Regeneration: "Not a rebirth, just a little death"

Owen Hatherley and Benedict Seymour talk urban renewal.

That Britain’s unequal and restive cities are in trouble was hardly news to the panel debating urban regeneration at Nottingham Contemporary, but, hey, some of us are still playing catch-up. Participants included one Owen Hatherley, a man whose celebrated architectural tour of the regions "A Guide To The New Ruins Of Great Britain" offered both a scathing journalistic critique of New Labour’s sometimes tragicomic efforts at "Urban Renaissance", and a vindication of the idea that you can learn a lot about the state of a country through its buildings. 

Likewise, a second volume released earlier this year, "A New Kind of Bleak", laid into the coalition’s failure to come up with any viable alternative to cramming former industrial heartlands with unaffordable "luxury flats" and public-private white elephants, and portrayed a "Tory-Whig" government unwilling or unable to move on from a vague neo-liberal hope that the empty aspirational monuments of the "creative industries" might somehow lead the proles to a better life.

Joining him on the panel was Benedict Seymour, a man who, in the early part of the last decade used provocative films and unflinching essays to warn of the "imminent collapse" of the UK’s housing bubble and predicted where "creative" areas like Shoreditch in East London might be headed. In his view, gentrified creative zones represented "not so much the rebirth of the dormant industrial city but its undeath", a hipster contingent lending areas an artsy credibility that, rather than Britain’s cities and dragging them into the "ideas economy", would end up increasing rents and pushing working class locals to the margins. Given the recent arrival of the totally straight-faced, "Avant Garde Tower" just off Brick Lane  he may well have had a point.

Even after a financial crisis that revealed the fragility of regeneration projects built on property speculation, Hatherley argued that town planners remain hellbent on "accelerating a process that in somewhere like Hackney had taken fifteen years". He singled out London’s much-mythologised Heygate Estate, a place currently seeing its 3,000 run-down council homes replaced (a process backed by the strong-arm of Compulsory Purchase Orders) with 2,500 questionably "affordable" homes, as an example of the many councils’ continued regenerate-or-die intransigence. 

"The best thing [Southwark Council] could do," he argued, "is clean the thing up, refurbish the building to level out some of the five million people on the bloody council waiting list. The idea that they would do that is completely implausible, because they would lose so much face for one thing. I think that’s the thing for these [Labour] councils – once you’ve sold your soul you can’t really ask for it back. Most of these people used to be socialists, used to believe in stuff, and that’s still somewhere in the back of their minds but I don’t think they can get back to it."

The coalition government, meanwhile, rests much of its hope for urban renewal on the return of Enterprise Zones, though extensive research suggests their effectiveness has been overstated, with even the supposed success of Canary Wharf more the  result of infrastructural spending and the rehabilitation of unusable land than freedom from onerous regulation. "Everything you thought was dead is resurrected," Seymour warned of the return of Enterprise Zones. "But that doesn’t mean the dynamism supplied by the real estate bubble will be there again."

While the government tries to revive dying cities through a culling of regulations, Seymour argued that this hands-off alternative to New Labour’s clumsy Urban Renaissance itself risks exacerbating their problems, setting a precedent for "hyper-exploitation, lowering of wages and the relaxing any protection of workers’ conditions". "If that is the formula for renewal of the economy for regeneration," he warned, "then you might want to consider whether it is too nihilistic and unpleasant to endorse".

Blueprint Regeneration planner Nick Ebbs, on the panel to prevent it descending into violent left-wing agreement, accepted that the UK is littered with regeneration done badly, but contends that it doesn’t always have to be like this. "I was in Liverpool very recently looking at some of the Pathfinder schemes and these are examples of how absolutely not to do it, perfectly good Victorian streets being compulsorily acquired and then demolished and actually left as wasteland. That’s bonkers." He claims that Blueprint’s plans for redevelopment around Nottingham’s Waterside, though, "will be done incrementally, will involve adaptation and re-use of existing buildings. You know, there are alternative models out there."

Local town planner Adrian Jones, meanwhile, called on local authorities, now able to borrow cheaply and acquire land at knock-down prices, to seize the chance to be bold. "You can see it in Nottingham, all of its schemes have stalled, except for, ironically, the publicly funded schemes which are the transport schemes like the tram and the station, funded by the taxpayer," he said. "There’s only really dogma standing in the way. At the end of the day, the current model for capitalism is basically milking the welfare state. The privatisation model is making money out of the public sector. So why don’t we cut out the middle man?"

Hatherley, romantic old social democrat, agrees, and clearly believes that basic post-war alternatives hastily hurled on the Thatcherite bonfire can still provide a route out of the morass. "No one has tried over the last few years to take a former regeneration site and build public housing on it," he said. "These all sound like relatively small things given the scale of the crisis, but... people aren’t able to think about utopia when even a public housing estate with 200 houses is considered implausible. Of course no one can think about utopia."

"Regenerate Art" was part of Nottingham Contemporary’s Public Programme.

The Silicon Roundabout at Old Street in Shoreditch. Photograph: Getty Images

Matt Foster is deputy editor of Civil Service World and a former assistant news editor at PoliticsHome.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser