Thursday, 28 April 2011

The cake of custom

This piece by me about the royal wedding was in the Guardian last weekend.

Royal occasions have always offered rich pickings for anthropologists. It is no coincidence that the social research organisation, Mass Observation, began its life with a “day survey” of 12 May 1937, the date of George VI’s coronation, and that it is once again inviting its volunteers to write down an account of their activities on 29 April. These surveys always make fascinating social documents, because a royal event forces everyone, from ardent monarchist to diehard republican, into an imagined national community, whether they want to be part of it or not.

Even in 1937 there were a surprising number of refuseniks, though they seem to have been motivated more by cussedness than anti-monarchism. Mass Observation reported some people listening to the coronation with “embarrassed grins, and outright laughter when the commentator was outstandingly loyal”. As for the 1953 Coronation, they found plenty of people making snide comments at the television screen or going for a long walk to get away from it all. And yet republicans who look to find Walter Bagehot’s “cake of custom” crumbling on these occasions are usually disappointed. “Even people who wanted to avoid the coronation could not stop their eyes brimming with tears or shut themselves away,” concluded Mass Observation in 1937.

Indeed, the most inauspicious times for a royal celebration seem only to inspire greater fervency. The wedding of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips in November 1973, for example, coincided with the grave economic crisis that led to the three day week, which could easily have inspired public resentment at the grandeur and expense of the event. But despite fears beforehand that the wedding might be blacked out by power cuts, 28 million viewers tuned in for an eight-hour marathon padded out with a royal astrologers’ wedding breakfast and a visit to the stables where Princess Anne kept her horses. Auberon Waugh concluded that “the nation is as united as any nation can be – in a gigantic effort to be entertained … We are citizens of the world’s first satirical Ruritania.”

When Prince Charles married Diana in 1981, in the middle of a deep recession and riots in the inner cities, the loyalist mood was, if anything, even stronger. As a spokesman for the Electricity Board put it, the strain on the National Grid was “a barometer of national feeling”: viewers were so paralysed in front of their screens that there were huge power surges during the dull bits, such as the signing of the register, when they got up to boil kettles.

This probably has less do with our attitudes to monarchy, which are often absent-minded and half-hearted whichever side they are on, than with the power of television to put itself at the centre of any narrative. The 1947 wedding between Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth was one of the first major outside broadcasts of the postwar era and the BBC used it to convince people of the power of the new medium; it similarly used the televising of the 1953 coronation to create a tipping point in the purchase of sets and the 1973 royal wedding to convert several hundred thousand more households to colour TV. Television always tries to use these events as an advertisement for itself. “Be part of the big day on the BBC,” as Huw Edwards says on the trailers for 29 April.

The difference now is that we live in a multichannel era. 88 per cent of the adult population either listened to or watched the 1953 Coronation, but then there was nothing else on unless you could get Radio Luxembourg. Even at the last big royal wedding in 1986, the only way of avoiding the event on the main channels and stations was to watch pages from Ceefax on BBC2 or listen to Schubert on Radio 3. Now, with 200 channels to choose from, anyone who does not want to participate in the royal wedding can hardly feel coerced into doing so. And still I have a feeling that the mass observers of 29 April will write about how they switched on the television, just to see what was happening, and found themselves drawn in.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Motorway art

There are lots of photographic projects on roads - Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Paul Graham’s photographs of the A1 and Catherine Opie’s untitled photographs of roads and flyovers, ‘Freeways’, spring to mind – but paintings of roads are much thinner on the ground. I would guess the genre was inaugurated by Matisse's 1917 painting The Windshield: On the Villacoublay Road, which pictures a Ford car from the inside, using the windscreen as a picture edge, a format later used by Ben Nicholson and Edward Hopper. More recently there have been Oliver Bevan’s paintings of the Westway, the elevated road in west London, and Julian Opie’s roadscape paintings titled Imagine You Are Driving, all subtle variations on the same grey road with white lines receding into the distance. Opie has also done blurry, photo-realist pictures of the M40 at night that look like action paintings: black voids illuminated only by the blinking tail-lights, cat’s eyes and central-reservation lights curving round. And then there is the writer and artist Bill Drummond who fell so in love with Jock Kinneir’s blue-and-white motorway signs that he stole one and replaced it with one of his own paintings.

But now I have a new, favourite road artist: Edward Chell, who in his new exhibition ‘Gran Tourismo’ – which is, appropriately enough, being held at the Little Chef restaurant, Ings, on the A591 into Windermere - combines oil paintings depicting motorway verges on the M6 with text pieces in the form of customised road signs, like the one illustrating this post.

Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts write about Chell in their recent book Edgelands which I posted about a few weeks ago:

The painter Edward Chell has been drawn to this inaccessible wilderness, mundane and sublime in its infinity. Chell first noticed how rich a landscape this is, like many of us, while inching forward in gridlocked traffic. Motorway verges today are pesticide-free strips of wilderness, as difficult to reach as sea cliffs, miniature landscapes that run along this in-between space for thousands of miles. He works from photographs and sketches, but access is difficult and dangerous: these are forbidden zones, places where the traffic police will pick you up within minutes. Working on the M2 and M20, Chell learned how to make himself invisible by wearing a hi-vis jerkin and hardhat: the twenty-first-century en plein air artist in disguise.

The paintings he produces suggest the busyness and fecundity of roadside verges, rich and alive. He has described the powerful visual metaphor of the verge as poised between ordered, policed and restricted boundary spaces of the state that we are only allowed to look at while travelling at great speed, and the slower, uncontrollable energies of nature.

You can see some of Chell’s work at and hear him being interviewed on Radio 4's Open Country at

Mundane quote for the day: ‘To hawks, these gritty country lanes must look like shingle beaches; the polished roads must gleam like seams of granite in a moorland waste. All the monstrous artefacts of man are natural, untainted things to them.’ – J.A. Baker, The Peregrine

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

A life in the day

This pulled me up short. It’s from A Life in the Day, an anthology of the famous back-page column in the Sunday Times magazine. It’s from 4 January 1998, when Roko Camaj, who cleaned the windows of the upper floors of the World Trade Center in New York, described a typical day of his life with a certain quotidian lyricism:

Window cleaners are weird guys. I think it’s because when you go down the side of a building it’s a completely different world …. I’ve been working up here for 22 years and now it’s just like I’m standing on the ground … This tall city seems so shrunken and insignificant from up above. It’s like a toy town, with tiny cars and people who look like toothpicks. I’m even higher than the clouds and airplanes. When they flit by I have an urge to jump out and ride on the back of them. I see a few birds circling round and I often have the unpleasant task of cleaning squashed birds from the windows when they’ve crunched into the glass by mistake. Everything has to be secure in the cage. You can’t, for example, have loose change in your pockets. God forbid – if you drop one penny from here you can kill someone down below.

My world consists of windows and reflections. I prefer to be on the outside looking in. I’m the one who’s free. Inside it’s like a jail. I wouldn’t ever want to change places with the big shots sitting inside in their leather chairs. As I pass their air-conditioned cages, I can see they’d love to rip off their ties. Me, I don’t have any stress … It’s pretty hellish up there when the wind whips around, though the cage is rock solid. But I’ve often come off the building with windburn. In summer there’s a nice spidery breeze … But I love this job. I get $75 more than the window cleaners downstairs.

Roko Camaj was on the roof of the south tower on September 11 2001 and his body was never found.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

A sad heart at the supermarket

Every day on my drive to and from work through Toxteth I can see a new Tesco’s rising up out of the ground like a recession-eating behemoth. At first it was just a hole in the ground; then it was a prefab shell with access roads. Now the lights are on and you can see it taking shape inside: the long row of checkouts, the head-high gondolas, the massive overhead signs: bread, wine, meat, fish … Everything except the shoppers, in fact, and stuff for them to buy.

The first supermarket in Britain opened on 26 June 1950, when Sainsbury’s opened a newly refurbished store on London Road, Croydon. The London Co-operative Society had already opened some self-service stores, but the Croydon Sainsbury’s was big, over 3,300 square feet in area: the precursor of the modern supermarket. Not all the customers were happy. Alan Sainsbury himself gave one woman a new-fangled wire basket to collect her groceries, and she flung it back at him in disgust.

In those days of strict government controls, the Ministry of Food had given Sainsbury’s special dispensation to convert the store to self-service. The government saw the importation of this American retail method as a way of coping with labour shortages and cutting costs. The US Technical Assistance and Productivity Programme established under the Marshall Plan promoted “the gospel of self-service”. The abolition of rationing in 1954, and the ending of postwar building restrictions in the same year, led to the proliferation of supermarkets. At first many housewives were sceptical about this new form of shopping, worried about the loss of personal service, the temptation to overspend and even being accused of stealing goods bought in other shops. Drawing on memories of rationing, self-service advocates reassured them with the promise of queueless shopping: they would only have to queue to pay, with no time-consuming weighing and wrapping of food, and those requiring few items could pay for them quickly, while others could shop at their leisure. One upbeat article in The Times in 1959 claimed that self-service “saves thousands of hours of queueing time every day,” and that even a queue was now only “a queue in one store as opposed to queues in four or five shops”. This optimism proved to be premature. By 1964, the Consumer Council was reporting that the most common complaint of supermarket shoppers was the length of queues at the checkouts.

No amount of empathy for the corner shop, or suspicion of the supermarket as a super predator in the food chain, seems to be able to halt the spread of the Tescopoly. The supermarket is a place where, in Jean Baudrillard’s words, “all life is massaged, climate controlled and domesticated into the simple activity of perpetual shopping.”

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Localism without line breaks

First things first: Blogger seems to be getting rid of my paragraphing, which is why my last few posts, and this one, are an undifferentiated mass. My mundane quotes for the day will have to be suspended until I can sort this out - or, more realistically, until it sorts itself out. Anyway, Alexandra Harris has a nice piece, ‘The ground beneath our feet’, in last week’s New Statesman (not available on the web sadly), on the vogue for localist writing: ‘The small scale has seemed a big deal to me ever since a school biology lesson in which the class trooped off to a nearby field, equipped with squares of wire called quadrats. We had to throw our square randomly and then examine the bit of ground it framed. We counted the kinds of grass and tried to draw the flowers that we had never noticed under our feet … I remember the sense of revelation: narrow down your view of the world for a moment and a whole territory appears. Then try looking up again, and you find that the whole field is transformed.’ Harris mentions Michael Wood’s The Story of England, Madeleine Bunting’s The Plot and a book I loved which deserves to be better known and which I’m glad she reminded me of: James Attlee’s 2007 book Isolarion, which throws a metaphorical quadrat round the Cowley Road in Oxford. (An Isolarion is a type of atlas, originating in the 15th century, that attempted to build up an image of the world by mapping a little fragment of it.) Cowley road is not, of course, the Brideshead Oxford but the mundane Oxford of rundown Halal shops and hairdressers. I particularly remember Attlee’s description of a barber’s varnished wooden floor ‘across which hair drifts like the iron filings in an Etch a Sketch’. Unaccountably, though, Attlee neglects to mention a famous resident of Cowley Road: David Cameron, who lived at number 69 while he was a student in the late 1980s studying PPE. His daily routine there included watching Neighbours and the trans-European quiz Going for Gold, presented by Henry Kelly. Attlee has a new book out, Nocturne, which is on my wish list. And I also enjoyed Harris’s book Romantic Moderns – not surprisingly when she writes so evocatively about the provincial, particular, suburban contexts of ‘modernist’ writing and art, from John Piper and J.M. Richards’s planned ‘Study of a Hundred Yards of a Suburban Road’ to Stevie Smith’s weather-watching narrator in Novel on Yellow Paper, to Henry Green’s Party Going, which takes the reader up on high to look down on the crowds at a London railway station.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Mecca of the multistorey

Coming back on the train from London Euston yesterday via an unexpected route – because of ‘overhead line damage in the Wembley area’, a phrase I have now heard enough for one lifetime – I found the suburbs of Harrow and Wealdstone, Bushey and Watford strangely enchanted in the twilight. At Watford Junction I saw a medium-sized multi-storey car park bathed in light from the setting sun and I was reminded of the late J.G. Ballard’s description of Watford as ‘the Mecca of the multi-storey car park’. Watford’s multistoreys were an inspiration for Ballard’s novel, The Atrocity Exhibition, which describes car parks as ‘inclined floors … forever meeting the events of time and space at an invisible angle’. For all its importance, parking occupies a passive place in the urban landscape. While the moving car has retained its (albeit compromised) iconography of speed, status and wealth, there is no iconography of parking. Car parks are buried underground or hidden away on side roads rather than integrated into prominent streets. Multistorey car parks, many of them built in the 1960s in the stark lines and untreated concrete of the ‘new brutalism’, are some of the least-loved buildings in Britain. Space is at a premium in the multistorey, so turning circles are tight, bays small, floor heights minimal and stairwells dark. With their cramped conditions and open sides to allow car fumes to escape, they are a strange mixture of the subterranean and the exposed. In many film and TV thrillers, the car park is an ungovernable space, where shady deals are done and crimes go unpunished. In the cult gangster movie, Get Carter (1971), for example, the eponymous anti-hero (Michael Caine) throws one of his adversaries from the upper floor of a Gateshead multistorey. The partly deserved reputation of car parks as dangerous and crime-ridden is closely connected with the poor status and scarcity of parking. When we buy a ticket to park, we are not purchasing a service but renting a small area of private land for a short period. The operator is not required to look after the vehicle or driver, and car parks will often display notices making this clear. When car parks are working to capacity, there is no good economic reason to make them any better. It is a sign of our peculiarly ambivalent approach to parking that it can be simultaneously acknowledged as a daily, near-universal obsession and dismissed as a nerdish, minority interest. The photographer Martin Parr once embarked on a project to photograph the last available space in car parks around the world. Explaining his motivation, Parr said with quiet profundity: ‘The one thing we’re all looking for in life is somewhere to park the car.’