All Our 1960s

Brutalist mammoth ascends slope in Cardiff underpass

Brutalist mammoth ascends slope in Cardiff underpass

 This recent article reinforces my sense that, for my generation of late 50s/early 60s working class kids, there was a perceived expulsion from Eden in the form of the ideological and architectural destruction of ‘our’ cities – and the social units they maintained – by 1960s councils, and their replacement with the fruits of Brutalism.

As happened in Byker (painstakingly and painfully recorded by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen), like unloved children, we entered into at once a traumatised nostalgia for the often miserable past, and a codependent relationship with concrete, the material that had buried it. As it decayed, it seemed that so too our social bonds rotted away, but, in the ambivalent air of experimental times, we were secretly complicit, convinced that we were arriving in that space age future the media projected at us through comics, TV and film, only to discover that how we got there rendered it pre-poisoned and dystopic.

The ideals of planners met the corruption of councillors, and prepared the way for an assassination perpetrated soon enough by Thatcher: of the idea of society itself, a conceptual crime which is now being brought to its grim conclusion by the Tories in their latest and perhaps terminal dismantling of the post-War settlement that gave us our council houses and our innoculations and our railways, and even sent some of us to university.

I find myself thinking, not just about Dundee and its many dodgy demolitions, but about Peterlee and Victor Pasmore, who named his Apollo Pavilion after that same space race, and described it as ‘a free and anonymous monument’, ‘in which to linger and on which to play’ – ironically, of course, it was the free play known as vandalism, coupled with the lingering contempt of local politicians, opposed to such abstruse aesthetic principles, which led to its long decline.

In many of these cases, then, what interests me is how the extremes of genuine idealism and Gradgrinding graft meet. It’s a strange, alchemical marriage of the descendant of Morris’s Arts & Crafts Socialism and Arnold’s middle class, middle brow Philistine, while our usual Barbarian overlords gaze on, uncomprehendingly wondering whether to exercise their droit de seigneur and fuck us over.

Some of those now in entirely justified panic about Palmyra (I’m thinking of Boris Johnson’s protests here) are of the same cast as those who either permitted or presided over the destruction of another culture they weren’t taught how to value.

The contrast between Johnson’s pronouncements, and the establishment silence over, for instance, the bulldozing of Mayan temples in Belize to provide road materials, is telling. The latter is, of course, a vandalism occurring within the acceptable confines of capitalist thinking (business as usual; ancient but not ‘Classical’ remains).

Meanwhile, those of us engaged in or by public art, or in an art that wishes to engage with the public and public matters, must seek funds and a forum to advance such endeavours within the same system and at the mercy of the same media. While the example of figures like Jeremy Deller encourages us not to be fooled again, it is as difficult as ever to wake up to the circumstances of our own longing for lost and dangerously ambiguous certainties.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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