Books of the Week

How England Made the English: From Hedgerows to Heathrow, By Harry Mount and A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys through Urban Britain, By Owen Hatherley

Critics from both ends of the political spectrum inspect the damage done to our urban fabric

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)

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there