I like Owen Hatherley about as much as I dislike ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ and its unimaginative variations. Which is a lot. So I was very happy to find he had written a book, The Ministry of Nostalgia, on the subject of this pervasive recent symbol of what he calls “Austerity Nostalgia”, and the political history and current context of this cultural phenomenon.
I finished reading the book and started writing this post back in early June. Since then we’ve seen just over half of the electoral turnout vote for the UK to leave the EU – arguably a protest against the past six years of austerity government and yet directed at the wrong target and ultimately self-destructive.
Hatherley wrote the book, building on past writings, following a moment when he realised that “what had seemed a typically, somewhat insufferably, English phenomenon had gone completely and inescapably global” – when he saw it in a department store in Poland.
I highly recommend you read the book. One of my friends at work spotted a Guardian piece on the subject by Hatherley, that had been shared on Twitter – a comprehensive, long summary of some of the key bits from the book, to whet your appetite.
A couple of weeks later there was a great piece on the Quietus website, an interview with Hatherley in their Ten Songs strand. I love how eloquently he sums up and puts down the austerity nostalgia or austerity chic look:
“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.”
I think I started to notice this look emerging more widely in the middle of the last decade, predominantly from the more underground and fetish club scenes – certainly the rediscovery of rockabilly stylings and music, and the 1940s and 1950s mash-up of “Bettie Page crossed with Rosie the Riveter”.
But as Hatherley says, his writing is never just about aesthetics or design. The book shows Hatherley’s typically impressive depth of knowledge and opinion on the political and cultural sources, meanings and effects of this visual style, whether applied in fashion or – his most common subject – architecture.
The book is enjoyably wide-ranging, exploring – among other things – the different political and infrastructure bodies such as the Ministry of Information, the London Passenger Transport Board, the GPO Film Unit and the Empire Marketing Board, their design output and the theory and the people behind it all.
A key tenet of the book is how wrong-headed austerity nostalgia is as a concept or a social model:
“The power of keep calm and carry on’ comes from a yearning for an actual or imaginary English patrician attitude of stiff upper lip and muddling through.
“… narcissistic wallowing in fake poverty and barely coherent history as a way of avoiding any thought of how to drag ourselves out of our current, needless, and far less egalitarian version of austerity.”
“One of the best arguments for the possibility of a social democracy is the fact that one came damn close to being built between 1945 and 1979, despite its many flaws and ommissions. … I have spent much of my time as a writer attempting to rehabilitate the built environment created by this moment of social democracy.”
The author argues that success in the post-war period came from precisely the opposite of making do and nostalgia, rather that forward-looking modernism, investment and more equal distribution of wealth gave rise to the unparalleled institution of the NHS and a nationwide social housing programme. Hatherley draws interesting parallels between the political treatment of National Health Service and national housing policy, including the surprise that Nye Bevan had considered a National Housing Service as well as the NHS that did materialise. The author recognises Bevan’s achievements while also managing not to sanctify the man or ignore any of his or his government’s shortcomings.
In London, where I live, in the past year or so I had noticed that a kind of mottled golden brown facing brick seemed to be becoming the cladding of choice – unlike the context-blind coloured plastic panels and metallic detailing of much of its predecessors – but I hadn’t realised that there was political direction behind this – coming from the Mayor’s office via something called A New London Vernacular. This document set the standards for new residential developments in London, for developers to “reduce sales risk”, “reduce design and construction risk” and “enable more accurate land valuation”. Or, as Hatherley puts it:
“In other words, building brick homes and marketing them is easy to do, and became a safe option after the financial crisis. This was no time for any more experiments. In addition, the new vernacular resembled the post-war council flat that had ceased to be demonised after many of its products were rehabilitated by the austerity nostalgia industry. This was partly (mea culpa) because defences in books and articles had made them more acceptable to middle-class aesthetes.”
The ‘mea culpa’ is a nice touch, though Hatherley has always been far less than superficial in his appreciation for and promotion of Modernist design, seeing its benefit for social good, but always putting that good (and not pure aesthetics) to the fore. I feel I also benefited from some prior inside knowledge here, because of doing an Architecture degree led by very pro-Modernism tutors who introduced us to post-war social housing, set some socially responsible design projects and essays, and even brought in guest speakers such as Neave Brown. But it always felt like my little niche interest until maybe about 10 years ago, with the big Modernism exhibition at the V&A, or perhaps even earlier with programmes such as Grand Designs bringing a taste of Modernism to a much wider audience.
Allied with ‘Right to Buy’ and ‘Buy to Let’ allowing people to buy up ex-council properties cheaply for inflated resale or rental values:
“The new appreciation of the buildings, based on their quality and ‘character’, meant that their original purpose had to be destroyed. … The irony of this is so gigantic, and so gross, that it feels almost too bloody obvious to point out, but apparently we must. In Britain today we are living through exactly the kind of housing crisis for which council housing was invented in the first place, at exactly the same time as we’re alternately fetishising and privatising its remnants. From substandard speculative housing to runaway inflation of mortgages and rents, from resurrected Rachmanism to houses in garden sheds and garages, from empty flats in the north to neo-Victorian overcrowding in the south, from a forced exodus due to unemployment in one city through to a forced exodus due to house prices and rents in another, we face a massive problem for which, once, the solution was the building of well-designed, well-considered, well-planned modernist buildings, often erected on the ashes of the shoddily-designed, unplanned, badly made, profit-driven housing of the past. Instead, what is actually happening is that we’re transforming the surviving fragments of that solution into one of the main contributors to the problem, as social housing becomes the new front line of gentrification, and the architect-designed modernist flat the new loft conversion.”
I hope you read the book and I’d be really interested to know what you think of it. Here are a couple more reviews:
Jon Day, The Guardian, 21 January 2016
Alexander Larman, The Observer, 7 February 2016