Here are two passionate books on aspects of Britishness. One is by David Cameron's cousin and fellow-Oxonian, Harry Mount, the other by Owen Hatherley, a seething, overcoated loose-cannon intellectual whose blogspot is called nastybrutalistandshort.
They should have nothing in common. Yet these two highly readable stalkers of our zeitgeist share uncertain views of the future of "this precious stone set in the silver sea", as Shakespeare's Richard II put it. Mount fears a loss of historical and cultural pride. Hatherley presents a Britain whose psyche has been denuded, but occasionally enlivened, by urban crumple-zones.
Mount's idealised, display-cased image of England is partly captured by JB Priestley's remark about Bristol in the 1934, whose prosperity came by "selling us Gold Flake and Fry's chocolate and soap and clothes and a hundred other things. And the smoke from a million Gold Flakes solidifying into a new Gothic Tower for the university; and the chocolate melts away, only to leave behind it all the fine big shops down Park Street." He portrays England via dextrous excavations of its geography, geology, history and weather – and by havering about the generic character of the English. He is excellent, in a clever magpie way, at the first task, yet often charmingly batty at the second. Our weather, he says, has stopped us becoming a cafe society. Quite the opposite has happened. "Homo Britannicus can only really socialise comfortably in the company of Femina Britannicus when drunk." Really? Mount even thinks that London's King's Cross area is still "a seedy low-rent area, rich in drug addicts and prostitutes", when it's becoming a trendy extension of Clerkenwell and Bloomsbury.
When he deploys history, he is encyclopaedic and his details are marvellous. We learn, for example, how different limestones and soil types defined the character of architecture and agriculture in different parts of England; why houses in Belgravia are mostly unlit at night; how, before the deregulation in the City of London in 1986, the first commuter train from Haslemere left at 7.15am, and now pulls out at 5.21am.
His conversational tone makes his description of the suburbanisation of Surrey as engrossing as those of life in Roman and medieval England; his insights on the development of cities and transport are particularly illuminating. Yet How England Made the English is not quite a comforting post-Betjeman hymnal. Mount doesn't like the fact that a quarter of all London homes worth more than £1m are snaffled by Johnny Foreigner. He deplores modernist architects such as Richard Rogers, "the arch-nihilist of the age". He laments the "spick-and-spanification" of rural England, and notes the often pernicious relationships between architects and developers. He relishes England's "idiosyncratic domestication of grand [historic] stereotypes," but doesn't mention any new ones. "Old, pretty things have given way to new, ugly nothings."
Owen Hatherley is a connoisseur of newish, ugly nothings. He is a densely informed socio-urban critic and trudger who seems to follow the modern French philosopher Michel de Certeau's dictum of "walking cities into existence." Hatherley admits that A New Kind of Bleak is a grim book. But, though it concentrates "on the gory details of some extremely unlovely places, it is my contention that it's often here that ways out can be found". His phrase "ways out" suggests a defeated escape as much as any likelihood of better futures.
Hatherley's sardonic headings signal his vibe: This Building Kills (or Abets) Fascists; The Merthyr Tydfil Cafe Quarter; Oi, Cleanshirt!; Epsilon-Minus Semi-Moron. This humanely barbed Nikolaus Pevsner for our times is admirably quixotic in his hatred of scorched-earth development, and furious in his defence of supposedly unremarkable bits and pieces of our towns and cities.
Preston Art Gallery, for example: "A model of its kind... just enough, if you grew up here, to send your mind into an unexpected state". And the University of East London: "It's easy to attack this as the effect of planning policies that don't give a damn where they dump the lower orders, and yet there's something deeply special and haunting about this place". The minutiae of his architectural and political detail threatens to overwhelm, but there are break-beats of droll wit and zingy phrasing. A riff on Poplar in the East End of London depicts "the yuppie fistulae that have shot off from the bowels of Canary Wharf… the London that neoliberalism built at its Brazilified worst". He describes the Arcelor-Mittal Orbit sculpture as "a shocking pink entrail" dedicated to an asset-stripper.
Hatherley prefers urban grunge generated by very different intentions. In Aberdeen, he is thrilled to encounter well-maintained blocks of council flats. At Cumbernauld, he celebrates the locally specific modernity of its Brutalist-accented town planning. He is essentially a complainer, but his charges are often hard to deny. His book should be required reading for planners, developers, and architects, whose ideas about place-making are often utterly banal.
In 1972, Philip Larkin's poem, "Going, Going" declared: "For the first time I feel somehow / That it isn't going to last,/ That before I snuff it, the whole/ Boiling will be bricked in/ Except for the tourist parts... And that will be England gone." This sentiment ghosts through both books, despite their conflicting positions and obdurate hopes. How telling that it is the boundlessly convivial Mount who felt the need to quote Larkin's sombre words.
How England Made the English: From Hedgerows to Heathrow, By Harry Mount (Viking, £20) and A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys through Urban Britain, By Owen Hatherley (Verso, £20)Reuse content