Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Whose austerity?
The next in my Springtime clutch of book reviews is something different: a polemic about how the past is being misused. It’s by a writer who always has something interesting to say about architecture...
Owen Hatherley, The Ministry of Nostalgia
Published by Verso

‘KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON’. The slogan is everywhere: mugs, tea towels, post cards. It has spawned punning variants and look-alikes too. It’s so ubiquitous that we often forget (if we knew) that the original poster was never actually used by the government – the fact that we know about it at all is due to the chance survival of a single printed proof discovered and reproduced (and badly imitated)…ad nauseam. Owen Hatherley, for one, is nauseated by it because for him, as he explains in The Ministry of Nostalgia, its revival is part of a falsification of history perpetrated in order to bolster the austerity of our own times. The ‘austerity years’ of the 1940s and 1950s, the ‘make do and mend’ ethic (and aesthetic), are being repackaged, he argues, and offered to us as a consolation for neoliberalism’s violence, the deprivations of today, and ‘the privatisation of our common wealth’.

It’s not just the poster of course. Hatherley finds traces of this sort of misuse of history in all kinds of places, from retro-chic to Jamie Oliver’s The Ministry of Food (the latter, he opines, one of a succession of examples of members of the middle classes condescendingly telling the lower orders how to run their lives). He sees it in books like Alexandra Harris’s Romantic Moderns, which he views as sanitizing the interwar and mid-century periods with its appreciation of artists such as John Piper and Eric Ravilious and its inclusion of writers such as Elizabeth Bowen and Evelyn Waugh, conservative writers whose love of country houses comes in for particular scrutiny.*

Hatherley makes some good points in the course of his polemic. The 1940s and 1950s austerity years were very different from our own. While recovering from a world war, the country constructed a welfare state and, growing up in the 1960s, I for one have reason to look back gratefully to the housing and educational provisions that it created. To sum up the 1950s as all bland art, sans-serif posters, stylish but old-fashioned clothes, and a bit of suffering, and to identify it with the very different austerity of today, with its selling off of public assets and its increasing (rather than decreasing) gap between the rich and the poor, is crass, and Hatherley is right to point that out. He's interesting, too, on the way both ‘blue Labour’ and ‘red Tory’ movements have drawn on the sort of selective nostalgia that this view of the post-war period represents.

I reserve my right, however, to look back at the good aspects of the period with a clear conscience. Eric Ravilious, of all people, was continuously portraying the hard edges to country life – the chalk downs with their thin soil, bare cottage rooms, tin huts, junk in corners, telegraph wires. And interwar graphic design was often outstanding – even if it was, as Hatherley revealingly explains, not just put to the service of fine organizations like London Transport but also made to serve the sometimes racist agenda of the Empire Marketing Board.

And then there’s the architecture. As one has come to expect from Hatherley, there’s an enthusiasm for post-war concrete buildings created by people who wanted to bring good design to the masses. But there’s also a willingness to see the good in ‘austerity’ building – and I’m impressed that he admires not just the rebarbative constructions of the Brutalists but also neo-Georgian LCC flats, civilized and durable as they are. There are well designed Brutalist buildings and decent neo-Georgian ones: if we can only see good in one or the other we should get the blinkers off. Hatherley also has important points to make about the revamping of formerly public housing for sale to private owners – while architecture enthusiasts cheer at the preservation of blocks such as Denys Lasdun’s Keeling House, he mourns their passing out of the public sector as yet more of the less well off find it impossible to get a toe-hold in London.

So I’ll offer three cheers to Hatherley for raising these points, while also lifting a glass to the things from the 1940s and 1950s that we rightly admire: the Penguin book covers, the better council flats, the good state schools, the paintings of Eric Ravilious, London Transport’s graphics, the health service. Let’s see all these things clearly – and not let go of the good that still survives.

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*I must say that when I read Alexandra Harris's book I did wonder what Bowen and Waugh were doing in it. By concentrating on the rather obvious target of their country house writing I think too that Owen Hatherley misses a lot, from Bowen especially.


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Having recently read David Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, I am more tolerant of the more blatant "heritage" tag: he points out that Heritage and History are two different things, although they feed off one another. Is there any duty NOT to "falsify" the past - especially as, e.g. the 1950s, even for those who can remember them, are not that easy to interpret in the round: for my family, I recall modest affluence - the ability to buy an ice cream or a cinema ticket whenever the fancy took us. A continuum with the more remote past meant there was such a thing as culture in the original sense, and shades of the Romantic movement in popular music and entertainment. And not everybody, in a city like Birmingham rapidly being redeveloped without any aesthetic input from its citizens, was going goo-gah about Brutalist architecture and dirty underpasses. Poor people were being liberated from the "slums" to die of loneliness on the sprawling endless housing estates. I personally still resent '50s housing estates, because of what they did to the poor and vulnerable: my view of the architecture is seriously slewed by what it stands for.

Joe Treasure said...

Thanks, Phil, for this persuasive assessment. I enjoyed Hatherley's essay (in the Guardian I think) when this book was published. I'm receptive to the political argument about modern austerity that we are definitely not all in this together. Your reading sheds light on his aesthetic observations, which I found a little murkier.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joseph: Thank you for your comment: I'm grateful that you've shared your experience. My own early years were spent on a council estate (no cinema tickets but the occasional ice cream!) and I have very mixed views about it – a blend of memories involving very poorly maintained buildings but a system that still provided a lifeline.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joe: Thank you likewise. We'll talk more of these matters some time, I hope.