Saturday, 26 June 2010

The last resort

I’m looking forward to Travis Elborough’s new book, Wish You Were Here: England on Sea:

I wrote these reflections on the seaside resort a while ago:

In 1986 the photographer Martin Parr published a book called The Last Resort, about New Brighton, a seaside town across the Mersey from Liverpool. Parr showed working-class day trippers surrounded by concrete and litter, snacking on lethal-looking hot dogs and turning unbecoming shades of crimson. The book made Parr's name but, understandably, New Brighton wasn't best pleased.

Parr's book alighted on an eternal preoccupation of the British seaside resort: social class. As the historian Harold Perkin has shown, this was often a question of land ownership. Where one or two landlords bought up all the land, as in Southport, the resorts had genteel pretensions. Where land was sold off in bits, as happened in Blackpool, "democracy created its own Coney Island".

When New Brighton was founded in 1830, it aspired to poshness: the houses were built on one side of the road only, to give residents a fine sea view. But it was soon swamped with rough sorts from across the water and by the 1950s had three million visitors a year. Then cheap air travel arrived, the tower (taller than Blackpool's) burned down, and tidal changes swept much of the sand away.

From the 1960s onwards Britain's fading resorts became a familiar metaphor for national decline, as described in Paul Theroux's The Kingdom by the Sea (1983): "So much had withered and gone, and reckless people had done damage with their schemes . . . The British seemed to me to be people forever standing on a crumbling coast and scanning the horizon."

Since Theroux wrote these words, however, our seaside resorts have met differing fates. If they are within second-home and mini-break distance for the so-called DFLs (Down from Londoners), they have acquired restaurants presided over by television chefs, and assorted downshifters. Beach huts sell for the price of New Brighton houses.

Less fortunate resorts rely on council-led regeneration schemes. After a flirtation with a Mr Blobby theme park, Morecambe has renovated its art-deco Midland Hotel, and Blackpool is pinning its hopes on stag weekends and casinos (while also applying to be a World Heritage Site). Sea and sand are barely mentioned. But the fate of resorts seems to depend more on location and the middle-class grapevine than large-scale projects.

Since the 1980s New Brighton has had regeneration plans - for a seafront theme park and a "pleasure island" set in an artificial lagoon - which all turned out to be castles in the sand. A few years ago the government has rejected a £75m scheme after a planning report criticised the "strong feeling of nostalgia" in its visions of a lido and model boating lake.

I visited New Brighton recently on a windy Saturday and, 20 years after Parr's book, the litter has gone and there is still plenty of beach, although the view of the Mersey Tunnel ventilator shaft may be an acquired taste. The appeal of the place is that it remains the seaside of our childhoods: mini-golf courses, flower beds surrounded by railings, coin-slot telescopes and shops selling windmills on sticks. The acts at the Floral Pavilion Theatre - Chris Clayton's Viva Elvis and Sooty's Izzy Wizzy Holiday Show - could have been playing there for 40 years. But the beach is deserted. Seaside nostalgics such as myself love New Brighton - but there aren't enough of us to pay the bills.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Here is another everyday life, unrecognizable yet recognized with its swimming-pools, white lacquered telephones, antique furniture … yet there remains one insuperable superiority: the demi-gods do not live in the quotidian, whereas the common mortal, his feet glued to the ground, is overwhelmed by it, submerged and engulfed.’ – Henri Lefebvre

Thursday, 24 June 2010

U and non-U

I’ve been on tenterhooks all day today, in emotional bits, wondering whether Andy Murray would bow to the Queen. Now the waiting is finally over and I can relax, I’ve been inspired to cobble together these thoughts on etiquette.

Anxieties about etiquette often respond to specific historical dilemmas. After World War II, middle-class commentators noted the increased incivility of workers who seemed reluctant to return to pre-war standards of class deference, what the writer J.L. Hodson called ‘a mild revolt against society’. A 1957 Times leader pointed to the ‘anger of the middle classes’ at the loss of a common system of manners, and complained that ‘it is nowadays hard to have a relationship with a subordinate which rests on mutual consideration based on acknowledged authority’.

Alan Ross and Nancy Mitford’s famous distinction between ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ in the 1950s addressed the problem of the genteel poor, which meant that the upper classes now had to differentiate themselves linguistically, by saying ‘napkin’ instead of ‘serviette’, and ‘how d’you do?’ instead of ‘pleased to meet you’. The lower orders could be kept in their place with subtle putdowns, such as the use of ‘civil’ to describe the behaviour of non-U people who knew their place (‘The guard was very civil’).

Nowadays, the changing nature of public space creates its own potential frictions. Places like supermarkets, hotels and airports often require no human interaction at all, just a series of anonymous contractual obligations: ‘queue this side’, ‘sign on the dotted line’, ‘key in your ID number’, ‘have your boarding card ready’. We can get through complex manoeuvres in daily life without actually talking to any one around us. But we are endlessly available to absent friends and colleagues through the use of mobiles and pagers. Hence the need for quiet zones on trains, and the silent seething of fellow passengers when we abuse them.

New technologies also generate uncertainty over protocol. In the 1980s, one etiquette expert ruled that it was an unforgivable solecism to hang up on an answering machine, claiming that leaving a message was ‘exactly the same in modern terms, as leaving one’s card with the footman’.

Twitter seems to have its own protocol – about following people who are following you, replying, retweeting, thanking tweeters who’ve retweeted you, etc. I fear I may already have unwittingly stamped over this protocol like a beered-up England fan with a vuvuzela in the Queen’s Enclosure at Ascot.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The true poem is the daily paper.’ – Walt Whitman

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Wish you were here

Why do holidaymakers still bother sending postcards? Now that we can relay instant text messages and snapshots on our mobile phones, the postcard seems like the definition of a redundant technology. By rights, it should be going the way of the telegram.

But the point of the postcard is that it is a material object, with its own elaborate rituals of sending and receipt. Tourist etiquette demands that it is purchased at the place it depicts, is rendered personal by a handwritten message on the back, and is posted (rather than handed over) to someone back home, even if it arrives later than the person who sent it.

So the postcard is the epitome of what linguists call phatic communication: a message with no inherent content, sent for its own sake and simply saying “hello, I’m here and you’re there”. The most touching item in Martin Parr’s cult book of Boring Postcards is a postcard of Reighton Sands Holiday Village, on which someone has scrawled the words “our caravan” in blue biro, next to one of about fifty identical-looking caravans.

The compound adjective, “picture-postcard,” to describe a scene of exaggerated prettiness, is misleading. Postcards have an inclusive, non-judgmental aesthetic. Often cheaply and locally produced, they have consistently expanded our definitions of the picturesque. In postcard land, as Parr’s collection shows, the Chiswick flyover and the Arndale Centre in Crossgates are as worthy of attention as the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower.

The messages written on the backs of postcards are also a social leveller. Before the arrival of the postcard in the late nineteenth century, there were Byzantine rules about how to open and sign off a letter, depending on one’s social status and familiarity with the sendee. It was bad manners to send a short letter, because the recipient often had to pay for the postage. But even the barely literate could write a brief postcard message, and they did not have to worry about whether to put the effusive “yours sincerely” or the more formal “yours truly”. The postcard message was the equivalent of today’s text message: non-elitist, informal, and laid back about spelling and syntax.

In his book The Post Card, the philosopher Jacques Derrida argues that postcard messages are a strange mixture of the public and private, circulating “like an open but illegible letter”. The message is written casually and can be viewed by anybody, including the postman; but the sender often writes in private codes and assumes a body of knowledge only shared with the sendee.

Tom Phillips’s anthology, The Postcard Century, which relates the history of the twentieth century through thousands of cards, is full of these kinds of semi-decipherable messages. The banal evasions of postcard language – “wish you were here,” “having a lovely time,” “we saw this and thought of you” – can hint at the much larger world of happiness or misery behind them. Senders of cards rarely produce the expected or appropriate responses to historical events, as their everyday anxieties intrude into era-defining moments. “I have been gardening all this week,” declares one 1911 card which carries a photograph of a condemned man in an electric chair. Another message from Berlin just after the fall of the Wall in 1989 complains to the recipient that it is “definite thermal undies weather”. The postcard message, as Phillips says, “bumps into history as a ball on a pin-table hits or misses, by hazard”. If all the postcards sent this summer were collected into an archive, their mundane, barely legible messages about missed flights and dodgy weather would eventually make for an equally gripping historical record.

Mundane quotes for the day: ‘It was Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless; and a duller spectacle this earth of ours has yet to show than a rainy Sunday in London.’ – Thomas de Quincey

‘The boredom of Sunday afternoon, which drove de Quincey to drink laudanum, also gave birth to surrealism: hours propitious for making bombs.’ – Cyril Connolly

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The girl chewing gum

Hooray! Someone has put John Smith’s short film, The Girl Chewing Gum (1976), on YouTube:

The film consists almost entirely of a single continuous shot of Stamford Road in Dalston Junction, a downbeat area of east London. The camera is mostly trained on the offices of a plate glass company at the corner of the street, and records passers-by as they go about their business. The conceit of the film is that everything that moves or appears within shot - pedestrians, cars, pigeons, even clocks – is following the instructions of an omnipotent director who appears to be behind the camera: ‘Now I want the man with white hair and glasses to cross the road … come on, quickly, look this way … now walk off to the left.’ Pedestrians put cigarettes in their mouths, talk to each other, eat chips, take their glasses off, cast a glance behind them or look at the camera, all at the apparent behest of this offscreen director. The mostly-fixed camera suggests a proscenium frame in which the pedestrians are actors waiting to come in from the wings of a stage set.

As the film progresses, though, this impression of directorial omnipotence is slowly undermined. The director’s instructions become increasingly complex and his voiceover starts to lag behind what is happening onscreen. He cannot keep pace with the action, as people arrive in shot whom he has not mentioned, and events take place that he has not prescribed. He becomes breathless, coughs and stumbles over his words. The world will not obey his instructions.

The Girl Chewing Gum was inspired by Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), a film about the making of another film. Smith was particularly struck by a scene in which the director gives instructions to the extras as well as the main actors, and even tells a dog to piss up a lamppost.

The pedestrians’ movements in Smith’s film – which have, in case you haven't worked this out by now, simply been filmed rather than directed - seem very strange when watched in this concentrated way. People do not just pass by: they stop, fold their arms and then walk back to where they came from; they read newspapers while walking, oblivious to where they are going; they flap their arms about for no apparent reason. And the strange fashions of the mid-1970s (tartan fleeces, collar-length hair, horn-rimmed NHS spectacles, flared trousers, sideburns and Afros) make the passers-by seem like they belong to a lost world.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

In defence of insincerity

In case you didn't see it already, I did this piece for Guardian last week:

When Big Brother began ten years ago, the critical consensus was that it would reward a new breed of addictive attention-seekers, all searching for their brief moment in the pages of Heat magazine. “Camcorders and the internet have stolen our sense of shame, and soon the inhibited will be a minority,” argued Cosmo Landesman, fairly typically, in the Sunday Times. “The British are on the brink of becoming a nation of exhibitionists and voyeurs.”

As the programme begins its final series, it is clear that this wasn’t the whole story. True, the inhabitants of the Big Brother house over the last decade have not exactly been self-denying anchorites. But the housemates who proved most popular with viewers were those who seemed to be sincere, authentic and consistent in their behaviour. Meanwhile, the most reviled contestants, from “Nasty” Nick Bateman onwards, were the incorrigible flirts, the look-at-me poseurs, the two-faced operators. Anthropologists tell us that gossip is a basic human activity, a vital means of sharing information, forming friendships and oiling the wheels of social life. And yet the worst crime in the Big Brother house was to be caught talking about someone behind their back. No one anticipated how moral the Big Brother viewers would be, what high standards of sincerity and integrity they would expect from contestants – standards they would probably never live up to in their own lives.

The virtual forms of self-disclosure that have grown up in the age of Big Brother point to a similar shift in our understanding of public and private space. When people uninhibitedly lay bare their private lives online, from posting photos of themselves in states of inebriation to updating the world on their changing relationship status, it seems to me almost the opposite of exhibitionism. Like the Big Brother housemates who really do appear to forget that the cameras are there, these social networkers have simply lost any sense that there is a different type of language and behaviour that is appropriate for public as distinct from private life. Their default mode is that of a freeflowing, private conversation, albeit one that strangers can overhear.

More than 30 years ago, in his classic work The Fall of Public Man, the sociologist Richard Sennett warned against this confusion that was arising between “public and intimate life” and worried that “people are working out in terms of personal feelings public matters which properly can be dealt with only through codes of impersonal meaning”. Politicians who flourish in this new culture, such as Tony Blair and David Cameron, are those who can master what the linguist Norman Fairclough calls “public-colloquial discourse”, a hybrid style that combines formality and casualness, ceremony and empathy, publicness and privateness. Those who are more comfortable with traditional forms of oratory and rhetoric, such as Michael Foot and Gordon Brown, struggle to fit in. Our leaders are now supposed to give a convincing impersonation in public of how they would look and sound in private, which is why it is such a disaster when they inadvertently leave their microphones on (removing your microphone being, significantly, a disciplinary offence in the Big Brother house). But not all forms of public discourse can or should be conducted like a private conversation. Politics, as David Runciman pointed out in his recent book on political hypocrisy, is a necessarily public activity and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a politician saying one thing in public and another in private.

It is not only politicians who must adapt to this new type of public sphere. Over the last few years I have noticed a very common neurosis among friends and colleagues. It is the fear, particularly felt by high-achieving professionals, that they will somehow be “found out”, that however many examinations they pass or however well they perform in their public roles, they will eventually be exposed as fakes and frauds. My hunch is that this anxiety is at least partly a product of our modern cult of sincerity, which has affected the nature of work in two important ways. First, formal work hierarchies have flattened out: first names, casual dress and open-plan offices are now common, and we are allowed to address our superiors in a fairly natural, spontaneous way. Second, both public and private companies stress the importance of fostering a strong corporate culture, in which all employees have to buy into a common ethos and embrace it enthusiastically. Modern workplaces value communication skills, teamwork, empathy – the sort of emotional intelligence that is so rewarded on Big Brother. I can recall watching the first series in 2000 and being amazed at how much the housemates hugged each other.

In our emotionally literate public culture, work has been reinvented not simply as the exchange of labour for money and status but as a source of existential meaning, something that fundamentally defines who we are. Of course, invidious hierarchies, cant and hypocrisy remain as resilient as they have ever been at work. But it is not enough, in this imperfect world, to be ordinarily efficient and competent; we are expected to be “on message” and believe wholeheartedly in what we are doing.

This is an unreasonable expectation, and it devalues the often heroic efforts we put into acting out a public role. One of my childhood heroes was John Noakes, everyone’s favourite surrogate uncle on Blue Peter. I remember the feeling of disappointment when I discovered that in real life Noakes was not the puppyishly enthusiastic, swashbuckling adventurer he presented on screen but a more introverted, cautious character who often resented the diktats of his BBC employers. “Noakesy was an idiot I invented,” he admitted later, “a stupid fool, my doppelganger who comes alive in the TV studio.” On reflection, however, I admire the extraordinary care and energy that this former actor must have invested in the creation of the semi-fictional character, “John Noakes”, who just happened to share his name. The man was clearly a pro, and his seamless performance showed great respect for his young viewers.

It is not only Walt Whitman who contained multitudes: we are all a complex mix of public and private versions of ourselves. Who is to say that the depressive, indiscreet, solitary self we might reveal in the pages of a diary written late at night is any more authentic than the measured, polite, urbane self we present to others during the day? A public self is also real – perhaps even more real than a private self, given the enormous amount of thought and effort we put into its successful realisation.

In public we may be more inclined to deceive and dissemble, but we are also more likely to be ironic, witty, playful, tactful, kind – all those rhetorical effects that make living with each other bearable, and which we deploy because we understand that the public is not the same as the private sphere. Sincerity may be a worthy (if sometimes unattainable) goal in our private lives. But what a suffocatingly earnest world it would be if we all had to act as if we were Big Brother contestants, behaving in public as we do in our living rooms.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

All Zones Off Peak

This image is taken from Tom Wood’s All Zones Off Peak, a series of photographs taken from bus windows in Liverpool between 1979 and 1997 - years that exactly coincide with an unbroken period of Conservative government. At first glance they read like studies of the disenfranchised of the Northern inner cities. Wood’s bus journeys visually connect the regenerated areas of the city with more neglected, peripheral spaces: the declining high streets, areas of wasteland, cleared slums and abandoned houses of the inner-ring suburbs. But what is really interesting about Wood’s project is the slow-burning, cumulative effect of the series as a whole, a small selection taken from over 3000 rolls of film and 100,000 photographs. These photographs are not about capturing specific moments but the endlessly repeated routines and minimal, wordless communities produced by bus journeys.

Wood used a Leica camera with a quiet shutter and shot from the chest or stomach, allowing him to take photographs unobtrusively, in the manner of Walker Evans’s secretly-taken New York subway portraits. Rather than catching his subjects unawares, though, Wood reveals them in that semi-introspective, blank-faced mode we adopt in routine public spaces. All these unnamed people, absent-mindedly following their fixed timetables and prescribed routes – all inhabiting what Georges Perec called “the infra-ordinary,” the sphere of existence that lies beneath notice or comment, and within which “we sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep”.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Objects and words also have hollow places in which a past sleeps, as in the everyday acts of walking, eating, going to bed, in which ancient revolutions slumber.’ - Michel de Certeau

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Streets in the air

I did this piece for the FT last weekend:

In the late 1950s, a massive new housing estate began to rise up on a hill near central Sheffield. The Park Hill flats, designed by the young architects Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, were finished in 1961. They were the first full-scale realisation of a concept invented by the architects Alison and Peter Smithson in 1952: “streets in the air”.

The Smithsons wanted to redesign the conventional tower block in order to recreate the neighbourliness of a traditional terraced street. At Park Hill, instead of the usual narrow balconies on tower blocks, there were 12ft-wide “street decks” on every third floor, wide enough to accommodate prams and milk floats and for residents to stop and chat.

From the beginning, however, there was confusion about whether the street decks were public or private space. They were used by milkmen and postmen, but the police deemed them private property and refused to patrol them.

By the early 1970s, as subsequent “streets in the air” such as Manchester’s Hulme Crescents and the Smithsons’ own Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar were completed, it was clear that deck-access developments had failed to recreate the sociability of ground-level streets. Made up of thousands of flats – rather than the hundreds in the conventional tower blocks – they enforced communal living on a grand scale, creating problems of vandalism, crime and lack of privacy.

And so “streets in the air” – now more commonly amended to the alliterative “streets in the sky” – has become a notorious phrase, synonymous with the supposedly misguided social engineering practised by postwar architects. The Labour politician Roy Hattersley, who as chair of the Sheffield City Council public works committee was involved in the building of Park Hill, argued in 1996 that street decks were obsolescent for modern Britons who wanted “to become a part of the new individualism, with custom-built bow-windows and curtains which can be identified from the road”.

But not everyone was prepared to condemn this model of a high-rise community to the dustbin of history. English Heritage conferred Grade II* listed status on Park Hill in 1998, and in 2007 the flats began to be refurbished by the property development company Urban Splash.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘A civil servant becomes entitled to a carpet (square) at about the £1,600 mark. A tremendous lot of significance hangs upon whether tea comes to an executive in a pot or merely in a cup. There are firms where elevated status apparently makes it impossible for executives, over a certain degree of grandeur, to pass water alongside of their less important fellows. They have much coveted keys and vanish, the envy of all beholders, into private privies.

‘There is something to be said for rough, raw ambition, and the urge, however crude, to rocket out of your early environment. But what a path of glory, leading to the grave, it is to spend a working lifetime progressing from the worst desk in the room to the second-best, with window but back towards the door to, joy of joys, the best – in a corner, with window but back to the wall! That is the non-rake’s progress, the kind of pathetic substitute for achievement so many of us are offered and which we ought to reject with withering scorn. If you are a donkey, do go after real carrots.’ - Gilbert Harding, Master of None (1958)

Saturday, 5 June 2010

La vie quotidienne

The theorisation of the mundane is really a French invention. This French critique of everyday life – or la vie quotidienne - emerged during the massive rebuilding of Paris in the so-called trente glorieuses, the thirty years of social and economic reconstruction in France between 1945 and 1975. During this period, the city forced out its working-class and immigrant populations through compulsory purchase and rent increases, and built elaborate transport networks to allow them to commute to work from suburbs and new towns. A key symbolic element in this restructuring was the demolition of Victor Baltard’s beautiful nineteenth-century pavilions, which housed the old food market at Les Halles, in the early 1970s. This market, which was clogging up traffic by handling one-fifth of the country’s meat and greengrocery, was eventually replaced in 1979 by a shopping centre-cum-interchange for the RER (the suburban express railway) and m├ętro. A similar clean-up operation happened in Covent Garden in London around the same time.

Someone, perhaps a disgruntled banlieusard, wrote on a sign erected at Les Halles in the early 1970s: ‘The centre of Paris will be beautiful. Luxury will be king. But we will not be here.’ As Henri Lefebvre argued, city centres were increasingly given over to business, tourism and government and the poorer members of society lived out an impoverished everyday life in peripheral areas. With their carefully zoned housing estates, and long, straight streets that could be easily surveyed and patrolled by police, these new suburbs even replicated the layout of colonial towns in an effort to control their populations. The Situationists put it in typically emphatic fashion: ‘Everyday life, policed and mystified by every means, is a sort of reservation for good natives who keep modern society running without understanding it.’

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

The 8.16 from Orpington

I liked this everyday description of the inspiration for The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, from David Nobbs’s website:

‘Where did it spring from? Well, as a schoolboy David used to catch the 8.16 from Orpington to Chislehurst in Kent every weekday, and saw the same men in the same clothes with the same newspapers every day. The seed must have been planted then, to ripen when he read an article in a magazine about the launching of a new flavour of jam. It seemed so very, very boring for all the people involved.’

He writes a mean tweet as well, by the way.

A review of the paperback of On Roads:

And I did a slightly babbling interview for this Blackwell podcast:

And On Roads was reviewed on the book club on 6Music, about two hours six minutes into this:

So I’m joining the save 6Music campaign with immediate effect …