Popular Posts

Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Thursday, 10 September 2015


I've been reading Owen Hatherley's A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. By the time I'd got to the middle of the first chapter I thought I was going to hate it and had to restrain myself from chucking it on one of the piles of unread and possibly unreadable books that litter my office space and are gradually taking over my house (note to myself - it really is time to ring up the carpenter and get those bookshelves installed). What was wrong with it? Convoluted academic architecture prose full of esoteric isms and ists interlarded with gratuitous  and unenlightening  digs at "neo-liberalism". In short the usual blah blah bull of the "sophisticated" metropolitano: all show and no substance. But I'm glad I persevered because the rest of the book is really very enjoyable. Once he clears his throat and drops the pseudo professorial pretense he writes well and, joy of joys, has something to say. 

The book is an account of a sort of road journey - though most of it is by train - around Britain with a photographer friend (one disappointment is that the photographs are so small and grainy that it is difficult to get much out of them) to view the architecture of "regeneration" in a number of cities and urban areas throughout Britain. This is all linked together with a pretty shrewd commentary on the poverty of aspirations that instantiated itself in the built environment created  under New Labour's urban building policies or rather non-policies.

What I liked about the book is that it wasn't uniformly bleak - though a lot of what has been built is. Hatherley sort of likes Milton Keynes - and so do I. Just because you build a town that works for the automobile doesn't mean that you have to neglect public spaces in which people walk about. The edges of the urban planning vision that made Milton Keynes possible  are already being chipped away and Hatherley's account is a sort of elegy for it. He also likes Glasgow, and so do I - at least I did the last time I went there. The Scots, unlike the English, mastered the art of urban living and produced cities that bear some resemblance to the way most modern  Europeans live.

The other places he visits I can't say much about. I've never been to Southampton, Cardiff, Sheffield or  Newcastle and my experience of Manchester  and Liverpool is restricted to little more than rushed day trips. I'm now looking forward to reading his follow up volume A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain where he writes  about Coventry and Oxford, two cities that I know very well.

This Summer we upped sticks and took ourselves to London for a month and reading Hatherley focused my mind on why I found it so liberating and refreshing to get out of Oxford and reconnect with a real city. 

The cliches are  about academics recharging their batteries in their Summer houses in Tuscany, on the coast or in the rural boondocks. Delightful as these retreats no doubt are they don't do much for me. I need to go somewhere that is properly urban, that has pavements that are wide enough to pass someone on, roads that have more than one lane in each direction and trains that can take you to endless numbers of places in under 20 minutes. 

But I also appreciate the  urban village thing. Oddbins on the corner where you can buy a decent bottle of beer, the park at the end of the street where you can stroll, have an impromtu game of badminton or just hang out and watch the fitness freaks exercising with their personal trainers. I like the local  Carnegie library with its free internet,  the  art gallery with its cafe where you can always get a seat  (outside too if the weather is good) - no tourists are interested in the exhibitions of largely local interest  - and the walk along  the River Crane -  that most urban of waterways - where one moment you can be collecting blackberries to make jam and the next you stumble on some 1950s low rise public housing. London is all about possibilities in a way that Oxford just isn't.

In fact I've come to the conclusion that Oxford isn't a coherent city at all. At best it's just an amalgamation of different zones with little either socially or geographically to connect them. At worst it currently feels that the powers that be are doing their best to turn it into a sort of  open prison as the endless roadworks on the city's arterial routes make a living hell out of trying to get in or out of the place. 

But perhaps the worst thing is the mean-spirited provision of public space best exemplified by the way Broad Street - right in the centre of town - is used. In most European cities a space like this would be a pedestrianized square. In the Spring, Summer and Autumn ordinary people would sit outside at a pavement cafe or restaurant, drink a beer, meet their friends and just hang out. And what does Oxford do? Use it as a parking lot, strangling the life out of just about the only space in the centre of town  where there is room to let people get off the impossibly crowded and narrow pavements. 

It's actually remarkable how little genuinely open public space there is in the centre of Oxford. Christchurch Meadow, though not strictly speaking public is at least open to the public, but most of it is fenced off and used to graze cattle - as though there weren't any suitable agricultural land in the rest of Oxfordshire. It's pleasant to go for a stroll around it, but it's hardly a place of urban sociability. Nobody says: "I'll meet you in Christchurch Meadow" unless it is some sort of assignation. There is nowhere to sit and nothing particularly to do; it's just an empty space preserving in aspic a "heritage" view. Cross the river to the towpath and you can hardly be said to enjoy a relaxing walk. Most of the time you are minding your back and trying to stop your progeny being mown down by various species of cycling fascist.

As a city for ordinary people to live in Oxford is pretty much a failure. But I suppose that is only to be expected when you realize that its real purpose is to be a playground for ruling class trainees with no lasting stake in the city and when they aren't using it to be an attraction for tourists to gawk at.

No comments: