Saturday, February 28, 2009

Our Ford

The FJ on the decline of Ford's enormous Dagenham Plant, with particularly dreamlike photos (from here) of the place and its products. This is all quite timely, given the current collapse of the car industry and the innumerable jobs that still rely on it in the still thoroughly motorised post-Fordism - and for the stereotypical left wing intellectual, here as with mining, an impulse either to be quite content that the bloody places are being shut down or to defend the workers who are facing redundancy tend to fight it out inconclusively. Regardless, I have had this on my mind a bit, as one of the places which I didn't get space to mention in my Southampton piece(s) was the Ford Transit factory in Swaythling. When I lived on the Flower Estate, the suburban roads' dips and valleys always seemed to point towards the white expanse of Ford's, which would once no doubt have been the eventual employment destination of those my age in that area, by then probably largely supplanted by call centres and the dole - and out of the three, I would far prefer the last option. 

The Ford Transit factory in question is now in big trouble, and has been working a four-day week - this all reached tragicomic proportions not long ago when two bosses at the plant were imprisoned for stealing parts from the line, no doubt well aware that the whole place was imminently going under. The fact that the Name Of The Ford endures in the terms 'Fordism' and 'Post-Fordism' is very just, given the way that so many of us could talk about the ways in which the Ford Motor Company has directly affected our lives and those of our loved and not-so-loved ones. This also has tragicomic consequences - I recently read one irate letter to the Southampton Daily Echo where the writer, lambasting the corporation for its imminent abandonment of Southampton, was labouring under the misapprehension that Ford - that icon of Americanism - was a British company. Nonetheless, two uncles of mine, one from each side of the family but who for inadvertent comedy value had rhyming names, worked for decades at Ford's. Given that I'm writing about Ford himself and Fordism in my PhD, I have occasionally felt that I ought to ask them what it was like on the line (aside from the obvious answer 'fucking noisy and tedious'), even if it was half-a-century after the period I'm writing about. I can't really do so, because one of them now lives somewhere obscure in a caravan (just punishment in my book for buying his council house) and the other is dead, from a leukaemia that I sometimes wonder had something to do with spending most of his life on the Line.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

'What you are now we used to be, what we are now you will be'

Three pieces on architecture, of varying quality. A review of Stern's Philip Johnson Tapes (I'm not a fan, had you guessed? A reluctant admiration for sheer chutzpah is about as far as I'll go) in Icon, a column on the contrasts between Thamesmead 2000s and Thamesmead 1960s in BD; and a report on the state of university architecture (page 59) in the Clare Market Review, one-time LSE journal of belles-lettres rejuvenated to impressive effect by editor Daniel Yates. Note that in the latter, the pull quote is actually me quoting from Murphy's spectacular excoriation of Make's Nottingham Campus* - and outclassing me in a similar manner, East London's finest Beckettian architect writes up the Thamesmead walk that inspired the above quick BD feuilleton to impressive effect - though most likely we will both be outclassed by the other walker, the Savage Messiah herself, who seemed to have suddenly walked into one of her most dystopian zines, with all the post-apocalyptic undergrowth, rotting concrete and haunted grey pallor already in place, and ending with an astoundingly smug poster she'd already used for an image.

I still can't really believe we actually saw all of those things: the empty warehouses, the trolleys in trees, the bottle of Lambrini on the Tor, the horses by the tower blocks, the sheer quantity of waste and ruin, but here at least is the photographic evidence. I have a distinct feeling that what we saw there will be what we will see everywhere very soon - Thamesmead, West and East, looks like the future again, but not in the manner intended. Still, this is only the most obvious example of the eerie, desolate calm (possibly before quite a storm) that seems to have descended upon Bankrupt/Broken (delete according to politics) Britain. This can be seen with particular elegance in I.T's photo essay from her clearly much needed weekend holiday in Hastings and Bexhill - the remnants of wildly overambitious 1930s seaside Modernism, empty streets and derelict shops. 'If I ran an arcade, I would call it 'The Accursed Share'.' Me, I suggest we embrace the desolation (infinitely preferable to the frantic money-grubbing of the defunct boom, with its idolatory of the rich and its elevation of property and speculation to a national raison d'etre, and its slum's-got-so-much-soul fetish for the 'edgy'). Rather, we should all move to Milton Keynes to shelter in its portes cocheres, create a revolutionary art in its underpasses, and barricade its grid roads against the authorities, and I shall be arguing this at length (or something not dissimilar) in a couple of weeks.

* As should be mentioned at all times in conjunction with the University of Nottingham - Hicham Yezza is still likely to be forced out of the country, due eventually to the petty snooping of some scumbag somewhere in the University combined with the unscrupulous thuggery of the Blairite security state. The campaign is still here.

Monday, February 23, 2009

This is my 1000th post here, and an appropriate place to try not to crow that I'm among some fine company on The Times' 100 Best Blogs list. I couldn't have kept this place going (to the relief of a few, I suspect) without help from various people who mostly know who they are, who convinced me I was a half-decent writer in the first place, and stopped me having to get a real job (with some help from Incapacity Benefit and Jobseekers Allowance, and bar a some mercifully brief spells of washing-up, subediting and audio-typing), and to whom I am quite ridiculously grateful, even if it doesn't always appear so.

Soi-disant Utopie

Tacheles is, to those who haven't undergone the ex-art school student rite of passage of the extended stay in Berlin, a gigantic 'Kunsthaus' on the edge of the former East of the divided city. Architecturally, it's intriguing in its very Wilhelmine combination of technological prescience and bulging imperial pomposity - a remarkably early concrete building, boasting an internal walkway, of all things. On my several visits to Berlin (see above), I have often enjoyed, if nothing else, the riposte its advanced state of ruination makes to the slickness of the post-Wall city - on every visit there are less and less of these crumbling hulks left, which I suppose makes it worthy of some kind of preservation order for decomposition. For nearly 20 years now Tacheles has been a sort of 'free space', where anything can happen ('and usually does!' says Hollywood voiceover), with studios, galleries, deliberately graffitied walls so that each visitor can make their mark, and all manner of artmaking, idling and other non-recuperable activities go on there. However - and before I go on, may I apologise to my Anarchist readers in advance - I can't say I care as much as I probably should about it's possibly imminent closure.

Obviously I don't want to see it bought up by developers, tidied up and turned into another of the tedious tombstones insisted upon under the appalling reign of Hans Stimmann. Yet the salient thing about Tacheles is how enormously uninteresting all the activities going on under its roof tend to be. After the initial excitement of chancing upon some sort of liberated space, you soon realise there's not much going on here except the similarly egoistic gestures of tagging and extremely bad neo-expressionist painting - and even more than the rest of Berlin, it always seemed to be almost entirely populated by expats from the USA, UK and Japan, and a Berliner here is as rare as a Dutchman in an Amsterdam 'coffee shop'. For the last few years a mural outside has declared 'HOW LONG IS NOW?' Too bloody long, it would seem. As so often, the removal of rules seems here to lead neither to a terrifying lawlessness or to a vertiginously exciting freedom - but to boredom. So, when reading recently the sociologist Albert Meister's The So-Called Utopia of the Centre Beaubourg, a seemingly enormously interesting post-68 alternate-reality fiction written in 1976, all I could think of was Tacheles.

Meister, who apparently wrote often on Yugoslavia's 'self-management socialism', here writing under the pseudonym Gustave Affeulpin (and in English, 'interpreted' by Luca Frei) wrote this pamphlet as a response to the 'official culture' of Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano's original Beaubourg/Pompidou Centre (who he derides as 'Ropers and Giano', the 'young vegetarian architects'), but instituting not so much in its place but under it a counter-Beaubourg, 60 or so floors of non-programmed, self-creating art. Or not-art - art as life and vice versa, with 'shaggers' provided for the functions not provided by 'crappers', with no particular objects to show or sell, and with invitation open to anyone who should wish to utilise the space. This, in a manner that would outclass a Hannes Meyer, is a truly functionalist anti-aesthetic. The Beaubourg is underground, so can never become an aesthetic object, and the art that is produced inside it cannot be consumed, only lived. So far, this would sound like the utopia demanded by the avant-garde from the Constructivists to the Situationists - the revolution of everyday life. Yet Meister is more pragmatic than that would suggest. Although he can imagine the extraordinary technology that creates a multi-multi-storey subterranean super-Pompidou, he cannot seriously imagine the changing of society outside its confines - in fact, he disdains it. 

The book shows obvious signs, from its first pages (with its jibe at 'Lacanising' critics) of a heavy ingestion of Anti-Oedipus, and the possibility of negativity and opposition is always sidestepped, disavowed (critiqued, one might say), with a moralism that rivals that of Deleuze and Guattari. Lots of sex happens in the under-Beaubourg, but it isn't sexy; lots of art is made, but it isn't aesthetic; all classes make a home there, but the class system still reluctantly persists within it. It is forbidden to forbid, yet much of the book is taken up with priggish attacks on violent revolutionaries who still cling to the infantile belief that the world outside can be transformed. Utopian fictions are often mocked for their moralism and aridity, but this one, becoming more drab with every lifted prohibition, makes News from Nowhere or Red Star seem wildly exciting by comparison. William Morris and Alexander Bogdanov still clung to the apparently obsolete belief that the world outside mattered. Another person who once thought that the world could be irrevocably changed for the better is Richard Rogers, co-architect of the surface-Beaubourg. In an old biography which I picked up for a pound in Skoob Books, he can be found taking a Buckminster Fuller tone of techno-utopianism: 'technology offers the possibility of a society without want, where, for the first time, work and learning need only be done for pleasure, and the age-old capitalist morality of earning one's keep, the backbone of the existing power structure, would be eliminated'.

Thing is, Rogers has never been one for setting up free enclaves, and famously will suspend his once-vaunted principles for anyone from Wimpey to BAA to Lloyds of London. Writing of Rogers' career-spanning exhibiton last year, Jonathan Meades rightly took issue with attempts to put a retrospective soixante-huitard gloss on Rogers' career. But self-serving as it is, there's little doubt that Rogers' political distaste for the idea of a centre glorifying 'official culture', and subsequently Georges Pompidou, was entirely genuine - indeed, he initially strongly resisted the call to participate in the contest, writing a lengthy justification to that effect, eventually being overruled through the rest of the firm's need to pay the rent. You can see his rather desperate attempt to hold on to the unofficial in the early plans - those sloganeering boards outside, excised because the Parisian authorities feared détournement (oh yes), or the images of female Viet Minh guerillas on screens in this attenuated Fun Palace. Meanwhile, Rogers was so chastened by the eventual experience of getting the Beaubourg built, that in the late 1970s he considered relocating the practice to the country, as an architectural commune - until Lloyds of London came calling, of course. 

I have yet to visit the Pompidou Centre, so I can't say for definite, but I strongly suspect Meister was substantially correct, that this 'meccano set' would churn out official culture for passive contemplation and consumption, and would fail to effect the revolution of everyday life (though I would rather a building housing IRCAM than the Berlin squat churning out Die Brucke parodies). Yet his imaginary Beaubourg and Rogers/Piano's built edifice both substantially rested on the idea that a building could be within and against capitalism - for all the swashbucking posing of the moonlighting sociologist, his utopia of free production is in the last instance much the same as Rogers' of regulated consumption, in that neither seriously offer a threat to existing society. Perhaps, though, the impossible synthesis that would combine the two - the technological sobriety and programmatic rigour of the one, the spontaneity and hostility to consumption of the other - might offer a worthy revolution of everyday life.

Friday, February 20, 2009

'within weeks they'll be reopening the shipyards...'

(the following may be extremely bitter and tedious to anyone not from an uninteresting south coast port, who all have my apologies.)
Well, it isn't anywhere near as much fun as an irate letter from Alain de Botton, but nonetheless. Although most of my original ire was aimed at the defunct, but very long-running Labour Council, particularly the Jenks brothers who presided over the city's transformation into a giant retail park, it now has a Tory council, run by the wonderfully old-Tory-monickered Royston Smith, who has written a fantastically dim, interminable and almost certainly ghost-written (surely nobody could be this boring on their own) letter defending his fair city. Which is in a sense my fair city, as you lot most likely know but he clearly doesn't, making the amusing suggestion that I 'may wish to visit the city again and have a conducted tour — some positive views may emerge' (another commenter also got the implication that I had only been to the city on a day trip. Was my prose so abstruse that the words 'when I was growing up in the city, I' disappeared from view?) 

His long letter is of such tedium that I doubt BD would be interested in publishing my refutation, so it goes here, with my apologies. First, the assertion of how marvellous the shopping centres are. Well they are indeed very big, as Royston correctly notes. The assertion that Soton 'continues to be a safe city' is true in the sense that the reclaimed land has not yet been re-reclaimed by the Solent, and there aren't as far as I've noticed any favelas or gang wars, but for this Southern city of 250,000ish to be found by the Home Office to have a higher rate of violent crime than London, Glasgow, Liverpool, Nottingham and Leeds is nonetheless extremely impressive. The letter suggests that I, like all 'architecture critics' am more interested in buildings than the connections and spaces between them. This bit of half-baked Urban Task Force pish is more evidence that the article has been merely skimmed - most of my praise and criticism for the council work of the 1960s and my vitriol at the malls of the Pirelli works in the 90s-00s were based on the places they created, and how they succeeded or, for the most part failed. 

It's also a tad untimely. Royston is keen to point out the imminence of the Foreign Office Architects-designed Watermark WestQuay. He fails to mention that it was indefinitely shelved a week ago, although as a great unbuilt Southampton project it is unlikely to be mourned alongside the monorail and the icerink, given that nobody on speaking terms with sanity thought the city needed another shopping mall in the first place. Note also the mention that more Sotonians are employed in banking and finance than in retail - as if these jobs are somehow more secure. The 'cultural quarter' he cites has been planned for around a decade, and so far has achieved nothing further than a demolished branch of C&A. The letter notes that the old Vospers shipyard will be replaced with a Rogers-masterplanned mixed use development - without mentioning that as architects, Rogers Stirk Harbour were sacked from the job, presumably on suspicion of being potentially interesting.

The real problem, and the motivation for the piece in the first place other than my obvious desire to settle a few scores, and a fact which breaks my otherwise icy heart, is that Southampton is a compendium of all that is evil and wrong in this septic isle, but it didn't and doesn't have to be like this. Compulsory philistinism, virulent consumerism, casual and omnipresent violence and boredom, aesthetic blindness, service industry panopticism, appalling planning, the total subordination of people to capital, the class hatred of its students - these are all absolutely raging in the city, and you can see it by walking around the city for any length of time, in its buildings and its excuses for planning. Yet there is so much I love about Southampton. The people (well, some of them); the extraordinary collisions between (60s) modernity and the medieval; the breathtaking windswept weirdness of the container port, Weston Shore or Wyndham Court; the Victorian civic grandeur of its parks, if not its buildings; the art gallery, with its Vorticists and creaky English abstractionists; the curtain-twitching intrigue of its suburbs, the mundane/fantastic of Shirley High Street and pre-'regeneration' St Mary's. It's not much, but practically all of it has been squandered. I'm fully aware that the other things that could have happened, a North-West culture industry rather than South-East hyperconsumerism, are no solution either. Salford is more unequal and brutal than Southampton, and I reject both - but I do suspect they could at least have given the city a shred of fucking pride. 

(photos again via)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

General of the Line

Ex-writer of another blog which I'm not sure if I'm allowed to name, and all round comments box maven ----- -------- now has a new blog, the magnificently titled Faithful to the Line: posts so far are sharp indeed, particularly on the weirdly muted response of the left (by which we mean the left, not the Labour government or the Guardian, the 'liberal-left', that insufferable American coinage) to the visible bankruptcy of neoliberal capitalism. Naturally lots of this has to do with the list of defeats we suffered from 1979 onwards which obviously will take time to recover from, but even so, one would expect far more unified and coherent a response than we've seen so far. (on which note, join up! Though the practical uses of this group are as yet unexplored, shall we say)

Finsbury Sell-off Blocked

Albeit temporarily, but this is excellent news.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?

While drying the washing-up by my window just now, I spied a very strange thing. Not only was general, non-wheelie bin rubbish being collected - which rarely happens round here, such luxury being mainly confined to 'Maritime Greenwich', and which is not unwelcome, given that local youth set fire to some piles of uncollected rubbish not very long ago - but there were several rubbish collectors. All of them were wearing orange waistcoats, so that presumably they could be spotted on this grey February morning, giving them the look of a day-glo chain gang. Suddenly I caught sight of what was emblazoned upon them - 'COMMUNITY PAYBACK'. Oh, except one who was captioned 'SUPERVISOR', or overseer if you prefer.

This was one of those moronic ideas which New Labour throw out and which you never actually expect to come to pass. Charlie Brooker wrote about this only a couple of months ago, pinpointing just why this was such a spectacularly brutal and stupid idea: '"Community" is pure British wonk-speak - the simpering language of milquetoasts - while the embarrassing yee-haw showboating of "payback" must have been included in a half-arsed attempt to impress the tabloids.' It's this only seemingly contradictory combination of Daily Mail machismo and pseudoliberal let's-all-hold-hands communitarianism which has marked this utterly pernicious movement from its mid-90s outset, but so many of their more idiotic ideas seem to be thrown out merely as threats that I was very surprised to see the orange bibs out in effect, to signal the shame of this crowd of young people with their rubbish bags to the good people of the Caletock Estate, East Greenwich.

As the New Labour edifice of economic illiteracy and idiocy collapses round their ears, it has been difficult not to enjoy a certain schadenfreude. But the idea that this is shifting them to the left is a nonsense - take for instance the decision to bail out PFI contractors, making this corporate welfare scheme into something, astoundingly, even more grotesque than it was in the first place. Yet we know that whatever comes next will be much the same, if not worse, viz the defection of their Welfare Expert - an investment banker who claimed 'I didn't know anything about welfare at all when I started, but that may have been an advantage ... In a funny way the solution was obvious.' - to a probable cabinet post in a year or two. What we have had over the last few years is a situation where bankers who, as we now know, can't run banks, have tried to run a welfare state. So 'Community Payback' bibs might at least be vaguely forgiveable if they were given to the likes of David Freud to pick up nappies and bone-filled fried chicken boxes, but execution-free show trials and jobs in the shadow cabinet are the payback instead. Curious. Yet New Labour aren't going to go without some attempts at clawing back a few votes via a bit of flirting with Fascism - the dogwhistle papers in London yesterday led with the story of Newham's Labour council, an entity which has presided over extreme poverty while selling off its land for the Olympics and for all manner of 'stunning developments' stretching from Canning Town to Barking, complaining that the Olympic contractors are employing East Europeans. This is already getting very ugly.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Kino und Alltagsleben

This is, I think, the only thing I have published that draws from my roughly half-finished PhD thesis (provisional title this month: Europa-Russland-Amerika, the New Spaces of Americanism in the Soviet Union and Weimar Germany, 1917-1934). However, it is in German. Not my German, I hasten to add, where the essay wouldn't get much further than 'sehr gut ist das Sovietische Kino'. Bis bald...

Friday, February 13, 2009


Two things by me in this week's New Statesman, both of which investigate the unsung links between Britain and the early USSR. Accidentally. One of them has the obligatory annoying comment which appends every article ever published online on the Soviet Union. This one isn't really worth a reply, given the evident inability of the writer to understand irony or nuance - although the studenty Chris Morris-based pseudonym at least suggests the possibility that 'these killings were obviously ironic'. 

(image of David King via)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

No New Cross

Pleased - not to mention relieved - to see that my alma mater has come out in occupation, the latest in an enormously heartening series of occupations in solidarity with Gaza. And Deptford Town Hall is a good choice of building to occupy, what with its lushly nautical encrustations reminding of Deptford's key role in British Imperialism. Excellent work.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Oooh, I like you when you're angry

George Monbiot responds to an attack from Hazel Blears, and in so doing writes probably the best column he's ever written, doubling as a precise, point-by-point indictment of the last 12 years and the mind-boggling moral vacuity of New Labour. Fantastic.

The Infantile Appeal of the Organic

The things that drain you off and drive you off the hinge, part 842. I am not, as very assiduous clickers-on of my hyperlinks will be aware, a well man. Food is a particularly difficult thing for me. I'm torn between an extreme laziness about cooking, leading to the temptations of the Hong Kong Garden and the famous Mr Fast Fry, and a medically-based avoidance of anything that will make me even worse. The combination of these two with a liking for the comforting, enveloping smell, taste and general atmosphere of food exceptionally greasy can become a major problem. If I could, I would no doubt subsist on roast dinners, suet dumplings, crispy seaweed and sausages in batter, and before my early 20s I could. As things are, whenever out of doors and in need of a meal, the only sensible choice is usually Japanese food, which is both lacking in gastroenterologically aggressive spices and is half way palatable, although often prohibitively expensive. However, in torrential rain today I swallowed my pride and momentarily, the chip on my shoulder, and entered Planet Organic, on Torrington Place.

Now, as we know, the middle classes tend to have a fairly high estimate of their own usefulness to society at large, and by association of their intelligence and generally mature outlook on life, politics and food, as opposed to the fried chicken or Findus-munching underclasses. Look, for instance, at the interviewees in this feature on 'chav-free holidays' (ta to Bat for the link). So the supremely middle class phenomenon of organic, gluten-free, wheat-free, dairy-free food would, one might imagine, be a matter-of-fact milieu of straightforward, non-patronising food choices, where ingredients are listed without recourse to flashy marketing etc. Quite apart from the fact that when going to these places I tend to arrogantly and embarrassedly assume I'm the only person ill enough to actually need to eat this sort of guff, as opposed to doing it out of perverse consumerism, I thought I'd examine the labels and packaging of the items in question. The Impostume has already done this with great skill on the ideology of the Living Salad and the 'Innocent' smoothies, but I might go one step further, onto the list of ingredients and other extraneous matter. My packaged and pasteurised Organic, Gluten-Free Brownie, purchased out of grim necessity, lists a variety of things, from emulsifier, lemon juice (lemon juice! Good god, that's like pouring hydrochloric acid down there!), soya lecithin, 'golden syrup, and love'. I do not look for love in my gluten-free brownie. Similarly, the water I purchased, which turned out to be 'Carpe Diem Botanic Water', full of everything from quince to galangal, lists among its ingredients the grammatically interesting 'fruit-sweetness from pear', and additionally informs us that 'the Ancient Greeks were already studying the effects of herbs and plants'. Indeed they were.

It's an easy target to mock the vaguely spiritual or pseudoscientific approach often used by such consumer items, given their distant heritage in new age, which no doubt originates distantly in a politics, albeit a wrong-headed one. Rather, it's the infantilism of these objects that is most irksome of all. This is food aimed at a desperate people, in need of soothing babytalk from its packaged foodstuffs lest its hard-faced, 60-hour-week, underpaid, insecure, un-unionised world would collapse into thousands of tiny pieces. In a sense this is little different from my own liking for warm, stodgy food that fills a dissimilar but equally gaping void, but done with rather more dissimulation. What is more infuriating, especially given that surely a fair few of the purchasers of these perishables could be as ill, if not more, than myself (though I suspect we're outnumbered by those suffering from the disease profiled in Todd Haynes' Safe), is the confirmation of Philip Marlow's thesis that as soon as you suffer from deficiencies in your body, the world assumes you're similarly deficient in mind. Could we have a health food with sachlichkeit, I wonder? A way of not eating shit that didn't go alongside cutesy labels, contempt for the lower orders and the delusion that shopping choices can become moral? Perhaps the kitchens of the world's social centres and anarcho or autonomist enclaves could lead the way here, pioneering a straightforward, no-bullshit approach to feeding the masses (or in my case the gastrically afflicted)? The kind of food one might imagine being (but probably wasn't) made in a Constructivist communal neighbourhood kitchen, perhaps?

Monday, February 09, 2009

Absence and Home-making

Kindly forwarded to me, and akin to visiting the well-appointed house of your overbearing perfume-smelling Tory auntie only to find that everyone inside has suddenly been vaporised - a real-estate tour of an abandoned 1960 house in Lower Hutt, New Zealand. Note also Span-esque weatherboarding, overstuffed furniture in main room and 'contemporary' in kitchen and dining room - and, most desolate of all, a ghostly games room. One presumes some kind of financial disaster must have caused this, debt, share collapse or something - it certainly evokes contemporary footage of subprime emptiness.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Woolwich Arse

London's transport system is, to paraphrase Black Box Recorder, beautiful and strange. It's always enjoyable, for instance, to point out that because of it, most of the best Modernist buildings in the city are in unprepossessing suburbs like East Finchley or Oakwood rather than in London's Fashionable Shoreditch, etc. Similarly beautiful and strange is the 1999 Jubilee Line extension, which I've been vaguely planning a long post on whether the world wants it or no. It might seem, with its muted colours and late high-tech atmosphere to be a quintessential bit of pseudomodernism, but that would be a big mistake. These are huge, cavernous, generous spaces, where the luxury flats and sundry Blairite projets of the last decade have been pokey and mean. Southwark, a silvery, space-age rotunda, North Greenwich a seemingly sober bit of Alsop which when inside reveals itself as a weird, oversized space of slanting columns and optical illusions; Foster's grandiose Canary Wharf station, creating such anticipation that when you get out into that windy collection of halfarsed skyscrapers it always disappoints; and most of all, Michael Hopkins' truly incredible Westminster station, a feverish Constructivist/Piranesian dream/nightmare of concrete vaults and simultaneity. The latter even reproduces the Modernist canard of the Victorian distinction between retrograde architecture and futurist engineering, as the building on top is a woefully pompous stone fortress, while the inside could even convince you that the Millennium was not such a crushing disappointment after all.

So because of this, as much as their Frank Pick-era pedigree, I'm always very keen to check any new stations and see if they measure up. The Docklands Light Railway is at a slight remove from the Underground proper, but is usually good, if never hitting the heights of the Jubilee or the '30s Piccadilly - West Silvertown, Pontoon Dock, Deptford Bridge, these are all fine, grey and perhaps just a little unimaginative structures. So when a station at Woolwich Arsenal, which is more-or-less local for me, opened, I felt an obligation to go there and 'review' it. It's clearly a good thing that it's there, although the possibility it might mark an early step in the supersession of the free ferry is a minor worry, as is it aiding the heritage horror of the nearby Arsenal riverside developments; but nonetheless. So you go in, under a DLR-standard-issue canopy into (what was on the day I visited, a blisteringly cold) concrete platform; but inbetween, there is a mural. A mural! Public art! For the polis! Except, it's awful. A collection of childlike, sub-Opie renderings of various consumer items, buckets and cafetiers, it immediately suggested the sort of mural one finds on 1980s shopping centres. Here are the things you can buy here (you can buy all sorts of other things in Woolwich, but I digress). So I was mildly amazed it was by top Goldsmiths-teaching, YBA-creating uber-conceptualist Michael Craig-Martin, who did some rather more interesting embellishment at the Laban Centre in Deptford. So while I can't argue with the intention, the execution was a painful example of the tedious art populism of the last decade, art denuded of anything that might set the brain to work in any capacity. No matter how much one might attempt to read it in the 'democratic', 'everyday' terms Craig-Martin suggests, the resemblance to something usually encountered at Bluewater or Brent Cross is so overwhelming that one can only hope the artist in question received every bit as meagre a salary as whoever did the tiles at Lewisham Shopping Centre.

Similarly, what the fuck is up with the current underground poster campaign, may I ask? The 'Know Your Lines' series, which I vaguely remembered having inoffensive if clichéd quotes from Alfie and the like, now displays to the commuter a series of quotations from such masterpieces as Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason, The Bourne Ultimatum and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This lamentable populism would be a tad less offensive were there anything especially witty, snappy or even glibly clever about the choice of quotes, but these are just a selection of utter non-sequiturs. It's entirely mysterious why anyone negotiating the scrum of suited and aftershaved folk at North Greenwich on a Monday morning should be required to read such pearls of wisdom as 'I may have made a terrible mistake inviting you and your folding underpants into my life' or 'I remember...I remember everything. I'm no longer Jason Bourne'. Has someone actually selected this stuff? Surely the idiot influence of our new Mayor hasn't extended to a collective lobotomy at Transport for London's ads department?

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Southampton Trawl - Addenda

A substantially amended rant about Southampton - accurately described by the subs as a 'major port turned mega-retail park' is in this week's BD. It's worth actually getting a copy on this occasion, as it has a very nice spread across the two pages. Here's a bit of addenda, plus some photos from the walk I had round there with the most elegant and urbane Yorkshireman in history, Joel Anderson, who took the photos, plus these, unused in the BD article.

Wyndham Court, 'best 20th century building in the city by far'

Well, obviously I would say so. Joel was absolutely flabbergasted by the greatness of this building, which was very satisfying - 'it's like the Brunswick Centre, but better'. Neave Brown, Camden Council architect of such almighty brutalist monsters as Alexandra Road worked for Lyons Israel Ellis for a bit, and I wonder if he had a hand in Wyndham Court - it has the right white-grey beton brut. While taking photos of it we saw a large rat darting around the strange park/bomb site that faces it, leading to the station. A group of Sotonian youth walked past us snapping away at this astonishing structure and told us, in Soton's rapid-fire half west country half cockney tones 'it wasn't my fault my Dad didn't know that Johnnies could split.' A horrified Joel asked me to translate from the local dialect, and was alarmed that this young person was essentially apologising for his existence. One of these pictures seems to show a fluid-based protest. Soon, recession pending, Wyndham Court will have these awesomely crap flats next door.

I'm prepared to have some debate about whether the 20th century built anything better in the city. The 1930s was a boom decade for Southampton, when the rest of the country was screwed - in English Journey, to which I am paying oblique tribute in the BD cities series by starting in Soton and going North, J.B Priestley took a long time to find slums in the city - although when he found them they were as bad as anywhere else. There were two great streamline moderne buildings in Southampton, both of which went in the 80s, after surviving the Luftwaffe, and neither of which I remember - the Supermarine Works, where the Spitfire was produced; and the Ocean Terminal, which even features in various Ocean liner posters and was replaced by the generally rubbish Ocean Village*. Either of them might have been better than Wyndham Court, but due to the council's architectural philistinism I'll never know. Some might argue that Eric Lyons' very un-Span Castle House is better. It isn't, but it's pretty damn good, with a weird intricacy which only becomes clear on close inspection - the balconies and internal walkways being meticulously detailed in wood and concrete - and it boasts that rare thing in a council block, a well designed, welcoming entrance, where various old or ill tenants looked at us like we were mental.

Mayflower Park

I don't think I've ever been instantly hit with so much love and hatred for a place as I was on going to Mayflower Park for the first time in about a decade, which we did because it faces possible remaking/erasure under proposals for the 'Spitfire Wing' tower. It's pretty crap, really - amazingly cold and desolate, albeit with a riverside promenade that has a certain end-of-the-line charm. What made me go 'crikey' was the shelters. I must have seen these shelters many, many times, and I probably always assumed from their chunky stones that they were medieval, part of the same rather impressive remnants as the nearby city wall. Obviously this is extremely unlikely, given the bench and the googie roof. So this seems like the atelier of the city's 1960s architect L Berger (anyone know what the L stands for? Lang Rabbie, any ideas?) giving a bit of late Frank Lloyd Wright/Taliesin a go, merging the city's two most architecturally interesting periods - the '60s, the 14th century - together into one. I hope these stay, if nothing else. Also, the incongruously prissy derelict pier is now 'Kuti's Royal Thai Pier', to my immense surprise.

* Ocean Village didn't get a visit, but was probably worth one, as one of the few places to try and do anything with the waterfront. The 1980s buildings there are of course dreadful, although I have all kinds of memories mixed up with them - most of all, falling over as a child in a shop full of nautical tat, right onto a load of ornamental coral, gashing my arm and both worrying and embarrassing parent. There is one very good building here, the Harbour Lights cinema, a superior bit of '90s Scando housing one of the city's few bits of yer proper 'culture' - but it's so surrounded with 20 years' accretion of postmodernist and pseudomodernist bilge that it seemed best to avoid it.

Le Havre, and Auguste Perret

Just so we remember, this is the sort of thing Southampton's French twin town built in the 40s-60s, something to bear in mind when you walk down the drab thoroughfare of Above Bar. We could have given it to someone of Perret's talents - we had the architects, Lubetkin, Wells Coates, Holden - but it was no doubt just a bit too daring. Southampton will seemingly never stop being afraid of daring.

This song isn't really very good - from a concept album about Thatcher's betrayal of the postwar dream, impressively, but one I don't think I could ever listen to all the way through - but it does capture the Sotonian middling, windswept grimness very well, and links this post together nicely with another thing I want to link to - music press idol Taylor Parkes, absolutely brilliant on post-Barrett Pink Floyd, of all things.

Friday, February 06, 2009

...Even though I've seen the Movie

The Cigarette Smoking Blog - the only person I'm ever likely to link to who writes for Takimag - has urbane and interesting things to say on the uncomfortable sex-pop interface. While spelling my name wrong repeatedly, but never mind. She also mentions as a point of comparison with Pulp, Elvis Costello's This Year's Model. Rather uncanny, this, as partly because I did have to go to Chelsea yesterday, I have been listening to the following song a great deal.

I'm not really a Costello fan, bar a few odd things - 'Pills and Soap', 'Shipbuilding' - but I was reminded of how good this was when flicking in desultory fashion through music television at christmas. Just look at the man, the incredible performance he's giving here - from feminine poses, sticking his arms behind his head, crouching as if hit by a bilious attack, to wincing, his toes pointed inward, sneering at the camera. The sex/class thing here is exhilaratingly horrible, with all this justified horror at Chelsea and all it entails mixed with desperate dependency - that hissed 'I don't want nobody else' puts particular shivers up the spine. Listen too to the way the (ridiculously good) rhythm section sometimes gestures at sexual griding, then shakes itself into asexual spasms. But it's all a very, very long way from 'His and Hers' or 'Acrylic Afternoons'. One gets the sense - not specualtively in terms of their actual, er, performance, but in terms of the performances of what are of course only semi-autobigraphical fictions and personae - that Jarvis really rather enjoys fucking, and that the class resentment and disgust merely makes it more exciting - and that he finds these women, much as he may loathe their privilege, similarly intriguing, and hence the records are full of both tension and ecstatic release. With Costello you know he wants it, but you also know it's going to be pretty shoddy - 'I'm no good with the machinery', as he snarls elsewhere on This Year's Model.

There's also a very interesting point raised on my comparison between Pulp and Ghost World, both of which by her account essentially hinge on living as if in, or in the former case, making a film - and 'how quickly that slides into judging our indulgences by whether they're good cinema.' But I suppose the difference about the cinematic, obsessively detailed studies of everyday life in Pulp circa 1990-4 and her example, 'This is Hardcore', is in the difference between taking the mundane in terms of surroundings, persons, etc and attempting to make it interesting, and taking the supremely mundane act of copulation and treating it as if it is some eternal, terrifying truth. This is what makes that scenario so appalling. There's no Pink Gloves or Acrylics, and we learn nothing about his co-star (oh, bar the 'leave your make-up on' - she could be a prostitute, someone he's just met or his wife, we have absolutely no idea). There's just the act and the camera - 'and that goes in there, and that goes in there, and that goes in there'. It's this minimalism which helps make it such an enduringly chilling record. Anyway, there'll be more on this, later rather than sooner.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Austerity Nostalgia

(The paragraphs below are taken from a guest lecture I gave to postgraduates at Chelsea College of Art - it goes from this rather rancorous introduction to a defence of the notion that nostalgia for the future can become a political position - something mostly done through cut & pasting of stuff that regular readers will already know. Nonetheless, this stands on its own, I think. Although I should probably also confess to owning a People Will Always Need Plates mug, of Park Royal station...)

You are probably familiar with the poster above. From seemingly nowhere, this image - which combines starkly Modernist typography with the reassuring imagery of the Crown and a similarly reassuring message - has spread everywhere. On Monday, walking around in an inch of snow, I saw one of them posted in the window of a 1960s house in Blackheath. Of course the implied message about hardiness in the face of adversity and the Blitz spirit seemed rather absurd in a context where a bit of snow caused the shutdown of London's entire transport network, but nonetheless - this poster seems to exemplify a design phenomenon which has slowly crept up on us in the last few years to the point where it's now unavoidable. We could call it austerity nostalgia. More particularly, a nostalgia for the kind of public modernism which characterised much of the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s and early 70s, and which is being gradually rediscovered. That is, the responses on the part of designers and architects to, first, the great depression, and then the reconstruction of Britain on a more egalitarian basis, after the destruction of many British cities in the Blitz.

Unlike traditional forms of nostalgia, this is not at all based on lived experience. Most of those who have bought this poster, or worn the various bags, T-shirts and other bits of tat based upon it, were probably born in the 70s or 80s, and have no memory whatsoever of the kind of benevolent modernism it seems to exemplify. This is an example of the phenomenon defined by Douglas Coupland in the early 1990s as Legislated Nostalgia, that is 'to force a body of people to have memories they do not actually possess.' The poster itself was never actually mass-produced, so even those who can remember the 1940s would be unlikely to remember it. It was designed for the Ministry of Information during the Blitz of 1940. The official website, which sells a variety of Keep Calm and Carry On tat, mentions that it never became an official propaganda poster, so only a handful must have been produced. One of those few was found in amongst a consignment of second hand books bought at auction, then reproduced by a provincial bookshop, gradually becoming a sort of middlebrow, semi-ironic staple when the recession, euphemistically the 'credit crunch', hit. Through this poster, the way to display one's commitment to the new austerity was to buy pointless branded stuff, the excess of which had helped cause the crisis in the first place. We could adapt it into 'keep calm and carry on shopping', as commanded by George W Bush both after 9/11 and when the sub-prime crisis hit America.

The legislated nostalgia of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster is only the tip of a veritable iceberg of Modernist nostalgia, spreading gradually through the ranks of the chattering classes. Take Jamie Oliver's Ministry of Food, with its 1940s typeface and its name echoing the wartime Ministry of Information, appealing to a time when things like food or information were apparently dispensed by a benign paternalist bureaucracy, before consumer choice carried all before it – although here the nostalgia is particularly dubious, in that the existence of such a Ministry of Food is all-but politically inconceivable, given how it would antagonise such planks of British capital as the supermarkets and the tabloids. Even then, the Ministry of Food appeals to the element in the middle classes that has always enjoyed lecturing the lower orders on their poor choice of nutrition. You could also include the use of the 1930s Penguin book covers as an 'iconic' logo for all manner of memorabilia, all calling to mind Penguin's former role as an educative publisher; or the considerably more interesting modifications of their designs - via the garbled nature of (un)real memory - into something more eerie and psychedelic, as practised by the Ghost Box record label. Another instance of it is the ceramics company 'People Will Always Need Plates', who have made a name for themselves making towels, mugs, plates and badges emblazoned with various British Modernist buildings from the 1930s to the 1960s, elegantly redrawn in stark, schematic form, rather than the often rather shabby reality of the buildings themselves. Cute as they undeniably are, they manage to almost precisely reverse the original Modernist ethos. There, ornament was crime, here Modernist buildings are made into ornaments. However, when you look at the buildings chosen, there is something politically interesting about them. Houses for Hampstead intellectuals, blocks of 1930s collective housing, 1960s council flats, inter-war London Underground stations. These are not the buildings that have characterised the last 30 years.

A relatively early example of this nostalgia for the watchful eye of benevolent institutions was provided by Transport for London, the somewhat beleaguered publicly-owned transport network created by Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London in 2000, which began by trying to stop privatisation, and ended by winning a pyrrhic victory, renationalising the tube but creating new privatisations on the East London line. These posters appeared on bus shelters in 2002, and have as you can see certain similarities in typography with 1930s posters for London Transport by the Bauhaus designer Lazslo Moholy-Nagy. They quite deliberately play with the 'totalitarian', Orwellian associations of 1930s and '40s design, almost courting accusations of 'big brother' tactics, with their eyes watching over London's bus commuters. This is a rather queasy joke. Britain has some of the heaviest surveillance in the world, and London more CCTV cameras than any other city, so to treat this as something benign is deeply dubious. It advertises the allegedly caring role of the Metropolitan Police in their surveillance of the bus or tube passenger, something which can only leave a foul taste in the mouth after the public execution of Jean-Charles de Menezes, so unsurprisingly it hasn't returned in the last five years or so. The great irony of all this is that the supposedly paternalistic public institutions of the 1940s were either unable and, for that matter, unwilling to set up the apparatus of surveillance that every Londoner now regards as normal. What Orwell hadn't realised was that the surveillance society would be accompanied by nostalgic jokes, not shrill exhortations.

Monday, February 02, 2009


In my inbox, from '':

Hello Owen
Workerist nostalgia + ressentiment + modernist aesthetics ... Yes, yes: we *know* you grew up on a council estate and that your dad was a member of Militant.
We'll be watching.
Hatherley Watch

I take offence at the workerist claim, but otherwise I am flabbergasted by the accuracy of the capsule description here. My immediate suspicion for the sender's identity is a mediocre art hack and erstwhile Zizekian blogger once of my acquaintance who now posts frequently on dissensus, but really it could be anyone who doesn't read especially closely and has a penchant for slightly sinister anonymous comments and emails, and judging by their mention of something I've referred to once on the blog, someone I once knew. Anyway - hi there, Hatherley Watch!

Snow! 2: The Wrong Kind of Snow

Those of us who recall the last time there was as much snow as this in our grimly clement isle will remember the Thatcher-battered railways using the above as their excuse for the total collapse of the British transport system - no doubt this was used as one of the many idiot alibis for privatisation, and now we can see that a privatised transport system is completely unable to cope with an amount of snow that would apparently in Buffalo be regarded as a 'dusting'. Interestingly, Transport For London managed to grit and plough the 5% of the roads that they own and run, while local councils - as we could see, watching the icing coat the arterial road we live on - didn't bother, presumably because all council tax monies are restricted to underwriting city academies and PFI hospitals, and producing huge quantities of ugly printed tat. As an adoptive Londoner I have an intimate relationship with London Transport, with its unfashionable commitment to public ownership, good design, cheapness and general public-spiritedness, no matter how compromised and beleaguered - so a time when buses simply aren't running is strangely terrifying, apocalyptic, on a par with public advice not to call ambulances - oh, except they did that too.

This comes after a few weeks in which it has become more and more obvious just how utterly screwed this country is, with the IMF making very clear that we will be hit harder in the recession than any other developed country, because of the amount to which we have overidentified with the IMF and their ilk's prescriptions for dismantling and mocking anything that doesn't make a profit. I had been vaguely planning a sort-of-defence against persuasive but somehow slightly dubious jeremiads from French, and as if they aren't every bit as screwed as us, Scottish critics. I don't know if I can be bothered, at least for now. Andrew O'Hagan's claim about the imperialism-damaged quietism and wilful idiocy of the English working class is largely insulting bollocks, but when their only response to the recession so far is a strike with the slogan 'British jobs for British workers' - as if solidarity can only exist by excluding some other group, in this case Italians in barges - despair becomes very tempting. And as if to confirm the thesis that we are, in all possible situations obsessed with money, the snow 'will cost the economy £1bn' - although that's roughly the loose change we throw at failing banks. There are shafts of light - the student occupations over Gaza, which have finally incurred the not-so-latent thuggery of the shiny neoliberal university - and they just about keep total despair at bay. Just about.

And at the very least, Londoners can take icy revenge thusly: 
'The people vs. the banksters. Mass snowball fight. 1pm Tuesday 3rd Feb outside the Royal Bank of Scotland on Bishopsgate. Pass it on.'

Snow! 1: Look OMG The Snow is Falling

This is the post about the snow where I just go 'snow! Oh my God!' and show you some pretty pictures. Thus unimpressing those used to proper extreme weather, for whom we are but milquetoasts obsessed with any change to our bland, grey weather. Anyway so me and my sister Frances have been going outside our flat, skidding around in the slush and generally behaving like idiot children. All photographs by her except for the ones with her in, which feature my famously inept camera skills.

The small park outside our East Greenwich flat, at midnight. The chip shop and the all-you-can-eat chinese buffet are covered in icing, and the park looks much like this:

Today we decided initially to go to East Greenwich Pleasaunce, a slightly larger park which was laid out as a burial ground for employees of the Royal Naval Hospital. Nobody seems to know it exists. There were about three children and one American woman making a snowman. 

We retire to the excellent GMT Cafe to recuperate. In this cafe there were once photographs of the Slavic proprietor in military fatigues. Initially we wondered what side he fought on, then realised by reading the caption that he's actually posing in his job as an extra - in Spooks, as a Yugoslavian colonel. They have no mushrooms, presumably because London's mushroom wholesalers have all died of hypothermia on the Blackwall Approach. After much discussion she convinces me we that we ought to walk up the hill to Blackheath,  thus risking our very life and limb.

The road goes alongside said tunnel approach, where we also note the local Rail station is snowed in. 

When we finally get to Blackheath it is white as far as the eye can see. There should normally be a large office block in this shot, but Lewisham's nearby Citibank tower is totally obscured by mist and snow. Blackheath usually has pretensions to be south London's Hampstead, but today it is its Siberia. If I were in a postpunk band this is where I would get Anton Corbijn to point his camera while I gaze existentially into the distance.

We walk over to the Paragon, a Barry Lyndon Georgian close on the edge of the heath, designed by Michael Searle in 1792, blitzed and reconstructed as part of the Festival of Britain ('cockney panache...the Royal Crescent at Bath wearing a South London grin' - Nairn). Sadly this facet of that exercise in 'three dimensional socialist propaganda' is now obscured by the giant cars of the super-rich - although they look much nicer when covered in icing. This is my only hat, and I apologise for it.

By this point I can no longer feel my feet, so hubristically declare to some protest that we shall walk on, through the various Eric Lyons-designed Span schemes of the 1950s and 60s that give Blackheath an element of high-end, somewhat Scandinavian midcentury Modernism to go alongside the Georgiana. This one, South Row, has a neat beton brut frame enclosing some deeply covetable flats full of books and things. The gardens and public spaces that make these developments so enduringly idyllic are actually private areas, but their Grade II* listing stops them being enclosed, so one can walk through them willy-nilly.

A bit further on there are more - Hall Gate, the Hall - past a church whose spire always resembles to me some sort of instrument of medieval torture (George Smith, 1830). Two of these photos hopefully show his beautifully flowing, Weimar Republic Siedlung-style landscaping blanketed appropriately in snow, while the last one is by Patrick Gwynne - Kubrickian again, resembling the houses where the intellectuals of his pop art/russified state plot to alter the minds of criminal youth.

Eventually we try to walk home down Vanbrugh Hill without falling over, miraculously just managing it. This view would usually show all a panorama of Canary Wharf and the Millennium Dome, and its rather nice that we can't see them, other than as the most abstract set of blurred neon lights.