Burchill

One of the best things Julie Burchill ever wrote is a piece from the mid-80s called 'How I learned to stop worrying and loathe the Proletariat'. This indictment of her class comes only partly from her own evident social mobility, but mainly from a despair at the seemingly unsolveable dichotomy between The Proletariat As Capitalism's Inherent Negation and the working class she was brought up in (this being a few years before her brief flirtation with Thatcherism). She points first to the apathy with which much of the WC met the Miners' Strike, the lack of solidarity strikes and so forth; then on how the Miners were supported by all manner of emanations of bourgeois identity politics- gay rights groups, for instance. And she asks- what if these son of many of the miners came out? The conformism of a mining community would never tolerate it: a notion recycled by films like Billy Eliott, where the dispossessed worker is endlessly implored to get in touch with his feminine side. Her argument is as contradictory as what produced it- but it's curious how she went from this, argued with the terrifying force of the recent apostate, to her current defence of Jade Goody. Mark writes:

Ville Radieuse at Millbrook, Southampton

The comparison between Goody and her defender Julie Burchill tells us a great deal about how class relations and prospects have changed over the last thirty years. Burchill benefited from an earlier version of the ruling class fascination/ repulsion with proletariat; in her case, the progression from self-taught intellectual Marxist firebrand to prole-for-hire ('some of them can even write proper sentences, don't you know') had its tragic dimensions, its disappointments and betrayals. Yet Burchill's presence has always been about working class intelligence, the very possibility of which Jade Goody's success has implicitly denied.

Prole, wi nowt taken out

In another review in this month's Socialist Review, Mike Gonzalez uses the term 'White Trash' in an interesting manner, discussing a book by Subcommandante Marcos: 'The translator has rendered everything in a kind of downhome white trash talk that is about as far away from the Chiapas of communal struggle as it's possible to imagine.' This surely reveals a disavowed dichotomy at the heart of current Leftist politics. There's people who Struggle, usually non-European, who are bravely Resisting Imperialism and then there's our own Working Class (in the UK or the USA) which is so different from that world, as it sits reading its Sun and watching its Reality TV, that they can't even by imagined as linguistic equivalents: the one supposed to Struggle versus the wasted waste products of late capitalism. We're unable to imagine a Chav Chavista. The oft-made destinction between economic and 'ethnic' classhood might be invoked here, although I'd argue that the border between the two is by no means fixed.

Prolier than Thou

The radiant future, Townhill Park, Southampton

I might as well declare myself as speaking from much as contradictory a perspective as most of the people I've just cited, being from a background part working class, part middle, and speaking with as aristocratic a tone as I can simulate. I wasn't 'brought up' on an estate (love how that phrase immediately evokes the emetic), though lived in one in the really very formative years of 12 to 16, which left me perennially screwed up on the subject, not helped by the fact that at the time my Mum, from a family of Communist Party members and schoolteachers, was a dirt poor single mother, and my Dad, an ex-sheet metal worker from impeccably proletarian stock, was doing really quite well for himself. Anyway I'll stop there (despite starting this blog partly to write more personal stuff that seems like an increasingly bad idea, heheh) except to add that the Estate in question was a 'cottage estate', one of those built on the outskirts of cities in the 30s in vaguely vernacular fashion- so it has REAL HOUSES with GARDENS and PITCHED ROOFS, which didn't stop it from being one of the poorest, most violent places in the city, generally a place of which cabbies would tend to say 'not at this time of night, mate'. (Weirdly, other than the delightful, with its advocating of genocide, the only links that mention it I could find are from Christian groups- make of that what you will) It was very like what's being planned for the Thames Gateway, funnily enough.

Proper Houses, the Flower Estate, Southampton

Like South London sentimentalist Michael Collins, or Wilmott and Young's anthropology, Hanley looks for something to blame for what happened to the working class, and while she is more politically astute than Collins, she goes in for a bashing of a certain kind of middle class paternalism- the Corbusian inheritance of modern architects who wanted to abolish the corridor street, glory in modern materials, build into the sky, create a radiant city rather than a fixed, protected community. While (just to make this point clear...) the majority of 50s and 60s housing projects were awful bureaucratic prefabricated slums, these were actually very seldom architect-designed: usually in fact bought from contractors in a series of readymade models as constricted as the options for a Barratt Home, then stacked without any thought for the actual properties of the structure- the collapse at Ronan Point that ended the march of High Rise (at least for the poor) was because of a system that was intended to go only so high being stacked up regardless by the contractors. And even then, if the prefabriacted parts had been put together properly, or maunfactured by people with an eye to design rather than a quick profit, things could have been very different: the pejorative nature of 'standardised' in these debates indicates their bad faith- like Victorian or Georgian terraces weren't made to a Standard! Nonetheless, blaming business would, even then, be a blindingly obvious, though usually unmade response.

Who Wants to live in a Hovis advert, anyway?

Keeling House (as it is now)

A few years before Keeling House (a 'cluster block' designed by Denys Lasdun to atempt to replicate a sense of community) was sold to developers, residents tried to save the building from the demolition threatened by Tower Hamlets' Council, praising, funnily enough, the 'community' created by the form of the cluster block. The absence of facts like this from Hanley's book in favour of eulogies to brick is what I was getting at by branding it 'parochial': the really quite bizarre belief that because houses were made like that in the 19th century, that is the Correct Method, and it's curious how her ventures outside of empiricism just reinforce this, such as in the citing of the Situationists' notion of the derive. The derive was usually in an area that was labyrinthine, inhabited by society's rejected, full of odd corners, frowned upon by connoisseurs of Haussman's Paris. If one were to derive anywhere in London, surely it would be along the concrete walkways of the 60s rather than the overfamiliar Victoriana that pervades most of the city? Hanley complains that the complex designs of estates made people get lost, then complains that you can't lose yourself in them. If you derived round an estate people would notice. You'd look like a wally. The assumption that Debord didn't look like a wally is the least of the problems there.

Pub in the Dorset Estate, Skinner Bailey and Lubetkin

The fact of council housing being built on such a scale in a consistently Modernist manner made Modernism a single-class style, resented by its inhabitants (private Modernism like the Barbican was comparitively rare) because it instantly defined them as poor, and this, along with the Right to Buy, is what finally finished off British Modernism, in housing at least. It's notable that in any consultative system, where architects go off to talk to the aesthetically unenlightened proles, people usually ask for the same thing- pitched roof, brick, LOOKS LIKE A HOUSE. Yesterday I spent a day at the Architectural Association, where student projects on the Thames Gateway always seem to centre on: what to do with these awful proletarians who wanted to live in these homes? One modest proposal, the only one that even attempted thinking about social housing, went: the government won't pay for social housing, so why not build Logo Houses for the proles? Get Red Bull or Coke to pay for a house emblazoned with their brand! Problem solved!

Carnation Road, Flower Estate

In the face of all this the temptation is strong to just wallow in nostalgia for a class and for an urbanism that doesn't exist, and can't be resuscitated, this being underside of any hauntological critique. Berthold Lubetkin, looking back in the 1980s on his council housing schemes- patterned Modernist baroque, such as Spa Green, Bevin Court and Priory Green in Finsbury, Hallfield in Bayswater, or the Cranbrook and Dorset Estates in Bethnal Green- as obscure as his zoo buildings and Highgate flats are ubiquitous- said that that they looked like they were made for a society that never came into being - for a future that never arrived.


Blogger Dominic said...

To read, voluntarily, is the first step to asserting the fact that you know that there is somewhere else.

Aha - the teenage Manics fan comes a little more into focus...

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heheheh! i resisted the temptation to call the thing 'libraries gave us power'...

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