Ross Bradshaw keeps calm while reviewing Owen Hatherley's latest book of essays on nostalgia.
This set of essays starts with the well-known image, in Gill Sans type, with a crown at the top and plain lettering saying KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. This annoying slogan, Hatherley found, seemed to follow him everywhere, sometimes with varied text, even to street markets of Eastern Europe. Good job he had not come to Nottingham where you can see a poster outside the type of hairdresser I could never go into saying KEEP CALM AND GET YOUR HAIR DID. Or even Five Leaves Bookshop where we stock a similar card says KEEP CALM I’M AN ANARCHIST. Once, in Forest Fields (a local Asian area) I saw a T-shirt saying KEEP CALM I’M A MUSLIM. So far, so annoying, but Hatherley turns this into a general public desire for “austerity nostalgia” as that image became a staple in museums and gift shop harking back to better, more innocent times when “we” were “fighting the Hun and eating SPAM”. Hatherley goes to town exploring the vacuous and reactionary nature of such nostalgia.
More challenging for us on the Left is his like-minded attack on Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 film, with its use of black and white, brass bands, the absence of the impact of Windrush and its avoidance of the downside of the Labour Government that gave us the NHS but also brought us nuclear weapons and dirty colonial wars. His objections are aesthetic as well as historical. I like a brass band as much as the next person but began to feel a little shifty when Hatherley moved on to the film on Tony Benn, Will and Testament, as, though it does not overlook colonialism, it parades “more brass bands and mournful marches”. Are we, too, guilty of what EP Thompson called the “enormous condescension of posterity”?
Moving on, Hatherley picks out the London Underground, which itself was no innocent in selling nostalgia with its there-will-always-be-an-Engerland posters advertising “Golders Green: a place of delightful prospects” or “Live in a new neighbourhood – Dollis Hill” with suburban satisfaction only a Tube ride away. Many pages are devoted to the Tube stations. Despite Verso’s dreadfully printed pictures I’ll make a point in visiting Arnos Grove, described lovingly by Hatherley. At this point I lost the thread of his main argument but cared not at all as modernism, constructivism and other such “isms” whizzed along. Hatherley mentions in passing that the foremost Tube station designer, Frank Pick (excuse my laboured pun in the first sentence of this paragraph), advised on the Moscow Metro and picked up an Order of Lenin for his troubles. Now there’s an answer for some pub quiz question sometime. Pick also worked for the now forgotten Empire Marketing Board, some of whose imagery is described but, thankfully, not shown.
In the longest chapter, “Family Portrait”, Hatherley sifts out information showing that the public did not “keep calm and carry on” in wartime, not least in occupying the Underground against the wishes of their rulers and in one choice incident, shouting down someone who tried to get some community singing going. If you are going to have to sleep in a deep underground shelter with your home being blown up above ground you might not want to celebrate by singing.
The book is on strong ground when it comes to housing, reminding us that Bevan also built houses as well as the NHS, insisting on good housing, well-built and spacious such as at Spa Green and good buildings for health such as the Finsbury Health Centre. Bevan was less keen on the more revolutionary preventative work of the Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham, this being mentioned here in passing. Hatherley has a lot to say about the designer Berthold Lubetkin, one of many architects and designers who either originated from mainland Europe or whose practice would draw on European modernism. Of course most of Bevan’s Council houses have been sold off on the cheap and now resell expensively as the well-heeled of London have come to appreciate that former Council housing, much of it, was well designed and well-built.
Indeed, Hatherley remarks that increasing London commercially-built housing is designed to blend in with and look like Council housing, which was often appropriate to the environment unlike the Degeneration/Regeneration of the New Labour years. Ironically, after taking a swipe at the “free Boris Johnson propaganda and property porn rag, the Evening Standard” Hatherley gives credit to the mayor’s London Design Guide for improving standards.
The London mayor of course. And this – together with Verso’s awful muddy photographic reproduction – is the book’s main weakness. Most of the book is about London, London and more London. Hatherley is also weak on solutions – housing, especially in London, is in crisis, but however much deserving of support we need bigger solutions than the Focus E15 Mums, however much they “have not shown the Blitz spirit, they have not kept calm and carried on, and their iconography and slogans reflect that”. Not that Hatherley alone has to come up with solutions. That’s a job for all of us.
The Ministry of Nostalgia does, occasionally, show the signs of a publisher approaching an author with a book idea based on a couple of magazine essays. Sometimes you can see the sellotape holding it together. But that’s a trivial complaint because Hatherley can write. His demolition job on Norman Foster’s Imperial War Museum is a treat. There you can see the tired atrium (Foster loves atriums), the steps that go nowhere, the inaccurate captions on exhibitions, wonder about the brushing aside of inconvenient narrative and end up in the gift shops where you can buy a new catalogue featuring a foreword signed by Prince William. It’s a place “to pig out on Gill Sans, muted colours, Blitz spirit, crown logos, wartime cooking, duplicate ration cards – whatever your fantasy about living in genuine privation and fear might be … in a building that evokes a Bravo Two Zero version of a PFI hospital. The Museum of Keeping Calm and Carrying On.”
The Ministry of Nostalgia is published by Verso at £18.99. This article was first published in the Morning Star.