The political perils of Keeping Calm and Carrying On

What Owen Hatherley's The Ministry of Nostalgia ultimately misses is that our relationship to the past is about personal taste as much as politics.

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In White Out: the Secret Life of Heroin the American academic Michael Clune describes the theory that heroin addiction amounts to little more than a bad case of nostalgia: “. . . the power of dope comes from the first time you do it. It’s a deep memory disease . . . Some [people] think
addiction is nostalgia for the first mind-blowing time. They think the addict’s problem is they want something that happened a long time ago to come back.”

If people can get gloopy over their first hit of smack in a roach-infested squat, clearly they can feel nostalgic for anything. Even as the crowds were waving their lighters to the Scorpions’ “Wind of Change” at the Brandenburg Gate while taking pickaxes to that hated wall, some East Germans were already suffering the first pangs of Ostalgie, that curious longing for the good old days of the Stasi, Trabant cars and Erich Honecker.

Owen Hatherley stops short of blaming nostalgia for the world’s junkie problem – and by extension, the prose style of Russell Brand – but he does hold it responsible it for what he sees as our current cultural, political and architectural torpor. Hatherley posits the notion that the stasis of the modern British left is that of a doped and deluded nostalgia junkie. We want something that happened a long time ago to come back. Yet this is no clip-show nostalgia we are drunk on; we’re pining not for space hoppers, Spangles and Luke Skywalker but for rationing, the Blitz, Orwell and Billy Butlin. Drugged into a supine false consciousness, seduced by austerity nostalgia, we are signally failing to march clear-eyed into a brisk socialist future of high-rises, flyovers and sit-ins on brutalist university campuses.

As soft targets go, nostalgia is purest gossamer. From the ageing rock star plugging his latest “experimental” album because he’s bored with “the old stuff” to the fashionista in his ludicrous asymmetric cardigan to the swivel-eyed cabinet ideologue “thinking the unthinkable”, the new is always shocking, always sexy, always seductive. But some of us, irritatingly, persist in cherishing older ideas – decent social housing, say, or the NHS – and, in the case of Ken Loach and Danny Boyle, making documentaries and grand events celebrating the Spirit of 1945 and benevolent statism. One can understand this irritating Iain Duncan Smith. But it annoys Hatherley, too.

The Beveridge report; E P Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class; Tony Benn; Nye Bevan; the Workers’ Educational Association; the welfare state – Hatherley approaches these totems, lip curled and narrow-eyed, rather as the Sex Pistols viewed the Beatles, 1967 and the Summer of Love: not as a torchbearers from a golden dawn of optimism but as dim shadows, grown blurry through a sentimental drowse of complacency and passivity. Not as the central tenets of the one true faith but, rather, as Larkin viewed religion, a “vast, moth-eaten brocade” whose blind worship we need to abandon. This book is as coldly clear as Johnny Rotten ever was; there is no future in England’s dreaming.

Owen Hatherley has been called “the firebrand of British architectural writing” and he is definitely the kind of firebrand many of us can warm to. An invigorating urbanite corrective to both the Prince Charles/Poundbury heritage mindset and the banality of our Urban Splash skylines, he once described the Shard as “an expression of class war in glass . . . a gigantic Qatari-owned centre of yuppie malevolence”. After four spunky, rebarbative and intellectually muscular books on the built environment such as Militant Modernism and A New Kind of Bleak, The Ministry of Nostalgia extends his range into a more explicitly political sphere.

He begins with a sober summary from the bombsite ruins of the last general election, pointing out bleakly that 37 per cent of those registered to vote enthusiastically chose the dismantling of the NHS, war on the poor and the succour of the rich. This is uncomfortable but unarguable. What is far less certain is the book’s oft-repeated refrain: that somehow Labour’s defeat in 2015 was down to a kind of broad, entrenched conservatism and – in however warped and foolish a way – a nostalgic yearning for the austerities and purity of 1945. Food for thought, if not substantial enough to sustain a whole book.

In pursuit of this notion, Hatherley hunts down his sacred cows hungrily and with brio. It is a ride that you can enjoy even if you don’t agree with the direction in which we’re heading. He looks at the left’s cult of postwar Britain, and, instead of Hovis-advertisement warmth and benign collectivism, he finds “cultural puritanism”, “the gauzy wash of Durham Miners’ Gala melancholia”, “mawkish nostalgia” and “a vague, windy, imprecise notion of ‘The People’”. Eventually, he writes, “the effect is as prone to make you sigh with wistfulness as it is to make you want to hang Eric Pickles from the nearest lamppost”.

He finds this creeping menace of austerity nostalgia everywhere. He sees it in Jamie Oliver’s breezy, common-sense self-righteousness. He sees it in the retro-chic tat offered on hipster market stalls. He sees it in Downtown Abbey. Most weirdly, he sees it in the aesthetic of the tiny art-house electronica label Ghost Box and, most vividly, he sees it in the bold red and white and sans serif of “Keep Calm and Carry On” prints, which he views as a nauseous sedative roughly akin to “Turn on, tune in, drop out”. Stoicism and a “mustn’t grumble” attitude may be very British, but it won’t get Eric Pickles hung from a lamppost, will it?

Though in his mid-thirties, Hatherley has kept a younger man’s bristling intellectual rage, which, like Jimmy Porter’s, is energising, attractive and sometimes wayward. He wouldn’t claim to be the first to find the ubiquity of the Keep Calm and Carry On meme hugely tedious. Surely, however, no one else has hung such a sustained and analytical large-scale social critique on its slender frame. We may be in the realm of the sledgehammer and the nut here.

Yet Hatherley does have a point. In Jonathan Coe’s latest novel, Number 11, the author rails against the modern preference for mild comic satire against the establishment over hot rage and outcry. In the same way, keeping calm and carrying on is the last thing we should be doing right now. We should be attacking, defending, dissenting and protesting, if not quite stringing the ­enemy up from street furniture.

Pop culture sometimes leads Hatherley astray. To say that Downton Abbey’s success reveals a bad-faith hankering after a time when the working class knew its deferent place is good cage-rattling, but largely misses the point. Those who enjoy Downton Abbey – ITV1’s core working-class audience, to a large degree – are possibly nostalgic merely for other, older, better television programmes, notably Upstairs, Downstairs, or even Brideshead Revisited. Projecting much more than this on to Sunday-night TV can make you sound like David Icke, glimpsing lizards in every corner. Similarly, I was unconvinced by Hatherley’s attempt to ascribe the fad for rock festivals at former holiday camps to a yearning for the days of “make do and mend” (“Fans of indie rock flock to Camber Sands to enjoy the same experience as a nostalgic treat”). No, they are too young to remember the blackout. They just want to drink, shag and dance: popular pursuits of us proles since we first lobbed a clog into a spinning jenny.

Though he embraces newness, Hatherley spends a deal of time digging up some antique enemies and ancient men of straw, such as Frank Pick, head of the London Passenger Transport Board in the 1930s; Robert Blatchford, the luxuriantly moustachioed Victorian Fabian; and the long-forgotten Empire Marketing Board. I was sometimes reminded of the apocryphal entertainment at the launch of the Society for Heroic Failures: a protest singer whose songs attacked a series of social ills such as child chimney sweeps and diphtheria, which had all been eradicated decades earlier. With Jeremy Hunt running our hospitals, I found it hard fully to share Hatherley’s anger about Herbert Morrison and the Festival of Britain.

But, in general, it’s good iconoclastic fun. Where I did lose patience was with the airy dismissal of the victory over fascism in the Second World War. Some of us poor saps think this was Britain’s finest hour. The sins of empire do not render it invalid. To cite approvingly the notion that we “avoided” fascism makes it sound like a puddle, something we sidestepped fortuitously, rather than actively, bravely resisted. And saying totalitarianism was “one of the extremes that ‘good old England’ . . . managed to escape through the deployment of common sense” is just hairshirt hand-wringing.

This is the sort of desiccated shrinking-violet stuff Orwell had in mind when he fulminated against the leftist intellectuals of the 1930s, or “deracinated pen-pushers”, as Hatherley calls them (while conceding that Orwell would have had him down as one). In 1945 Orwell wrote, of the fad for the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey, that English left-wing intellectuals will embrace anyone’s jingoism but their own. It was a theme he often warmed to, but not always coherently: the conclusion of The Road to Wigan Pier rings to an infamously bonkers tirade against “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist and feminist in England”. (Oddly, the gibe about sandal-wearers is very long-lived: the Daily Mail still trots it out about Guardian readers, though they’re more likely these days to wear Huarache Lights or Manolo Blahniks.)

Orwell’s spittle-flecked rant is nuts, but that doesn’t invalidate his more reasonable assertion that patriotism, manners, a belief in certain English traditions and, yes, even nostalgia, to a degree, are not inimical to socialism. Hatherley takes a different view: but if The Ministry of Nostalgia inspires more admiration than affection, that’s probably just as it should be. It’s more a samizdat demand nailed to a door than a valentine.

History repeats itself: first as tragedy and next as farce, but then as Dad’s Army, then Star Wars, then Oasis, later as Star Wars and Dad’s Army again – and then, finally, in blogs, think pieces and books such as The Ministry of Nostalgia. The past is a foreign country, and how porous or guarded its borders are is a matter, in the end, of individual taste, not political alignment.

In 2007 I was making a TV documentary that involved a visit to the Trinity Square multi-storey car park in Gateshead. This was a landmark work of UK brutalism from its design in 1962 to its destruction in 2010, an act that Hatherley lamented. He found it “wrenchingly powerful, physical . . . in a tradition of dark, looming, twisted architecture that stretches from Newcastle Cathedral to John Vanbrugh”. You may recall Bryan Mosley being lobbed off it in Get Carter. It scowled down over the town, dominating its skyline, balefully or beautifully, depending on your point of view.

Whatever its aesthetic merits, it wasn’t a place you’d choose to spend a January afternoon, being windswept, icy, inaccessibly steep and awash with urine. As I was doing a piece to camera, a tough retired man in a flat cap intervened wryly: “Ah, you’re one of this London lot who think it’s lovely, are you? Well, son, you’ll be on the next train out from Newcastle. I have to look at the bastard eyesore every bloody day.”

When the same architecture firm’s similarly stark Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth was earmarked for demolition, a supportive graffiti artist stencilled on its walls: “WARNING! THIS BUILDING MAY PROVOKE INTEREST”. Which is undeniably true – and yet, unlike “Keep Calm and Carry On”, destined never to be turned into a poster for cupcakes.

Stuart Maconie’s latest book is “The Pie at Night: in Search of the North at Play” (Ebury Press)

The Ministry of Nostalgia by Owen Hatherley is published by Verso (224pp, £14.99)

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?