Real Urban Fiction

Jonathan Hoskins – Own De Beauvoir! (Open School East)

This timely book takes as its starting point De Beauvoir Town, a small area of North East London, bringing together creative fiction, archival photographs and transcribed testimonials of residents past and present to explore questions of value, ownership, authority, community, belonging and identity.

Own De Beauvoir! is the outcome of a two-year research project by Jonathan Hoskins, supported by Open School East. Based in De Beauvoir Town, Open School East is one of a number of alternative art schools forging alternative ways of learning: collectively, informally and apart from the market-driven higher education system.

Questions raised in the book – for example, the merits of local organisation versus central control, how to meet gaps in welfare and services left unfilled by the state, the motivations of those trying to challenge the status quo and provide alternative models, and who benefits from them – are relevant to many spheres of contemporary life, including education and housing.

The first half of Own De Beauvoir! is given over to fictional and somewhat cryptic diary entries by Hoskins, himself resident in De Beauvoir Town, covering a period of just over a year between 2005 and 2006. The resulting journal suggests protest, engagement, direct, guerrilla action of a non-specified nature and a fight against faceless administrators and authorities. Interspersed with these are scans of seldom-seen documents and photographs giving a sense of a prior struggle, that of the 1960s-1980s, when Hackney Council was intent on demolishing the streets and squares of rundown, and in many cases empty, Georgian houses that characterised De Beauvoir Town.

These documents conjure the area’s distinct character: common to both the diary and the archival documents is a sense of creativity, invention and making do – for example, in the pictures of a community centre developed from a former factory site, and community-run adventure playgrounds, or in the posters for self-initiated welfare and advice sessions.

As well as creating a dialogue with the present, this fictional journal – with its crossed out words and disjointed narrative – creates a sense of displacement and fragmentation. It reflects the transience, uncertainty and instability of communities (particularly in areas subject to waves of migration, undergoing gentrification, or where large numbers of people live in accommodation rented by private landlords at inflated costs), of initiatives driven by the goodwill and commitment of small groups of individuals, and of the fabric of the built environment itself as places and facilities are demolished and rebuilt.

For me, much more interesting was the second half of the book, which brings out the driving personalities and stories behind local action and change, both individual and collective, from long-term residents of De Beauvoir Town and an architect who surveyed and reimagined the houses, to community organisers, campaigners and the descendant of a large landowner. The book doesn’t just flip between the 1960s and the present, but creates layers of different eras, including the early nineteenth-century masterplanning project of Garden Squares that De Beauvoir was part of.

Reading Own De Beauvoir!, two thoughts were foremost in my mind. Firstly, that this tale of De Beauvoir Town is just one episode of a story that occurred all over London – and in other towns and cities across the country as part of the post-war programme of slum clearance and rehousing; more recently, there are clear parallels in the ‘Pathfinder’ Housing Market Renewal scheme.

Secondly, it’s easy to see a cycle here: ironically, the past few years have seen several protests in London against the demolition of the types of modernist housing that would have replaced the Georgian streets of De Beauvoir Town. As 1960s (primarily council) estates are demolished, residents have once again fought battles against gentrification and displacement.

The difference is that today land values in London are such that it is hard to imagine whole areas of the city being forgotten about by local authorities, in the way depicted in Own De Beauvoir!, where Hackney is described as an area that has been ‘left behind’; today demolition and rebuilding is often criticised for an overreliance on the private sector, a distinct lack of affordable housing, the dispersal of rooted communities and a form of ‘social cleansing’.

Depressingly, it’s no surprise to read at the end of the book that today De Beauvoir Town has the lowest density and highest value housing in Hackney: those residents that stayed put in the area, and in some cases benefited from right to buy, now seem not just forward-thinking but rather canny.

– Natalie Bradbury


Night Shifts

Nick Dunn – Dark Matters, a Manifesto for the Nocturnal City (Zero, 2016)

There is a long history to night walking. Dickens did it because he had trouble sleeping, and this is Nick Dunn’s initial motive for walking at night. The nightwalker tradition then extends to, for instance, Sukhdev Sandhu’s great 2007 book Night Haunts (Verso). But that book turns the city night into day, by tracking the cleaners and the airborne police, essentially anytime work that just happens to be done at night. Sandhu’s city is London, Dunn’s is Manchester, well, it is Manchester and Salford.

Unlike London, Manchester empties at night, even right at its heart.

Dunn trained as an architect and this is a crucial part of what is at play here: Out in the dark, walking himself to sleep – he hopes – the architect coincidentally has the buildings removed for him by the lack of light, and then delivered again anew, in flashes. Here, sleepless, the city becomes something else.

Roland Barthes was delighted with life in Japan, because he could no longer read the signs he was so adept at decoding and encoding, but he could still get around. He was liberated from language right in the heart of a language explosion such as Tokyo. Here, Dunn is liberated from the architectural language he knows so well, allowing him to find a place away from its often cloying messages.

The whole history of the city-as-body is here, in the history of architecture, the city as based on the human form, something stated in Richard Sennett’s aborted work with Foucault, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization, which goes right back to Michaelangelo’s ‘Vitruvian Man’.

Lefebvre restates this history and Dunn quotes it here. But my reading of this – and it is only my reading of it – is that the night makes the body disappear. It drowns the anthropomorphic in darkness. Limbs are lost, as the familiar, corresponding shapes of man-size doorways and head-height windows also vanish. We are swallowed by the night, but in the night we swallow and digest the day. These once-familiar spaces become strange in Dunn’s night time perambulations, as in Eugene Atget’s prints of nineteenth century Paris, as in the anthropological strategy of making the familiar strange, and later, the unfamiliar ordinary.

Another nocturnal Manchester urbanaut, Mark E. Smith, wrote of ‘entrances uncovered’ and ‘street signs you never saw’, all ‘courtesy of winter.’ There is nothing gothic about this book, despite its dark title and cover. In some ways, night time does exactly what snow does to the urban landscape. It makes it strange, it makes you see anew.

Whiteout or blackout, the space is transformed, momentarily, and this impermanence of states is important to its power to ‘other’ your view of it. If it were always daytime there would be no other side to cast this transformed view against. The title implies the night as another dimension, ‘dark matter’ as the invisible glue of the social. It seems academic that what is delivered comes through nightwalking, and in Atget’s case, his views were taken very early in the morning light.

However, what excites me here is that there is a full, proper dialectical reading of night and day: Night time and day completely contain each other. Night time is not the empty space left over after the day, the less useable part, because there is no light from the sun via which we can organise objects: These two binaries are part of a bigger connected reality, and not in some simplistic geographical or existential ‘holism’, but in terms of night being the social and productive afterimage to day, the negative to the print, as for Adorno and Horkheimer, leisure is the afterimage of labour.

However, we must resist, to a certain extent, Adorno and Horkheimer’s totalizing thesis: As Dunn points out elegantly, ‘even in the twenty-first century, our attempts to metricize time and space have not fully converted the nocturnal city into the daytime landscape of production.’ The ‘ambition is there’, but the reality falls seriously short of that. Patrick Keiller, in his little ebook The Robinson Institute, around the turn of the millennium, seemed puzzled that, as the internet and just-in-time production sped up, everyday public space hadn’t become completely emptied out, and that it didn’t look like the space ‘on top of a wardrobe.’

This is because those new ‘invisible’ processes produce the day, what Dunn calls our ‘infinite options of pointless choices.’ The ‘kaleidoscopic wormhole of economics, politics and, for the most part sanitized, culture.’

What Dunn makes clear is how radical the change is when night comes: ‘Spatial conventions and rules are relaxed if not completely abandoned as night falls.’ The ‘appropriation of urban space occurs in the deep pockets of the city away from natural surveillance or the “scanscape” of CCTV cameras.’ He walks, he is ‘just out there’, and here I admire this book for what it refuses to do almost as much as for what it does.

It doesn’t turn walking into some mystical ritual, or a fetish offered up as methodological novelty for a now fully marketised academia. It takes walking for what it is, an everyday practice. But in ‘night mode’ this everyday practice is reduced almost completely to the sole author. Stripped of its confusing, colourful, swirling litter of people, the city spaces speak anew. Again, like Atget’s Paris, cleared of its inhabitants, the streets become ‘just space’.

But these spaces are ‘produced’, in Lefebvre’s term, ‘espace’, space as a verb. We don’t need the inhabitants smiling blurrily back out of the prints to prove that they make and remake the city anew every day. As Lefebvre advises, we can see how the social is coded in urban space. This comes through here, in traces of lock-ups, or a concatenation of warning signs, or in a beautiful three-word coupling, via ‘sodium morse code.’

But that is not all this book does. It ‘makes manifest’ the urban night by shuttling between theory and description. But its subtitle is ‘a Manifesto for the Nocturnal City’. I am a sucker for a manifesto. It takes guts to write one.

So much leftist writing hides what it really thinks in abstraction, or older, tried and tested rhetorics. This book does not make any wincingly worthy cultural capital out of hauntology, the problem seems to be, actually – and chillingly – that in the night city there are no ghosts left and the few that remain are becoming even more fugitive: ‘Far better to embrace the world and its contradictions, difficulties, untidiness and dirtiness, physical and psychic, than to summon long-vanished ghosts.’

The equally chilling thesis is that the only way to escape from the ‘intoxicating pathologies’ of the city, is to vanish into ‘night practices beyond consumption’, to an edge zone almost completely drained of light, in order to ‘be’. But this is the manifesto, that in nightwalking the city we might find the black mirror of the everyday, which might teach us more about that everyday than we could have imagined before going out there. ‘Urban areas are pathological’, the ‘nocturnal dowser can summon these neuroses…’

I admire that Dunn has identified that this landscape of permanent amnesia is utterly deracinating. It withers our concentration span, our sense of history and the temporal itself. If anything this thesis is not put strongly enough. We are hypermodern, not postmodern, a very important caveat for me as well. The ‘endless flux of regurgitated ideas that appear novel is seductive’ Dunn states, ‘the process of assemblage has entranced us’, surfaces that are masks whispering to us that what we are seeing is innovative, when behind it is darkness, figuratively and literally. Dunn is clear about the questions and asks them straight on: ‘Can we step outside of this situation?’

I once worked as an ethnographer on a Transport for London research study of illegal taxi touts. Practically this entailed a series of twelve hour shifts, from 8pm to 8am. I have long wondered how to approach those experiences and revisit the data, reflectively, in a piece of writing. I now have a starting point, because Nick Dunn has written it.

This book is useful, it is both open and closed. Closed in that its form as a manifesto really puts its cards on tables. Open in that it advises particular spatial practices in the interests of seeing anew. Open in that it encourages others to develop that way of working further.

Now it’s over to you, on the night shift.