Sire, I am from another country / Sire, je suis de l’ôtre pays

Someone recently wrote me from Europe: ‘I am sorry your country is falling apart’. The truth is it has been this way since I was born here. I grew up in the 1980s in East London, it was full of dog shit, nettles and ruins. In the short-medium term the recent acceleration in the production of ruins will likely slow. The dog shit has been mostly internalised already. My country is more accurately to be found to the right of the most eastern craters on this map. The map has lain about these parts for several decades and it is the conditions without which conform ever more closely to it, not the other way around.

Map_Home

The juxtaposition of successful industry and urban decay in the UK’s landscape is certainly not confined to the north of the country. A town like Reading, with some of the fastest growth in the country (Microsoft, US Robotics, Digital, British Gas, Prudential Assurance) offers, albeit to a lesser degree, exactly the same contrasts between corporate wealth and urban deprivation: the UK does not look anything like as wealthy as it really is. The dilapidated appearance of the visible landscape, especially the urban landscape, masks its prosperity. It has been argued that in eighteen years of Conservative government the UK has slipped in a ranking of the world’s most prosperous economies in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per head, but it is equally likely that the position has remained unchanged, and in any case this is a ranking among nations all of which are becoming increasingly wealthy. If the UK has slipped in this table, it has not slipped anything like as much as, say, Australia or Sweden, or even the Netherlands. The UK’s GDP is the fifth-largest in the world, after the United States, Japan, Germany and France. What has changed is the distribution of wealth.

In the UK, wealth is not confined to a Conservative nomenklatura, but the condition of, say, public transport or state-sector secondary schools indicates that the governing class does not have a great deal of use for them. People whose everyday experience is of decayed surroundings, pollution, cash-starved public services, job insecurity, part-time employment or freelancing tend to forget about the UK’s wealth. We have been inclined to think that we are living at a time of economic decline, to regret the loss of the visible manufacturing economy, and to lower our expectations. We dismiss the government’s claims that the UK is ‘the most successful enterprise economy in Europe’, but are more inclined to accept that there might be less money for schools and hospitals, if only because of the cost of financing mass unemployment.

There is something Orwellian about this effect of dilapidated everyday surroundings, especially when it is juxtaposed with the possibility of immediate virtual or imminent actual presence elsewhere, through telecommunications and cheap travel. Gradually, one comes to see dilapidation not only as an indication of poverty but also as damage inflicted by the increased centralisation of media and political control in the last two decades.

The juxtaposition of successful industry and urban decay in the UK’s landscape is certainly not confined to the north of the country. A town like Reading, with some of the fastest growth in the country (Microsoft, US Robotics, Digital, British Gas, Prudential Assurance) offers, albeit to a lesser degree, exactly the same contrasts between corporate wealth and urban deprivation: the UK does not look anything like as wealthy as it really is. The dilapidated appearance of the visible landscape, especially the urban landscape, masks its prosperity. It has been argued that in eighteen years of Conservative government the UK has slipped in a ranking of the world’s most prosperous economies in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per head, but it is equally likely that the position has remained unchanged, and in any case this is a ranking among nations all of which are becoming increasingly wealthy. If the UK has slipped in this table, it has not slipped anything like as much as, say, Australia or Sweden, or even the Netherlands. The UK’s GDP is the fifth-largest in the world, after the United States, Japan, Germany and France. What has changed is the distribution of wealth.

In the UK, wealth is not confined to a Conservative nomenklatura, but the condition of, say, public transport or state-sector secondary schools indicates that the governing class does not have a great deal of use for them. People whose everyday experience is of decayed surroundings, pollution, cash-starved public services, job insecurity, part-time employment or freelancing tend to forget about the UK’s wealth. We have been inclined to think that we are living at a time of economic decline, to regret the loss of the visible manufacturing economy, and to lower our expectations. We dismiss the government’s claims that the UK is ‘the most successful enterprise economy in Europe’, but are more inclined to accept that there might be less money for schools and hospitals, if only because of the cost of financing mass unemployment.

There is something Orwellian about this effect of dilapidated everyday surroundings, especially when it is juxtaposed with the possibility of immediate virtual or imminent actual presence elsewhere, through telecommunications and cheap travel. Gradually, one comes to see dilapidation not only as an indication of poverty but also as damage inflicted by the increased centralisation of media and political control in the last two decades.
In the rural landscape, meanwhile, the built structures, at least, are more obviously modern, but the atmosphere is disconcerting. The windowless sheds of the logistics industry, recent and continuing road construction, spiky mobile phone aerials, a proliferation of new fencing of various types, security guards, police helicopters and cameras, new prisons, agribusiness (BSE, genetic engineering, organophosphates, declining wildlife), UK and US military bases (microwaves, radioactivity), mysterious research and training centres, ‘independent’ schools, eerie commuter villages, rural poverty, and the country houses of rich and powerful men of unrestrained habits are visible features of a landscape in which the suggestion of cruelty is never very far away.

— Patrick Keiller, ‘Port Statistics’, from The View from the Train: Cities and Other Landscapes, Verso, 2013.

Returning after a trip to the so-called countryside, which on one day spent cycling smelled of burnt hair for an entire 20km stretch, I stumbled across an online version of a text from which the narration to the film Robinson in Space is formed. This is a favourite text of mine and seems to sum up the contradictory basis of the visible dilapidation in the UK in a way which I do not think has been bested. (updated 26 August, 2016)

pissaro-norwood

Still from Patrick Keiller, Norwood, (1983)

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