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

ANN RONAN PICTURES/PRINT COLLECTOR/GETTY IMAGES
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The amazing lawnmower man

How ex-bank manager Clive Gravett became obsessed with Edwin Beard Budding, the inventor of the lawnmower.

It’s midday in the Museum of Gardening. Clive Gravett, the founder, curator and owner of most of the exhibits here, is pondering a relatively unimportant item in his collection: a glass tube, about a foot long. “Blown glass,” says Gravett, leaning in close, “so it’s probably early Victorian.” This, he explains to a curious visitor, is the work of George Stephenson, the “father of railways” and inventor of an early miner’s safety lamp. It’s a device for straightening cucumbers.

Stephenson’s triumphs are listed on a plaque nearby, but this museum, located in a corner of a garden centre in Hassocks, West Sussex, is one of few places on Earth where a luminary of Stephenson’s stature must stand in the shadow of a more exceptional figure. The Museum of Gardening is a shrine to Gravett’s hero Edwin Beard Budding, who in 1830 made one of the great intellectual leaps of the 19th century. He invented the lawnmower.

Budding was one of those bright-eyed tinkerers so common in the 1800s – a “machinist”, according to his epitaph. Legend has it that he was sitting one day at a cloth-cutting apparatus, watching a bladed cylinder travel over wool and cleanly remove the nap. He glanced out of the window to where men were working a lawn with scythes, and had a sudden moment of inspiration. Surely this cutting cylinder could be used just as easily on grass as on cloth?

In that instant, the lawnmower was born. “And it’s barely changed to this day,” explains Gravett, a sinewy man in his early sixties with icy blue eyes that thaw when he gets excited. “Compare it to the fine-turf mowers of today. It’s the same thing. You have a roller, a cutting cylinder, and a drive. That’s his design.”

Gravett was destined to fall for Budding. The son of farm labourers, he wanted to follow his father into horticulture. “I planned to stay on the farm but my mother said, ‘You don’t want to end up like us, living on tithed property.’ She gave me a bit of a push.” Instead, he went into banking and – smart, energetic and blessed with an unforced quirkiness – rose to be branch manager.

“Thirty-five years later I was very disillusioned,” he says. “I’d seen a lot of colleagues waylaid by stress, and I thought: ‘No, you’re not going to do that to me.’ We got our branch to the top of the list and I resigned, and accused [then RBS chief executive] Fred Goodwin of corporate bullying in my resignation letter.”

He then started up a small horticultural business. It was while tending the gardens of a retired solicitor in Ditchling that he discovered four old mowers in the garage. “He said he wanted to dump them,” Gravett remembers. “I took them away, found there was an old lawnmower club, and it went from there.”

Gravett is cagey about how many lawnmowers he owns, but it’s somewhere around a hundred. That’s not many, he suggests, given that antique lawnmowers are hardly pricey. It might seem excessive, though, given that there’s no lawn on his property. Many of his mowers reside at the museum. They are huge and bulky and strangely insectoid in the 19th century, with motors coming in about 1904, and then the weight drops away until the Flymo arrives in the 1960s – a gorgeous piece of domestic futurism, more manta ray than machine. “A lot of collectors are quite funny about Flymos,” he observes.

Gravett loves to talk about the magic of restoring a lawnmower. “Some Ransomes mowers can be difficult to date,” he says, “until you strip the cutting blade back to the metal and see 1907 or 1911, and you’re the first person to see that since it was put together.” His real passion, however, is research. It’s the research that brought him to Budding.

Born in 1796, the illegitimate son of a farmer (“his mother was probably the housemaid”), Budding was a clever child, training in carpentry and then engineering. As well as the lawnmower, he designed an early pepper-box pistol, and in the 1840s, a few years before his death, he invented the screw-adjustable spanner. None of these made him much money: they arrived too early. His lawnmower was so ahead of its time that he had to test it at night – “possibly because of prying eyes”, Gravett says, laughing, “but possibly because people would think he was stupid”.

Today, Gravett remembers Budding though his museum and charity, the Budding Foundation, which supports young people across education, training and sport. He is still looking out for lawnmowers, and urges everybody he meets to check their shed for forgotten treasure.

There is one machine he doesn’t have in his collection: a Budding. “Nobody has a Budding,” he sighs. “He probably made a few thousand, but the wars gobbled up scrap metal. Even so, I like to think one might be found.”

But Gravett managed to get close to his hero a few years ago when he took a trip to Dursley in Gloucestershire, where Budding is buried. “Nobody had written about his grave, so I decided to find it. I researched the churchyard, and the council provided me with a map to the plots.” The border fence had been moved twenty years earlier after six graves were taken away. When he found Budding’s plot, it was right up against the new fence. “We’re lucky we didn’t lose him.”

The grave, like Budding’s legacy, showed signs of neglect. It was overgrown and covered with brambles. Gravett lights up at the memory. “I cleared all the brambles off, and then, since I happened to have a 100-year-old lawnmower in the back of the truck, I hefted it over the fence.

“I mowed as close as I could to his resting place.” 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain