Brutalist Truths: Owen Hatherley Interviewed In Ten Songs
, January 27th, 2016 09:25
Architecture writer, Pulp essayist and ‘guilty nostalgist’ Owen Hatherley talks to Karen Shook about retro tat, George Orwell’s dreams, Wilfred Owen’s hair, Ken Loach’s Hovis-advert socialism and that bloody poster
Portraits of Owen Hatherley by Mark Stringer
There comes a time when all self-respecting would-be cultured folk decide they need to learn a bit about architecture, if only to be able to think of British buildings in some context other than thwarted covetousness, rage, loathing and dread. And for anyone who feared that the only path to a working knowledge of Lubetkin, Lutyens, Lasdun and Le Corbusier was via The Telegraph or other people’s parents’ coffee-table books, Owen Hatherley – floppy-haired Southampton child of Militants and lover of pre-Different Class Pulp – is a fearless, deadly witted, free-wheeling guide.
His recent books A Guide To The New Ruins Of Urban Britain and A New Kind Of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain, in particular, are brilliantly revelatory, as he turns an arch, politicised eye on today’s built environment from the Thames Gateway to Belfast, via the schlock post-modernism of New Labour, Manchester’s dubious Factory fetish and dodgy developments and the rise and fall and flogging of Sheffield’s Park Hill estate.
But his latest book – short, ruthlessly sly, persuasively polemical, frequently bark-out-loud hilarious – goes one better. Here, the built environment plays a key but supporting role to a target we probably all vaguely thought needed taking on, but couldn’t have imagined the result to be as sad, funny, topical and gripping. So just what the fuck is the deal with the Keep Calm And Carry On thing, and our age of austerity-consensus, Jamie Oliver-advised, Biggles-haired, burlesque-dressed, food-bank-breeding, Brutalist buy-to-let shopping-spree Ingsoc?
We meet in the Royal Festival Hall, just past the gift shop full of – true to Hatherley’s aside in The Ministry Of Nostalgia – tea-towels bedecked with Eric Gill fonts, reproductions of London Underground posters and People Will Always Need Plates’ souvenir Modernist-tower-block crockery. Inevitably, there is a swing class going on nearby.
Flanagan And Allen – ‘Down Forget Me Not Lane’
You start The Ministry Of Nostalgia at a weekend market in Greenwich: wartime memorabilia, retro tat and vintage vinyl and beardy men in utility wear and semi-ironically burlesque-ified women. I can imagine Flanagan And Allen CDs in there, right next to the Keep Calm And Carry On stall.
Owen Hatherley: The music of that era that I like is often quite different to this. What’s going on here, with the swing, is the kind of jolly hockey sticks version, whereas I came to music of the 1930s and 40s via Dennis Potter, where it’s incredibly melancholy and morbid. I’m not sure that that’s what anyone’s getting out of this.
Although it’s in the footnotes rather than the book itself, I was trying to think about where this current look comes from. I remember an essay by Simon Reynolds from the mid-80s called ‘Against Health And Efficiency’, where he talks about The Pastels and Sarah Records as a reaction against the Janet Jackson sexuality of power shoulders and big tits.
The Sarah aesthetic was trying to look like you were 12, basically, for both boys and girls: a sort of, ‘We won’t take part.' I was reading that essay and thinking about the big difference between that look and this one. While working class culture has stayed much the same - obviously it looks different but has retained a similar interest in modernity and over-the-top sexuality - this [retro] stuff isn’t people trying to look like they’re 12. It’s guys trying to look like Biggles, and women trying to look like Bettie Page crossed with Rosie The Riveter. There are weird things that have come in that were not part of the original, like tattoos; in the 40s if you had tattoos you were a docker or a criminal. This is all borrowing random bits from a pre-pop era. You’ll have a little bit of rockabilly, but nothing beyond that. Everything stops at about 1957.
It’s very, very gendered. The men are very manly and the women are very womanly. And that seems to mirror official mainstream pop sexuality, much more than mid-80s Sarah Records culture did. Instead of being about muscles, it’s tattoos and moustaches, and instead of buzz cuts it’s the beard. The men’s haircuts with the shaved bits and then the bit on top: the Wilfred Owen cut, or something between Wilfred Owen and Morrissey.
Flanagan and Allen turn up in the book because they are in [the 1942 documentary] Listen To Britain. One of them, I think Bud Flanagan, sent the 43 Group, an anti-fascist street-fighting group in post-war East London, a fat cheque with a note saying ‘Good work, lads.' The revisionist view of the East End is that everyone loved the Queen and were all conservative, despite the fact that Labour never lost an election there. But although there was a [right-wing] reaction in the 70s or the 80s, during the war people in the East End of London were red, very red. I think that that cheque being sent is a nice example of that.
I didn’t realise I was waiting for a book that said, Look, what the fuck does this Keep Calm And Carry On thing mean? But I’m know I’m not the only person to be relieved that you wrote it.
OH: I was actually thinking that I was coming out too late with it. I wrote a long essay on it in 2009 for Radical Philosophy, of all places. I’d always meant to turn it into a book, but it was on the back burner. Originally it was called Ingsoc. Then last year when I was finishing writing The Landscapes Of Communism (Penguin) I thought maybe I should give it a go. But the point where I really thought I had to write it was when I saw in Keep Calm And Carry On stuff in the middle of the bloody Empik [department store] in Warsaw. It had gone completely international. And in the Maidan in Kiev, where someone had a banner reading Keep Calm And Fight Communism. And I thought, "Wow, you’ve combined my two least favourite things! Congratulations!"
Elvis Costello – ‘Hoover Factory’
Given your specialist subject, architecture, I thought we needed have a good song about a great building.
OH: My dad grew up directly opposite the Hoover factory, and his mum and aunt worked there during the war, but I didn’t go there until about seven years ago. My dad came up to London and we got the Tube out to Perivale station, which is also quite beautiful, and had a look, and had some chips and beans in the café in the Tesco that’s now there. It is quite magnificent.
There’s quite a lot in the book about the way that all of the stuff that surrounds the Keep Calm And Carry On culture is the bureaucratic aesthetics of the 1930s and 40s – and they all thought the Hoover factory was terrible. Nikolaus Pevsner described it as one of the most offensive of the modernistic atrocities on the Western Avenue. For him it wasn’t proper modern architecture. Proper modern architecture was like the building we’re in – huge high ceilings, space, the nature of the materials visible, not facades - while the Hoover factory is a magnificent façade. (The factory’s not there now, it’s a car park.) JB Priestly talks about factories making Hoovers and shaving cream and underwear and things that he just doesn’t regard as real things a factory should do, because he was from Bradford, where factories were ten stories high and covered in smoke. He’s another person, with Pevsner, who helps create the culture of 1945 – and this is the opposite, the cheap tawdry glamour of the Hoover factory.
Billy Bragg – ‘Between the Wars’
Well, this had to be done.
OH: I forgot he actually had a line about austerity. I have a really conflicted relationship with things like this; a combination of affection and contempt. I think songs like ‘Between The Wars’ probably helped put more people off socialist politics in the 1980s than anything… it just painted it as a weird revival society; a sort of constructed folk culture. The covers of his records in this period were actually one of the first instances, I think, of austerity nostalgia. I got that a little bit from Raphael Samuel’s book Theatres Of Memory: Past And Present In Contemporary Culture – where I think he discusses a Smiths cover. Look at the cover of Life’s A Riot, based on that Penguin Books grid. No one would have done that in the Seventies or the Sixties; it would have made no sense. It evokes a whole world of working class self-education, comprehensive schools, the London County Council...
So, of the 1980s, you’d prefer ABC to Billy Bragg? The lamé suit, not the miner’s lamp?
OH: Absolutely. Probably because I come from quite a Billy Bragg world, I always found ABC’s way of doing things much more subversive. I find authenticity really uninteresting as a cultural thing. At the same time I find lots of those [Bragg] songs quite moving. They’re songs I grew up with. They speak about things I think are very important. My dad had all those records. And Life’s A Riot was great; it’s mostly love songs.
There’s something in it that I really distrust, and at the same time it speaks to me very directly. We’d go down to the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival every year, and it’s like a fucking revivalist society. Everyone tags along, older every year, has their pint from the Workers’ Beer Company and watches Billy Bragg.
Now we move on to one of the figures looming largest over this book: Blair – Eric, not Tony. So I had to find a song…
OH: It’s not Eurythmics?
OH: Shame. I quite like that song…
It’s a track he first recorded with Spear of Destiny in the 1980s, and I find this later acoustic version incredibly moving.
OH: I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly heard Spear Of Destiny.
Ah, he’s the face that launched a thousand haircuts. [Displays photos of blinding hair and Brutalist cheekbones] Here’s Kirk.
OH: Ah blimey. Yes. That’s quite contemporary.
Lyrically, this song’s about the World Service and foreign aid and Orwell, whom Brandon loves. But as with many people who say they love Orwell, it doesn’t necessarily leave you clearer about his politics.
OH: It can mean many, many, many different things. And Orwell himself was many different things. It’s weird that he’s held up as a paragon of moral consistency, when it was more like he changed his mind ten times a fucking year.
He has the most ludicrous explanations for things sometimes. Like the essay ‘My Country Right Or Left’, where he basically says, ‘I supported the war because I had a dream.’ He wrote loads of essays against the war in 1939, and then has this dream in which he knows that if the war comes he will support England. Because as he puts it – I can’t remember the exact quote, but something like, I knew that the drilling that every middle-class person in Britain has gone through had done its work. What he’s actually saying is, I supported the war because going to Eton drilled into me an instinctive patriotism. I don’t think there’s a serious anti-war argument against World War Two. But his justification is mad, and completely random.
Orwell’s loved because he instilled a certain self-righteousness in people. But I think people should treat him like William Cobbett, or Carlyle, or Hazlitt. He’s a very particular essayist who wrote some questionable novels. Who was enormously talented, enormously intelligent, enormously honest. But who was also full of shit. And totally limited by his time. Someone who tried quite hard to be anti-imperialist, but was also quite a convinced racist. Someone who wrote about anti-Semitism being ghastly while being deeply anti-Semitic. And his political predictions in the 1940s were bonkers. He really did think that what he described in Nineteen Eighty-Four was the direction the world was going. His version of what Soviet society, and later Chinese society, was like, was based on a monolithic idea of those societies that is completely mythical. He would have had no way of explaining Khrushchev or Gorbachev or perestroika. His analysis was just that it was a Satanic empire.
I really like [Michael Radford’s] film, 1984, exactly because it gets that it’s a book about the 1940s. Which I don’t think anyone else did. And because it creates such a convincing horror story - there is no way out in that book – it had an enormous effect on teenagers. In the same way that a George Romero film has a big effect on you when you’re 18, Orwell has that effect.
Is it still valuable as a metaphor?
OH: No. [laughs]
On the Right – the libertarian ‘world government’-fearing types – still find a lot in its nightmare grab-bag.
OH: And so do people on the left – the ‘wake up sheeple’ stuff. And the anti-surveillance lot. Of course it’s a bad thing, but the way that power works is different to the way you see it in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell had this very straightforward explanation that power works because people want to stamp on people’s faces. That’s certainly a part of lots of authoritarian politics. But as an explanation of something like the US government’s spying programme, well, it’s not because Barack Obama wants to stamp on people’s heads.
What about Orwell on writing?
OH: He was a terrific writer, but one whose recommendations worked for him. People will always cherry-pick quotes from the famous essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’, and ignore the mad shit. There’s so many in there – like, ‘avoid all foreign words!’ Anything ending with ‘ous’ is basically out for Orwell. Any Latinate words. You’ve wiped out half the English language. It also means that any philosophical language, any technical language, unless it’s engineering, any technical language is designed to mystify, for Orwell. It’s a certain kind of public school thing that’s prevalent among the PPE students who run British politics and the British media. There’s this belief that anything you can’t explain at the Oxford Debating Society is bullshit. Orwell really reinforces that.
Mumford and Sons – ‘For Those Below’
Your stray, withering mention of the Waitrose Wurzels – how I wish I knew who to credit for that quip - in The Ministry Of Nostalgia made this necessary, I’m afraid. Sorry.
OH: Get thee behind me, Satan. [LAUGHS] I’ll listen as far as the chorus.
I’ve mostly managed to avoid them. This is the closest proximity I’ve ever been put to their music. I’m much more familiar with their record covers, which upset me enough. They’re emblematic of that weird syncretic thing of nicking random bits of American folk and British folk and facial hair and tweeds and creating this completely artificial thing – not that there’s anything wrong with artificiality, but artificiality that presents itself as authenticity is particularly irksome.
You listen to them and imagine being at Alex James’ cheese farm with Cameron and Clarkson. They’ll all be sat there in their wellies, reading The Chap and eating sourdough bread with a berry jus.
I picked this track for the lyric with the most full-on officer-class vibe. You cite Call The Midwife and Downton Abbey as part of the Keep Calm And Carry On malaise; soft-focus telly full of deferential servants and a tip-top ruling class.
OH: It’s funny comparing those to earlier series, like Upstairs Downstairs, which are much more bitter. You can imagine that in the 70s when Upstairs Downstairs was being made, people had parents and grandparents who’d been in service, and were aware that it wasn’t terribly benign. But now we can present it as being something… cutesy. The thing that really surprised me – and I probably should have written about it more – is the way the old ruling class seem completely back in power now. From 1997 to 2010 the people who were running the government, at least, were people who had gone to comprehensive schools. After that, they then studied PPE at Oxford and become parliamentary secretaries. But mostly – with the obvious exception of Tony Blair himself – they were from the comprehensive system. And now, apparently, we have the most aristocratic government since the 1920s.
This book, perhaps surprisingly, criticises the austerity myth on the Left – particularly Ken Loach’s film Spirit Of 45 – as well as on the Right.
OH: In that bit at the start about Greenwich Market, I was quite sure looking around that these people hadn’t voted Tory. It’s more a kind of miasma, a structure of feeling, and that people who wouldn’t consider themselves to be supporters of this stuff aren’t thinking it, but they’re living it. That belief in scarcity and making do and muddling through and so forth – and the weird denigration of the welfare state that comes with that. And so the obvious thing you can do, and Ken Loach does in his film Spirit Of 45, is say, well in 1945 we built the welfare state and currently we’re destroying it.
But why are both of those things called austerity? Loach has no real ability to talk about it, beyond a straightforward, ‘That was great and what is happening now is bad.' What’s happening now appeals to the 1940s incessantly, on both sides, and it’s completely overpowering.
In Spirit Of 45 the mood music going on is austerity nostalgia. It’s brass bands, it’s people dancing in Trafalgar Square. It’s filmed like a Hovis advert.
I can’t think of any time in which the Left has ever successfully managed to own the past, and made into a successful project. Every time the Left has done well in Britain, whether it was 1945, or 1964 under Harold Wilson, or Tony Blair, it was with modernity. And with an appeal to optimism. Because that’s what socialism is.
Lots of stuff in this book comes from reading Patrick Wright’s On Living In An Old Country, which was published in the early 80s. And his target is Tony Benn. Politically he was pretty much on the same side, but there’s a critique of Benn’s mood music. You cannot appeal to a memory of socialism, because we’ve never had it. All you’ll end up appealing to is a memory of failed struggles.
This book was written before Jeremy Corbyn’s huge victory in the Labour Party leadership contest. Do you see that as being about optimism or defeat?
OH: I think Corbyn is way less retro than the Labour Right. Compared to someone like Jon Cruddas or Tristram Hunt, I think he’s much more forward looking. But then I’ve seen Corbyn speak at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, too. He’s been around forever. Or for all of me, anyway, as a 34 year old.
The impression I get is that his support mainly comes from people who are over 55 or under 30. People who either remember the welfare state, or have never had anything to do with it whatsoever. All the people in between – the New Labour people sitting on hugely expensive houses in Islington and Edgbaston - that’s the people that don’t get it. So you have this weird alliance of the old-school Labour Left, which had I considered long dead, the Bennites, and these young people for whom I imagine the Durham Miners’ Gala is meaningless.
It’ll be difficult for Corbyn, because most of those young people are not yet in a position to be in Parliament. And you can see this factor really majorly with younger journalists, like James Bloodworth and Helen Lewis, people who are mostly about my age, who are saying, what the hell is this? They just do not understand it. They see it purely as retro, and I don’t think it is. I think many of Corbyn’s instincts are quite Spirit Of 45, and the Bennism he comes out of was often quite nostalgic. But his support base isn’t. I think it’ll be interesting. I finished this book before I could write about that, and I wouldn’t quite know where to place him. (He’s mentioned in it once, entirely by accident.)
The welfare state does have remnants, and they’re the places where there’s an argument happening. So it’s a very difficult line to draw in not wanting to talk about the past. I do think the welfare state is important, and I do think it’s worth defending. But I don’t know how one uses it politically without falling into nostalgia. It’s very difficult to do. And I don’t know if I’ve managed to do it successfully or not. A lot of this book is an attempt to argue myself out of a corner, really.
Does Corbyn make you hopeful?
OH: Yes. I would have thought it was completely impossible seven months ago. It may not last long. But I hope it does.
Manic Street Preachers – ‘Design For Life’
OH: Ah, this old chestnut. I know it backwards. I was a teenage Manics fan. I saw them in 1996 and they were very boring. They just stood there in sportswear. And the screens behind were doing all the work, like in the video for ‘Design For Life’: fantastic video screens showing all those things that in 1996 we were supposed to have forgotten about. And that was quite exciting. Them and Pulp, in very different ways, were the carrier of something through…
The dark Blair years…
OH: God, the dark Blair years! God, the 1990s and 2000s for the Left. Ok, there was the anti-war movement, though that didn’t necessarily polarise on Left and Right lines; in many ways it wasn’t seen as political issue so much as a moral one. And there was the tiny anti-globalisation thing. But by and large in those two decades, there wasn’t really anything. Which I think is also a consequence of why those people in between the 25-year-olds and the 60-year-olds are so completely baffled by Corbyn. Where they come from is the 1990s and the 2000s, and that’s where their ideas of what’s possible and normal and acceptable were formed.
Unlike being an 18 year old in 1983, say, when the default position was political.
OH: Or an 18 year old in 2011, when the Education Maintenance Allowance had been abolished and you had no chance of getting the job you wanted if you were a student, when the welfare state was utterly residual and getting unemployment benefit was like pulling teeth. Those in between are incapable of understanding that all of those things have been taken away and what that means for young people. They just do not get it.
Were the Manics futurists or nostalgists?
OH: They went from one to the other, I think. Pulp were much more genuinely original than the Manics. But the Manics’ raison d’etre was: we cannot do anything new, all we can do is borrow. That’s what made them different from bands that just did that casually. The 90s were full of bands that were as retro as the Manics, but they were the only ones saying, we cannot create anything. I can’t remember if this is someone else’s line or not, but the Manics are about their own impotence, really. I don’t like much after ‘Design For Life’, but I like that song a great deal. It attempts to make itself into something collective: there’s the ‘us’ and the ‘we’. Which three years earlier they wouldn’t have subscribed to, when they were hanging around in their leopardskin and eyeliner.
‘Design For Life’ is about what the people that beat them up at school in Blackwood had to deal with. It does that enormously eloquently and captures lots of things about working class culture. The casual violence, for instance. The line, "I wish I had a bottle right here in my dirty face." If you’re growing up in Blackwood, that’s something you just face. I experienced that growing up in Southampton. If you went out looking a certain way, you’d get your head kicked in. I got my head kicked in a lot.
By the 1990s, so much of what the perception was of working class culture was about being stupid, and the Manics’ refusal to be so was enormously important.
Pulp - ‘Disco 2000’
You wrote a book called Uncommon: An Essay On Pulp in 2011.
OH: The only – and it probably will remain the only – book I’ll write about music.
Do you wish you’d done more?
OH: No, because I was once asked to write a monthly column about music, and I said no, mainly because I thought I’d only be able to write about things like the Pet Shop Boys. I have so little interest in new music. I’d like to, but I generally find it very disappointing when I do. I don’t want to be the person saying to young people, your music is no good. Though I don’t think it is very good. Still, I don’t want to be that person.
The Pulp book was one I had wanted to do for a long time, and when they reformed, I did it in two months to get it out on time. I thought it would be very successful. It actually sold the worst of all of the things I’ve done, by some way. Which suggests that people who want to read about Pulp and people who want to read about historical materialism are not necessarily the same people. [LAUGHS]
Separations, Intro if that counts as an album and His And Hers inhabit this very particular world that no one had really written about properly. There seem to be three things going on in there: I have this glib line about it, something about sex and class war and artificial fabrics. You always knew, from Pulp songs in that period, what people were wearing, where they were living. There’s huge granular attention to detail.
Like lots of things in Pulp, there’s also a gender politics there that’s often not that pleasant. I don’t think they were misogynist, but they often veered very close to it. What goes on between men and women is often quite complicated and very ugly, and the way that Jarvis Cocker writes about sexuality on those three albums – hardly anyone else, maybe only Leonard Cohen and Bill Callahan, do. Usually it’s just reduced to, we’re making sweet love or we’re not. It’s incredible that such an enormous part of human experience is not really written about properly in music.
Are you a nostalgist?
OH: Yeah, probably. But I think it’s bad and wrong. I’m a guilty nostalgist.
So you feel about nostalgia the way Jarvis feels about sex?
OH: Sometimes sex is bad and wrong in Pulp songs, but mostly it’s not. On Separations and Intro and His And Hers it’s not particularly vindictive. Different Class is just his revenge album, stuff that he’s been saving up for ten years. He uses sex as a quite obvious means of class warfare.
Jarvis, I know, is not from an entirely working class background. He grew up quite poor in a one-parent family, but he’s called Jarvis and his sister’s called Saskia and his mother I think was briefly a Tory councillor. He was someone like lots of people in pop music: between classes. He could never have written something like ‘Design For Life’, because he could never have said ‘we’.
There’s a quote that I used in the book from him saying later, with great contrition, "I wasn’t very active in the miners’ strike, because miners were the people that beat me up every Saturday night." But at the same time Russell Senior, who at that point was still often sharing vocals, was a flying picket. You had some people in the band who were deeply involved in what was going on, but Jarvis clearly wasn’t. Yet he later does ‘The Last Day Of The Miners’ Strike’ as the last Pulp song, basically. I think it’s really telling.
Lord Kitchener – ‘London Is The Place For Me’
OH: Ah, Lord Kitchener. I particularly like the bit about "my residence is Hampton Court".
I chose this because of The Ministry Of Nostalgia’s focus on empire, and how it’s been written out of austerity narratives on both sides.
OH: Other than the first chapter, which is basically the thing I wrote in 2009, I was really struggling with how to get into this as a book. But when I properly discovered the Empire Marketing Board, I thought, "Aha, this is what brings it all together." Actually all of the people responsible for the stuff that is now being sold in the Festival Hall shop [Frank Pick, John Grierson, etc.] were all working for the Empire Marketing Board… But you never ever see those posters now. You never see that stuff on tea towels and notebooks and hats.
The iffily stylised African figures with spears and pineapples...
OH: It was really important to the book to write about how all of this stuff was deeply connected to the empire, and once I did that, so many things slotted into place. Orwell write his ‘London Letter’ to Partisan Review in New York, every year for most of the 1940s, and in the one where he talked about the Beveridge Report in 1943, while he was working for the BBC Indian Service, he said the Beveridge Report had not been publicised in India because it would be provocative to Indian nationalists, who would think, "Oh, right, so we’re paying for all this." They weren’t getting universal education, a welfare state and council housing. Yet they were the people who would have considered it to be their labour, their resources, their raw materials that were paying for it.
So why does the world of austerity nostalgia basically end in the mid- to late-1950s? By the mid-50s there was mass migration, the Notting Hill riots and so on, and that’s the cut-off point. So austerity did seem to have a really obviously disavowed thing about race and migration that I wanted to tease out.
Public Service Broadcasting – ‘If War Should Come'
You write about the ‘hauntology’ of Ghost Box releases from a few years back – Advisory Circle, Belbury Poly, Focus Group. Those were cult records; this act, on the surface, seem to do similar things – high-concept austerity nostalgia with BFI samples – but sell lots of records.
OH: I’ve not actually heard this before.
They trade under the names of J. Willgoose Esq and Wrigglesworth, and the album’s called Inform – Educate – Entertain, the Reithean BBC motto.
OH: Willgoose. Gosh.
This track is about the GPO Film Unit’s documentary Night Mail. And they’ve just done a thing with the Cosmonauts exhibition at the Science Museum, because their new album is about the space race.
OH: [Laughs] Of course it is.
I’m only vaguely familiar with them. They seem to me to be – and there’s other bands in that category – making much more obvious what Ghost Box was doing five to eight years ago. I think Ghost Box was really massively overrated by people like Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher, and me too, because it seemed to chime so perfectly with all of our interests. Basically, if any of us had made records, it’s what they would probably have sounded like. If I could make my way around the studio it probably would have sounded like the Advisory Circle.
Are you embarrassed?
OH: I am. I feel a little like, don’t give me what I want, because I don’t want it any more. Obviously after a few years it becomes banal, and it’s got none of the mystery and subtlety that people like the Focus Group occasionally work into what they do. Instead it’s immediately clear: you hear it and understand, ok, right, this is this plus this plus this.
Musically the Ghost Box stuff was a lot more interesting – it’s like the difference between Ladytron, say, and Pulp: being retro-futurist versus being about retro-futurism. Ghost Box seemed to be about a sort of commentary on the phenomenon. You could see the joins in the construction. Whereas with something like Public Service Broadcasting, it’s the difference between ABC and the Thompson Twins.
Seven or eight years ago, it seemed like a very interesting furrow. The notion that, if you subtract pop from the post-war era, what do you get? And actually lots of the argument of this book is that what you get is – this.
It seemed a really interesting thing to do, particularly in the last years of New Labour, the horrible decadence when it felt devoid of the slightest ideas. Ghost Box seemed like a fun way of living your life in a particular kind of bubble. And my life at that point revolved around hanging out in old 50s cafes, going off to look at buildings like this one before everyone realised that buildings like this one were good. It was a nice way to live.
Are you not being a bit of a snob and saying, I was there first?
OH: Oh, I am! I completely am. There’s an element of this book that’s just me being a hipster, I’m not going to deny it.
Although I’m not massively familiar with Public Service Broadcasting, I am familiar with the BFI reissue programme. And they’re now putting out all that stuff that ten years ago was hard to find. There was a guy I knew in Merseyside who somehow had access to all these things, and would send DVDs of [the 1984 nuclear-holocaust TV drama] Threads and all that stuff, which otherwise you couldn’t get hold of. Now, of course, you can go into the Royal Festival Hall shop over there and buy Threads.
Along with a very keenly priced Make Do and Mend Tin, I see.
OH: And you can buy all the GPO films, all the British Transport films, all the Ministry of Information films. I have no problem with that at all. But, yeah, there’s a certain little feeling of, aha, I was there before you. I won’t deny that that’s part of it. People can take that or leave it.
With architecture, which is what a quarter of the book is about, it’s much more straightforwardly sinister. With music or film, it’s like, ok, if people want to go see Berberian Sound Studio, that’s fine by me. But have you seen [Ben Wheatley’s] High-Rise film? That’s supreme East London – it’s so studied, my god. The perfect Brutalist architecture soundtrack – DAF, Can, Portishead covering, basically in the style of the Normal, ‘SOS’ by Abba – which is very good by the way.
It’s funny seeing all those things slotting into place. Some sort of Rubicon was crossed, I think, when the National Trust had a thing on Brutalism, called Brutal Lust. The National Trust! Now, if we were in Vienna where 50% of housing is social housing, and there’s no right to buy and no sell-off of council housing, I wouldn’t really give a toss about people going on tours around council estates.
It’s become like a shopping trip. The Dorset estate, the Brunswick Centre, the Trellick Tower, all still centrally owned, but because of the right to buy, flats just go. And when they go, they go for silly money. And because of the way that British housing is so commodified – it basically is the economy to a large degree – it’s incredibly dangerous. I’m not against people being into Brutalism, I just want them to know what it is and know that it’s not theirs to buy. That it’s a social thing – that it’s not about shit looking cool. Although it does look cool. But that’s not the point.
But as someone who writes books about architecture, are you part of the problem?
OH: I don’t think I’ve ever written a paragraph where I’ve just written about the aesthetics. One of the reasons for doing this book was to say, ok, if you’ve not got the point already I’ll lay it on with a trowel. It’s not just about things looking nice, for god’s sake. And if I have contributed to it on some way – I’ve tried not to. I’ve tried my best!
Morrissey – ‘Every Day Is Like Sunday’
I thought we should end by facing melancholy nostalgia head on in all its glory and toxicity. Is there something inescapable about it?
OH: Oh yes. There’s that lovely interview that Simon Reynolds did with Morrissey, where he’s going, ‘You love this, don’t you?’ All of these songs - ‘Late Night Maudlin Street’ and ‘Every Day Is Like Sunday’ and ‘Suedehead’: Reynolds says, ‘Actually all these things you’re writing about being terrible, you make sound wonderful.'
Pulp songs are obsessive, but not morbid. Whereas Morrissey is completely and utterly riven with morbidity
Were you a fan?
OH: Oh yes.
Are you still?
OH: Do I still like the good ones? Oh yes. I’ve not really followed the recent ones. I remember when You Are The Quarry came out, I thought the cover was fabulous and getting it on that basis. But the music sounded like Northern Uproar or Menswear.
The last ten years of Morrissey is the history of great covers. At least the covers are still great. Whereas in the 90s there were periods where even the covers weren’t good.
You point to Smiths covers as early markers in the cult of austerity. Were they culpable?
OH: It was a case of being in the mid-80s and saying, ‘I’m having no part of this’. And there were a variety of responses to have. You could either be like Billy Bragg and withdraw into a Ken Loach film, or be the Style Council and try desperately to keep up with it and embarrass yourself. The whole thing about The Smiths, like all of this stuff really, is about trying to stop it just before it happens – Motown, that is. So you pause British music where it’s just Billy Fury and Joe Meek.
So for Morrissey, the only kind of 60s record I really think he loved would be Twinkle and John Leyton’s ‘Johnny Remember Me’. He’s a useful one for this argument because unlike most these people he’s been, on several occasions, explicit. Whereas with lots of this stuff it’s implicit.
As a skinny white boy from the south of England, all of the things in these songs have immediate resonances. Every single time I hear something from the first two Smiths records, I immediately see a particular scene in my head from Southampton in the 80s or 90s. I can see a particular garden, street, corner shop. And the ability to evoke that is extraordinary. What the Smiths did is enormously powerful, but it’s clear why they did it. Morrissey’s version of pop culture and his version of England stopped at some point in the 1970s from corresponding with his obsessions and how he wanted the world to be. So he just wills this old world back into being. And because of the fact that he wasn’t a dilettante, that he was obsessive about these things, it’s incredibly powerful in a way that Public Service Broadcasting are not. He cares deeply about this world, despite the fact that he makes it sound horrible. He cares and wants to evoke it. As a protest against the 1980s, he wants to live in A Taste Of Honey. And that’s a horrible world, and it’s good that that world is dead.
You conclude the book by saying that a city that is not melancholic is the best we can hope for. You talk about people fighting back – the Focus E15 Mums, in East London, campaigning for council housing – and say we should celebrate the fact that they’ve not kept calm and carried on. You quote that great slogan – ‘these people need homes, these homes need people’.
OH: And you don’t have to write a dissertation on Brutalism to do it. Like, this exists, we need it, it works, we’re going to take it. Fantastic. How incredibly simple that is. And if that’s going to be the basic of an actual politics, that’s it.
So we don’t end up fetishising buildings for their beautiful angles.
OH: Which are there, but they’re secondary. It was really telling that the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark became a cause celebre, because it was a nadir architecturally. But people were squatting it and trying to save it, saying, we want it to be social housing, leave it alone. Rather than appealing to it on the basis of architecture, it was on the basis of it being useful.
Are you feeling hopeful?
OH: More than usually. Compared to ten years ago. There is now an active Left. And the question now is a different one. For ages it was like, how do we make it, and now we have it, and the question is, can it win? Which is a very different one, and an interesting one. For as long as I can remember, it was just, how do we even make it?
Owen Hatherley’s The Ministry of Nostalgia (Verso) is out now