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Militant Modernist: Owen Hatherley

Interview by Andrew Stevens.

3:AM: Would you say there is an Owen Hatherley project?

OH: Well I definitely wouldn’t call it that, but most of what I write does fit in with some sort of overarching project, yes, although the utility of that project is another matter…

I write about the art forms that aren’t generally thought about seriously — about the politics of urban space, architecture, pop music, popular culture — in all of these cases because the level of criticism is usually so low, there’s a generalised belief that these are somehow apolitical forms, that anything that could be said about them ‘goes without saying’.

There’s an element in the writing which has been picked up a lot, and which is very much the subject of the book, which is a somewhat revisionist take on the architecture and urbanism of the Modernist period, most of all in the post-war decades, which are usually denigrated in a knee-jerk manner as ‘eyesores’, ‘carbuncles’ and so forth – particularly with reference to their public spaces (‘windswept plazas’, ‘inhospitable walkways’ etc), and their public programmes, particularly public housing. There has been an ideological onslaught against both for mainly political reasons, and this often manifests itself in aesthetic reactions. There’s a reason why concrete signifies fine design in the luxury Brutalism of the Barbican and it signifies urban blight in Thamesmead, and it has fairly little to do with architecture, and much more to do with class. My work attempts to reassess this kind of urbanism for the purposes of at least implying alternatives to the architecturally eager-to-please, spatially mean and overwhelmingly privatised cities that are being built today.

And if nothing else, I hope what I do actually inspires people — especially in Britain — to look at their environment as something that exists for a reason, that is the results of particular choices, disputes, policies and ideas, rather than as a neutral, more-or-less annoying backdrop to hard work and equally grinding hedonism. Whether it manages to do that successfully I don’t know, but that I suppose is its ‘project’.

3:AM: The “heavily bombed port city” of Southampton features very strongly in your book, Militant Modernism, forming the opening section. To what extent is the book informed by your upbringing? Is it a commentary-driven memoir, like Lynsey Hanley‘s Estates?

OH: The book is enormously informed by my upbringing. Like anyone who has had one foot in the middle class and another in the working class, I’m very much motivated by memory, resentment and all manner of bad passions. Architecture is written about as if these bad passions did not exist, so I tend to overemphasise them — so in that sense I suppose you could call it memory-driven history.

Most of my childhood was spent in a grid-planned, late Victorian district built for railway workers, in terraced streets, redbrick schools and churches, and so forth. When I was 12 we moved to the Flower Estate, which was designed for the City Council in the 1930s, small cottagey houses with vernacular details. There were quite a few of them built at the time — Parson Cross in Sheffield, Wythenshawe in Manchester, Becontree in London, and this was Southampton’s rather littler version. I can’t speak for them, but this was not a nice place. Violent, lumpen, and decidedly mean and ugly (despite being a wannabe ‘garden suburb’, there were no trees except for in the obligatory scrubby park)… I couldn’t wait to get out of the sodding place, and the pitched roofs and front gardens didn’t exactly relieve the unpleasantness.

Ironically enough, after I moved to London my Mum was moved by the council to a Modernist block in the Northam estate, near the City Centre, and it was so, so much nicer — green spaces, plenty of light, huge windows, a balcony, under-floor heating. Much of what was built in Southampton by the Labour council in the 1950s and 60s was the best architecture the city ever had — estates, swimming pools and schools, many of which have since been demolished, usually for nefarious PFI reasons. Its quality is usually ignored both by those in the city and outside of it because of knee-jerk responses to the architecture, and because poor people live there. But it was the last time the city had any sort of civic ambition and any pride in itself, and this is why I dedicated the book to the City Architect’s Department — both as an ironic gesture to the place I lived as a teenager, and as thanks for the environment they built later on, which I still find admirable for its confidence and fearlessness.

I love Lynsey Hanley’s book, when I read it I found it intensely moving, and aside from mild annoyance that she’d written the book before I had, there were all kinds of moments where I thought ‘yes, that’s exactly how it is’ — but I couldn’t disagree with her more about architecture. Partly I suspect we’re both attracted to the architecture which we didn’t grow up in, her to traditionalism, me to modernism. There is a bit of a sub-genre I suppose of ex-proles writing these history-memoirs, and the other one I had in mind throughout was Michael Collins’ The Likes of Us, his ‘biography’ of the ‘white working class’. While I agreed with him about the acceptability of snobbery against ‘chavs’, he presented a totally depoliticised, conservative class, which just didn’t have anything in common with the working class I grew up in. My Dad was a shop steward and both he and my Mum were Militant activists, and I’m immensely proud of them both for educating themselves in difficult circumstances and for ensuring that I would do the same, with less difficulty. So when I hear that socialists are middle class do-gooders and that the working class is traditionalist and simple, and so forth, it tends to irritate me immensely. That irritation is very useful for writing.

3:AM: The estate you mention sounds like the Progress Estate in Eltham, venerated by town planners from across the world on construction but now more synonymous with the murder of Stephen Lawrence. In this sense, it reinforces your notion of housing and class, insofar as what was conceived as a localised ideal community in another age can be replaced by grievance and therefore violence.

OH: I was quite shocked the first time I went to the Progress Estate. I went there because it’s mentioned in Ian Nairn’s Nairn’s London, and I hadn’t realised it was where Stephen Lawrence was killed until I saw the memorial. Actually the Progress Estate is a better example, because unlike the Flower Estate it’s actually very fine architecture — as good as the posher versions of the idea like Hampstead Garden Suburb. The current vernacular, the spec cottages built by the likes of Wimpey and Barratt, doesn’t even have the excuse that it was once something idealistic.

3:AM: Going back to the first question, do you see yourself as a critic?

OH: Yes, I suppose so. I hope not in the Viz sense of talking loudly about culture in public places, though I probably do that a fair bit. There are many, many things that need criticising, not least the everything-is-great vacuity that tends to find the very idea of criticism or negation unforgivably de trop. I try and do more than just slagging things off, although I find that in art, music and architecture I find very little to like today (film and even TV seem to be in a less parlous state). Actually most of the contemporary architects that interest me, whether Eyal Weizman or FAT, tend to do so more because of their critiques of contemporary architecture than for their actual proposals, with a couple of exceptions.

So instead of a critic I probably think of myself more as a frustrated historian, writing about the past with absolutely no pretence to historical objectivity, for the purposes of making an argument in the present.

3:AM: Like Lynsey Hanley, you write for the New Statesman, as does Jonathan Meades, who praised your book there. Chris Petit has said on several occasions that the media doesn’t know what to do with people like Meades, who they’ve pidgeonholed as a ‘critic’ and don’t like it when he defies this and writes a novel himself. Is it something you’re personally uncomfortable with or a constraint that comes with being British?

OH: I don’t think that Britishness and criticism are in any way mutually exclusive, though there’s a weird way in which the constant day-to-day moaning allows us to accept things that nobody else in Europe would put up with. So I don’t think we’re at all uncomfortable with moaning in general, but in the media there is a compulsory positivism in culture combined with a curious compulsory negativism in politics, where we constantly have to make ‘hard choices’, invariably meaning we can’t afford publicly-funded hospitals, council housing or decent public transport (though pre-emptive wars, dole for banks or PFI is apparently fine).

There’s another sense to this question which is whether people are comfortable with writers who can leap from one discipline to another. Which is true, but as I’ve never had any inclinations towards actual proper creativity it doesn’t affect me so much. There’s not going to be a novel, much as I like Meades’. As a day job I find merely reviewing things is enormously fulfilling, or at least it has been so far.

3:AM: We’ve identified that there is a critical ‘project’, of sorts, going on. At the end of the book you outline that our present where “stock markets crash and ice caps melt” can be tackled by an alternative, that this “dormant Socialist Modernism can, if nothing else, offer spectral blueprints for such a future.” Yet you also make an attempt to guard against a “gauche Ostalgie” in several places, so would the British Sotsgorod (Socialist City) merely be a reprise for the application of post-war social democracy or something altogether new?


OH: The biggest risk in what I do is nostalgia. I’m trying to write history, of a sort, but the possibility that I could end up just going on about the good old days is one that worries me and I constantly try and draw back from.

There was, in the years after 1945, a serious attempt to build a fairer society, based on a truce between capital and labour, a truce that obviously wasn’t going to last. When it was broken after 1979 everything that happened before faced an absolute barrage of propaganda, some of which stuck and some of which didn’t. So, while we’re still, thankfully, wedded to the idea that health care should be public, despite insidious ‘market-based reforms’, public housing, public transport and public utilities were all lost. Some of what was achieved there was shoddy, but a lot of it wasn’t — and this is especially the case with housing. It’s a bit of a dirty secret — albeit one which we’re starting to wise up to now reports are making clear just how bad the private housing of the last few decades actually is — that the best mass housing ever built in this country was the council housing that was begun with the Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green in the 1890s and ended in the early 80s with sensitive, sophisticated schemes like the Byker Wall in Newcastle. Nothing built for ordinary people before or since was as good, in terms of space, amenities, light, air — not the hemmed-in terraces of the 19th century, for the most part not the semis of the 30s, and certainly not the hutches and yuppiedromes of the 90s and 00s. Several major mistakes were made in planning and sometimes building, but the point remains that this was an impressive achievement, and one which had to be denigrated in order for the ‘property owning democracy’ to come into existence.

It bears repeating that this was not an endless parade of shitty tower blocks and grim peripheral estates, for the main reason that when we look for alternatives to the privatopia built since 1979, which is now so obviously in a state of disarray, the automatic response will be ‘yes, but look at the sixties, is that what you want?’, an ‘if you like it so much why don’t you go and live there’ argument. Mistakes were made, some of them severe, but if you explain to people that it was not utterly shit, and that a significant minority of it was brilliant, and far better than anything built for most people since, it can help make the argument that we need a similar project now, and one which doesn’t make the same mistakes.

…thing is, the reason why this was all possible was because there was a strong, aggressive labour movement. It was a bargain against revolution. Now there is a weak labour movement, although one which you can see is starting to wake up again, with things like the Vestas or Visteon factory occupations, which have real political demands. You can’t wish it all back into existence, although I hope that the movement which is starting to coalesce will be able to provide a programme not for a tweaked version of what we have now, but for something better. There are social movements in architecture, in South America in particular, but they’re often based on emergency housing, something which looks poor, an attempt at dignity in overwhelmingly bleak conditions. What we really need is something that offers, in the sense in which people from Charles Fourier onwards did, a way of living that is actually better, that is more exciting. So rather than a ‘new urbanism’ based on acting as if the 19th century was the pinnacle of human endeavour, we need to appropriate the dynamic, the technological, and propose a city which would actually be superior to the current one. The need to create a carbon-free economy that would be actually superior to an economy based on planned obsolescence, atomisation and fossil fuels provides a perfect opportunity for that. I don’t necessarily think it should be based around concrete walkways and towers, what it would look like would and should be a complete surprise to me. But I do think that such places provided new spatial possibilities, new ways of looking at and building in the world, and that’s precisely what is needed — but I’m not an architect, so I can alas only argue for it, and in a sometimes convoluted manner.

3:AM: While you say you have no ‘literary’ ambition, the nuances of JG Ballard have not escaped your attention…

OH: The best urban ideas are usually in science fiction rather than in architectural magazines. There are a lot of literary figures in the text — Bertolt Brecht, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Evgeny Zamyatin, and most of all Ballard. He’s usually read as a dystopian, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. What his books do, especially in the likes of The Atrocity Exhibition, The Terminal Beach and Crash, is take a new idea or a new technology and work out what it does to our minds and our bodies, the new possibilities that it opens up. Sometimes the possibilities are horrible, sometimes – as in the stories set in the desert resort of Vermilion Sands — they’re positively idyllic. So in the book there’s a reading of Ballard against the grain, attempting to show how the cities he wrote about involve a sort of heavily eroticised re-imagining of the everyday space of modernity, to the point where something previously ‘boring’ and mundane becomes wildly exciting and utopian.

3:AM: On the point of utopias, you mention that both of your parents were Militant activists and as you noted at New Humanist recently, you were accused by a certain ‘pro-war left’ blog of being in the Socialist Workers’ Party and a conflict of interest arising from this. While they retracted the claim, they then asserted that by writing for Socialist Worker you “write for the newspaper of a totalitarian and anti-democratic organisation” therefore being “substantially aligned with its politics”…

OH: Oh yes… it does amuse me how, in a situation where acceptable public discourse veers between reformist neoliberalism (the Lib Dems), neoliberalism (New Labour) and extreme head-banging neoliberalism (the Tories), that it’s those who want something different who are ‘totalitarian’ and ‘anti-democratic’.

Obviously I have a background in Marxist politics. My parents were Trots, but then my grandparents were Communists, and in the 1940s that really did mean at least defending something in Russia that genuinely was ‘totalitarian’ (if that word means anything) and anti-democratic, although I don’t think for a second that what they or most western Communists wanted was secret police and a one-party state. It is a bit silly, though, the accusation that Communism is automatically anti-democratic. If you read Marx on what he thought ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ would be like, the example he gives is the Paris Commune of 1871, which was the most extreme example of democracy ever seen to that point, and for the most part still is. Lenin, similarly, argued for a state based on workers’ councils, Soviets, organs of direct democracy rather than parliamentary representation. For all sorts of contingent and unpleasant reasons this idea was abandoned, by Lenin himself among others. It is however what I and what most revolutionary socialists believe in, and it is, again, an idea which I maintain to be actually better than the wretched imitation of democracy we currently settle for — and an idea which technology makes far more viable now than it was in 1917.

Mind you, the Marxist left has always suffered from the delusion whereby each small group pretends it’s the Bolshevik Party, and that their disagreements on nuance, their expulsions and splits, matter a damn to anyone in the outside world. I would rather see something far larger and far more pluralistic than what there is now, which is one of several reasons why I’m not a member of the SWP, the Socialist Party or the Greens, all of whom I have a fair amount of sympathy for. I write for Socialist Worker for the same reason I do the New Statesman — there are people there I agree with and people that I don’t, but both are an excellent platform.

Meanwhile, the accusation ‘totalitarian’ gets thrown at any notion of planning for use rather than profit, and so in the case of modern architecture the strong urban coherence and the scale got branded ‘Orwellian’ in a flip manner — but I don’t think that’s worth taking any more seriously than Americans who think the NHS is ‘evil’.

3:AM: As you mention, it’s now fashionable, particularly for television, to denigrate modernist buildings “in a knee-jerk manner as ‘eyesores’, ‘carbuncles’ and so forth”. A common argument among advocates of both traditional and post-modern design is that “student” fans of Le Cobusier don’t have to live in the by-products of his works, ie. the imitation high rises that aren’t too hospitable at night or much fun if you have a pushchair and live on the 15th floor. As a “defender” of modernism, how do you counter the arguments against impracticality or even hypocrisy here?

OH: First of all, an estate of semis with gardens can be pretty damn inhospitable. There’s no reason why a tower block should be, and no reason why it should be difficult to get a pram to the 15th floor, that’s what the lift is for. That is, in the best of all possible worlds. The first thing that gets cut from council budgets is maintenance, and one of the great fallacies of Modernism — one which architects definitely colluded in — is the idea that it’s cheap. With the odd exception, like prefabs, that just isn’t true. I’d maintain it’s better, but not cheaper, and one of the reasons why tower blocks get demolished and replaced with low-rise hutches is so councils don’t have to pay for a concierge and don’t have to repair the lifts.

I should point out here that in the late 60s in particular a fair bit of relatively poor housing was built. A mediocre tower block ought not to be any worse than a mediocre semi, but there was a real imperative during the Wilson government to build high and cheap, one which builders were eager to help with. The disasters, Ronan Point and so forth, were not designed by architects, but were system-built by the likes of Wates and Wimpey, who have been doing very well indeed since the late ’70s, while City Architects’ Departments have become ‘obsolete’. The ‘architects don’t have to live in them’ argument forgets that before 1945, what high-rises there were, like Highpoint in London or Embassy Court in Brighton, were inhabited entirely by middle class professionals, and architects especially. As it is, you’ll seldom find architects defending most council blocks — most of them are more eager to grab the PFI contracts for their replacements.

Finally, Le Corbusier had some monumentally stupid ideas, and took very little account of economic realities, and although I find some of his works, like the Unite d’Habitation or the Palace of the Soviets, pretty stunning, I’m really not interested in defending Le Corbusier. I’m interested in defending Bruno Taut, Konstantin Melnikov, Berthold Lubetkin, Alison and Peter Smithson, Erno Goldfinger, Kate Mackintosh, Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, Lewis Womersley, Leon Berger, Hubert Bennett…

3:AM: In particular, you home in on the Futurists and their Manifesto and where it takes up Walter Benjamin’s project to “live without traces”, both having “hostility to ‘heritage’” but also Marinetti’s “outrunning the old world before it catches up with you”. Do you believe this template has much to offer us in 2009? What do you make of the recent revival of interest in Futurism, both the Tate’s predictable dusting off recently and Tom McCarthy‘s new novel?

OH: It’s an impulse I understand and think is worthwhile, though in the last instance I disagree with it. The impulse to clear away all the crap and debris is right and good, but in the present context futurism mainly means apologias for the status quo (something you can really see in the manic developmentalism of China or Dubai, where the most ‘futuristic’ architecture is now produced). Aside from that I like a city to have a certain amount of montage, a certain amount of clashing, of different periods meeting each other in weird and unexpected ways. Having said that, it’s important to have at least a foot in Futurism, and also to recognise its limitations, not to mention its frequently dubious results. There is nothing like that Futurist sense of giddy exhilaration and anticipation — a feeling I’ve had looking at the Lloyds Building or Park Hill, the rooms full of Malevich canvasses in the Stedelijk Museum, watching Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels or Iakov Protazanov’s Aelita, listening to Dizzee Rascal in 2003 or Gary Numan’s The Pleasure Principle this morning. It’s a world-transforming feeling.

The Tate exhibition was godawful, reducing a movement that intended transform everything from architecture to food to music to a series of Edwardian canvases. Some of which were interesting, some not, but as an approach to Futurism it seemed staggeringly ill-advised.

3:AM: What I enjoyed about the book is that beyond the talk of “Blakean dialectic” and “Czechoslovakian Functionalists”, which could be seen as reducing the potential readership to Goldsmiths graduates like ourselves, you take time to analyse the relationship between the urban fabric and new music forms such as grime and bassline house, the ‘Brutalist Continuum’ as you refer to it.

The book also meditates at length of the Ferrier and Thamesmead estates in South London, both now dismissed as actual dystopias on our doorsteps in the capital (“fraud capital of Britain” etc.) yet so beloved of music video directors. As you outline, the Ferrier is soon to disappear, replaced by soi-disant des res living. In that sense do you see Anna Minton’s Ground Control as the flipside of your own book, that is the realisation of the persistant attack on the social in favour of privatisation, utopia denied?

OH: I wasn’t sure who I was writing the book for when I was doing so, I suppose I wanted it to be understandable by south London teenagers, by ageing lefties, and by overeducated 28 year old aesthetes like myself — I don’t think it really worked out like that, but I certainly don’t think it’s difficult to read.

The reason why I mention (cue euphemism) ‘urban music’ is because it is Modernism. It is. Modernism might have died off in architecture sometime in the 70s, with a few ghostly manifestations ever since, but I don’t think there’s anything remotely postmodernist, in the sense of forms which merely rejig the past, about Detroit techno, about most hip hop, about the continuum of jungle, 2 step and grime. Indie is postmodernist. But the musics I mention above all give you that sense of futurist exhilaration, present new forms and new noises, different ways of perceiving space and the environment around you, and open up a democratisation of creation and production that the ‘productivists’ of the ’20s, who wanted every worker to become an artist and vice versa, would have been delighted with.

Sometimes it’s a reflection of a bleak and dehumanising environment, but it’s often overlooked just how much this music suggests a new and exciting kind of space, rather than a harking back to something familiar, and although I certainly don’t want to glamourise poverty, I can’t help but think that in London, Sheffield, Detroit or wherever, the architectural montage of ruination and modernism, terraces and towers, is the place that music comes from, in every sense. As to the second bit of the question, I’ve lived in South-East London for the last 10 years, and as with anywhere else, it’s full of fascinating and neglected places which I thought were worth writing about. The Ferrier and Thamesmead Estates were both designed by the GLC in the ’60s, and weren’t knocked up by developers to make a profit, but were thoughtful and serious attempts to create something decent. Thamesmead suffers from the fact it wasn’t finished. The ‘estate’ there was supposed to be the start of an entire, self-sufficient new town with its own tube station, not a stump 15 minutes walk from Abbey Wood overground. Ferrier is a different case — they really did manage to create something quite domineering and unrelenting there, and I agree that it needs at least some serious remaking. What I don’t think it needs is clearance, with the tenants dropped god knows where with no right of return, and replacement with a CCTV-ridden expanse of timber-clad ‘mixed-class’ yuppiedromes conveniently close to Blackheath, which is what is happening there now.

Ground Control is an excellent book, and though I find her conclusions pretty timid, it provides a concrete analysis of the real base to the aesthetic stuff I’m writing about — the privatisation and almost militarisation of public space, the expansion of surveillance, and the sheer destructiveness of Blairism, so I’d be very happy if they were thought of as complimentary.

3:AM: Since the book, you’ve been on several tours of England for Building Design, taking in places like Newcastle, the “Brasilia of the North”. Did you find a modernist narrative there, among the planned estates of Washington, Peterlee and Killingworth?

OH: Definitely. I’m quite fascinated by T. Dan Smith, the council boss of Newcastle in the 1960s. He was a working class Trotskyist who cajoled and argued his way into a position of power, one that he ended up abusing, taking bribes from the corrupt architect John Poulson. He ended up in prison, then spent his dotage living in one of the tower blocks he’d had built, as a housing campaigner. If you look at old footage of Smith, he seems so smart and charismatic, but actually a lot of what he built was unimpressive compared with, say, Sheffield or Southampton, where councils used architects rather than builders and their systems. Regardless, what I admire about him was the sheer civic pride and ambition. Although I’m a southerner who has only lived in Southampton and South-east London, I have a lot of admiration for the big northern cities — they have, or rather had, a power and presence which are the antithesis of the Barratt Home dystopia we seem intent on creating. Newcastle especially has a proper urban scale, the Tyne bridges, the Metro and housing schemes like Byker, which along with some tremendous (and doomed) buildings by the late, great Rodney Gordon in Gateshead make it a bit of a goldmine for Modernists. Byker is an example of what council housing could have become if it hadn’t been curtailed — there was a level of consultation with and participation from the actual residents which was pretty unprecedented, with the architects keeping their office on site and changing the estate’s form as it went on, according to what worked and what didn’t. But so much of it depends on place — the same architect, Ralph Erskine, designed an estate in Killingworth (another nearly new-town that wasn’t properly finished) that is far bleaker, mainly because it’s in the middle of nowhere rather than in the heart of a living city. New towns seemed to become dumping grounds for all the crap of Thatcherism, because of their position, their amount of space and because they easily get suburbanised — so in Killingworth, say, you have these incredible Modernist buildings that look they were beamed down from Mars in amongst the dullest retail parks, spec houses and call centres. It’s a very interesting place, but a very sad one too.

There’s this real obsession on the part of the British to constantly slag off our cities, something you can see in say, the Crap Towns books. Partly I like the negativity of it, and find it a good corrective to the gurning jollity of ‘regeneration’, but it’s also incredibly frustrating, because the alternative is so much worse. A place can be poor, ugly and incredibly interesting at the same time. I find the idea of everywhere looking like Bath (or Tesco Value versions of Bath) utterly terrifying.

3:AM: We now hear almost routine attacks on modernism through the multifarious onslaught against ‘consumerism’ by the likes of either romantic idealists like The Idler or muddled social democrats like Neal Lawson and Madeleine Bunting, but both predicated on a belief that pre-industrial society was somehow a better time in which to live.

OH: I’ve already slagged off The Idler for Crap Towns, which is a bit mean, as I’m all for sloth and decadence and I used to read it a lot, but there seemed to be this rather ugly project creeping in after a while, where Tom Hodgkinson swanned off to the countryside while his journal tried to convince us how appalling urban life was. Given the choice between living in a city of eight million people or living even within 30 miles of Alex James’ fucking dairy farm, I know which I’d choose.

I’m wholly comfortable with the demise of pre-industrial society, and I am thankful for the sanitation, medication, packaged food and central heating brought by the industrial revolution, which is not the same thing as being thankful for industrial capitalism. I feel no attachment whatsoever to The Land, I like living in cities, and given the enormous rate of emigration from country to city right now so do an extremely large proportion of humanity (and funnily enough, it has recently been found that cities are actually more environmentally friendly than the suburbs or the countryside). Given how appalling the conditions of the first factories in Manchester were, you have to imagine how unbelievably awful the Lancashire countryside must have been to inspire such rapid emigration from one to the other. Some of course take this to mean that people like 12 hour shifts or favelas, which is equally absurd.

Although I know full well that a section of the left has always been into donning its hairshirt, and I totally reject the corresponding myth of scarcity and the self-congratulation of austerity cooking and I’m Not A Plastic Bag, I can’t deny that the current obsession with shopping worries me. Partly that’s because in terms of successful urban spaces that people actually use, it works so well. When I find somewhere like Westfield or the mall at Canary Wharf rammed full of young people and picket lines or meetings having three paunchy men and a dog in attendance, I can’t deny I find it depressing.

At the same time, this ‘choice’ is frequently forced on people. Southampton has totally dedicated its centre to malls and retail parks, and they’ve destroyed what little there was of civic pride in the town in favour of becoming a giant department store for people in Hampshire to commute into — there was no impetus from the city’s inhabitants to build this stuff, but a failure of imagination whereby it decided it could only function by servicing the Tory countryside around it as a shopping ‘hub’. The idea of spending a weekend in WestQuay fills me with unspeakable dread, though at the same time it’s only the denigration of the urban space around it which makes the mall so attractive — inside everything works, everything is warm and looks nice, which is not an ignoble thing — outside you can see a town visibly falling to pieces.

Attacks on consumerism always miss the point though — there’s nothing wrong with abundance, pleasure, not being rained on when you buy your groceries, or shiny stuff in general. Criticising consumerism is what people do when they can’t quite stomach criticising capitalism.

Andrew Stevens is a contributing editor of 3:AM and lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 13th, 2009.