sun 16/06/2024

Keep Calm and Knuckle Under | reviews, news & interviews

Keep Calm and Knuckle Under

Keep Calm and Knuckle Under

A new book claims that behind our love for all things retro lies a sinister, repressive ideology - but is this fair?

The fetishisation of austerity: Albion, Neo Bankside

“He lives in Woolwich and Warsaw”. From which author note you might conclude that Owen Hatherley, author of The Ministry of Nostalgia, is not your ordinary kind of UK critic, comfortably ensconced (usually) in North or fashionable East London. Fashion has always passed Woolwich, if not Warsaw, by, though Hatherley himself is quietly stylish, somewhat in the manner of his hero Jarvis Cocker. Can one extrapolate a whiff of left-puritanism from this alliterative choice of abode?

Perhaps, but also a romanticism. Hatherley is of Communist stock, and knows that his previous published laments for the built environments of postwar socialism – his personal New Jersualem is Sheffield and he does love his raw concrete – have laid him open to charges of nostalgia. Or Ostalgie, in the case of his mammoth volume Landscapes of Communism.  

He wants to knock that impression on the head. The Ministry of Nostalgia arises from his understandable irritation at the maddening ubiquity of that nostalgically revived Second World War slogan, "Keep Calm and Carry On" (pictured below right). The world conjured up by it, and by the modish appropriation of the "look" of the postwar period, is false, says Hatherley, and he sets out to prove it. Is he attempting to purge himself of nostalgia, as well as others?

Another variation on the ubiquitous wartime sloganHis earlier books are generally travelogues that are more Ian Nairn than JB Priestley. Even more than Nairn, Hatherley clearly prefers describing physical places to engaging with actual people. However his two-volume evisceration of the physical expression of Blair’s Britain and its aftermath, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain and A New Kind of Bleak did exhibit a properly Nairn-like anger tempered with wit and insight. Just why does everything have to end up so shit, basically?  What happened to the idea of building a better Britain, once somehow achievable without recourse to the Private Finance Initiative? 

That pair of books established Hatherley as a fresh, original, fiercely intelligent voice who did tend to ramble on a bit (pictured below left). But blimey, does he put in the legwork. He goes to places that few do unless they have business there, such as Barrow-in-Furness or Cumbernauld. He skips round the former Soviet Bloc with his Polish partner and fellow author Agata Pyzik. Their intellectual exchanges on Twitter are one of the joys of social media, especially if, as is often the case, you have no idea what they are talking about. You just know that another mighty volume must be in the works. How I long for Hatherley and Pyzik to take on the United States one day, and ideally for someone to film them doing it – but meanwhile we have The Ministry of Nostalgia.

Owen Hatherley photo: Agata PyzikThis book is short and accessible, if a little disjointed. Hatherley is prolific and thrifty at the same time. Nothing is wasted, so the book reveals its origins in various earlier writings, bits of journalism patched together and expanded. Thus refashioned, it emerges as an old-fashioned polemic. We have all been sold a pup, it appears, the whelp in question being the legend of postwar austerity and everything that attaches to it – especially the idea that today’s version of "austerity" can evoke that golden-hued period. No it can’t, says Hatherley. It’s the opposite. Today’s austerity is just the right wing destroying all the good stuff that the left wing did back then, from the National Health Service to council housing. Back then, they planned the future. Now? “Here, the future, if it was thought about at all, was primed to resemble an enterprise zone full of call centres on the edge of a business park on the M4”. Who cannot love such a telling image?

Hatherley immediately won me round by quoting the Marxist historian Raphael Samuel, always acute, whose last books in the 1990s, Theatres of Memory and Island Stories looked at the idea of “retrochic” and how a reprocessed past can be commandeered to justify the increasingly conservative actions of the present. Hatherley extrapolates from this today’s popularity of Call the Midwife or Downton Abbey “where we are asked to admire a strong, struggling but basically deferent working class that knows its place.”

Hence the extraordinary popularity of the (never-used but later rediscovered) wartime slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On” which started as a poster in the shop at the V&A, caught the public mood in the recession and is now, with its endless derivatives, impossible to avoid. For Hatherley, this is “a yearning for an actual or imaginary English patrician attitude of stiff upper lips and muddling through… it is a nostalgia for the state of being repressed.”

Spa Green Estate, Clerkenwell. Designed by Berthold Lubetkin in the 1930s and built in the 1940sI don’t think so, really. I think it’s just a nostalgia for what seem to be easier, safer times – even though they weren’t, what with two world wars and the post-war threat of nuclear annihilation. Raphael Samuel took the view that the Left needed to reclaim “heritage” but Hatherley admits that the Tories will always propagandise old stuff better. And what can you do, when the best council housing of the Atlee government – the kind built by Communist architect Berthold Lubetkin – now sells for obscene prices through The Modern House estate agency, while upmarket restaurants espouse austerity chic?  Hatherley concludes that, “If a social and democratic city is going to be built again, it will most probably be built by those who have no investment in the past, no fond memory of it.” (Pictured above right: Berthold Lubetkin's Spa Green Estate, Clerkenwell.)

This was the case in 1948, of course. The clean slate. The fresh start. The demob suit. The uncomfortable thing is that it could well require another global cataclysm to create the same conditions. But even Hatherley does not go that far.


We have all been sold a pup, it appears, the whelp in question being the legend of postwar austerity

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