Saturday, 30 June 2012

Roadside Britain

The photographer Sam Mellish has just published a new book, Roadside Britain, for which I wrote the preface. I think the photographs are wonderful. You can find out more about Sam’s project, including the galleries where his roadside photographs are being exhibited and links to his various websites, on his blog:


Here is part of my preface just to give you a taster:

In his recently published memoir, I, Partridge, the North Norfolk digital radio presenter and former BBC chat show host Alan Partridge writes that one of the programme ideas he once unsuccessfully pitched to the BBC was ‘Motorway Rambles’: walking the hard shoulders of British trunk roads with special permission from the Transport Police.

Everyone immediately understands the joke, because spending any more time by the British roadside than you have to is supposed to be an inherently absurd activity. The roadside has long fed into resilient British narratives of nostalgia, loss and self-depreciation. The roadside verge is a hybrid place, neither urban nor rural, in which elegists can contemplate the natural world and lament its encroachment by modern abominations. These anxieties date back to the interwar period, when the rise of the motor car and the arrival of the National Grid meant that houses and factories tended to be built along roads rather than near coalfields. Many observers saw in Britain’s new roadside topography the symptoms of moral degeneration and social crisis. Throughout J.B. Priestley’s English Journey (1934), the roadside serves as a metaphor for cultural change, an augury of a future England made up of Tudor-style chain pubs, lock-up shops and redbrick villas where ‘everything and everybody is being rushed down and swept into one dusty arterial road of cheap mass production and standardized living’ …

… But there are some parts of the British roadside that still resist the relentless pull of sameness and blandness, and these improvised roadside shacks are the subject of Sam Mellish’s ongoing photographic project, On the Road. In this he joins an emerging but increasingly distinguished tradition. It was probably Paul Graham who began it all with his photographic project on the A1 (the ‘Great North Road’) conducted during 1981 and 1982, a subject returned to by Jon Nicholson in his 2004 book A1: Portrait of a Road. Until the 1960s, the A1 was the main road connecting the north and south of Britain, but it has now been superseded by the M1 and other motorways, so both Graham and Nicholson seek to represent a partially dying world. It is here that you see drivers sitting alone: lone bikers resting their helmets on tabletops or men in hangdog suits with vacant stares – the sort of sad roadside cafe people whom the philosopher Alain de Botton has compared to the lone figures in Edward Hopper paintings.

Others have joined the pilgrimage by the roadside: the Church of England vicar John Davies in his book Walking the M62; the artist Edward Chell, who combines oil paintings depicting motorway verges on the M6 with text pieces in the form of customised road signs; and the poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in their recent book Edgelands. Like these artists and writers, Sam Mellish demonstrates that spending time carefully observing and recording what goes on by the British roadside is not in fact a remotely Partridgesque activity. It is a worthwhile, enlightening and often touching one.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘No one suspects the days to be gods.’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Civilisations on sand

I wrote this about beaches a while ago. Jean Sprackland reminded me about it by kindly citing it in her book.

In Waterlog, an account of his wild swimmer’s journey through Britain, the late Roger Deakin observes the “hairless apes squealing with pleasure in the sea” at Porthcurno in Cornwall, and wonders why people are so playful and carefree on the beach. He concludes that our species emerged from the sea and our dry-land existence is a recent phenomenon, so we simply feel more at home on the shore.

The resurgent interest in “wildness,” among contemporary nature writers like Deakin, Robert Macfarlane and Kathleen Jamie, has often gravitated towards the beach. This is partly because many of our beaches, on the Jurassic Coast of Devon and Dorset or the great shingle peninsulas in the southeast, are such strange, otherworldly places. But it’s also because the beach is a point of accommodation between humans and nature. Deakin may have felt the call of the wild but he was also a dedicated beach anthropologist, wandering Monsieur Hulot-like among the tame holidaymakers with their windbreakers and Primus stoves.

The ideal of the beach in western culture is of a beautiful tabula rasa, a preferably deserted landscape of virgin sand and translucent sea where you can escape from the stresses of modern life – which is presumably why you can now buy a “beach in a box” for your office desktop, with a miniature deckchair, sea shells and sand. But as the BBC series Coast showed - once you got beyond its self-consciously stirring music and sweeping aerial views of our shoreline - the British beach is really a case study in cultural history. Our beaches have gone through all sorts of uses, including land speed record attempts at Pendine Sands in Carmarthen Bay, improvised airstrips at Southport and D-day landing dummy runs at Slapton Sands in Devon. More recently, beaches have become highly artificial environments, as tidal changes and coastal erosion force resorts like Minehead and Lyme Regis to import sand or dredge it from the sea bed.

The beach is a frontier not only between water and solid ground, but also between the wild and the domestic. It is where sandyachters and kite buggyers share space with picnickers and sunbathers, in states of proximity and undress they would never tolerate in their ordinary lives. As a self-policing community, the beach also condones a certain amount of low-level lawlessness, from nicking boulders for garden water features to scavenging for Nike trainers in the cargo ship containers that occasionally wash up on the southwest coast. Even Ian McEwan admitted to liberating a few pebbles from Chesil Beach, although he later returned them at the invitation of Weymouth and Portland Borough Council.

Deakin admired beaches as places where social hierarchies and arcane rules are temporarily suspended. So I imagine he would have disliked the current fashion, in newspaper travel supplements, for listing our “best” beaches. This trend for grading beaches began with conservation societies worrying about sea pollution. But it has become a beauty contest, as resorts compete over things like wave size and sandcastle build-ability. Some of this is less to do with the beaches themselves than the accident of location. Resorts that are within second-home distance of London’s middle classes tend to emphasise the clean minimalism of their beaches, because that is what appeals to busy professionals and downshifters. A side-effect has been the decade-long property boom in beach huts, which are disproportionately on the south and east coasts, and are now undergoing their own version of the house-price crash. The struggling seaside resorts in my own area of the northwest, like Blackpool, Morecambe and New Brighton, rely instead on council-led regeneration plans for casinos, outdoor lidos and refurbished Art Deco hotels, and don’t go on about their beaches so much.

Contrary to some reports, the recent Policy Exchange publication, Cities Unlimited, does not write off all the regeneration schemes in the north. It is fairly optimistic about inland cities like Manchester and Leeds, and gloomiest about coastal towns like Liverpool, Hull and Blackpool. In a motorway-based economy, it argues, these places are literally at the end of the road. Cities Unlimited is an anti-coast manifesto. All the places it commends for being well-connected, like Corby, Daventry and Oxford, are miles from a beach.

Fortunately, the beach has no truck with neo-liberal economics, or indeed beauty contests. Almost everywhere on the coast has a serviceable beach nearby, assuming you can refrain from giving the sand a star rating. And I will happily trade living in a motorway hub for living as I do within 10 minutes’ drive of Crosby beach. On late summer evenings when the day-trippers have gone, there is no one else about except some naked, cast-iron men staring out across Liverpool Bay. Anthony Gormley’s rusty artwork, Another Place, is a reminder that, even on a deserted beach, people have left their mark.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

A year on the beach

Having been wrongly accused last week of never having been to Deptford, I've been steering clear of urban planning politics this week and heading for the beach. It is June, after all, even though this month is rapidly disappearing down a drain. I've been reading Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, a new book by Jean Sprackland, a poet who lives, or lived, not far from me, near Ainsdale Sands, between Southport and Formby Point. Over the course of a year, Sprackland simply walks on the beach near her home and tells us what she finds and sees.

There is some lovely stuff in it, with a particularly brilliant section about messages in bottles, sent to no one in particular across 'the mother of all dead letter boxes: the sea'. It is also salutary to learn that 'caffeine levels are so high in some coastal areas that it's used as a marker to determine general water quality'. And I learnt a lot about a science I had never even heard of: Flotsametrics. In his book Flotsametrics and the Floating world (2009), Curtis Ebbesmeyer explores the science behind the complex and unlikely journeys taken by ocean debris like driftwood, messages in bottles, corpses and derelict ships, as well as 'the Great Sneaker spill' - when thousands of lost-overboard Nike training shoes ended up on distant shores. Apparently, 'murderers often underestimate the strength and complexity of currents and tidal systems, a failure which has sabotaged many an otherwise "perfect" crime.'

Searching for some of Sprackland's poems, I found this suitably lyrical reworking of the everyday on her website:


Mattresses


Tipped down the embankment, they
sprawl like sloshed suburban wives,

buckled and split, slashed by rain,
moulded by bodies dead or disappeared
and reeking with secrets.


A lineside museum of sleep and sex,
an archive of thrills and emissions,
the histories of half-lives
spent hiding in the dark.


Arthritic iron frames might still be worth a bit,
but never that pink quilted headboard,
naked among thistles, relic
of some reckless beginning, testament


to the usual miracle: the need to be close,
however it stains and bruises.


from Tilt (Cape, 2007)

Saturday, 16 June 2012

The story of our streets


I wrote this for the Guardian's Comment is Free site yesterday:

In 1886, Charles Booth and his researchers began walking round London, working on a famous social survey that would take the next 17 years and span as many volumes. The colour-coded maps he charted, with social divisions delineated in reds and blacks, represent some of the earliest “infographics”, a powerful visual primer on poverty and deprivation. The London School of Economics is shortly to launch a mobile app of Booth’s poverty maps, so anyone in London will be able to plot their location on the maps and see how it has changed over the last century and a half. Among the streets Booth and his assistants wandered was Deptford High Street, thriving in Booth’s time and now one of the poorest shopping streets in London – a jumble of bookies, pawnbrokers and pound shops.

While it seems that every TV documentary now has to be a “secret life” or a “secret history”, BBC 2’s series about Booth’s map, The Secret History of Our Streets, whose first episode featured Deptford, applies the term accurately. Most of us are amateur ethnographers of some sort, examining boarded-up shops or roadside skips as signs of a neighbourhood’s changing fortunes. And most of us know something of the history of the great social forces that have transformed our streets, like slum clearance and property speculation. But in this programme they are fleshed out with residents’ own words, merging social with family history and making historical change tangible and tragic. “My mum had lovely curtains,” said one woman whose house off Deptford High Street had been condemned as a slum.

And yet the main story of the past half century of development, gentrification and recession is the disappearance of the street as a social space, as our lives and attentions have been directed elsewhere. In his book The Comfort of Things, the anthropologist Daniel Miller interviewed the residents in an unnamed street in southeast London, and concluded that the street was now merely a “random juxtapositions of households”. Homes with digital televisions and broadband connections looked inwards for amusement and social connection, and networks of family and friends were increasingly dispersed. The street also had little concept of community because services, information and goods were supplied to homes in such an invisible way that “we do not seem to require any active allegiance to, or alignment with, some abstract image of society or community, which lies closer to our daily lives”.

Indifferent to the street as social space, we have let others map it for us. In the last two decades, the social meaning of streets has largely been defined by a quasi-sociological project no less ambitious than Booth’s: “neighbourhood information systems”, digital databases like Acorn (A Classification of Residential Neighbourhoods) and Mosaic. These systems profile streets using information like credit ratings and house prices. Mosaic, for example, divides postcodes into lifestyle groupings like “Liberal Opinions” (typical couple: Johan and Freya), “Suburban Mindsets” (Surinder and Bina) and “Claimant Cultures” (Jimmy and Shelley). These profiles are used by political parties to identify key swing voters and by property websites to determine whether a street’s houses have a chance of accumulating equity. No need for a Charles Booth any more: you can easily obtain a snapshot of the social composition of any street, from information about newspaper readership to how high its young people rank for university admissions.

Booth’s project of mapping London scientifically — by giving marks for the cleanliness of curtains or the number of flower boxes on windowsills — now seems like a product of late-Victorian paternalism and positivism. But at least Booth did the legwork. Neighbourhood Information Systems assemble their profiles remotely through datasets and number crunching. Social division cannot just be turned into a patchwork of consumer classifications in this way. Streets are real places in which people have to deal with the effects of political decisions and the vagaries of the market. “London in 1886,” the first episode of The Secret History of Our Streets began. “With its self-importance, its dirt, its wealth and awful poverty, it seems a mystery to us now.” In fact, the series shows that, minus the dirt, little has changed.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

After us, the deluge

I wrote this back in 2007. It seems appropriate, in the circumstances.

I hope it’s not raining on you as you read this, but the odds aren’t good. The nicest thing to say about the summer so far is that it is not as bad as last summer, which was the wettest since records began. In his 2002 book, Rain, Brian Cathcart reflected ruefully on the sanguine view we used to have of global warming. “We were told to expect vineyards spreading north through England and restaurants spilling out on to every pavement,” he noted. “But now the forecast for the twenty-first century is rainy.” And that was before the horrors of Glastonbury 2005, when stewards paddled out in dinghies to rescue the tent people stranded in rivers of mud. Or last summer’s biblical floods in Yorkshire and the Severn Valley. The recent Pitt review on these floods warned us to expect more “extreme rainfall events”.

Rain is part of the British cultural imagination. Last Saturday afternoon I watched the Cliff Richard film, Summer Holiday, on ITV. (It was raining.) The film’s opening credits run over monochrome shots of a deserted seaside promenade in the rain, before Cliff arrives in a London bus and sunny Technicolor to drive his friends to Athens. Made in 1962, the film reflected anxieties about the rise of cheap air travel and the lure of the warm south. But there was something phlegmatic about this association of rain and the British summer: it was the small price we paid for our temperate climate, which could be used to explain everything from our placid national character to our moderate political system.

But this is not gentle, bathetic drizzle we are experiencing. This is lashing, stair-rod rain, and it’s hard to imagine it as part of the timeless rhythms of daily life. The new business of weather risk management, pioneered by the disgraced energy trader Enron, is ready to exploit the British climate as it becomes more chaotic. Hedge funds trade in weather derivatives, allowing firms to protect themselves against the financial losses incurred by bad weather. Met Office consultants provide data which tells retailers whether to stock up on suncream or umbrellas.

The weather futures market is part of a long history of trying to disenchant the natural world, to bring the rain to book. Francis Bacon, the father of the modern scientific method, argued that science would allow people eventually to control the weather, alter the pattern of the seasons and increase crop productivity. The German critic Walter Benjamin wrote that a characteristic of modernity was the “diminishing magical power of the rain”. His great project was a study of the arcades, the beautiful iron-and-glass constructions that allowed nineteenth-century Parisians to see and be seen in all weathers. He imagined a Paris of the future entirely enclosed within a “crystal canopy” to protect it from the rain.

It hasn’t quite worked out like that. True, the response of traditional British seaside resorts to the popularity of continental holidays was to create weatherproof experiences like amusement arcades and sealife centres – with mixed results. But meanwhile, the middle classes have been contrarily fashioning an alternative social season where the rain god is capricious and cruel. The rise of the summer festival, and the rediscovery of camping, are a weekend version of the back to the land movement that emerged in the late 1960s, a nomadic lifestyle drawing on pagan rituals. But we seem to be embracing the outdoors life at the moment when our climate is most ill-equipped for it. The things I remember most from my only experience of camping at a music festival are the people dressed in bin-liners and the deafening sound of rain on canvas. It seemed to me like nature’s way of telling us that we now have things called hotels.

Rain doesn’t just make these events miserable; it makes them impossible. This year’s Sunrise festival in Somerset was cancelled at the last minute after flash floods, and local tractor-owners had to tow festival-goers out of the mud. As last week’s BBC Money Programme showed, the billion-pound economy of festivals is organised around offsetting the catastrophe of a downpour, by raising money through very advanced ticket sales and corporate sponsorship. Even flower-child festival promoters have to write the rain into their business plans.

Rain makes us wet, but it is also saturated with meaning. Rain invites inactivity and gives us time to reflect on its significance. British rain used to be about the eccentric stoicism of couples sat in their cars staring at the sea through their windscreen wipers. Today’s torrents provoke more troubling thoughts. The Pitt Review advises us all to have a flood kit,” including a wind-up radio and wetwipes, and tells us to stop concreting over our front gardens, which makes the land less permeable. Worrying about the rain has become a moral imperative. Perhaps we have always obsessed about rain because we imagine, in some neurotic version of the pathetic fallacy, that it is passing comment on our national character and behaviour. This time, if rough weather turns out to be the price we pay for climate change, we may be right.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Missing the torch

I could be wrong, but I seem to remember that the original germ of an idea for Monty Python's Life of Brian was someone who kept missing the great moments in the Bible - who turned up at the Sermon on the Mount or the Marriage Feast at Canaan, say, just as everyone was packing up to go home. I thought of this on Friday when I somehow contrived to miss seeing the Olympic torch, despite it coming right past the building where I work.

I was following the progress of the torch on the 'live' webcam in my office - a hypnotic watch, a sort of national Mexican wave as the camera pans past cheering crowds that seem to emerge out of nowhere - to see when the torch was at the top of our road. I then went to the other side of the building to get a prime view, only to see the crowd dispersing.

It took me a few seconds to realise what had happened, so used are we to authenticating our experiences by looking at a screen. There was a delay on the webcam and the torch had gone.

I had missed my once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a flame lit by the sun on Mount Olympus. I went back to my office and checked my emails.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘How many people turn on the radio and leave the room, satisfied with the distant and sufficient noise? Is this absurd? Not in the least. What is essential is not that one particular person speak and another hear, but that, with no one in particular speaking and no one in particular listening, there should nonetheless be speech, and a kind of undefined promise to communicate, guaranteed by the incessant coming and going of solitary words.’ - Maurice Blanchot

Friday, 1 June 2012

Dreams about the Queen

In 1972, 20 years after the Queen's accession to the throne, Brian Masters wrote a book called Dreams about H.M. the Queen. Masters wrote to everyone he knew and put adverts in newspapers, asking Her Majesty's subjects to send him summaries of the dreams about her that interrupted their sleep. As he describes it in his memoir, Getting Personal, 'the Queen was depicted driving a lorry up the M1, running a post-office, travelling with her family to the State Opening of Parliament on the Piccadilly Line, in full regalia and crown, because it was quicker than fighting one's way through traffic. Nearly all of them involved a cup of tea. I especially liked the one sent in by a housewife from Leeds who had met the Queen on a bus and invited her to tea ("I expect you don't get much chance of an ordinary good cuppa, do you, love?") and, when the Queen arrived and knocked on the door of her terraced cottage, she sheepishly confessed, "I hope you don't mind, I've brought my mother along too". The Queen Mother was hiding round the corner in gunboots, awaiting permission to be included.'

Masters's own dream 'concerned my turning up for dinner at Buckingham Palace and noticing, as I sat down, that I had forgotten to put on any clothes at all. As I fumbled to protect myself with a horribly small napkin, the Queen and her exceedingly well-bred family made no allusion whatever to my nakedness, but chatted on as if nothing were amiss.'