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Owen Hatherley, A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys through Urban Britain.

Owen Hatherley, A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys through Urban Britain (London and New York: Verso 2012)

OWEN HATHERLEY'S cameos of post-Blair Britain, like Cobbett's Rural Rides, occupy a genre spanning fiction and non-fiction with roots in Don Quixote, Pilgrim's Progress, and Dante's Inferno. As he guides the reader through the futility of Britain's post-Thatcher urban landscape, travel becomes the scaffolding of a sweeping social and historical narrative.

The critique works at several levels. The topmost is that Modernization Isn't Working. Squaring up to Tony Blair's crusading vision of a modern socialism behind the dubious banner of a caring neoliberalism, Hatherley lands many punches. Luton Airport is "one of the main places for processing the thousands of poorly-paid, poorly-housed East and Central European Gastarbeiter, those who largely constructed the 'New Britain' promised by the now defunct New Labour movement" (xi) while the City of London becomes the "neurotically protected undead capital of undead financial capitalism." (333)

Yet beneath the surface lies a Fings-Ain't-Wot-they-Used-to-Be celebration of pre-modern gentility. Of Plymouth he writes "If, for Aldo Rossi, Berlin's Stalinallee was 'Europe's last great street' / then Armada Way is certainly Britain's," (180) whilst Darlington Station--a commemoration, he reminds us, of the birthplace of the railways--"has a claim to being one of the most beautiful railway sheds on the entire network, a sombre, smoky and atmospheric place with a majestic series of curving vaults, a piece of Victorian high-tech whose beauty and emptiness are captivating." (38)

The messages jar. Were the people who built Darlington really better off than those who flock through Luton? Is a street which immortalises a four-century-old battle really the best that Britain has to offer? A third more subtle message emerges, perhaps as a result: sometimes modernizers get something right. This recognition appears in Hatherley's frank admiration for the "superb mini-city" (221) of Leicester University, a near-elegiac description of Edinburgh, and a fulsome appreciation of post-blitz Coventry: "The real dogmatists are those who would dismiss the city simply because it (was) new." (125)

All three messages are discharged in a rapid-fire aesthetic critique of Britain's places, laced with racy contempt for their dismalness. For social commentary, however, one must call a halt to the exhilarating journey, and study what is really being said. Unlike Cobbett, Hatherley rarely observes the human conditions he speaks of: evidence for what people actually do is provided by the places they live in. Here lies the rub: the problems underlying Blair's monumental legacy need attention in their own right.

Luton is defined by its appalling airport, a child of mass holidays mated with neoliberal cost-cutting, which distains functionality even as it proclaims itself the latest thing in luxury. Anyone who has fought their way out of the airport after 10 p.m. will bear out this judgement: yet Luton itself is one of Britain's "Minority white" cities, home to a decent and respectful multifaith society which, alongside Southall and Bradford, deserves one day to be celebrated as the birthplace of a genuinely 'new British way of life, free from the cant and hypocrisy of those who only poke fun at it.

Poking fun at Luton is an English pastime. Like the suburbs, it makes an easy target; it's where the other half lives. But the great unwashed, as the Victorians dubbed them, live where they can, not where they want--just as Luton's short-haul flights exist because most people can't afford much else. The ancient sport of mocking the worse-off rests on a lifestyle made possible by a poverty that is alternately ridiculed and pitied by those who hound it.

It's not enough. The finest reflections on modernity--Yeats comes to mind--identify the spark of hope that smoulders at the heart of chaos.

Hatherley acknowledges the limitations of his own critique: Plymouth is "a reminder of just how necessary modernisation was." (181) However, his sardonic demolition ultimately works because it spears, with surgical precision, the hypocrisy of New Labour's "Modernization" which was, and still is, deployed as an ideological bludgeon, spinning the mere fact that time moves forward into a profoundly Victorian agenda both in its treatment of the ordinary people of Britain, and its proclivity for making war on the ordinary people of everywhere else. Hatherley's barbs, at their best, verge on Swiftean satire.

Yet the ultimate curse of satire is ignorance of its own limits. The book lacks what Marx and Engels deployed when they constructed a painstaking social criticism of Victorian bleakness, whilst at the same time showing why, and how, a new age could come of it. In Hatherley's book, the most discernible alternative is the glory that once was Britain.

In the Britain I know (I cannot, in all honesty, say love), new kinds of life, and new kinds of work, are emerging in new kinds of cities, despite the modernizers and in defiance of them. Over two million people--many absurdly over-exploited, and restlessly conscious of it--work in a creative sector which has grown, during the most sluggish decade of Britain's post-war history, at a steady 2.7 per cent a year. As far as Hatherley is concerned, the "seaside city of Brighton and Hove is a place with a radically immaterial economy of tourism, property, media and 'creativity' which has a "large and ignored working-class." (149) To my unkind reading, this simultaneously insults any manual worker who uses her brain, and disqualifies everyone who doesn't hump bricks or bend metal from the title of truly working class.

Radhika Desai and I describe such myopia as a "machinocratic" vision, by analogy with the 18th-century ideas known as physiocracy (in Kees van der Pijl, ed., Handbook of the International Economy of Production [Aldershot: Elgar, 2015]). The physiocrats thought all value came from nature, which true labour worked up by tending the land. Machinocracy holds that true value comes from things, which true labour works up by tending machines.

The distortion is exemplified by Hatherley's architect's-eye use of buildings as a prism for viewing humans; as if landscapes count for more than what people do in them. I vividly remember when Glasgow and Edinburgh abandoned "slum clearance" and began working with residents to turn homes into liveable spaces; that modern turning point was integral to the present state of the very cities that Hatherley eulogizes for their past greatness. Many of London's worst high-rises (though some are indeed beyond redemption) are being gentrified into desirable residences. It is Britain's class system, not its architecture, which holds back the natural creativity of its residents.

The book tells us that we must reflect, much more deeply, on the concept of "modernization." History's transformative movements were never badged as modernizing. We do not find revolutionary banners inscribed "Liberte, Egalite, Modernite, any more than a dream of Martin Luther King that the world will one day be modern. Visionaries like Popova and Rodchenko made Russia the storm-centre of the avant-garde without ever worshipping modernity for its own sake. Nye Bevan, founder of Britain's Old Labour, never spoke of a "modern" health service: his goal was simply to have one at all, for the first time in history.

Visionary movements of change sweep away antiquity by creating modernity, not by worshipping it. The very word "Modernization" divides the world into the enlightened and those who stand in their way. The first are invariably a rich and privileged minority while the expendable remainder turn out, when studied with due care, to be the majority. "Modernization" is an intrinsically reactionary project: a mythological defence of the status quo which repackages anyone who resists it as an ignorant obstacle to progress.

It then falls to the expendables to construct a true modernity. Any traveller who pauses long enough to view the world through their eyes can see it. A marvellous antidote to the follies of post-Thatcher pretentiousness, and a must read for anyone who has yet to visualise them, A New Kind of Bleak is the ultimate travelogue: an exhibit in its own museum.


Winnipeg, MB
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Author:Freeman, Alan
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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