Swinging roundabout: Piccadilly Circus in 1963
Show Hide image

The retropolitan line: documentary How We Used to Live by Paul Kelly

A cinematic paean to postwar London uses rare footage from the BFI. But has time edited out the boring bits?

How We Used to Live (PG)
dir: Paul Kelly

If you miss proper coffee bars and council houses and you think they should never have knocked down the Skylon, then the delightful documentary How We Used to Live is for you. Its director, Paul Kelly, who has made a speciality of the capital’s subliminal aspect, offers an impressionistic London travelogue through time as well as space, with music from the couture indie-pop band Saint Etienne (for whom Kelly briefly played guitar). The film hides its politics deep in the credits, in a caption that pointedly reads: “Almost everything you have just been watching was made with funding from the British government between 1950 and 1980.” In other words, our leaders once thought that our shared lives and mass culture were worth recording.

More accessible than Iain Sinclair and hipper than Peter Ackroyd, How We Used to Live is a spirited addition to the pop-psychogeography genre that runs from Nor­man Cohen’s film The London That Nobody Knows (1969) – a much-shared touchstone of London retro featuring a voice-over by James Mason and a bizarre egg-smashing factory on the South Bank – to Julien Temple’s London: the Modern Babylon (2012). Suburbanites all, from areas such as Farnborough and Croydon, Kelly and his collaborators share an outsider’s unrequited obsession with the capital. They built their film from BFI National Archive footage and borrowed its title – by way of a Saint Etienne pop single of the same name, released in 2000 – from a Yorkshire Television educational programme that began in the 1960s. The result captures a hitherto unmythologised London that was “no longer postwar but pre-something else”.

This is the Britain of the Central Office of Information and the public information film, of the busy state and its egalitarian new Elizabethans. The film’s bookends are the Festival of Britain and the Canary Wharf redevelopment, the twin poles of the public and the private. Viewed from our end of the age of market omniscience, the bleached but bright world of How We Used to Live seems exotic and – for anyone over the age of 30 – painfully nostalgic. You yearn to revisit this tatty but optimistic David Kynaston city with its Swingle Singers soundtrack.

Here, smoke still pours from Battersea Power Station; you might see the pop mogul Mickie Most jogging at dawn in the same chocolate-brown shirt and slacks he’d wear to a hot nightspot; and London exists in a permanent early-spring haze. On the platform of the newly rebuilt Euston Station, a boy trainspotter aged about 11 dawdles in shorts. Would a child be allowed to venture there alone now, even though today it is undoubtedly safer than it was in the see-no-evil 1970s?

There is an unnerving crispness to the film stock that makes the past seem more real than the present, an effect now imitated by Instagram camera filters. In Kelly’s film, the years have edited out the boring bits and everybody looks fantastic. But is it just the lens of time that makes them that way? Will today’s TOWIE girls and ochre, tattooed gym lads one day seem amazing and characterful instead of lost and conformist?

Pop culture used to scorn the past. Now it lives through it. Yet the visually recorded past now crowds out the living present, blotting out the light it needs to grow. In How We Used to Live we see how daily ephemera changed utterly over a couple of decades. Cars morphed from Dinky Toys to post-Starsky racers; bowler hats and twinsets gave way to Man at C&A and Biba. Look at a street scene from the early 1990s, though, and it is barely distinguishable from today. In advertising and entertainment we are surrounded by more of the past than ever: cleaned up, visually remastered and digitally frozen at peak quality, not distanced by scratchy negatives or decaying film stock. They’re making more of it every year and it looks better than now. No wonder things are slowing down.

Until perhaps 15 years ago we lived in what will surely be seen as the hundred-year infancy of the moving image, when it was a costly and cumbersome medium available only to professionals and the dedicated hobbyist. (This could produce its own weird epiphenomena, such as the interminable – and I’m sure by no means unique – 1950s “colour cine” footage of flowers gently waving in the back garden that my grand­father used to subject us to in the 1970s. A lone protest against modernity? You’d win the Turner Prize with that now.) Today everything has a camera in it and on YouTube, Vine and countless other websites we are sharing moving images at a rate that will terrify future video editors and data storage planners. One day it will not be the planking students, exploding Diet Coke bottles or capering children in the foreground that are of value but the vanished buildings and advertising hoardings behind them. They will be the real evidence of how we used to live. 

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

Getty
Show Hide image

Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage