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Everything Was Dreadful And Then It Was Saved: Richard King Interviews Owen Hatherley
Richard King , June 19th, 2021 09:38

With the publication of his new essay collection, Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances, talks to Richard King about blogs, brutalism, and the link between Adam Curtis and Mark Fisher

Birmingham Central Library. Photo by Owen Hatherley

Owen Hatherley is a prolific journalist and author. He writes regularly on architecture, culture and politics for Architectural Review, The Guardian, Jacobin and the London Review of Books, among others. His many books include Militant Modernism, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, Uncommon – An Essay on Pulp, The Ministry of Nostalgia, Trans-Europe Express, The Adventures of Owen Hatherley in the Post-Soviet Space, and Red Metropolis.

The newly published Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances (Verso 2021) is an anthology of fifteen years of his writing and takes its title from a retrospective definition of Mod given by Peter Meaden, manager of The Who, in 1975:

“Modism, mod living, is an aphorism for clean living under difficult circumstances”

All anthologies, by their nature, are retrospective. It seems to me that in this collection you are deliberately drawing some form of line.

I think everyone's in a reflective mood because, unless you live in a monastery, unless you work in an ‘essential’ job, however that's defined, you’ve been under house arrest for the last year. The book contains fifteen years’ worth of material, from 2005 to 2020 and it occurred to me when I was doing it – and this wasn’t deliberate – that 2005 was the last time the Labour Party won an election. I recall my total disinterest in this. I probably voted for some sort of left-wing joke candidate, Communist or Socialist Labour Party or something like that. I was absolutely disengaged from the whole thing. As were – you can tell from the pitiful turnout – most of the population.

A load of things happened in those fifteen years. And the book was written a little bit against an influential cohort of people who think that nothing happened in those fifteen years. And who think that we can learn nothing from that period, that we can go right back to the politics of 2005 and they will make just as much sense now.

It was around that period in 2005 when books like The Idler Book of Crap Towns, which vilified post-war architecture, gained a degree of currency. You started your career as an author making the case for Brutalism against such received opinion, then Brutalism subsequently became co-opted into the Farrow & Ball-ification of everyday life. An essay in this new collection examines how that process got underway, it also examines the backgrounds of many of the people initially involved in Brutalism.

A lot of people in Brutalism – I would say more than most architectural movements – were from petty bourgeois or upper working-class backgrounds, because it was that sort of moment. Lots of them were scholarship types like Peter Smithson, and lots of them were from that eternal Oxbridge vein. But Brutalism came from an interest in the other parts of the country. It came from looking at industry and looking at the North. There’s a paradoxical thing that, on the one hand, it comes from the Architectural Association which is an elite private school. And on the other hand, it comes from people sometimes from quite ordinary backgrounds, going and looking at winching gear and saying ‘Why don’t we make buildings like that?’. It becomes, due to various quirks, the welfare state architecture of a certain period – or the welfare state architecture that’s most discussed and becomes most symbolic of it.

Sam Wetherell argues that if you looked at who was housed in what in the 60s and 70s by councils, they would put recent migrants in brick deck-access stuff that was quite dilapidated and hadn’t really been looked after since the 1930s when it was built. And they would put the local community in the really fancy new brutalist buildings with their lifts, with their balconies, with their underfloor heating. This was the highest end. And if you were working in Woolworths, or as an eel and pie shop proprietor, they were going to put you in that. If on the other hand you quite recently come over from Trinidad, they were going to put you in the 30s LCC stuff or nothing.

Then I think what happens is the middle class, who are always in Britain – and especially with things that are not music and not fashion – the leaders of aesthetic trends, decided that they loved the Victorian era. It cannot be emphasised enough that it came from Alan Bennett moving to that Victorian slum in Camden and knocking through the walls and thinking it’s wonderful. And that filtered down. So people didn’t want to live in a nice new flat in the Elephant & Castle. They wanted to live in Orpington or Dartford. That meant that Brutalism – architecture that was originally aspirational – ended up becoming the architecture for people who couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. And then, two decades later, the hipsters who invented Brutalism in the first place, come back to it and buy it up. A public asset is being removed, and that for me is the most important issue above all else. That’s the moment it ceases to be Modernism with a capital M.

There's a very nice juxtaposition in the book in which the careers of Adam Curtis and Mark Fisher are used to interrogate the role of the public intellectual in Britain. One has an über-patrician position within the BBC; the other was an often extremely hard-up, part-time, academic scrabbling around.

I think they both end up in much the same place, but they take very, very different routes to it. Working class people making interesting art is part of it. Then there’s this other thing, this second element, which is the middle class is making things for the working class or making things for the masses. The list is now pretty familiar: the BBC, Penguin Books, the Open University. Most of it is kind of governmental apart from Penguin – which really did act as if it was a kind of branch of an educating state, but of course it wasn’t (and that’s why it was completely restructured at the end of the 70s, because Penguin was going to go bust). But that was the kind of thing that Mark and the other blogs were trying to do, trying to understand these two things and understand the ways in which they’re connected and the ways in which, in the patrician – or allegedly patrician – culture of this second element there was much more room for experimentation, and much more room for people from humble backgrounds like Dennis Potter or Delia Derbyshire to do weird shit. And the world of Endemol and Big Brother and reality TV really closed all of that off. Whereas in Adam Curtis, you’ve got someone that is working within the culture of the BBC, making work that uses the BBC archive, who is doing it in such a way as if he’s kind of affected by that second element, its ambient music and surrealism. It’s no surprise he becomes pals with someone like Massive Attack.

Mark was writing in an era – and we were all writing in such an era – when you no longer had access to that second element culture, whereas Curtis is still in it, he’s one of the last figures doing it. What Mark banged on about was the discussion, the next day at work or at school. And that’s all based on this model that no longer exists of centralised broadcasting. You see The Orb on Top of the Pops, or you see The Singing Detective and you talk about it the next day, because everyone’s seen it. And the Century of the Self and Pandora’s Box were broadcast at a time when we still had that. I remember people talking about the Century of the Self because they’d seen this weird fucking thing on BBC Two. Curtis’ films then become these sort of international pieces, which have a tiny budget. They’re distributed on the internet and watched whenever anyone wants to.

You write about what was called the blogosphere and how you and many of your contemporaries started off there and recycled a lot of the blog material for your first books. Where did it lead to, the energy of the blogosphere, where do you locate that energy now?

The thing that killed it off was obviously Twitter. Twitter just knocked it on the head with a rock and that was the end of it. The interesting things that happened turned out to be print publications, at least on the left, in Jacobin and later Tribune and then n+1, and so on. Forums such as Novara went onto YouTube, something like ContraPoints – it’s quite a bit too American for me – but something like ContraPoints, I look at that and I go, she’s one of us. That is absolutely what we were trying to do. And in 2005–2006, if we had had webcams and we were that glamorous, that’s what we would have done. It’s not necessarily a negative thing at all that the blogosphere disappeared, because things that are happening now replaced it.

The blogs were pioneers in some ways, of understanding the recent past. We realised that if we didn’t try to understand that past, we were going to have the same stories repeated again and again about Red Robbo and British Leyland in the 1970s and the rubbish piling up in the streets. It’s the same bullshit narrative that the 2005 Forever people fervently believe in: everything was dreadful and then it was saved by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances is published by Verso. Richard King’s next book, Brittle With Relics, a History of Wales 1962 -97, is due for publication by Faber & Faber in March, 2022