Caught by the River

The New Ruins Of Great Britain

13th October 2010

by Owen Hatherley.
review by Richard King.

In England’s Dreaming, his landmark history of, among other things, late-seventies London, Jon Savage uses photographs from Roger Perry’s graffiti collection The Writing On The Wall. Rather than Fab Five Freddy’s primary colour Brooklyn bombing style, the graffiti in The Writing On The Wall is a series of portents and bleak messages hand written in bold on the capital walls. Among the most memorable messages is one that succinctly portrays the city’s ominous torpor. The graffito on the walls of Royal Oak tube is usually attributed to King Mob:


Sadly long out of print, The Writing On The Wall is a mordant snapshot of a city undergoing nervous collapse; at some nasty mid-point between consciousness and anaesthetization. For Owen Hatherley, in this excellent book, the writing is once again on the wall. Our cities, in a rush to regenerate themselves with iconic office blocks, flats with stunning views and cultural quarters, forgot that their mandatory function is to be a place where different types of people can live, work and do things. Now the regeneration bubble has burst and the cash has run out, we are now no longer even a nation of shopkeepers. Nevermind café society, we have become a nation of baristas, clocking in minimum wage short-term contracts and cleaning the espresso machine, as the milk froth slides down our aprons.

Everyone has their own definition of psychogeography, though Bill Drummond’s -“an intellectual justification for what I have been doing most of my life” – remains the most compelling. Although deriving one way or another around the city, Hatherley is more interested in psychoanalysis. The topography, both physical and mental (at times almost spiritual), of the twelve city regions Hatherley visits, undergoes a rigorous and generous assessment. There has to be something there, some individual identity, beneath ‘the banality of aspiration.’

Class and culture, and how they both sit uneasily in our race memory, are a subject Hatherley handles deftly. In a passage on Nottingham he notes a former bicycle works, the setting for Arthur Seaton’s day job in Saturday Night Sunday Morning, is neighboured by ‘the prefab tower blocks filmed in Anton Cjorbin’s Control, to replicate pre-gentrification Manchester.’ All this rich history and context is ignored by the developers who have quickly rigged up a new campus for the university entitled ‘Aspire.’ This Public Finance Initiative take on halls of residence provides ‘business incubator units’ and ‘fitness suites.’ As Hatherley notes, this is all done in the name of ‘the overwriting of former spaces of work, overlooked by the former spaces of working class housing,’ and produces ‘a university as business park.’

Nevertheless, wandering around the ruins, Hatherley is corruscatingly funny. Amid the headshaking despondency at this mess we’ve been left with, there are some real laughs to be had. An area of inner Bradford is now known as the Westfield Hole. The Australian owned Westfield conglomerate have, post crash, run out of funds to complete another of their Bluewater-on-steroids shopping centres. All that’s left of the job is a gaping hole in the middle of Bradford town centre, ‘a purple-fenced mess that is impossible to miss’. The fence, however, still shouts out its mission statement in garish posters:
“‘Urban Energy’, Café Culture’, ‘City Living’; all those Blairite Urban Renaissance clichés. One of them was defaced when we visited by the graffito ‘BEST AMONG RUINS’.”
In many of the places he visits, along with photographer Joel Anderson, notably parts of Glasgow (which he delights in calling the Second City), Sheffield, Newcastle and Liverpool, Hatherley is almost walking on air, giddily witnessing a city actually enjoying itself and behaving like a free flowing urban environment. The final chapter on Liverpool, contains moments of real poignancy. Walking around the still functioning, but increasingly derelict Port of Liverpool, Hatherley witnesses the scene at Stanley Dock. As lingering and richly grim a metaphor for a country awaiting ‘necessary cuts’ as can be imagined:
“Fluttering in the wind is some torn police tape, and the mechanical bridge over the dock is blocked by several caravans, with a pink child’s tricycle in from of them. Adjacent to this mobile architecture is the rotting black and red masonry of the 1901 Stanley Dock Tobacco Warehouse, reputedly the largest brick building in the world.”
It may sound like the deathless opening of a Ballard short story, but this is the all too real here and now. This is a present where we get ‘affordable’ not council housing, and where nearly all new residential buildings assume the ownership of a car. The endless out of town malls effortlessly turn consumption into drudgery. That at least, is half the story of this book. But among all this wrong headedness are sedition, street level pop culture, concrete, the coast, bad weather, waterways and wit. All the things that still make this country a remarkable place to live. We don’t really do the Great British novel; instead we have glorious works of non-fiction that sieve through the painful facts to present us with a portrait of ourselves. However unflattering the likeness is usually sympathetic: The Uses of Literacy, Days In The Life, England’s Dreaming and more recently When The Lights Went Out. The New Ruins of Great Britain is the latest addition to this indispensable tradition.

Richard King talks to Owen Hatherley:

1. You open the book in your hometown of Southampton; did you feel the urge to let your own manor have a proper rinsing before giving it to the rest of the UK?

That wasn’t really the rationale unfortunately. I’d blogged increasingly hysterical and angsty denunciations of said hometown every time I went to see my Mum, and one of them got taken up by Building Design, who also asked me to give a similar treatment to some other places around the country, a series they called Urban Trawl, which ran for most of 2009 and is getting revived in November, starting with Middlesbrough.

I’d also already written about the postwar rebuilding of Southampton in the intro to my first book, Militant Modernism. That said, I really wanted to give the place a good going over, because nobody ever does. When it was a successful city, for writers it was only a place to travel through, and now it is an unsuccessful city writers don’t go there at all (one exception is local boy Philip Hoare, whose Spike Island is the only other good book ever written about Southampton, although his morbid Gothic psychogeography effaces lots of the things I like about the place – namely its extreme modernity, the massive container port and the postwar rebuilding). I wanted to put it at the centre of things for once. I also hoped, maybe vainly (we’ll see) that I might be able to force the place to think about itself for once, rather than pursuing an increasingly disastrous course of endless shopping malls and shitty mock-victorian housing. But in Southampton, and also in Greenwich, which is my own manor at the moment, I knew what I was going to say from the start. The others were much more based on impressions without any particular prejudice, and are I hope much more open-ended as a result.

2. There are some wonderful pop-cultural conflations running through the book: The Glasgow Metro as public-transport duffle coat / Belle & Sebastian 7”, Brighton referred to as Camden-On-Sea. Are there any cities you didn’t visit or investigate which would benefit from an urbanist takedown of indie?

I was originally going to name each chapter after a song from a band in the city I was writing about. Leeds would have been At Home He’s A Tourist, Glasgow Theme for Great Cities, Sheffield: Sex City, a Tindersticks reference for Nottingham, and so forth. The reason why I didn’t do that is because I couldn’t think of anything for Milton Keynes – all the good records about new towns are from snobby Londoners, like ‘New Town’ by the Slits…and also because the Southampton one would be limited to something by Craig David and/or the Artful Dodger, and much as I love ‘Rewind’ that would have had a certain bathos.

I was quite keen on making these references, because I find it curious how little those interested in music are interested in architecture, and are perfectly prepared to be philistine about it; so often you’ll find someone who would baulk at ‘that’s just noise!’ talking about ‘concrete eyesores’. It’s interesting how closely you can map modernist architecture and modernist music. It’s no coincidence that the first serious British adaptation of modernism takes place in Sheffield, where you have the first serious adaptation of techno into something distinctively British 20 years later; Manchester’s drastic remaking and its fragmented Gothicism also has an obvious effect…there’s some Peter Saville line about Manchester being concrete underpasses and Gothic cathedrals, with Unknown Pleasures as the first, Closer as the latter. Which then begs the question of what the musical equivalent of Ian Simpson and Urban Splash might be. Stephen Trousse reckons it’s Delphic, which sounds about right.

The Glasgow comparison was partly desperation, because the post-Pastels tweecore narrative makes no sense in a city as fabulously and dramatically urban as that. (well I suppose it does, as a counter-reaction). The fact that Mono is housed in one of the few provincial buildings in the centre of Glasgow is a bit telling. The subway’s cuteness does fit that, at least…And as for Brighton, it needs a major takedown, possibly in the second series of Urban Trawl, for its insufferable pretension to being a city independent from London, and for many other reasons which are currently sub judice. I’m also keen to write about Birmingham and Coventry in connection with all this, not only the obvious heavy metal/Tony Iommi’s factory-made four-fingered hand etc take on it, and the multiracial modernism of Two-Tone, but also the fact that the (I suppose) proto-hauntological Brum scene of Broadcast, Pram and Plone seems very linked to the rusty 60s motorscape of the city, and I don’t know how that pans out with the massive redevelopment that has happened there lately. There’s an argument running through the book that regenerated cities don’t produce interesting music. When they do it’s as symptom, someone like The Strokes as the epitome of gentrified post-Giuliani New York.

3. You make a very convincing case for the regeneration / mixed use / affordable housing racket being a form of social cleansing. Is it possible that villages or towns might offer more resilience than cities as cohesive social communities, or are such notions now merely the preserve of The Archers or Boutique Festivals?

The short answer is that I don’t know. I have a fundamental distrust of the countryside, not so much for what it really is – I simply don’t know what it really is, because I’ve never lived there – but what city dwellers think about it, i.e. a possible and eventual escape from the urban environment to which they are condemned. I find the impulse of dreaming of the country in a population which is overwhelmingly (we’re talking something like 95%) urban and is going to remain so pending the apocalypse an idle and obnoxious one, and depressingly prevalent. I especially can’t stand the importation of ‘villagey’ ideas into the city – all those Urban Villages of yuppiedromes, the horrible estate agent cliche of London as a series of villages, Sheffield as ‘England’s biggest village’, etc etc – cities have to be treated as cohesive wholes, or they fall apart and become incredibly unpleasant places to live.

When I think of the countryside, I think of those maps which show a sea of blue even when Labour win a landslide, I think of garden centres and out of town Asdas, National Trust properties and their mock-up furnishings…it’s a place I don’t feel has anything much to do with the country I live in. But as for whether villages themselves offer any sort of resilience, I don’t know, but again I have certain suspicions – of Transition Towns, of the idea that Tiverton or somewhere becoming self-sufficient has any purchase on the utterly enormous economic and ecological crisis we’re facing. Also of writers like Paul Kingsnorth, who wrote a book about how awful it was that village high streets were becoming homogenised and then started writing about how we should prepare and welcome the end of industrial civilisation, a position which basically combines misanthropy with twee sentimentalism.

I suppose there is a psychogeography of the countryside dying to be written – Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Space and especially the new Robinson in Ruins do that. When I make friends with someone who owns a car maybe I’ll investigate it more fully. Because of course it’s not actually possible to see much of the ‘green’ countryside without one.

When I was in Halifax, the smallest town we covered for Urban Trawl, I got incredibly excited by it, by its compactness, urbanity, its incredible architecture and topography, and the proximity of (aesthetically) dramatic open country all around, but I also noticed how almost immediately, a brutal small town atmosphere pervaded – me and the photographer Joel got called ‘shirtlifters’ practically as soon as we left the station, and you could see little groups of indie kids with black eyes huddling together in the arcades, no doubt expecting an imminent kicking. It wasn’t a great argument for small towns.

4. The language of regeneration and Nulab politics: aspiration / fairness / choice is so anodyne and universal that it almost kills or smothers argument against it, who doesn’t want choice?

Well exactly – the reason why it was so difficult to oppose New Labour urban policy, unlike, say, 60s slum clearance or Shirley Porter, was that it presented itself as benign and social democratic. Who doesn’t want mixed communities, an urban renaissance, etc etc. You get the sense in a lot of towns that the relief that anyone wanted to build there, after two decades in which anything new was usually out of town distribution centres, business parks and supermarkets, so overwhelmed them that they’d wave anything through, in case the money might disappear if they alienated the developers. More specifically on the nonsense of ‘choice’, well there are certain things you can’t choose. I live in a cramped shared flat above a shop, subdivided by a landlord desperate to eke out every little bit of rentable space from it – they even built another flat on top of a fairly teetering structure a couple of years ago. I’d quite like to choose a council flat, but not being homeless I’m not likely to get one, especially not in London.

5. It sounds like you took in quite a few fry-ups, cups of tea and Chinese buffets. How are these owner run one-off places coping with the lattification of the UK? A milky coffee in a cafe costs about £1, a mezzo soprano latte,
to have in, is more like three quid isn’t it?

Oh yes. I was very keen to mention these places, but didn’t always remember to do so – the amazing Chinese buffet in a Victorian baroque palace in Sheffield and the same city’s Castle Market, Hollies in Nottingham, Tucks in Southampton, the Louis in Cardiff, the University Cafe in Glasgow, the cafe behind a carwash near Victoria Station in Manchester…I don’t imagine they’re coping terribly well, though we could see that most of all on the motorway, which we took only for the Glasgow chapter – the A1 is all Little Chefs, the M1 Costa Coffee, which is most unnerving. The sad thing is that all the piazzas, the apparent new public spaces and squares built by the Urban Task Forces, immediately get in the coffee chains. As a tea drinker I find it particularly annoying, although there are worse things about the contemporary city…

6. How much of this shiny new PFI will need re-cladding in ten years’ time? Was most of it done to a high spec or are we really, as the title suggests, among the ruins already?

Lots of it needs recladding already. A friend of mine recently pointed out that the more recently a tube line was built – the DLR, the Jubilee extension – the more likely it is to be undergoing engineering works every weekend, and whatever expertise in construction we ever had in this country seems to have disappeared along with most industry. I’ve seen blocks of flats in London with bits of their wood cladding hanging off only a few months after completion (the guilty party, if you’re wondering, was the new Bermondsey Square in south London). They won’t fall down, as unlike a prefabricated 60s tower, as they’re usually concrete frames with cladding on, but the cladding will and frequently does fall off. Some of these places are looking grim already, and they will look much more so soon. But the idea behind them being New Ruins isn’t just about them literally falling apart, but treating them retrospectively – Walter Benjamin’s idea of treating the present as something archaic. With the end of New Labour, without it being clear yet what was going to replace it, it seemed like these places were already dated.

now on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £15.00