The Ministry of Nostalgia 22.02.16

Ministry of Nostalgia 300dpi CMYK

Owen Hatherley’s latest book examines the 1930s/40s/50s revivalism that has engulfed this country since the financial crisis and delivers a solid kicking to the austerity nostalgia of the left, says Will Wiles

It’s hard not to admire Owen Hatherley’s industry. Since 2009 he has produced books at a rate of about one a year, a steady vibration of work that has agitated him to the top tier of British architecture writers, all without the comfortable mainstream media post that usually provides a platform for this kind of success.

Of course, the quality of the work has a lot to do with it. His two-volume, city-by-city survey of the state of the British built environment – A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (2010) and A New Kind of Bleak (2012) – is terrifically entertaining, a fact sure to earn him the gratitude of the coming generations of architecture, planning and landscape students who will be (or should be) reading it. Less than a year ago, he topped this with another vastly ambitious survey, this time on a continental scale: Landscapes of Communism (2015), a masterly study of the contribution to architecture made by the Soviet Union and its satellite states. A vital project in itself, Hatherley brightens a vast tapestry of scholarship with lively threads of travelogue, wit and autobiography. And now, scant months later, comes The Ministry of Nostalgia – in effect another survey, this time of the British innerspace. (I must insert a disclosure: Hatherley is a friend and I am acknowledged at the back of this book, for the tiniest of contributions.)

The Ministry of Nostalgia takes as its starting point the astonishing phenomenon of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster. This poster was created by the Ministry of Information in 1939, part of a series intended to steady a population about to face aerial bombardment and possible land invasion. No one but a handful of civil servants saw it: wordier, more condescending alternatives were chosen, only to prove widely disliked. Its extraordinary second life began in 2008 when it went into production as a chirpy bit of sentimental home décor and became an immense hit. As well as the original red-and-white image appearing on walls, mugs, cushions, pencil cases and every other surface that can support graphics, it enjoyed even more outrageous success as a meme, with thousands of variants being produced at every level of culture.

These included posters telling coin-metered utility users to pay the bills, and a series of sinister-jocular ads by the Metropolitan Police, “spectacular examples of disavowal and the use of irony to say appalling things unchallenged”. Thus, the visual language of a patrician wartime civil service exhorting its citizens to fortitude and sacrifice not only became a comforting desk adornment or kitchen decoration – roughly in the mould of “you don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps”, or “bless this mess” – also became a reliable graphical source for the security organs and corporate contractors of a neoliberal state in the process of violently dismembering whatever social safety nets it could find, as well as a popular meme among protestors against that state.

“Keep Calm and Carry On” is simply Hatherley’s entry into the whole chummy vein of 1930s/40s/50s revivalism that has engulfed this country since the financial crisis. There are some virtuoso strokes of analysis here, in particular tracing the huge influence of the now-forgotten Empire Marketing Board, the empire being one of the things that generally gets left out by the sons and daughters of Mumford. Most valuable of all, though, is the book’s emphasis on delivering a solid kicking to the austerity nostalgia of the left: The Spirit Of ’45, the near-worship of the Attlee government, the Orwell cult and so on. The right, after all, can be expected to indulge in this sort of thing – it has been buying Spitfire plates out of the back of the Daily Mail colour supplement all along. It’s altogether more troubling for the left, which is supposed to be offering a vision of tomorrow, not brandishing the bones of yesterday. Being left-wing in Britain over the past five years has at times felt a bit like being part of a preservationist movement, with its most evocative promise being to put things back the way they were. Hatherley’s success is to show that those things were never that way in the first place, and there is no uncomplicated reservoir of socialist patriotism that can be tapped.

The Ministry of Nostalgia is perceptive, witty and timely. It’s an exemplar of how design and architectural criticism can be used to reveal deep truths about a country and its people. It may be the definition of ephemera, but that five-word poster turns out to have a lot to say.

The Ministry of Nostalgia is published by Verso Books

 

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Will Wiles

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The visual language of a patrician wartime civil service exhorting its citizens to fortitude and sacrifice not only became a comforting desk adornment or kitchen decoration

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