Ministry of Nostalgia: Interview with Owen Hatherley

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Feb 6, 2017 · 10 min read
Bill Pearson, ‘Two Men and a Dog’ series, 1982/85

The Dog and Bell in Deptford is a Chinese nail house of a pub, a place that has stood its ground against the legions of developers that have flattened so many old drinking houses in the area. Inside it is quiet; a couple of regulars hunched over the bar, a real coal fire smouldering in a second room, floral curtains drawn to the world outside. Unlike so many trendy bars in this city, in which History is announced with a jumbled array of pink lampshades, taxidermied animals and twee 1950s advertisements on the wall, the proudly mounted pictures and newspaper articles on the walls of the Dog and Bell tell the history of a community. The pub has existed since the mid-18th century and for many years served the thirsty dockers of nearby Convoys Wharf. A wall displays an exhibition of photographs of abandoned industrial sites from the 1980s taken by a local photographer; a text pinned alongside describes them as ‘remnants of a lost world’.

Fitting, then, that I am to meet Owen Hatherley here, whose most recent book, Ministry of Nostalgia, examines our relationship to the remnants of a world created after the war, a world of state socialist planning, industry, free healthcare and social housing; the world of the post-war welfare state.

The present government, with its cuts to the benefits system, privatisation of the NHS and destruction of social housing, is finishing the job started by Thatcher (and continued by New Labour) of erasing all traces of that world. Yet at the same time as the remnants of the welfare state are being demolished, the British public have become increasingly prone to wistful remembrance of the age that produced it. Vintage nostalgia of 1940s and ‘50s is all the rage; post-war advertisements and London Underground memorabilia fill the gift shops of the capital, Brutalist buildings adorn tea towels and mugs, and of course there is ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, originally a poster, now a pervasive viral meme, its clean Gills Sans font, austere design and stoic message conjuring parallels with post-war Britain’s earlier period of privation and scarcity. The political project of shrinking the welfare state is framed by politicians as an issue of moral fortitude and national resilience: ‘We are all in this together’, just like we supposedly were during and after the war.

Hatherley confesses to having a ‘love hate relationship’ towards the recent surge in austerity nostalgia; it holds an appeal when seen against the aspirational aesthetic of the Blair years. ‘In the New Labour Era anything that wasn’t aspirational, that wasn’t shiny and bright and “Blairy”, with a big quiff and a satanic grin, felt very marginal, it was a time in which the demonisation of social housing was so total’. Reaching back towards a moment of public Modernism, in which well designed public housing and transport was widely accessible, was a way of showing ‘This is also possible; this was once possible’. His first book, Militant Modernism, was born of that impulse: ‘I think it’s very clear that lots of people had that impulse at that point and that impulse then went very much mainstream’.

Gift shop of the Imperial War Museum, London, 2016

Mainstream it went, and the very public modernist architecture that Hatherley championed has become a hot commodity in London’s property market. ‘People are shopping’, Hatherley says; apartments in Brutalist buildings are increasingly seen as good investments for the middle classes: ‘They’re the new Georgian terraces’. Brutalist icons like Balfron Tower in Poplar or Trellick Tower in Kensington, designed by Erno Goldfinger in the 1960s to house the working classes in well-designed modern apartments, are increasingly being transformed into luxury flats. Government schemes like Right to Buy, which provides large subsidies for council tenants to buy the home they live in, only exacerbates the selloff of social housing.

In being condemned to privatisation, Brutalist buildings like Balfron and Trellick Tower have at least been saved from destruction. Post-war social housing not deemed to be marketable to the middle classes is still being bulldozed flat throughout the country. Broadwater Farm, a large estate in Tottenham, which, as Hatherley pointedly remarks, you are never going to see ‘on a tea towel’, was reportedly included in a Government list of 100 post-war ‘sink estates’ targeted for demolition in the name of social reform. ‘Concrete slabs dropped from on high, brutal high-rise towers and dark alleyways are a gift to criminals and drug dealers’, declared the Prime Minister in a recent speech on estate ‘regeneration’.

Hatherley has made a name as one of the country’s most distinguished writers on modern architecture. Born in Southampton, living between Woolwich and Warsaw for many years has granted him an outsider’s perspective with a dissenting voice to match. He surveyed the urban wreckage left by New Labour in A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, and explored the legacy of communism through Eastern Bloc architecture in Landscapes of Communism. Writing about politics through culture and vice versa, his work is centred on a belief that radical politics and architecture ‘can and should go together’.

Trellick Tower by Andy Spain

In Ministry of Nostalgia, Hatherley reaches beyond architecture to examine how a whole culture of austerity nostalgia has influenced our political landscape. Indeed, he claims Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership can, in part, be explained by this trend, and he compares the new leader’s straight-talking style to beloved left Labour politicians Aneurin Bevan and Tony Benn: ‘both speaking clearly, without bullshit … there’s no hint in him of the kind of Americanised personas of Blair and Miliband’.

Hatherley is erudite when it comes to the history of the Labour Party, and scathing when it comes to their historical failures — a quality he may have inherited, descending as he does from a long line of English communists. His grandparents were both members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and his parents met in the Labour Party Young Socialists. Christmas arguments were over the 1956 Hungarian anti-Soviet uprising. While careful to distance himself from the Stalinist inclinations of some of his family, Hatherley is clearly proud of their political traditions. I ask him whether he has ever been tempted to write a ‘My Communist Family were so Wrong’ piece for The Guardian? ‘If I ever write that I want it on record that it’s OK to kill me’, he laughs. ‘They were obviously deeply, deeply mistaken about a lot of things’, he says of his grandparents, ‘but I think their impulses were completely sound. They were a bit uptight but they were lovely people, and I have no desire to grind any axe about them’.

Hatherley describes with affection ‘the slight crankishness’ of his grandparents. They were birdwatchers and nature lovers, ‘communists via Morris, Ruskin and Shelley you could say’. But, he adds, they were ‘interested in the rest of the world in a way that Labourites have never been’. Alongside Shakespeare and Shelley, his grandparent’s home was full of books on China, Africa and Latin America; ‘for them this was the world movement’.

This commitment to internationalism has been passed on. In Ministry of Nostalgia, he treats recent attempts at forging a left populist nationalism by the likes of Billy Bragg and Jon Cruddas with a heavy dose of scepticism. ‘Progressive patriotism’ has no hold on Hatherley, a self-described ‘rootless cosmopolitan’. ‘In terms of being insufferably English, I can compete with Billy Bragg quite easily’, he says, and sitting across from me in the pub wearing a knitted jumper and eating a plate of ham, egg and chips, I am inclined to agree.

‘It makes an emotional appeal that I myself do not feel’, he continues, ‘But also the question is how you can do this in such a way that it is not perpetuating the actual historical role of England as an imperialist country?’

Militant Modernism worked to recover the political ambitions of Modernism and wrest its aesthetic from a heritage industry that seeks to embalm it. The book was billed as ‘a defence of Modernism against its defenders’, and at times, Ministry of Nostalgia feels like a defence of the post-war settlement against the likes of Ken Loach. Films like Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 celebrate the formation of the welfare state as a patriotic achievement alongside that of defeating Nazism. For Hatherley, a more clear-eyed assessment of the era is necessary: ‘1940 and ’45 have these fantastic myths because we defeated evil and built the NHS, well yes we did but it looks a little bit different from certain other places’.

Publicity from Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ‘45

The book recalls Orwell writing that the Beveridge Report was not widely publicised in India for fear that it would provoke an angry response, with Indians feeling that the English were ‘making themselves comfortable at our expense’. ‘It’s extraordinary, because this is the exact opposite of people like Glasman [Maurice Glasman, Labour peer and founder of Blue Labour], of, “Well, people don’t like the fact that the welfare state they built is now being used by Bengalis who had nothing to do with it”. Actually, no, it was built on their fucking backs. It’s at the very least fair that they should be allowed to participate’.

Notably missing from the post-war nostalgia industry are the posters and publicity from Empire Marketing Board, which existed to promote trade among Britain’s colonies. This is the dark underbelly of austerity nostalgia; while social democrats like Herbert Morrison were implementing well-designed public transport at home, Labour politicians were actively overseeing brutal suppression of the colonies abroad. For Hatherley, imperialism was not just an inconvenient historical footnote to Britain’s social democracy, but rather an integral feature of it.

“Notably missing from the post-war nostalgia industry are the posters and publicity from Empire Marketing Board.” (poster by E. McKnight Kauffer, 1927)

Hatherley notes that the historical conditions that gave rise to the welfare state were unique: not only mass mobilisation and a planned economy that came with the Second World War, wealth and labour brutally extracted from the colonies, but also thirty years of socialist agitation and militant trade unionism. ‘Those circumstances’, he says, ‘I cannot possibly see how it’s repeatable’.

But if the social conditions that led to the creation of the welfare state are unrepeatable, how can the central demands of that epoch — decent housing for all, free healthcare, social welfare — be fulfilled for the 21st century? I ask if he thinks recent initiatives like Assemble, a collective of architects and designers, who recently won the Turner prize for their transformation of derelict houses in Toxteth, Liverpool, provide an alternative? ‘You can’t solve the housing crisis by artistic entrepreneurs in Guernsey or Jersey throwing loads of money at community land trusts’, he replies, referring to the Jersey based ‘social investor’ who funded the project.

Assemble’s Turner Prize is, for Hatherley, a result of ‘a really pervasive cult at the moment of community land trusts, social enterprise, self-build … a fetish for the bottom up over the top down’. Handcrafted solutions simply cannot solve problems of a national order, he insists: ‘The problems that we face in Britain, and even more the problems that we face more or less everywhere else are on a really large scale, and if you can’t scale up what you’re doing, it’s a nice little experiment but that’s it, that’s all it is’.

Perhaps surprisingly, then, he sees much more cause for hope in a grassroots group like Focus E15 Mums, who led a campaign in 2013 against Newham Council’s plans to demolish their estate, by occupying disused council flats. For Hatherley, the occupation of empty council housing, as unrealistic a proposal as it may seem, could at least be undertaken on a national scale — indeed a mass squatting movement in 1946 saw ex-servicemen and their families moving into empty military camps around Britain in response to a housing shortage, which pushed Bevan to roll out council housing around the country as a matter of priority. Hatherley insists that for Focus E15, localism was an asset, ‘a local campaign based on local knowledge and a desire to stay in the local area and in a city like London where transience is enforced; I think that’s a good thing’.

Groups like this are not wistful about the post war era, but clear eyed and determined about using what’s left of it to answer people’s immediate needs. Ministry of Nostalgia concludes by suggesting that if a social democratic city is to be constructed again, ‘it will probably be built by those who have no investment in the past, no fond memory of it’.

Sayes Court Estate, Deptford

Hatherley is encouraged by the way that opposition to luxury developments is growing, particularly since the 25% minimum affordable housing clause for new developments has been so extensively redefined. ‘There’s no cover anymore; there’s no more “But it’s also good as well as bad”’, says Hatherley, ‘The Faustian pacts that councils were obsessed with doing don’t work anymore and people know it. … I think people are seeing much more clearly now than they were ten years ago, and that is a cause for optimism.’ He pauses, ‘Although it’s a terrible time now in all sorts of ways, I prefer it to ten years ago because there’s some contestation now’.

The issue of housing is one of the key issues in the London Mayoral race this year, and so long as the housing crisis is pushing more and more Londoners into homelessness and destitution, it will continue to be the vector through which radical political alternatives are viewed.

On the way home from the Dog and Bell after the interview, I pass by Sayes Court Estate, a sprawling set of monumental tower blocks built by Lewisham Council in the 1960s. On a brick wall, white graffiti spells out a simple demand: ‘NO MORE HOMES FOR THE RICH’. I look up at the white towers and Hatherley’s remark rings in my head: ‘This is also possible; this was once possible’.

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MINISTRY OF NOSTALGIA: CONSUMING AUSTERITY

By Owen Hatherley

224 pp. Verso Books. £14.99.

Originally posted on www.thecolumn.net in February 2016.

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