Swinging roundabout: Piccadilly Circus in 1963
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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

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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