An Englishman’s home is his castle

Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova – Prefabs: A Social and Cultural History (Historic England, 2018)

Up and down the country, in between areas of traditional brick housing and shiny new builds, it’s still possible to see the odd row of small, single-story rectangular cottages made of concrete and corrugated metal. Whilst they often look unassuming and sometimes shabby, these dwellings are remarkable survivors from the years following the First and Second World Wars, when there was a pressing need to provide housing quickly, cheaply and on a mass-scale. One solution, as a new book by Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova shows, was prefabrication.

Prefabrication, either of entire buildings or of particular components, has a long history, being applied to everything from the construction of the Crystal Palace, to ready-to-assemble houses which were exported to residents setting up home in the colonies, to dormitory housing for factory workers. Over time, materials changed with technological advancements, from timber to corrugated iron to steel and concrete, as did designs. Prefabs situates British prefabs in this historical context, as well as within a wider international survey of approaches to prefabrication, driven by varying circumstances and ideologies.

When prefabrication really came into its own in the UK was immediately after the Second World War, when hundreds of thousands of new homes were needed to house a boom in newlyweds, as well as those who had been bombed. Prefabrication was regarded as a quick and temporary solution to this need, at a time when both materials and labour were in short supply. Factories which had previously produced aircraft as part of the war effort were repurposed to create components for housing. Rubble from bombed houses were used for foundations. Furthermore, construction didn’t require skilled labour – sometimes prisoners of war were put to work erecting prefabs.

Although they were meant only as a temporary solution, these houses often vastly exceeded residents’ former living conditions, offering a self-contained (if small), detached house with front and back garden at a time when many families, especially in the inner cities, were still crammed into rooms in houses shared with several others.

As the book shows, these houses not only offered a roof over residents’ heads, but changed their ways of living. In many ways, prefabs were at the forefront of modernity, incorporating then-innovative features such as built-in furniture and storage space, indoor bathrooms, electric appliances, and labour-saving devices such as refrigerators. They also offered self-sufficiency, with space to grow food; the book describes a Women’s Voluntary Service scheme which distributed plants and seeds to the prefabs from gardens in country areas. This goes some way to explaining their popularity, and the fact that some continue to be lived in today, extending their predicted life-span by more than half a century.

Of course, prefabs weren’t without their problems. They suffered from issues such as damp, and it was sometimes difficult to regulate the temperature inside; early designs, demonstrated at experimental show homes on prominent central London sites such as the land behind the Tate Gallery, were improved and refined as their faults became apparent.

The book goes on to show how elements of prefabrication, such as cast concrete and the use of mass-produced, machine-made elements, were applied later in the post-war reconstruction effort to housing intended to be more permanent. By the 1960s, the low-rise bungalow of the immediate post-war years was replaced with the high-rise block of flats as the preferred choice for meeting the need for mass housing; many of these proved less popular and durable than the apparently temporary prefabs, and turned out to have design flaws with far more serious consequences.

Prefabs brings these homes to life, incorporating testimonies from past and present residents as well as illustrations of their construction and their changing place in the housing market as the areas around them have been redeveloped; controversially in the past couple of years Catford’s Excalibur Estate, one of the last major areas of prefab housing, has been largely cleared by the council to be replaced with high-density (and higher-cost) housing in the name of regeneration, despite the objections of residents.

The authors even suggest that prefabs might have a role to play today, in addressing issues such as the shortage of affordable housing and homelessness. Updated with new materials and methods of construction, prefabs benefit from being portable, cost-effective and eco-friendly, and can be easily slotted into the existing city fabric – attributes that made them attractive to planners and councils more than seventy years ago.

Natalie Bradbury

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Flapping Gums

Rachel Cusk – Kudos (Faber and Faber, 2018)

There is a hypnotic appeal to direct speech. Those quotation marks lean out and grab you by the collars, shaking you to attention. When a character speaks directly, it is like they speak directly to us.

Rachel Cusk’s gambit in her latest trilogy is that direct speech is all you need. Having read only the third book, Kudos, I find the results to be arresting, if not entirely conclusive. By constructing an entire novel out of direct speech, Cusk seems to have superseded the novel form altogether.

There is no narrative to Kudos as such, at least not in terms of plot. A writer flies to a writer’s conference and is spoken to by an assortment of characters. The businessman she sits next to on the plane tells a dramatic story about putting down his dog. A journalist tells a gossipy story about her sister. One writer praises another for preferring real life to extravagant plots.

The stories are held together only by the central protagonist who remains almost silent throughout; if she speaks conveyed to the reader indirectly rather than produced verbatim. As a result, Kudos reads more like a disguised short story collection than a novel, or perhaps like an RPG where a silent protagonist runs between NPCs, clicking on them to activate more dialogue.

It can be frustrating. Boring even. A reminder that life is mostly inane chatter.

But it is in the totality of Cusk’s vision that Kudos offers its hidden charms. Each of the voices presents a subtle variation of the world. Cusk’s neat, clipped prose rarely slides into the literary, remaining convincingly real throughout. Her presentation of character’s speech is like reportage, while the content of that speech is familiar, intimate, and occasionally stirring.

Whether it’s the athletic writer who looks down on his shabby, unfit peers with disgust, or the preachy Remainer bemoaning the poor, deluded, terraced-housed-dwelling Leave voters; each speaker passes judgement, each has their ingroups and outgroups. The act of telling stories marks out social place. Each speaker seeks to bring the protagonist over to their standpoint. Their stories place her in their shoes and, in return, they expect her to confirm them in their point of view.

Cusk’s mosaic of voices, inspired by reality or not, appeal to the sociological gaze of the modern literary reader. The search for power structures, social markers and authentic voices finds succour here. The first-person narrator achieves such a level of self-erasure as to become a walking recorder. How life really is is reduced to a contest of stories, a panoply of competing voices.

Which raises again the question of whether Kudos is, in fact, a novel or – perhaps a better question – whether its rejection of certain fictional elements (plot, structure, action, description, objectives, motivation, arcs) results in an advancement of the medium?

Having read only Kudos, I am not convinced. Perhaps a reading of the entire trilogy will change my mind. Cusk has mastered the art of reproducing natural speech on the page; something which is exceptionally difficult and performed beautifully here. Particular stories also verge on the symbolic, adding depth to these one-sided conversations.

Nevertheless, I find myself longing for action and allegory; for a character who makes decisions and passes the judgement that Cusk’s protagonist refuses to. The struggle of the individual to exist meaningfully in the world is the essence of great literature and is notably absent here.

I thoroughly enjoyed Cusk’s daring experiment. I highly recommend it to writers looking to enhance their dialogue, or readers who enjoy close observation. I, for one, will definitely be purchasing Cusk’s next work, although I will be hoping for more story, and fewer stories, next time around.

Joe Darlington

Ode to Sussex

Shirley Collins – All in the Downs: Reflections on Life, Landscape and Song (Strange Attractor Press, 2018)

The 2017 documentary the Ballad of Shirley Collins followed the cult English folk singer as she recorded Lodestar, her first album in nearly four decades. Filmed largely around her home in Lewes in East Sussex, and the surrounding area, the film told the remarkable and poignant story of how Collins lost her voice – leading from her withdrawing both from performance and recording for many years – and unexpectedly found it again.

All in the Downs acts as a thoughtful companion piece to the film, with Collins drawing out her experiences in greater depth, writing from her own, opinionated perspective. It follows a previous volume of autobiography, America Over the Water, published in 2004, which told the story of Collins’ travels across United States with the musicologist (and her then partner) Alan Lomax. All in the Downs, by contrast, remains closer to home to focus on Collins’ career in her own right, and the way in which it was informed by her early years in the working-class seaside town of Hastings, East Sussex and later in her retreat from the town and city back to a rediscovery of the rolling countryside of the Sussex downs.

All in the Downs shares with the film a strong sense of loss and absence; it begins with a chapter on the breakdown of Collins’ second marriage, as a major contributory factor in the loss of her voice, before detailing her relationship with her father, who returned from the Second World War only to leave again, and the premature death of her sister and artistic collaborator, Dolly.

As well as sharing her personal and professional memories, All in the Downs offers a rich glimpse into the shared experiences of mid-twentieth century Britain, from the freedom of a semi-rural childhood, to post-war culture and politics, to the sometimes difficult personalities of the British folk scene, to work and motherhood. Looking back, Collins can’t help but reflect, sometimes caustically, on how places, lifestyles and entertainment have changed (not to mention what passes as ‘folk music’ these days!).

Above all, All in the Downs is an ode to the south eastern English landscape, showing what we can learn and pass on about the places around us by paying attention to working people’s voices. It’s written with the passion and in-depth expertise of someone who has dedicated her life and career to understanding, interpreting and transmitting traditional song, the words of which run through the book entwined with her own.

– Natalie Bradbury

Mapping the Conjuncture

Various – Stuart Hall, Conversations, Projects and Legacies (Goldsmiths Press)

John Akomfrah’s wonderful Stuart Hall Project endearingly shows how in love with the music of Miles Davis Stuart Hall was.

It isn’t a facile part of Hall’s biography, this. Think about it: Miles Davis is always identifiably ‘Miles’, during The Birth of the Cool period, in the fusion cauldron of Bitches Brew and Get Up With It, and playing ‘Time After Time’ in the 1980s. Miles Davis both reacted to and shaped the music of each period he lived through.

Similarly, Stuart Hall both reacted to and shaped the discourses of the times he lived through. In Britain, yes – although a diasporic Britain few could even see at the start of the New Left project – and via journal articles, books and teaching, rather than through music.

Equally, the archive Hall leaves us is as essential to take forward as that of Miles Davis, and as difficult to match, let alone better. The purpose of this book is a retrospective celebration of Hall’s work, coming out of the proceedings of the celebratory conference at Goldsmiths after Stuart Hall’s death.

Some of these articles were written to be spoken at that event, and that purpose juts out of the text a little. Some of the material has also been well-covered elsewhere, Hall’s relationship with the British new left for instance, but the best material here explains how the written work of Stuart Hall can be used in the moment we are in to allow us to diagnose it and try to do something about it. For that alone this book is essential.

This book is organised into sections: Part One, Cultural Studies, Multiple Legacies; Part Two, the Politics of Conjuncture; Part Three, Identities and the Redefinition of Politics; Part Four, Policy, Practice and Creativity; Part Five, the International Expansion and Extension of Cultural Studies and Part Six, the Intellectual Legacies of Policing the Crisis.

Paul’s widow Catherine provides the Afterword and there is an engaging set of introductions.

The first set of essays frame the context to an extent. James Curran, the great media theorist, explores Stuart Hall’s early work and shows how wilfully neglected it has been, as though all writers have to have some kind of initial period of development, which is always a priori to be dismissed, before we get round to the ‘serious later work’, it is not the case with Stuart Hall. Like Miles Davis, Hall was on it all the way through.

Part Two is the richest section in terms of the immediate present and future. The politics of conjuncture are precisely the things we need to revisit now, in 2018. John Clark’s analysis of Hall’s conjunctural methods contains precisely the suggestion that we turn back to them now.

But now we have an academic milieu which has drifted very far from this kind of work. We have, on the one hand, macro big data surveys grounded in a kind of neo-Kantianism, often instrumentalised work, and on the other hand the frayed remains of the erroneously named ‘post-structuralism’; the infra-analysis of cultural texts which seem to be sealed, which seem not to emerge from the real world, and I use the term ‘real’ in a general sociological sense here.

For Clarke and others, conjunctural analysis is difficult and requires collaboration, it depends ‘on the building and sustenance of various forms of collaboration’, which ‘were at the heart of the CCCS project’. It is, then, completely at odds with the individualistic and careerist trajectory of the neoliberal university and in it we might find a negation and way out of that impasse too.

Conjunctural analysis contains the need to ‘resist the temptations of various forms of lazy theoretical reductionism’, whether ‘in the modes of fundamentalist Marxism or technological determinism’, and to avoid falling ‘into the trap of believing that everything is necessarily predetermined’ and ‘recognise that our task is also to identify and pursue the specific forms of marginal, residual and emergent cultures’.

This last need of course emerges from Stuart’s friend the late Raymond Williams. Conjunctural analysis also tallies with some things in Jameson – cognitive mapping for instance – and in Neil Smith, David Harvey et al.

But this is Marxist analysis without the blinkers, as much as that is ever possible. It doesn’t contain the religious belief, nor the comfort of finding ‘out there’ the signs we are looking for, but it can show us what is assembled and where the tensions and contradictions lie.

Clarke argues that conjunctural analysis presents ‘the exact opposite of the dominant modalities produced by the contemporary pressures of academic institutional life.’ Pressures that ‘continually induce competitive forms of academic careerism, characteristically involving forms of self-promotion’, via which people maintain positions and progress.

Therefore ‘individuals must claim to have made ever more exciting and definitive intellectual breakthroughs’. We can see the arrogant new orthodoxies being hastily pushed through conferences now, ‘Metamodernism’, ‘the new depthiness’, both of which are not just ‘meta’ but entirely orbital. There is no new depth here, only the old thinness of postmodernity rebranded.

Stuart Hall’s project of conjunctural analysis outlines that macro research should be rooted in the multiple realities of the nationstate, in politics, in capitalism, in the masses, in the movement of people across borders, and of course now in the resistance of the movement of people across borders. Here also lies the crucial importance of this book to the future.

Tony Jefferson’s contribution, ‘Race, Immigration and the Present Conjuncture’ sutures those conjunctural methods to Britain’s contemporary moment of Brexit via a great reading of Shane Meadows’ film This is England. Jefferson describes how racism shapeshifts into different forms, how we can never find the pure racist anymore than we can find the pure outsider or the pure alien.

Part Six, then, The Intellectual Legacies of Policing the Crisis, is one sole essay – by Angela Davis no less – who argues that Hall’s book Policing the Crisis should be applied to America. I tend to think that America’s race situation and its policing is in fact much more pronounced and severe than in Britain – even with the vile racist nicks in London and elsewhere proceeding relatively unchallenged – and therefore it might be the other way around. This demonstrates just how powerful and influential Hall’s work has been. It was often rooted in a hybrid sense of Britain, but it has projected out, way beyond its own original context.

Again, Stuart Hall both reacted to and shaped the discourses of the times he lived through, but his work will also continue to shape those discourses into the future, and in that we can find some much-needed sustenance and purpose.

– Steve Hanson

Disappointment

Johann Hari – Lost Connections (Bloomsbury, 2018)

The book’s star-studded list of recommendees is disturbing, and their comments even more so. The cover is adorned with what these A-Listers have to say: “The most exciting thing I’ve read this year” – Emma Thompson (thank god it was only published mid January), “This amazing book will change your life” – Elton John, and so on. The only thing I can say is that I am ashamed of myself for being duped into paying for the hardback.

I can’t help but be confused by the idea that anyone would learn anything new here, and as a person who has suffered from depression for most of my life, its “solutions” seem embarrassingly obvious. Then again, the ADs never did work for me. Perhaps this is why is has taken Hari much longer to clock on. It seems baffling that to suggest depression is caused by what goes on in our lives might be considered profound or revelatory.

I am quite so disappointed because I had looked forward to reading the book with great excitement. Where is this new wisdom I was promised? With an overwhelming surge of self-help and personal development (whatever you want to call them) books in recent times, this one seemed highly promising and with academic edge. It is in fact, unfortunately and simply, a repetitive collection of previous academic research.

I found the tale of camaraderie in Berlin perhaps the most charming part of the book but still it said nothing new. The “characters” we are introduced to in this section are endearing and inspiring, but the same cannot be said of Hari. Perhaps a biog or novel on this situation might have been more effective.

Lamentably, Hari comes across not wise or innovative but naïve. How has it taken him so long to understand such simple concepts? It is no wonder that he is depressed. It was interesting to hear about the case studies behind these ideas but it is worth noting that Hari himself had no involvement with any of their groundbreaking research – most of which took place in the 20th century. Also, as other reviewers have pointed out, the researchers themselves don’t really get much say in the book at all. Why are these old theories being rehashed as something not just new but mind-blowingly so?

Overall, Lost Connections is still an interesting read as the original research that is reproduced within it is interesting, and perhaps the book is enlightening to the layman, or the non-depressed. However this is no original contribution by a long shot, it says nothing new to anyone who has thought seriously about depression for more than a few minutes.

I will offer a summary of Hari’s life-changing advice here, so that you might save your pennies and start your path to magical healing straight away: hang out with other people, go for a walk, get a job you like, acknowledge being abused as a child, and move forward with your life. Who knew?

– Blair James