Friday, 3 June 2016

Book review: The Ministry of Nostalgia and The Lubetkin Legacy

By chance, I recently came across two books, one factual, and the other a work of fiction, which complemented each other very nicely

Owen Hatherley's The Ministry of Nostalgia is a critique of the recent phenomenon of “austerity chic’, of the way in which the history of 1940s and 1950s Britain has been rewritten and distorted in order to justify or cover up the neo-liberal ideology which dominates contemporary Britain.

The recent popularity of the aesthetics and design of the 1940s and 1950s is evident everywhere: from posters of the Festival of Britain,  to mid century modern furniture and architecture, vintage clothing, and that ubiquitous “Keep Calm and Carry On poster. The post war period was of course the time when the National Health Service was established, along with the welfare state, and a large programme of public housing. Since the Thatcher period, all of this has been gradually dismantled. Council housing sold off, the NHS eroded and gradually privatised, and the gap between rich and poor getting wider.  All this is symbolised by the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster, from a wartime design which was intended to be used in the event of a German invasion, but never actually produced in large numbers until 2008, during the time of the credit crunch, and embossed on the dustcover of the hardback book.

This quasi-blitz spirit, this pseudo-nostalgia for an imagined past age of austerity, when “we were all in it together”, serves to obscure the realities of the current neo-liberal economic climate, in which the oligarchs run the show, and everyone else is urged to be frugal. Nowadays, council house construction has ceased, and affordable housing is in increasingly short supply, but privately-owned ex-council flats, built to a much higher standard than recent privately constructed housing, are seen as desirable purchases. Some apartment blocks, like Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower, are being socially cleansed of their tenants by private developers before being refurbished as luxury apartments.

Hatherley ranges widely across the politics, design, art, architecture and music. I was familiar with some of the references, like Jamie Oliver's cooking, the Chap magazine, and Ken Loach's film, The Spirit of '45. Others, like Alexandra Harris's book Romantic Moderns,  which he discusses in detail, I had not encountered, so I found some of his critique a little difficult to evaluate.

I must confess though, that I do find a lot of the products of “austerity chic’ quite attractive or amusing, including some which he specifically mentions. I have from time to time read the Chap magazine, that publication which “launched a thousand East end moustaches”, including, I suppose, my own. But it’s good to be reminded of the link between aesthetics and ideology, so as not to be seduced by the ideology while admiring the aesthetics.

Which brings me to the other book, The Lubetkin Legacy by Marina Lewycka, which I have just finished listening to as an audiobook. This is a hilarious, comic novel centred around a block of council flats built by the famous architect Berthold Lubetkin.

Lubetkin, incidentally, is the architect responsible for Finsbury Health Centre, which I wrote about in a previous post. The protagonist, Berthold Sidebottom, an out-of work actor lives in one of them with his widowed mother, who maintains that he is the love child of the architect, after whom he is named. When she dies, his continued occupancy of the flat is imperilled. There are a host of other characters, like Violet who finds that her new corporate job leads her into the world of murky finance, a mysterious old Ukranian lady he meets in hospital, and many more. The novel deals with issues like social deprivation, housing shortages, the post-war consensus, bedroom tax, homelessness, money laundering, racism, zero-hours contracts, and much more.

I see a lot of online rants these days, and even though the writers might express views which accord with my own, I suspect that they do little to influence those with different opinions. The Lubetkin Legacy does make a lot of political points, but in a gentle, sympathetic and humane way, which makes it all the more effective. Quite apart from all that, I found it an engrossing, funny and entertaining tale, which kept my attention and interest right through to the end. The version I listened to was by Audible, narrated engagingly by Toby Longworth, whose reading added an extra element of enjoyment, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

The Ministry of Nostalgia: Consuming Austerity
by Owen Hatherley

The Lubetkin Legacy
by Marina Lewycka
Audiobook by Audible

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