Saturday, 15 November 2014


Bucolic is a word that to my ear always sounds as though it should be used to describe people who are far from well: ‘we were expecting it, just before he died he had a bucolic look about him’, ‘blimey, you don’t half look bucolic’, etc. Of course it means quite the opposite and points to a world of countryside fecundity and pastoral idylls. My misapprehension of bucolic as describing ill-health is partly due, I would guess, to its phonic similarity to the word bubonic. Close in sound, distant in meaning. But perhaps the phonic similarity does suggest some instability in our truck with the countryside or at least how that countryside is often experienced.
My very first, and very vague, memory of wild nature (at the age of about 2 or 3) is a hollow tree that stood on the edge of a wood near where we lived. Perhaps I don’t really remember it so much as remember being told that this was a tree my sister and I loved. We called it the Owly tree, for reasons I can’t fully remember (perhaps an association with Owl in the Winnie-the-pooh stories). Many years later I visited this tree to see if it brought with it a wash of involuntary memories. Instead I was confronted by a small stumpy tree which looked rotten. It was also by the side of a fairly busy road and had the distinct tarnish of a petroleum-exhaust glaze. [In the mid-1980s I was living in Barnes in London and went to visit the tree that Marc Bolan crashed into when he died. It had become a shrine kept going by his many devoted fans who placed purple ribbons and sorrowful sentiments all over the trunk of the tree. All the ribbons and cards looked filthy with dirt and pollution.]
            For many people growing up in some form of peri-urbanism, this is the sort of commerce we have with the countryside. When as a child I could go out-and-about by myself, my friends and I used to go to a place that we called the Volcano. It was a sloping patch of bare earth in a scrub of woodland. It was magical to us and became our den. We thought of it as extensive, untamed, remote. In reality it existed as a strip of woodland between a main road and a housing development. Like a lot of such places there were signs of peripatetic existence: a fire, some empty cans, a newspaper, the odd piece of clothing. Such signs of occupancy conjured-up the romance of a vagabond life, but they also looked like the scene of a peculiarly nasty crime.
            The artist Stephen Willats gets something of this instability in a series of photographs he produced in 1978 for his book The Lurky Place. Willats offers us views of scrubland and unfarmed fields that could plausibly fit an idea of the picturesque. Yet these are landscape littered with signs of a life: a used paper target; the wheel from a pram. To describe this life as bucolic would be wrong unless the describer was caught in the misapprehension that the word could describe a rural world that was closer to fetid than fecund.   

Friday, 14 November 2014


Looking around our urban environments what is most evident is the hand of the planner. We see road systems and streets, office blocks and parks, roundabouts and street furniture. We are directed by planners, and negotiate our way through their diverse and labyrinthine work. For anyone who has lived in the same city for a while what is most noticeable is the latest planning development: the new shopping complex; a new pedestrian area; a new road. Older projects are part of our habitual world: they are what we have come to expect. Some of these older projects are clearly hanging around waiting for re-development. The sort of concrete passageways that pass under large roads are no longer considered desirable. In the late 1960s and 70s the increase in urban traffic, and the inherent problems that this created (air pollution, danger to pedestrians, snarl-ups on inadequate roads, etc.) was met with an idea of creating different levels for pedestrians and traffic. Planners imagined pedestrian-only piazzas and shopping areas, while cars zipped across the city on some other level. Usually the cars were raised above the pedestrians and shops, who were dropped into excavated sites in what turned out to be dank and unlovely walkways. For these concrete underpasses the days are clearly numbered.
But what is less visible in our towns and cities are those projects that never quite happened. In 1972-3 Bristol city council acquisitioned a large area of land close to where I live. They tore down about 500 houses and a significant number of shops to make way for what would be an outer orbital road. The road was never built. The residents of the area, who were often chronically poor, put up a valiant fight against the planners. They lost. What was left were vast tracts of nothingness, and a memory of an area once filled with shops that connected the enclaves of Totterdown and Knowle to the centre of Bristol. The demolition produced discontinuity, gaps, and a sudden jolt in the environment as you moved from the centre to what was now clearly marked-out as the periphery.
Cities are discontinuous. The process of uneven development marks out an area as on the rise or falling: one neighbourhood is high-bourgeois in one century and ghetto in the next. The planner’s job is unenviable: they are caught between ameliorating the effects of uneven-development and facilitating those forces that produce it. No wonder that planning is never simply about bringing plans to fruition. It is also about losing your nerve and giving up on one plan as you embrace another. Priorities change, personnel change. And we live with other people’s dreams and nightmares. We live a peculiar form of the future perfect where that future never came to be. It is the world articulated in the title track of Laurie Anderson’s wonderful 1982 album Big Science:

Hey Pal! How do I get to town from here?
And he said: Well just take a right where
they're going to build that new shopping mall,
go straight past where they're going to put in the freeway,
take a left at what's going to be the new sports center,
and keep going until you hit the place where
they're thinking of building that drive-in bank.
You can't miss it. And I said: This must be the place.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

For your listening pleasure…

            Yesterday, on the train to Brighton, I found myself sitting next to a business man. Everything about him screamed ‘Business’; from his pink striped shirt, to what was left of the grey hair on his balding head (he must have only been a few years older than me, but to my deluded eyes he was from another generation). Just in case it wasn’t quite clear how deeply connected he was to the world of high-finance, his IBM ‘think pad’ laptop was attached to an Ernst and Young lanyard. Ernst and Young are a huge global financial organization that undertake financial audits, tax services and all kinds of financial advising: I was clearly in the presence of a money drone. Because I’m nosey and can’t help myself from trying to read lines of text or titles of books, I had a sneaky peak at the flow charts on his lap top, but I couldn’t make head nor tail of them. But after about an hour I did notice what he was listening to on his mp3 player: Cabaret Voltaire’s Nag, Nag, Nag from the late 1970s. Cabaret Voltaire are, or at least were, purveyors of loud, throbbing industrial noise music, often accompanied by experimental films when they played live. They were the sort of pre-post-punk band that made nearly all-other punk bands and post-punk bands seem a bit on the cute side.
            I had a vision. Perhaps all the CEOs of large companies, all the managers of Hedge Funds, all the directors of Merchant Banks were still deeply attached to the music of their late teens. I imagined mahogany panelled offices with extensive views of the Thames being inhabited by suited business men with headphones blasting out classic Fall anthems (‘the West German government sent over big yellow trains to the Teesside docks… the North Will Rise Again!’). Perhaps there were boardrooms stuffed with people undertaking acquisitions and mergers whose playlist were brimming with the caustic sentiments and sonic blasts of the Pop Group, Pere Ubu, the Au Pairs, and Blurt.
A little while later my fellow commuter changed his mp3 player to the proto-rap of Gil Scott Heron. The revolution will not be televised. Indeed.
Was this a contradiction? Were these the fifth columnists working in the market place? Were all these money drones really working to bring about the demise of capitalism (in which case they were doing a pretty impressive job)? Or was it something else; a form of mourning?
Some years ago they built a large supermarket in an area of my town that once had a large open market next to a dog track. At one point it was a thriving area. The supermarket and the other large box stores that accompanied it put paid to that. Inside the large supermarket were wall-size photo-murals depicting in sepia tones the bygone age of open-air markets. There is was no irony here, or contradiction. Just dislocation and discontinuity. This will kill that. This has killed that. Nag, Nag, Nag is the torturous cry of a de-industrialising age. It is ghost music.