Monday, 18 November 2013

Modernity and Idealism: 'It is as political as it is poetic"

Last week, The Guardian reported on yet another piece of current free market fundamentalist, fuck you and me, anti-social conceit via the thoughts of James Tooley. Remarkably, Tooley is a Professor of Education at the largely state-funded Newcastle University, but that doesn’t seem to stop him from saying things like: ‘I want to see private schools emerge and then the state just move aside from education.’ 

Too much credence these days is given to this type of wilfully destructive, ‘maverick’ shit, and so I just moved Tooley aside by meditating once more on what is nonetheless fast becoming a dreamtime of post-WW2 social cohesiveness, modernity and idealism – by posting a scattergun range of things that remind me of those very things. I naturally began to think of a few of my very favourite songs: ‘Friends’ by The Beach Boys, ‘What the World Needs Now’ by Jackie DeShannon, Scott Walker’s ‘On Your Own Again’ and – best of all – the song you can hear for yourself on the post before this one, ‘Bach Ze’ by The High Llamas. 

‘Bach Ze’ was released in 1999 but its reflective, more-chord-changes-that-you-can-shake-a-stick-at, exquisitely arranged beauty is a song out of time. For me, this might be because the video also has some hazy, sun-filled shots of a power station that is very similar to one which was a constant presence in my 1960s childhood worldview – West Burton, the cooling towers of which you can (just) see here in the heat haze of a photo of Gainsborough’s railway station that I took in the early 1980s:

'Bach Ze' is influenced by certain forms of Sixties music that managed to be progressive in the way that they wavered in and out of an easy listening mainstream – Bossa Nova/Tropicalia, The Fifth Dimension, The Free Design. The song also questions the passing of the decade’s space race, hence the line ‘but now we rarely make the trip’, and alludes to the now-historical notion of looking forward in terms of an organised, technologically and socially progressive future: ‘it’s now a flashback for a dedicated few’. The video contains elements that are reminiscent of the films made by Charles and Ray Eames, such as House (1955), in the way that it presents a motion capture flick-book of everyday found objects and experiences: bric-a-brac, pebbles, toys, wistful images of sun through trees. As he was busily creating his new Po-Mo retro-fit world, Robert Venturi hailed the Eames aesthetic as the embodiment of the reintroduction of Victorian clutter, but to me it has always been representative of a sunny, optimistic-humanistic, and still forward-looking Modernism. 

The two posts before ‘Bach Ze’ are purely personal. The aerial photograph shows the back of The Precinct shops on the Middlefield Lane estate, and it’s extensive megastructure-ish complex of flats and maisonettes, with their stacked-up rear entrances and stairwells reminiscent, I fancifully think, of Moshe Safdie’s ‘Habitat’ housing complex at the Montreal Expo 67. This structure, combined with The Precinct and my memories of Marineville, all come together as what must be the wellspring of this blog’s ideas and musings. Even as a nine year old in 1970 at junior school in deepest Lincolnshire, I felt the need to express my excitement about this new world when I made a model of Habitat out of various cardboard boxes. A year or so later I saw a film that I knew as S.W.A.L.K. (a.k.a. Melody). S.W.A.L.K. is a tale of two school chidren who fall in love and vow to marry, much to the general derision of their parents, teachers and classmates, which is all couched within a typically period expression of youthful rebellion, and of ‘freedom’. As such, it doesn’t weather very well in today’s fraught and pinched dog-eat-dog society, but its somewhat melancholy soundtrack and its crisp social and geographical eye for a London in transition – of crumbling docklands, pre-war council flats and just beginning to be gentrified Georgian terraces, punctuated by still-new tower blocks, had an indelible effect on me then and continues to haunt me now as an example, for all its flaws, of a hopelessly romantic sense of modernity, both in terms of what it stood for back then, and in relation to what has happened to it since. 

The idealistic spirit of this time – and of childhood itself – is also represented here by an early 1970s photograph of the Ferrier Estate at Kidbrooke, S.E. London. There’s an excellent, heartfelt defence of this estate by Iqbal Alaam here on his flickr site which takes it for the spacious, happy, healthy place it was, and could still be. There were never flats like these on the Middlefield Lane estate but this photo still excitingly evokes the same, happy, sense of spaciousness and freedom that I palpably felt as a child in the 1960s and 70s. The drawing below is one by Gordon Cullen, the master draughtsman of quirky postwar British modernity, of the Finsbury Health Centre, where the sun has to be king in this new architectronic welfare state. The sun glistening through wavering leaves optimism of the Sixties reappears once more in the marvellously uplifting opening titles of the 1969-71 BBC TV series, Take Three Girls. To me, the bright yet quite propulsive folk-jazz theme tune (The Pentangle!), that little skip that one of the characters does as she walks along a busy London street, and the snappy, of-their-time directness of the titles themselves (‘Take Three Girls: Kate … Avril … Victoria’) have now lost their well-worn ‘swinging London’ connotations and come across in today's tired age as vibrant and refreshing. What do you think?

Either way, and as one line from Jean Luc Godard’s 1967 film Two or Three Things I Know About Her puts it, it is as political as it is poetic. Godard made it clear in this film that he was no fan of the Parisian high-rise ‘banlieues’ that were springing up at this time, but his sentiments here (again with sun and leaves momentarily and stunningly reflected on a car bonnet) ring very true for me personally, and in relation to how we can all possibly resist the shit were in at the moment.