Sunday, November 02, 2008

So Much to Answer For

Not wanting to pre-empt the F.J's long-promised post on the late Anthony H. Wilson, but a post impelled by (coincidentally) reading I.T's typically ostranenie-inducing photo essay on Manchester and watching Grant Gee's Joy Division (far superior to the abortive Control) in the same afternoon. At the end of Gee's documentary, Wilson re-iterates his claim that Joy Division made Manchester what it is today, to the visual accompaniment of the rising office blocks and yuppiedromes. The first industrial city became the first post-industrial city. To gloss it in terms Wilson might not have approved: the city that was once a modern, cultured metropolis had declined by the late '70s, but through an unspoken covenant between art and commerce - the final destruction of the old factories under Thatcher, alongside Wilson and Factory's building-up of a new, 'creative industry' - it somehow entered the millennium as a shinily modern metropolis all over again. The old rapacious Manchester liberalism adapted neatly to neoliberalism, and the city of dreadful night became Britain's immaterial capital. Since the 1990s Manchester's overwhelming and mainly malign influence has been everywhere. Certainly there's something ineffably Manchester about New Labour's arrogance, swagger and cynicism, appropriately coinciding with the rise of Manchester United to multinational colossus. The curious thing is that in actual cultural terms, what has been produced is pretty negligible.

In architecture, there's the luxury flats - seemingly even more than in London, on a brief visit a few months ago - reaching their apotheosis in the Beetham Tower; or you have the morally-improving-googie of Salford Quays, and Urban Splash's loft colonies; while in music, the city hasn't produced a genuinely innovative record since A Guy Called Gerald's Black Secret Technology 13 years ago. What else has there been? The student slop-hop of Mr Scruff? The Ting Tings? Anyone? I was linked a very interesting essay a while ago by City of Sound about the relative declines of Sheffield and Manchester, with the former lacking the polyglot blagging instinct which made Manchester adjust so well to the new circumstances (well, excising the vast gap between rich and poor and the rate of violent crime). Yet Sheffield produced bleep&bass and bassline house, and Manchester has pioneered nary a single musical idea since 1980, aside from the continuum of retro vainglory intitated by the Stone Roses and Oasis, with its ever-diminishing returns. So on its own terms, the cultural capital is nondescript. Yet, from the near-bankruptcy of United's sponsor AIG onwards, it'll probably be one of the first places to really suffer from the collapse of immaterial capital. Now all those yuppiedrome rentiers are already suddenly finding their capsules near-impossible to let, there will no doubt be a new wave of decay, the future dying in Manchester first, again. But could the sight of the Urban Splash Dystopia inspire something as strange and beautiful as did the aestheticisation of the dying city of the industrialists and post-war planners?

nb most of these criticisms could be levelled at London also


Anonymous Mike Beggs said...

Did you watch the DVD extra interview with Wilson in which he raves about the genius of Richard Florida? I knew a Joy Division doco was going to have its depressing moments, but this?

PS I notice you're on the bill at the HM conference next week... how about some London excursion suggestions for those of us coming in from the colonies?

12:51 am  
Blogger James said...

(I like the Beetham Tower. Very good view from the bar, y'know, you can see Liverpool on a clear day.) Not sure about the decline of the cultural industries stuff - it's bigger in London than it is in Manchester, for example; given that Manc (and the north generally) are less reliant on bullshit industries than the South, there's even a (admittedly not very convincing) case to be made that they'll be less affected by the recession than London and the South-East.

2:49 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

If Manchester is less reliant on bullshit than the south, it's only because the sheer size of London and its satellites allows it to generate more bullshit, not because of a lack of effort on MCR's part. Wilson's argument (and Manchester's self-presentation for the last decade or so) has been all about how wonderful the new creative industries are and how they have solved all the problems of the post-industrial city via thousands of jerry-built flatblocks and a few museums. I'm well aware of how screwed London is (and deserves to be) and have written about it innumerable times. Other places are also fucked, in their own, equally interesting ways.

Having said that, if the recession hits hardest in the commuter belt I for one will be delighted.

5:47 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Mike: Senate House is very near the HM conference, that's well worth an exploration as a fine slab of imposing 1930s bureaucratic architecture; otherwise, that's just a bit too vast a question...

I didn't see the extras with Wilson singing the praises of Richard Florida. Oh, how 'Situationist' of him.

5:54 pm  
Blogger Murphy said...

hmmm... on a related note, the Lighthouse Centre in Glasgow, where i recently saw the GSA/GKC love in, is in danger of closing if it can't get the munay together.
Expect to be hearing this again and again and again and again and again in the near future.

p.s. - to post this message I had to write the word 'tardier' below. How strange!

6:37 pm  
Blogger Charles Holland said...'re right about the music of course which petered out in the damp squib of spike island, but a bit harsh on Wilson who at the very least operated out of a deep love of the city and was also up to some interesting non-manchester things before he died. which was what i was going to write about before. dammit, i'll set to and get on with it now! the situation you describe (though less hyped and without the sentimentality) has happened in lots of other places too, Leeds being a prime example, the centre of which is consumed by shit flats that won't be sold. It's even harder to market a single bed flat on the back of Soft Cell though for some reason.....

8:28 pm  
Blogger Seb said...

To give credit where it's due, two Mancunian bands did more to further the cause of singers-who-can't-sing than anyone outside the hardcore-punk spectrum: the Fall and the Happy Mondays.

Of course, catch me in a certain mood and I'll probably tell you M.E. Smith is actually the second coming...

Also, though I'm not one to forgive the Roses for their lazy, paisley, wah-wah-afflicted white funk Mersey Beat-rehash, "Fool's Gold" was one of the first (and certainly most popular) rock songs to seamlessly incorporate hip-hop production methods. Granted, they may have done it so well that it needn't have ever been repeated, rather justly considered done & dispensed with...

9:49 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A Manchester creative business for green socialists?


Ned Lud

10:09 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Oh, I'm sure there's good marginal things there as everywhere else. I'm generally quite pro-Tony Wilson (although he did talk some utter pish on occasion), and a large chunk of what I listen to comes from Manchester (although practically none of it was made in the last 15 years, and consists of the predictable - Smiths, Factory, Fall, etc etc) although, let's face it, it comes a distant third after London and Sheffield (well, it does for me, as I like my dancing mechanik).

Interesting how Urban Splash, when Park Hill was - criminally - offloaded to them, produced some bumph which tried to do for Sheffield what Manchester has been doing for itself for the last couple of decades - Human League and ABC quotes, making it more 'pop', selling the estate on the city's Creative Industry. But I appreciate this becomes more difficult with Leeds. Maybe they just need less blue sky thinking. A few Gang of Four references perhaps? Urban Splash sez: 'At Home You'll Feel Like A Tourist!'.

1:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The old rapacious Manchester liberalism adapted neatly to neoliberalism"

this is the ineluctable, central fact of contemporary Mcr (and one that Robin Carmody has long argued)


6:39 pm  
Anonymous Justin O'Connor said...

I was on some sort of think tank with Tony Wilson in 2004. He had just found richard florida's book and thought it said all that needed to be said about cities and that manchester should pay circa 20k to get him to speak. I'd had a few arguments with Tony where he told me, rightly, that I was showing my ignorance (I remember I was slagging off baseball) and I took it on the chin. I tried the same on Florida, saying what a complete charlatan he was and how a 'cutting edge' 'creative city' should not be 97th in line to invite some tosser from Philadelphia. He completely rejected this and never really spoke to me again. The last time I saw him was in Liverpool at a RIBA do. He was saying that Liverpool was 'fucked' unlike manchester - and the reason was that Manchester (in the figure of the unelected Howard Bernstein) had an enlightened despot. Which more or less set a seal on the increasing moral and political bankrupcy of the post-rave urban growth coalition which had taken over Manchester post-1996. Simpson, Johnson, Bloxham - now all millionaires - all claimed to have the new political vision for the re-invented city. Despite the fact that Bloxham was given chair of the arts council and now VC of Manchester university - a man of little culture and and education, thus confirming the toadying of arts and education to the 'creative entrepreneur'- it is Wilson who represents its saddest failures. He made little money from it all, and really believed in it. Now subject to a nauseating hagiography by the city council they kept him outside for years, until the last 4 or 5, bringing him in when his critical faculties had been worn down by years of punditry. He used to say, of the post-rave coalition, 'the lunatics have taken over the asylum'; pigs and farm were more aposite

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