Putting the brum back into Brummie


This age of reason and Enlightenment, Was a most thrilling, optimistic time, To be alive.

I had the misfortune of growing up before Birmingham’s redevelopment and the establishment of its now rather good nightlife. All I remember about the takeover-threatened Cadbury is drunken nights with friends who worked at the factory, counter to Bourneville’s Quaker dictates to his once resident workers. And yet, even though Birmingham’s most ‘beautiful bits’ seemed to pass me by, after years in industry-lite London – failed financial centre of the world, and still the country’s only genuine ‘world city’ – I’m forever grateful to my home city for its grubby dynamism, the glimpse it offered of the possibilities thrown up by urban life. This is the Birmingham that comes shining through in Bowman’s book.

This is Birmingham is an exhilarating, beautifully illustrated and lyrical trip through Birmingham’s past. It’s a celebration of the nation’s now-and-then second city, and more importantly the Brummy contribution to modernity. It examines from an almost mythical eighteenth century, a time when ‘cities did not exist’ and ‘there were no machines’, to the sudden ‘burst of ideas and energy’ that made the world that we live in today. It may be designed for eight year olds and overs, but it manages to convey in a few short pages the story of how what happened in Birmingham not so long ago, transformed people’s lives forever. The city, we discover, is more than a bleak drive-through. It’s a sleeping giant that once played a leading role in the making of the world.

In the driving seat, an apt metaphor, given the city’s love affair with the motor car, were the ‘Lunar Men’, or ‘Lunaticks’ as they dubbed themselves. The Lunar Society met when the moon shone brightest, as that was the only way they could get home safely from their highbrow gatherings. They were, like most modern day Brummies, inventive, practical souls – but more than that, they were men of ideas. They were important figures of the Enlightenment period with an impact that was diverse and profound, from the beginnings of steam power to literally lighting up the world when they pioneered street lighting. Josiah Wedgwood was a Lunar man. His famous ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother?’ coin is a reminder, to those of us that toured his factory on school trips, that he was not only a notable ceramicist and industrialist but an opponent of slavery.

Their ideas inspired great public works: ‘An aqueduct was laid to Wales, So all would have enough to drink, And wash in’. A fact that impressed me as a child, as it took three long hours to get to Towyn where my grandparents lived, and there were we drinking their water! No wonder the locals daubed rude words about the English on the bridges. But however much that particular aqueduct was put to national (or at least regional) advantage, the whole of humanity would benefit from wider applications. Which is why the story behind the ‘optimism and inspiration’ of Birmingham’s particular Enlightenment – the Lunar men and their ideas about science, politics and society, and how the city, the region, and in turn the nation became the ‘workshop of the world’ – makes for a great children’s book, inspiring wide-eyed wonder about where the lives we lead today actually came from.

With this in mind, Birmingham City Council could do worse than order a copy for each of its primary schools. It is not only an important corrective to the notion that Britain’s second city is a grey and miserable place you pass through on the way to somewhere more interesting. It’s also a counter to the equally daft ‘eco-miserabilism’ that children are bombarded with, to no apparent practical end other than to detach them from the past gains of humanity. Much better to foster an appreciation of what their future-oriented ancestors once did for the betterment of humanity, and how their legacy lives on today. We don’t set a particularly good example. For adult Brummies a vague sense of disappointment, embarrassment even, is mixed in with a sometimes fierce, if none too defensive, pride. There is the desperate resort to the banal and tangential that even Bowman indulges: Brummies once manufactured ‘the nibs for nearly every pen’ in the world. The city is the home of Balti and Bhangra and to ‘nearly half of Europe’s bluebells’. Everyone’s heard of the Bull Ring, and Spaghetti Junction is a landmark of sorts. The canals? There’s more than in Venice ya know!

While resorting to this sort of thing is more than forgivable for a children’s author, and an interesting distraction for kids and adults alike, it cannot disguise the fact that Birmingham lost its raison d’etre a long time ago. Consequently, the city fails even to live on its past glories. While there’s still a misplaced romance about Manchester’s satanic mills (did they do anything else?) and an undeniable if slightly shaky swagger about the Mancunian present, Birmingham, annoyingly, not only fails to convince with its shopping lists of useless facts and trivia, it also fails to draw on its world-shaping heritage as well. No matter how hard it tries, Birmingham is a deeply unfashionable city.

Industry, particularly the motor industry, isn’t what it used to be. As Bowman puts it, from the Lunar Society’s ‘chariot’, the ‘world’s very first powered, And functioning land vehicle’ – ‘Birmingham embraced the car, And its accompanying shopping malls’. Countless people I know have worked with cars in one way or another: at ‘The Rover’, for instance, or servicing cars for the family business like my dad and his dad before him. Equally, while the custard factory that once ‘made all the world’s custard powder’ is now a part of an apparently thriving cultural quarter, it’s hard to imagine great artists and composers like Dvorak flocking to Birmingham, never mind lavishing praise on the city as they once did during its industrial heyday.

Birmingham may be putting itself forward as city of culture, something which (when the word actually meant something) it clearly had a good case for, and its great civic buildings are a lasting legacy. But today this speaks to the sense of a city desperately searching for a new purpose in life, and running away from its old associations. Cars and consumerism, whatever the economics of the matter, are not the sort of things you’re supposed to boast about anymore. Cities – oddly – are expected to embrace their polar opposite, and celebrate the ‘local’ and ‘community’, rather than the wealth and mobility that allow people to escape these things. The ‘muge soaring, roaring carriageways’ and the ‘many miles of motorways’ that Bowman wants us to love are no longer an asset, they are a liability.

The heights of a more ambitious age described so vividly in This is Birmingham are quite alien to us today. This isn’t surprising in a society that has turned its back on the great achievements of the industrial age and become estranged from its past. In its place is the search for what Bowman describes as the ‘beautiful bits’ of Birmingham, the café society, the park bandstands, the shops and markets. Or what Brian Travers of UB40-fame describes in his salute to the book as a window on ‘our city full of secrets’. But it is no good looking in the more picturesque nooks and crannies, you won’t find Birmingham there.

As Bowman herself tells the young reader, the biggest secret of all is that Birmingham created the modern world. And then forgot. We should be putting this right and rediscovering the promise of ‘this’ Birmingham, and inspiring younger generations to shape their city and their world in the inquiring and industrious spirit of the Lunar men before them.

http://www.culturewars.org.uk/index.php/site/article/putting_the_brum_back_into_brummie/

This rotting metropolis


In this 1988 adaptation of Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s own influential cyber-punk manga classic, the likes of Mad Max, A Clockwork Orange and Blade Runner quickly come to mind. But most striking of all is how the themes of this futuristic nightmare resonate with our urban present. I suppose that’s always the point with films like this but the temporal collapse is more apparent than ever for this reviewer at least.

It takes a while to get my bearings. But it’s pretty clear from the off that things are deteriorating pretty badly in this towering but decaying dystopian cityscape. The authorities are cracking down on juvenile delinquents engaged in petty crime amidst the barricades. It’s all quite exhilarating in fact. There are high speed chases, a newscaster announces that ‘terrorists have bombed the commercial district’; a bar tender tells anybody who’ll listen ‘with demonstrations and terrorists nowadays prices have gone up’ but ‘business is business’. There is even an Olympic stadium under construction and quarrels on the Executive Committee (aka the Greater London Authority) about its funding. ‘Instead of rebuilding the city’, complains one member, we ‘spend our whole surplus on that Olympic monstrosity’. 

It is AD 2019, 31 years after World War III, when Tokyo met its mushroom-shaped end (in the year the film was released). In its place (or somewhere near it) is Neo Tokyo, a city of random explosions and nihilistic violence. The story centres on the revengeful young Tetsuo – once ‘bullied by everyone’ but now with a maniacal glint in his eye. Like the little terror I saw arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act last week at Wood Green tube station, he finds himself detained under the convenient pretext of being engaged in something more sinister. To cut a long story short (without spoiling it) Tetsuo becomes a ‘test subject’ for the authorities in their quest to capture the ‘pure energy’ of the elusive Akira. Like the religious fanatics and the demonstrators in the street, the mad scientist wants to harness Akira’s ‘limitless power’.

But this is a film shot through with a knowing cynicism about the pursuit of knowledge and power and, of course, politics. ‘You’re forgetting who the real enemy is: it’s the politicians who got us into this mess in the first place’, says the colonel, as his troops train their guns on him. It is a world like our own where the catastrophic consequences of the human folly of the past stand as a warning to young idealists. As far as the colonel is concerned, ‘We’ve progressed quite a way since that Holocaust’. When he complains that ‘The people lost their pride in our great achievement a long time ago. Now all these fools care about is indulging themselves’, he sounds like a former lefty turned New Labourite berating the stupid consumerist masses for their failing loyalty. Though not seduced by Akira he shares with the scientist a visceral disgust for the city and its inhabitants. ‘I’m surprised you feel anything for this rotting metropolis,’ says the latter. 

To some extent, once you’ve seen one sci-fi downer on our collective urban future you’ve seen them all. And yet there is enough going on with Akira, visually and intellectually (if you ignore the clichés and the sci-fi mysticism), to keep it engaging. Perhaps its unique selling point is that it depicts a city that is both pre-and post-apocalyptic, cut off from its destructive past but consequently in fear of its future. Neo Tokyo is all too familiar.

http://www.culturewars.org.uk/index.php/site/article/this_rotting_metropolis/

Disparity and Diversity in the Contemporary City: social order revisited


Billed as a ‘look at classic urban themes as they are manifested in the contemporary city, focusing on social reproduction of inequality, the meanings of disorder, and the link between the two’, this scholarly intercourse between sociological heavyweights promised much, but delivered little in the way of insight. Indeed, the indecipherable verboseness of the respondent only confirmed this reviewer in his prejudices against the ‘mainstream sociology’ against which this esteemed figure claimed to be railing.

Paul Gilroy, Anthony Giddens Professor in Social Theory at LSE, was responding to the annual British Sociological Society lecture given by Professor Robert Sampson, Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences and chair of sociology at Harvard University. Sampson’s empiricism was apparently beyond the pale for a man who has invested so much in the cultural turn that lead him to conclude decades ago that There is no black in the Union Jack.

Far more intriguing for Sampson was the colour-coding of the streets of Victorian London, that featured in Charles Booth’s poverty maps. Booth describes some of the city’s streets in the 1880s as filled with the ‘Lowest class. Viscious, semi-criminal’. In one case, he says the ‘appearance of the neighbourhood has changed more than its character’ as their remain ‘pockets of filth and squalor, with rowdy residents and broken windows’. With reference to examples like this, Sampson convincingly demonstrated that the poorest areas tend to be spatially distributed today much as they were then, and that this suggests the persistence of poverty over time.

And yet I found his drawing of parallels with today’s politics of ‘broken windows’ and ‘rowdy residents’ a bit of a stretch. Similarly when he asked, rhetorically, which ‘mechanisms sustain the heirarchy of places’ his account of why the experience of poverty is particularly persistent amongst minority populations was less than convincing. Sampson’s argument that ‘socially perceived disorder strongly predicts later poverty’ is a peculiar distortion of the observation that minority groups tend to live disproportionately in poorer areas.

He is effectively saying that personal prejudice now, rather than the consequences of systematic discrimination in the past and the continuation of the conditions of poverty in the present, are responsible for this material inequity. While it is no doubt the case that people ‘act on their perceptions of order’ and that ‘social perception forms a meaningful aspect of neighbourhood relations’, interpersonal perceptions do not determine the distribution of poverty. Likewise, Sampson’s research may help enrich understanding of the racialised patterning of poverty across the city, and how ‘collective meanings of place’ deem certain neighbourhoods as ‘morally liable’, but these observations do not point to an ‘under-appreciated cause’ of urban decline in the US, as he claims.

Though Sampson’s analysis was flawed he at least sought to engage with the problem under discussion. The frustration of listening to Gilroy was his refusal to ackowledge that there might exist ‘social facts’ (as Emile Durkheim once called them) beyond the particularlities of time and place. He insisted, for instance, that Sampson could only tell us anything meaningful about the ‘particularlities of US city life’ implying that his was a wasted journey. While sweeping generalisations about ‘universal patterns’ should not be made ligthly, Gilroy seemed to be constitutionally averse to the very notion of making any generalisations at all. Whether you’re talking about Chicago or London, the late 19th or the early 21st century, whatever their ‘surface manifestations’, countered Sampson, ‘certain mechanisms and processes are the same’.

And yet for all Gilroy’s faux-radicalism and militant methodological parochialism, it was Sampson’s failure to interrogate the bigger political picture that made his explanation, in the end, so unsatisfactory. Indeed his self-imposed confinement to theorizing at the level of ‘intersubjectivity’ rendered his indifference to the the integrity of the human subject, acting on the world rather than being shaped by the negative ‘perceptions’ of others, all the more striking. His focus on the psycho-geography of ‘race and place’ was to ignore the profound impact of the promotion of the idea of multiculturalism, and its role in the promotion of the social divisions, and in the ‘colouring’ of the intersubjectivities, that so concerned him.

http://www.futurecities.org.uk/articles/art181008.html

Before Their Time


In the foreword to Before Their Time: The World of Child Labor, US Senator Tom Harkin describes photographer David L Parker’s work as ‘intimate, respectful, and engaging’. Indeed, that some of the otherwise downtrodden subjects are smiling is only testament to his capturing of their ‘full humanity’ he concludes. And yet this sits rather uncomfortably with Parker’s own description of children and their families as but ‘victims of economic exploitation’. Yes, Parker is right to note how the grand-sounding rhetoric of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – signed up to by developing world governments a little too keen on signing away their sovereignty – is a practical irrelevance for the children featured. But does book has little to take us beyond such empty rights-talk.

The propensity of moral campaigners over here to project their anxieties and discomfort with the modern world, onto those parts yet to feel its benefits, are evident. Parker’s concern that these ‘at risk’ children are not ‘safe, healthy, and educated’ is a rather odd point to make when they are also living in absolute poverty. On the other hand, neither are they modern slaves. Are the circus children really in a ‘slavery-like situation’ and do domestic workers live in ‘virtual slavery’? The qualifiers speak volumes. Indeed the specific hardships these children inevitably encounter are swept up in a general sense of forboding about the dangers children face, not least from the ‘unscrupulous adults’ who apparently prey on them.

As the often striking photography in this book documents, children around the world engage in a variety of labour-intensive occupations. In agriculture and animal husbandry, mines and quarries, in textiles and manufacturing. But the images are distorted somewhat with a rather indulgent and misanthropic coffee-table commentary that is very contemporary. (By chance in the course of writing this review a ticket came my way for the opening of The Changing Face of Childhood at Dulwich Picture Gallery, featuring work by the likes of Van Dyck and Gainsborough. The rosy depictions of a privileged childhood in these 18th century portraits also expressed the optimism of the age. It wasn’t a society alienated from its own achievements as ours is. Of course one features the offspring of aristocrats, the other the progeny of poverty. But even allowing for this, the treatment of childhood is quite different.)

The children perched on fishing platforms in Indonesia are exposed as the ocean cuts off their ‘escape’ from the ‘bosses [who] often subject the children to physical and sexual abuse’. The children searching for conch shells in the towering mangrove swamps of Nicaragua seem entangled and isolated. There are few adults around. And given what they tend to get up to that’s probably best. At least that is the implication. It is difficult to know what conclusion you are supposed to draw when child labour is made to sit next to images of imminent child abuse. Its all the same apparently, an indictment of what adults do to children in Nicaragua, Sierra Leone, Nepal, Morocco, Mexico, India, Bolivia and Turkey – the world over.

For some, their spirits are yet to be broken by hard labour, while others seem to be peering out at the viewer awaiting our intervention, to be ‘saved’ by the kindly campaigner, NGO, aging rock star or displacement-activity-seeking politician. The little girl making firecrackers in Guatemala looks like an ordinary little girl. Others look hardened as if they’ve lived too much already. The Bangladeshi boy hanging out of a leather tanning drum may as well be up a chimney. Whereas the sinister-looking leather tanning machine in India looks ready to devour anybody that goes near it, much like the mechanical monster in the film Metropolis.The Indian boy welding (on the front cover), the steady gaze of his Guatemalan equivalent surrounded by the tools of his trade – each suggests a maturity beyond their years.

There are the burnt-scarred arms of the Guatemalan boy from the firework factory. The dry and scabby hand propped up against the soft cheek of a tiny Nepalese carpet-weaving girl. The Indian boy working at his lathe seems routine enough until you notice his unmade bed in the corner of a small room, metal filings littering the floor. The picture of the Indian ‘textile factory’ is particularly charming if only because the children are care-free and child-like, apparently playing – weaving in and out – amongst the adults. The frame is split in two, a little boy peers to the open upper level (a supporting adult hand on his back) where a boy and girl seem to be hiding from him. The adults in the other photographs tend to be anonymous, passive and apparently undifferentiated from the children. Or tourists. A facelss man in chequered shirt and newly shined boots; a sleazy sex tourist looking away nonchalantly as he fondles the leg of a Thai girl with her back to us.

A Mexican boy in sports cap and trainers sits engrossed in a magazine. He is sat at his stall full to bursting with ‘adult’ titles, from the comical ‘Busty’ to the more familiar Playboy. ‘In many cities boys sell newspapers’ says Parker menacingly, incongruously. They also work on market stalls, in bicycle repair shops and garages. Oh, and child prostitution and trafficking are rife too. But surely drawing a moral equivalence between sexual exploitation and a paper round is absurd? The wistful pose of a Mexican girl selling bags a few pages later suddenly seems straight out of a glamour shoot; and the young boys hoisting nets are, in a quiet moment, seemingly reclined suggestively.

The mind plays tricks. But it is Parker’s commentary, and his eye for the ambiguous, that colours the interpretation – that encourages the viewer to see victims of abuse where more often than not they’re just children working too hard, too young and for far too little. But they aren’t alone. The young Indonesian garbage picker (like his contemporary in Nicaragua) has a basket on his back, but then you notice there are a sea of baskets attached to the adult backs stretching out behind him. Everyone pitches in not because the adults mistreat the children but because their shared experience of poverty dictates it.

http://www.culturewars.org.uk/2007-08/parker.htm

The East End on Film


Various directors, East End Film Festival, London

OK, so my girlfriend and I trundled along early one Sunday afternoon to a little cinema on a quiet Kingsland High Street in Dalston, Hackney. There was none of the week-day bustle. The market was deserted. And with just half an hour to go before the commencement of this particular instalment of the ‘festival’, the shutters were down at the Rio. When we eventually got in, we felt like we were making up the numbers of what director Bev Zalcock jokingly referred to in her introduction as the hardcore avant-garde. We sat in eager anticipation of the visual delights to come.

An hour and a half later, we couldn’t have been happier to stumble wearily back out. As my girlfriend put it, they may have been short films but they weren’t short enough for her liking. But as a dedicated Culture Wars reviewer I am obliged to explain why I could only too readily agree. My trawl of the festival website – a last ditch attempt to make sure I wasn’t missing something – didn’t offer any insights into what the suite of films had to say, or why BAFTA nominated director (and here curator), Carol Morley decided to put them together in the first place.

The festival, I eventually discovered after an aborted search of the ‘about’ page, is something to do with ‘paying tribute to the diversity and scope of artistic endeavour coursing through our streets’. But I could only conclude that if anything was still coursing through the streets of the East End, it hadn’t made its way into the cinema. Not recently anyway. These particular films, explained the blurb, were an examination of ‘the East End’s heritage as told by local artist filmmakers’. Which explained why ‘Heritage Shorts’ was printed on our tickets and why they harked back to 1987, 1985, 2004, 1994 and 2004 respectively. The organisers were clearly using the words ‘new and contemporary’ rather liberally, to describe films made in the past twenty-odd years.

Which would have been fine if the material had been of a consistently good quality, or if it held together better. But the quality was variable and the ‘hanging’ failed to convince. The organisers predictably enough had fallen back on tired rhetoric about transcending all sorts of ‘cultural, political and artistic boundaries’. No doubt I am just not suited to such difficult and challenging work. As ‘artist filmmakers’, perhaps they don’t take kindly to bourgeois constraints on their creativity. But surely an attempt to ‘visualise the experience of living and working in the East End of London’ wasn’t a big ask. And yet only a couple managed to do this.

The fourth in the series, A13, directed by William Raban, passed the Ronseal test as it were. It begins with the journey made by traders to Billingsgate market in the early hours, as the newspapers roll off the presses and the traffic begins to roll along the main road past Canary Wharf. There is a poetic quality to it. Perhaps akin to the classic Night Mail, featuring the verse of WH Auden, there is an insistent sense of movement throughout. There is also a rare optimism, an excitement about city life. And there is variation. The day progresses, the light changes. Men out fishing in the shadow of the early morning metropolis, and the scattered orange boxes and dismantling of stalls, as the sun sets.

The other four films, as Zalcock indicated in her introduction, were surreal treatments of their respective subjects. She too seemed to be struggling for a rationale for the showing. But was nevertheless on to something here. The second film, East End Underground Movement, directed by Zalcock herself was easily the weakest though. She got her excuses in early claiming lack of funds. Somewhere between a bad music video and a grainy al-Qaeda call to arms, the title is a play on words taken from a graffiti scrawl. A woman on the tube to East Ham make believes that she is a freedom fighter or the ‘war child’ of the Debbie Harry soundtrack that accompanies it. This is intercut with the mundane reality of travelling eastbound on the district line, staring out at the desolate backdrop of the outerlying boroughs as they recede from view.

The best of the bunch, and the only other to do what it said on the tin/website, is Black Tower, by John Smith. This and Stalin My Neighbour, directed by Morley, both feature a disoriented, and unhinged first person narrator (complicated slightly by the split personality of the latter). Black Tower is also intensely claustrophobic, as the imposing and sinister-looking building of the title appears and re-appears, wherever he goes, crowding out his senses, and obscuring even our vision. His despair is concealed by a slightly comic monotone delivery. This articulates the repressive banality and sheer ordinariness of, and the melancholy induced by, the ‘unfashionable’ (according to Zalcock) and ever-so suburban Leytonstone with which I am all too familiar. It is a highly original work mixing abstraction and lingering still shots of the local area. For me it stood out as both technically and conceptually inventive. It too, however, was overlong.

Stalin My Neighbour features a deceptively straight ‘to camera’ guided tour of the old East End by an increasingly agitated young woman. Her psychogeographical leanings tell us of the lodgings where the Stalin of the title once stayed for an International get together, inform us of the Ripper’s prowlings, and hint at the gentler ambience of Gandhi’s wanderings, for instance. Indeed, just when I thought the East End itself was starting to take shape (if only through the trivia of criminal infamy and the accidents of residence of important historical figures) it turns out that her idiosyncratic historical journey is an expression of what her alter-ego describes as ‘depersonalisation’, a distraction for a troubled psyche trying to avoid a guilty secret. Shame. I was just beginning to find my bearings.

Thankfully, Fisticuffs, by Miranda Pennell, set in a Hackney working men’s club, was a bit of light relief. The film might have reflected on the passing of the political culture that gave rise to these now tired institutional hangovers that like Butlins continue to stumble along. But perhaps nostalgia for past leisure pursuits past isn’t the best response. Fisticuffs ignores all of this anyway and avoids poignancy and social comment altogether, preferring the absurd. The club is no more than a backdrop for a kind of saloon bar ballet. A neatly choreographed cowboy brawl ensues as old ladies chat and knit, blokes play pool, and the line dancing – perhaps the inspiration for the piece – goes on oblivious to the slapstick violence.

Fisticuffs and A13 share a balletic feel and wear their light touch well, but there is something missing. They seem to celebrate the banality of the everyday that is so brooding and arguably more effective for it in the Black Tower. They are as hollow as East End Underground Movement is barren. If there is a unifying theme this is it. The films, with the exception of A13 and possibly Black Tower, said very little if anything about the East End of London. I couldn’t help thinking that the supposed radicalism of such ‘underground’ film making is more a bunker retreat from the people actually ‘living and working in the East End’. A near-deserted auditorium was perhaps testament to this curious absence at the heart of a festival ostensibly dedicated to celebrating the area. Fortunately things had perked up outside. It was Sunday after all, so we went shopping.

http://www.culturewars.org.uk/2007-04/eastend.htm

The Anxious City


From the nervous nineties to the even more nervous post-9/11 noughties, we do indeed appear to live in anxious times. But neuroses have long been connected with urban space and living in the metropolis. And for Richard Williams, lecturer at the Department of History of Art at the University of Edinburgh, there is more to our anxieties than fear of crime or imminent terrorist attack. He is interested in the more fundamental anxiety about where society is headed, crystallised he argues in the uncertain status of the post-War city.

Certainly, despite excited talk of urban renaissance, the city has struggled to find itself of late, a problem perhaps best exemplified in the distinctly English new urbanism of the Prince of Wales’ recent pet project of Poundbury in Dorset – a biscuit tin village of an ‘urban’ development if ever there was one. To Williams’ credit, he is careful not to underestimate the pervasiveness of this profoundly conservative outlook. Despite the rantings of HRH on the subject of carbuncles and suchlike through the 1980s and beyond, it is the work of the supposedly arch-‘modernists’ Richard Rogers and Norman Foster that have brought a very English restraint to the very heart of the metropolis.

English architects have sought refuge in what Williams calls the ‘architecture of civility’, primarily in the forms of the public squares and street cafes familiar on the continent. For Richard Rogers, these are the places where ‘citizenship is enacted’ (and, he forgets to mention, enforced). The transformation of Trafalgar Square into the centerpiece of a newly urbane urbanism – with CCTV, wardens, and GLA-approved festivities included – is indicative.

The problem with public life is not so much that we lack public spaces anyway, but rather that as the political sphere has narrowed there is little intellectual room for manouvre. For this reason, the imperatives of mobility and civil renewal are not – as the prevailing view would have it – opposed.

Which is why Milton Keynes – infamous 1960s ‘new town’ – is the most striking of Williams’ case-studies. It towers above the rest despite its low-rise and fundamentally suburban credentials, because it is unashamedly urban in outlook. Milton Keynes was built for the car, for vast and sprawling living, and it continues to be the fastest growing urban area in the country. The reality might not match up to the original plans, but that isn’t the point. In the not so distant past, this could have been the future.

Instead we have restoration and memorialisation. Williams cites Liverpool’s Albert Docks as an example of our anxious fixation with the past, and what it represents, to the detriment of building something that might endure in the future. The ossified ruins of the city’s merchant past weren’t ruinous enough for some mawkishly nostalgic commentators. The only way that this particular instance of the urban could be made acceptable was by denying itself and inhabiting the debris of something less fleeting or insubstantial than today’s confused culture.

This romanticisation of glories associated with more robust times is less evident though in the other Docklands – or ‘America, E14’, as one critic dubbed it. And it has invited the venomous hostility of the English architectural establishment ever since. Canary Wharf’s association with the rhetoric of the free market individualism of the 1980s partly explains this. As does the anti-Americanism that Williams also identifies. And there is more to it than financial deregulation and the suspension of planning law. The shiny new development starkly represented the kind of brash ambition and Wild West optimism that is anathema to a profession intent on purging itself of such hubris.

But even beneath the Pelli tower – Canary Wharf’s seemingly ballsy icon that so upsets its reactionary critics – anxiety abounds. For Williams, Docklands’ ‘super-modernism’ is as disorienting as it is impressive, its towering buildings and wide open spaces only exaggerating its uninhabited ‘alien’ ambience. The area is hermetically sealed from the rest of the city a few stops down the DLR or Jubilee Line, its stifling surveillance infrastructure ostensibly a reaction to the IRA bomb in 1993. America, E14 may not be as inward looking as Poundbury, but if Williams is right only, the buildings have sharp edges. It represents a hollow urbanism that is just as intent on disciplining those that enter its enclosures.

Despite the visual transformation of our cityscapes, punctuated as they are by these ever-more spectacular buildings and developments, there remains an underlying continuity with the typically parochial architecture of the past. Williams is impressive on the way that architects have articulated a culture informed by fear. What he doesn’t do is ask why this is happening now and – just as important – why we are more receptive to it than ever before.

http://www.culturewars.org.uk/2005-01/williams.htm

Turning out the bright lights in big cities


The Centre for Civil Society at the London School of Economics (LSE) describes civil society as the ‘arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values’ (1). In today’s individuated society, however, the notion that civil society is defined by its independence from the state is sadly lacking.

The London Civic Forum is perhaps more in vogue with its vague-sounding concern for promoting ‘civic literacy, civic space, civic cohesion, civic leadership and civic pride’ (2) – phrases that slip easily from the mouths of government ministers attempting to ‘connect’ with voters.

These different takes on civil society were interrogated at ‘Civil Society and The City’, an event organised by the Future Cities Project at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, on 30 November 2004.

For David Petch, commissioner with the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the ‘homogenising tendencies’ of government initiatives are actually more likely to stifle civic pride than to stimulate it (3). Though it may appear odd to hear somebody like Petch talking about civil society, he is by no means unusual among the crime-fighting fraternity in taking an interest in the subject.

‘Civil renewal is at the heart of the Home Office’s vision of life in our 21st century communities’, or so says its website. The Home Office has invited local authorities to volunteer themselves as ‘civic pioneers’, and Birmingham was the first to be granted the title ‘civil renewal city’ (4).

Significantly, it was the industrialist and mayor of Birmingham Joseph Chamberlain who transformed it from a mercantile to a municipal city – the first of its kind, according to historian Tristram Hunt writing in BBC History Magazine. The idea that new municipal authorities would concern themselves with the welfare of their citizens represented a profound political shift.

But today’s public spirit goes under the guise of the law and order agenda. Chairing the debate, Austin Williams, technical editor at the Architects’ Journal and director of the Future Cities Project, recalled the last Urban Summit, when prime minister Tony Blair was beamed in by satellite link to herald a new ‘urban renaissance’. Instead of boulevards, cafes and warehouse conversions, delegates were treated to a sneak preview of the ‘crime and grime’ agenda of abandoned cars, litter and spray-cans.

The Home Office recently announced the publication of its White Paper ‘Building Communities, Beating Crime’, with the emphasis on neighbourhood policing, local teams of police and community support officers, and a commitment to customer service (5). Soon after came the ‘National Policing Plan 2005-08: safer, stronger communities’, prioritising the creation of a ‘citizen focused’ service intent on reducing fear of crime (6).

Panellist Rob Allen, director of the campaign group Rethinking Crime and Punishment, argued for new ways of involving communities with criminal justice – the group’s recently published report, ‘Crime, Courts and Confidence’, advocates ‘community involvement in community based sentences’ (7). Allen pointed to schemes of ‘restorative justice’, where members of the public are involved in sentencing and offenders make amends directly to the community. Ben Rogers, speaking as associate director at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) agreed, supporting anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) on the basis that they are ‘citizen-centred’.

Tim Donovan, political editor of BBC London, was more critical. ‘We are told, left, right and centre’ that participation is an inherently good thing, he said. However, rather than representing a ‘flowering of civic identity’, this is a patronising attempt to engage with ‘you lot’. He lambasted the growth of what he termed the ‘apathy industry’.

But Rogers was unmoved. As issues like unemployment have waned, people have genuinely become more concerned about their neighbourhoods and their quality of life, he said. In his pamphlet for ippr, ‘Reinventing the Town Hall’, Rogers made the case for ‘involving the public, fostering civic pride…building trust’ and creating ‘animated public places’ (8). He elaborated in the debate, arguing that as political parties, trades unions and other institutions of civic and associational life wither away, the state, he said with chilling understatement, must ‘occupy those spaces and intervene’.

And, in this sense at least, public space is all the rage. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is charged with ‘creating sustainable’ or ‘cleaner, safer [and] greener’ communities, and is committed to ‘liveability’ (9). The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA’s) Clean Neighbourhoods initiative is similarly intent on ‘foster[ing] a sense of civic pride’ and ‘improving public space’ in communities up and down the land (10). Mayor of London Ken Livingstone has spoken of the improvements that a better environment will make to appreciation of the city, and launched London’s 100 public spaces programme (11).

According to panellist Dolan Cummings, research and editorial director at the Institute of Ideas, the cumulative effect of this is to encourage a sterile and parochial view of city life. While New Year’s Eve parties were once informal drunken affairs in which people paraded through the streets, in recent years they have been replaced by deflated official events put on by the powers that be, according to the whims of health and safety officers and the local constabulary’s concerns about loutish goings on. Today you just ‘show up and get shuffled around’, he said.

When you put this together with the Home Office’s rationale for citizenship ceremonies and identity cards, concluded Cummings, it becomes apparent that officialdom is busy ‘reconstructing the public as a membership organisation’.

And arguably, nor do we need more of the ‘small-scale, do-able, viable, publicity-friendly projects’ that were promoted by one member of the audience. We are already surrounded by these ‘projects’ and they fail to – as David Petch noted – ‘inspire [us] with a more wholesome vision’. Perhaps the civic buildings of the Victorian era give a sense of what we’re missing.

The elusive ‘vision thing’ plays its part today in the service of illiberal campaigns. In the run-up to the ban on smoking in public – as proposed in the recent Public Health White Paper (12) – local authorities competed with each other to impose their own bans. Their eagerness to appear modern (in the New Labour sense of the word) and look like trailblazing, smoke-free zealots, betrayed an acute recognition that they desperately needed a cause of some sort, an issue behind which to rally the troops and engage their respective constituencies.

In Scotland, first minister Jack McConnell presented the passing of the anti-smoking law as a matter of national pride and progress, insisting that tobacco is a ‘cultural trait’ that ‘holds us back’ (13). Welsh secretary Peter Hain soon after pledged to follow suit. Manchester’s representatives, following a fact-finding mission to smokeless Dublin, were moved to rhetorical flourish in a report agreed by the council’s executive: ‘The smoke-free city is an idea whose time has come: Manchester should be in the vanguard of this change.’ (14) Liverpool City Council, determined to put Manchester in its shadow, was set to petition parliament following a landslide vote in favour of a ban and a £1000 fine for transgressors (15).

London’s ever-liberal mayor wrote asking that the government allow him to impose a smoking ban in the capital, claiming the support of 65 per cent of Londoners (16). On another letter-writing campaign he ticked off 300 companies for allowing their workers to huddle outside smoke-free offices (17) – and in the spirit of his anti-congestion campaign, pledged his support to put-upon cabbies intoxicated by the spiralling fumes from their inconsiderate passengers (18).

Yet there was little resistance to this barely restrained moralising, beyond the inconsequential gestures of a few pro-smoking lobbyists. The appeal to the patronising notion that we need protecting from ourselves and each other trumped the urban ethics of anonymity and personal freedom. The smoking issue is emblematic of the rise of the suburban curtain-twitching perspective on cosmopolitan life and those of us vulgar enough to enjoy it.

The chaos, fumes, and bright lights of the big city are out and a new decaffeinated smoke-free miserabilism is in. There are some lone voices, though, and in the case of Tom Oliver of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), almost literally in the wilderness. Speaking from the floor at the debate, he was surprisingly enamoured of the ‘blissful anonymity’ that comes from living in London.

Dolan Cummings argued that the concern with ‘fixing communities’ rather than ‘transforming society’ betrays a politics of low horizons. The narrower terrain of defending the neighbourhood and local community are a poor substitute for the bold and transforming visions that characterised past ideological conflicts. Anyway, you can’t rebuild a sense of community feeling around ‘tenants with a grudge’, he said.

The crusades against envirocrime and anti-social behaviour in the name of building a new civil society, are sanitising city life. Fundamentally, what lies behind all this is the instinct to re-legitimise government, and other state institutions, by finding a new role for itself in society. For all the talk of involvement and participation we’d do well to keep out of it.

(1) Introduction, on the Centre for Civil Society website

(2) Policy and projects, on the the London Civic Forum website

(3) Civil Society and the City

(4) Civil renewal, on the Home Office website

(5) Building Communities, Beating Crime: A Better Police Service for the Twenty-First Century (.pdf 2.93 MB), Home Office, 9 November 2004

(6) National Policing Plan 2005-2008: Safer, Stronger Communities (.pdf 1.96 MB), Home Office, 24 November 2004

(7) British public keen on role in sentencing finds new poll for rethinking crime and punishment, Rethinking Crime and Punishment, 16 November 2004

(8) Reinventing the Town Hall: A Handbook, Ben Rogers, institute for public policy research, 2004

(9) Cleaner, safer, greener communities: further background (.pdf 14.9 KB), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

(10) Clean neighbourhoods consultation, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 24 September 2004

(11) Mayor announces next phase of his 100 public spaces programme, Greater London Authority, 16 December 2004

(12) Public Health White Paper, BBC News, 16 November 2004

(13) First minister’s speech in full, Jack McConnell, BBC News, 10 November 2004

(14) Manchester blazes smoke-free trail, Helen Carter, Guardian, 14 October 2004

(15) First city votes for ban on smoking, Helen Carter and Sam Jones, Guardian, 21 October 2004

(16) New poll shows huge support for work-place smoking ban, Greater London Authority, 2 November 2004

(17) No butts, says mayor. Put your fag in the bin, Hugh Muir, Guardian, 30 September 2004

(18) New move to stop smoking in cabs, BBC News, 2 November 2004

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