The impossible city

Paul Dave is the author of Visions of England: Class and Culture in Contemporary Cinema (Berg, 2006).

www.bergpublishers.com

Achingly modern

Present disaffection with the two key institutions of the British state - the monarchy and the Palace of Westminster - has brought about a peculiarly transitional time. Tom Nairn once described it as one in which former subjects "have unintentionally half-mutated into citizens." And he added that, in such a society "still unprogrammed for citizenship", "the new is condemned to stagnate alongside the old".

It is this confusion of new and old and its associated sense of historical blockage that helps explain present-day London: a pre-eminent global financial hub with a failing nineteenth-century underground system, a political and economic élite that intervenes everywhere because it still believes the whole world should follow its way of life but which, at the same time, is situated on a flood plain and has no plan for the inundations that way of life will unleash.

In an account of the struggle between new and the old, it is probably wise to examine the representations of class and historical change found in the cityscape. It has been stated that the English revolution of the 17th century was "the first, most mediated and least pure bourgeois revolution of any European country". It occurred too soon for the bourgeoisie to fulfil its historic destiny as the agent of modernity. Although it was a bourgeois revolution in the sense that it resulted in the establishment of the economic conditions that would favour capitalism, it left intact an archaic social structure. A rejuvenated ancien régime had no reason to modernize the social order, and bourgeois subordination (economic, cultural and political) in turn produced a subordinate proletariat.

Patrick Keiller's film London posed the "problem" of the metropolis in a way that directly restates this - as the film's narrator says: "the failure of the English revolution is all around us". Evidence of a backward bourgeoisie is offered in the absence of a culture of public space, a lack ascribed, in turn, to the longevity of the Corporation of London, the monarchy and so on.

The narrator describes London's public spaces as "either void or the stage sets for the spectacles of 19th-century reaction endlessly re-enacted for television". To make this point, Keiller includes diffusely nostalgic, panoramic views of traditional heritage spectacles such as Trooping the Colour, the Opening of Parliament and the Lord Mayor's Show. Equally, however, heritage culture in London possesses a democratic quality, appearing as an activity that in the person of the film's invisible flâneur, Robinson, must be understood as involving the artful exercise of popular memory. This retro-vision seeks to rescue democratic counter-memories of London: on public transport, on the Routemaster bus with its origin in aircraft design from World War II - for traditions are reinvented from below rather than imposed from above.

Retro-culture is often theorized along the lines of the post-modern aesthetic of bricolage. The key term here is style. For the anti-heritage critics, style remains indistinguishable from spectacle. From the perspective of post-modern enthusiasts, however, it creates imaginative spaces which support the construction of alternative identities. London does not restrict its view of heritage culture to monolithically English versions but is open to heterogeneously British ones - such as Diwali in Southall for example. Yet its overall effect is marked by ambivalence. The retro features and stylish post-modern sensibilities in the film are constantly being deflated by the melancholy return to the spectacle of archaic decay - London, it seems, will never be another Paris. And the historic explanations for British decline, rooted in the failed revolution, are comically punctured by the narrator's view of them as eccentric and self-indulgent conspiracy theories.

The failure of the bourgeoisie explains the distinct form of British nationalism. National unity is not based on equality but on a familial hierarchy of estates or castes whose top and bottom is respectively patrician and plebeian. Equality therefore becomes transformed into a bogus, sentimental unity of extremes. The monarchy is the mystically embodied founthead of this process - its spores can be detected everywhere in the culture, wherever the ordinary and the transcendent, the "crass and faery", banal and numinous suddenly flash together. Such a nationalism, in its essential regal-familial structure, has excluded a modernizing middle class that might have safeguarded popular sovereignty. (The principle of movement between the polarities of ancient and modern is, in one form or another, the progressive development of human knowledge, reason or technology; but these developments tend to take the shape, within a general framework of rising and falling classes, of a triumphant bourgeoisie, the bearer of knowledge, innovation and progress - and ultimately, the bearer of capitalism and liberal democracy.)

Yet signs may suddenly be reversed. Perhaps London is not simply a monument to a failed revolution. The binaries of old and new may be read in a different way. Whilst there is no doubt that archaism is omnipresent in English culture, the question one needs to ask is: what does the absence of the traditionally accepted signs of modernity mean - bourgeois failure or the possible irrelevance of these conventional signs of modernity to capitalism? May it not be that the longevity and depth of the capitalist system in British history explain many of its archaisms? In such a way, one may also question the significance of the city's lack of accepted signs of modernity. At the end of the film, Robinson refers again to London's "civic void". He claims, at this point, a paradoxical revelation: the civic void is actually proof of London's modernity.

This is to suggest a different understanding of capitalist modernity. London is a capitalist city and, as such, it is misleading to compare it, as Robinson had done up to this point, to the bourgeois paradigm's normative model of the continental European capital where the culture of public space is the historical residue of less precociously capitalized states. London's urban culture - its "undistinguished modern architecture, neglect of public services and amenities from the arts to transportation" and its "general seediness" - must therefore be seen as the result of a long "pattern of capitalist development and the commoditization of all social goods".

Political, social and cultural progress then means catching up with capitalism. The articulation of the bourgeois paradigm by Blairite Labour can be seen as having continued the thrust of Thatcherism and having newly promoted the rise of London as a world financial centre.

As Hywel Williams observes in Britain's Power Elites: the Rebirth of a Ruling Class: "Anyone nostalgic for empire need only visit the City bars on a Thursday night to see the modern-day successors of Clive of India at play... Clive and his men won battles because of hard work and talent, qualities which are also evident in these latter-day warriors... There is no one left who would dare to deny these celebrants the right to divide the spoils of victory among themselves... Whether it is siphoning off the profits in pension schemes through management fees, landing the unwary with vertiginous insurance liabilities, or just betting on the idiocy of humanity, the City of London is the most achingly modern and the most frighteningly efficient imperial institution left out there, roaming in the wild and seeking whom it may devour."

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