Tuesday, 12 January 2016

The Next Day

In his 1935 poem, 'Snow', Louis MacNeice wrote that 'World is suddener than we fancy it'. Over the last few days, between Friday 8 and Monday 11 January to be precise, several things happened in the world that were very much suddener than I fancied. On the Friday, it was David Bowie's 69th birthday, which coincided with the release of his latest album, Blackstar. Two days later, Bowie was dead. When I heard this (from my daughter early Monday morning as she was taking her last gasp of social media before going off to school) a vast number of memories immediately came to my stricken mind, all borne out of a love for Bowie that I've had since I was 12, when a friend gave me his copy of The Jean Genie because he'd bought it and then decided that he didn't like it. It was Christmas 1972, and I can still see myself in my 60-watt dimmed bedroom, curtains drawn on a winter night, air-guitaring to that Manish-Boy riff on repeat. Another memory then came to me of being in the back of a car with friends, driving home along country roads from a night of drinking in a village pub. It would have been the summer of 1977, and the in-car music was ChangesOneBowie. I remember looking out the window and thinking how the opening chords of Changes seemed to ring out in time with the telegraph poles as they sailed past us one by one while we drove along at some daft speed. Then, another memory, of the cold winter of 1980-81, when I'd bought myself an Olympus Trip camera and some black and white film, going out onto the Middlefield Lane estate to take some moody, twilight photos of the houses and flats, fuelled by the dark, Modernist sonic landscapes of Metamatic, Closer and, of course, the wellspring of them all, the second side of Low. 

'Find your own Bowie, you will have it somewhere', said Suzanne Moore in her heartfelt summary of her Bowie, and of how he managed to show us all the endless possibilities of being young. I'm not young anymore, and I lost those photographs years ago, but last Friday I still toyed with buying Blackstar, intrigued by watching what then just seemed like a strange and unsettling video for 'Lazarus'. But I didn't commit. And now I've lost Bowie too. I watch him walk backwards into that wardrobe in the knowledge that he's never going to come out again. 

Another thing happened on the Sunday of that weekend, on the day that David Bowie died, when David Cameron appeared on the BBC's Andrew Marr show to trumpet about his 'vow' to 'blitz' poverty by demolishing the 'UK's worst sink estates' (I'm sadly quoting a Guardian by-line there), 'promising' that 'brutal high-rise towers' and 'bleak' housing would be torn down in an effort to tackle drug abuse and gang culture. This came at the end of the week when a new housing bill was starting to be discussed in the Commons, the main thrust of which is that the Government wants to withdraw secured tenancies for those living in our ever-dwindling supply of council houses. Council house residents and estate communities in general will no longer be afforded even a whisper of a sense of security or stability in their lives. This is a deliberate and as nasty a piece of neoliberal class war as you are likely to get in these depressing first days of January 2016. And, as Aditya Chakrabortty pointed out last week, these moves have been lifted directly from the rightwing think-tank, Policy Exchange, and from its former housing specialist, Alex Morton, who has churned out a number of mean pamphlets such as 'Ending Expensive Social Tenancies', all defined by what Chakrabortty nicely described as 'flush-cheeked libertarianism, casual dismissal of the rights of those not on stellar incomes, and subheadings such as “Most people actually support forcing people to move from expensive properties”'. Two days later, Historic England (English Heritage as was, and the body still responsible for the listing of important buildings) announced that Morton's chum from his Policy Exchange days, Nicholas Boys-Smith, had been appointed as one of Historic England's new commissioners. 

This was succinctly described by one twitter commentator last week as 'an absolute shower of shit'. For Morton and Boys-Smith also have form together as the instigators of the highly disingenuous, hedge-funded, anti-modernist, anti-Welfare State housing 'campaign' group, Create Streets. Here we have, in one fell mid-week swoop, the component parts of a new, we-do-what-the-fuck-we-want-and-we-don't-care Tory hegemony, all falling neatly into place before our very eyes: a sustained and vicious attack on anything vaguely 'socialist' or which smacks of the welfare state, where renting a council house is for losers, just as travelling on a bus used to be. And that's it. The ongoing debate of the Housing Bill in the Commons today had at one stage just 20 Tories in attendance and not that many more Labour representatives either. That's it. The end of council housing. Earlier last week, another Guardian journalist, John Harris, wrote an article called just that. And today, the Next Day, the day after we found out that David Bowie had died, Harris wrote a piece about another end, the end of an era when art and music could 'truly subvert'. His first 'moment of wonder' was of seeing a cross-dressing Bowie singing Boys Keep Swinging on TOTP. Mine was of listening to Jean Genie back in 1972 in a council house which was a happy home for twenty years of my life, and for the last forty of my parents. Like me, Harris couldn't 'even begin to articulate' what Bowie's music and image conveyed to him, other than 'a sense of thrilling possibility' that 'There is more than this'. But now there isn't. The idea that there could be more, back then, listening to Bowie, now seems 'strangely quaint'. David Bowie is dead, and the council house is dying. They were never quite unrelated: how many council house kids lay back on their beds in the 1970s and 80s to dream of becoming Bowie ('I could fall asleep at night as a rock and roll star'). But now it's dead. It's all dead. It's all history now, and it seems as if there is no hope, no hope whatsoever.


  1. Hi Ian, love this blog - evokes many fond memories as well as a sense of loss.

    I grew up on the Park Springs and during the late 70s early 80s when it had a tangible "rawness" - as if in its infancy (as it was i guess). Kids were everywhere and the uphill pubs were rammed to the rafters. There's always a danger of being too sentimental about the past but it does feel that back then the future held all sorts of possibilities, whereas now....well how can we actually know? For sure, the estates have changed. Once, a dominant working class pride could be seen in the neatly kept gardens and swept paths, whereas nowadays this is the exception. Working class values have waned and the estate has suffered as a result – even the council don’t seem to bother enough to keep the public spaces in order.

    I think there is an interesting conversation to be had on this idea alone; why have the values - that made the estate such a vibrant place to live - almost disappeared over the course of one generation? Is it as a result of planning, employment, technology or simply that the values were not passed by my parent’s generation? The pubs have gone, the once skilled jobs have morphed into largely unskilled labour, the schools have gone, the pubs have closed and we are left with a plethora of places to “buy stuff”.

    The past was a great time to be young and I’m glad I can re-visit through your blog.


    …..another Ian

    1. Hi Ian(!)
      Thank you for your kind words about the blog and, especially, for your very thoughtful (and true) words about these estates/life then/life now.

      As I'm sure you'll know, along with the rest of the town, Park Springs and 'my' estate were all beginning to go 'downhill' in the late 70s/80s in any case after Marshalls had shut. For a time however, that promise/the possibilities were still there. The privatisation of these estates hadn't yet happened and there was still (just!) a sense of public provision and civic duty I suppose. Now both PS and Middlefield over the playing field where I lived are run by a private housing association - they do their best, but the residents are allowed to do what they want with the gardens/fencing etc, which can make them look a mess. In my opinion, those values have disappeared because of the rise of the private sphere/private virtues, the loss of 'real', steady jobs, plus increased individualism/self-entitlement, due to rampant consumerism and an over-reliance on 'stuff' as you rightly put it.

      It was a great time back then to be young though - the older I get, the more I'm convinced about that. Life was so much simpler, and less frenetic.

      Anyway - are you from GBoro? Can I ask why you ended up on Park Springs (my next 'project' is going to be on the experience of people who were moved onto these 'overspill' estates).

      All the best, Ian