- A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys through Urban Britain by Owen Hatherley
Owen Hatherley’s cameos of post-Blair Britain, like Cobbett’s Rural Rides, occupy a genre spanning fiction and non-fiction with roots in Don Quixote, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Dante’s Inferno. As he guides the reader through the futility of Britain’s post-Thatcher urban landscape, travel becomes the scaffolding of a sweeping social and historical narrative.
The critique works at several levels. The topmost is that Modernization Isn’t Working. Squaring up to Tony Blair’s crusading vision of a modern socialism behind the dubious banner of a caring neoliberalism, Hatherley lands many punches. Luton Airport is “one of the main places for processing the thousands of poorly-paid, poorly-housed East and Central European Gastarbeiter, those who largely constructed the ‘New Britain’ promised by the now defunct New Labour movement” (xi) while the City of London becomes the “neurotically protected undead capital of undead financial capitalism.” (333)
Yet beneath the surface lies a Fings-Ain’t-Wot-they-Used-to-Be celebration of pre-modern gentility. Of Plymouth he writes “If, for Aldo Rossi, Berlin’s Stalinallee was ‘Europe’s last great street’ then Armada Way is certainly Britain’s,” (180) whilst Darlington Station – a commemoration, he reminds us, of the birthplace of the railways – “has a claim to being one of the most beautiful railway sheds on the entire network, a sombre, smoky and atmospheric place with a majestic series of curving vaults, a piece of Victorian high-tech whose beauty and emptiness are captivating.” (38)
The messages jar. Were the people who built Darlington really better off than those who flock through Luton? Is a street which immortalises a four-century-old battle really the best that Britain has to offer? A third more subtle message emerges, perhaps as a result: sometimes modernizers get something right. This recognition appears in Hatherley’s frank admiration for the “superb mini-city” (221) of Leicester University, a near-elegiac description of Edinburgh, and a fulsome appreciation of post-blitz Coventry: “The real dogmatists are those who would dismiss the city simply because it (was) new.” (125)
All three messages are discharged in a rapid-fire aesthetic critique of Britain’s places, laced with racy contempt for their dismalness. For social commentary, however, one must call a halt to the exhilarating journey, and study what is really being said. Unlike Cobbett, Hatherley rarely observes the human conditions he speaks of: evidence for what people actually do is provided by the places they live in. Here lies the rub: the problems underlying Blair’s monumental legacy need attention in their own right.
Luton is defined by its appalling airport, a child of mass holidays mated with neoliberal cost-cutting, which distains functionality even as it proclaims itself the latest thing in luxury. Anyone who has fought their way out of the airport after 10 p.m. will bear out this judgement: yet Luton itself is one of Britain’s “Minority white” cities, home to a decent and respectful multifaith society which, alongside Southall and Bradford, deserves one day to be celebrated as the birthplace of a genuinely new British way of life, free from the cant and hypocrisy of those who only poke fun at it.
Poking fun at Luton is an English pastime. Like the suburbs, it makes an easy target; it’s where the other half lives. But [End Page 283] the great unwashed, as the Victorians dubbed them, live where they can, not where they want – just as Luton’s short-haul flights exist because most people can’t afford much else. The ancient sport of mocking the worse-off rests on a lifestyle made possible by a poverty that is alternately ridiculed and pitied by those who hound it.
It’s not enough. The finest reflections on modernity – Yeats comes to mind – identify the spark of hope that smoulders at the heart of chaos.
Hatherley acknowledges the limitations of his own critique: Plymouth is “a reminder of just how necessary...