Thursday, 12 November 2009

Swimming thoughts

There are still bits of Portland I've never seen in fifteen years. The old Navy leisure centre, five years younger than me, has a slightly run-down functionalism I find rather appealing - because however uninteresting it may seem, better that than the pseudo-opportunities of the Olympics, a stone's throw away less than three years hence, whose benefits to those outside a narrow nouveau riche are, at best, debatable (and it has the same clock as the first swimming pool I ever went to, back on the Estuary, which gave me pleasant 1988 flashbacks). The whole of Castletown has a sense of multiple worlds in collision - pub after pub closing, the new luxury flats going up in the old sports field, dangerous staircases still standing in the back streets, memories of the unending quasi-nightmare of the old hospital that part of me nonetheless now misses, the doomed grandiosity of the old Navy flats redesigned for the new elite as a 1950s liner directly facing the brutalist shell of those as yet unconverted, a general sense that this place - like the political state of the UK itself - is in a state of flux that will soon be decisively decided in favour of a certain narrowness that poses dangerously as "democratisation". The final impression you get is that, while the old Portland was probably unsustainable, especially once the Navy had left (just after I came), it should have a future less neoliberal and more equal than this one.

Those around me will never really understand why I see poetry in ruined brutalist buildings - they won't grasp that, for me, they represent a world and a way of organising society which for all its faults, and it had many, shared the benefits of new developments much more evenly around the populace than is the case today, where the Olympics coming to somewhere like Portland (or, indeed, east London) would have been a genuinely public project. All told, a strangely fitting backdrop to swimming ten lengths for the first time in eight years. I'll go back. But I hope the backwash of new wealth doesn't take the surroundings beyond the means of their people. The pub timebomb forecast fifteen years ago has undoubtedly gone off, and I can't say I'm too sad. But we don't have to throw the communality baby out with the insular bathwater. A fitting sign-off for the hundredth post.


  1. Now this is a great hundredth post!

    Love the description of Castletown. And the connection with the Olympics.

    Very city-centred, the Olympics will be. (And I don't care so much about the medals which will be won hence).

  2. 'Those around me will never really understand why I see poetry in ruined brutalist buildings - they won't grasp that, for me, they represent a world and a way of organising society which for all its faults, and it had many, shared the benefits of new developments much more evenly around the populace than is the case today'

    I'd agree with you there. I was walking through Inverness with a friend who like me was born in 1981 and I confided it must seem strange to him that I photographed a lot of 'ugly' architecture. He said that he agreed with me both that there was a strange beauty and that few people now appreciate the context in which they were built. This was when Britain was still in debt to America and before North Sea Oil: something that even the Torygraph now acknowledges was the real force that enriched Britain in the 80s. It seems to me that people of our generation are spoonfed a very inaccurate picture of 50s-70s Britain as a land of immense stupidity and corruption where Heath enforced the three day week because the unions told him to. Whilst there was inefficiency and faults, that is not to say that there was not much that should have been salvaged, or that Thatcherism actually did much for Britain.

    Still, as a leftist, I would have to add that older lefties rarely express nostalgia for this time; perhaps they disliked the stuffiness of the establishment and they expected a 'cool' leader (who when he did come saw income inequality expand). Maybe it is because popular culture did have an infantile anarchist aspect that did not fit in with the benefits of collective society.

    I would add the disclaimer that I'm a bit of a weirdo and even see poetry in discarded plastic bags, barbed wire and disintegrating concrete, yet I do also think my fondness for older architectural works is due to its being built during the post-war settlement.

  3. Your third paragraph here sums up the reasons. It's why I think that simply by listening to pop music, you are endorsing the bullying of Gordon Brown. It's why I took exception to an old acquaintance saying, rather forcedly, "insert good old NHS comment here, obv", when he himself has thrown off what he was taught to aspire to in favour of the kind of pop which conveys and communicates the ideology of neoliberalism and subtly teaches its consumers to hold the idea of the NHS in contempt (this is also relevant to Tom's comment in the Murdoch entry, of course).

    I think my antipathy to heritagised architecture is born out of the fact that it's global capitalism lying about itself, and what it is. Global capitalism is, by its very nature (at least in the form it has taken since the 1980s), nasty, brutal, destructive and inherently anti-traditional in its effects on small communities. When it attempts to make itself look as though it can be part of some kind of rooted, organic society, I feel queasy at best. It's so unbelievably cynical and dishonest - I once thought there could be nothing worse than Poundbury, but ghastly as that is at least it *is* the creation of a man of the Agrarian Right. When big business tries to do the same thing I feel genuinely ill.

  4. The 'infantile anarchy' point is a good one. Many former New Lefties were rather easily able to make the leap to Blairism. Of course, Brown had been more genuinely socialist than some of those types in the 70s/80s (like his old rival, Robin Cook, who ultimately did remain truer to these values):

    New Labour / NuTory are alike; the difference being the greater wealth and connections of the Tories (look at the shadow cabinet... good piece in the New Statesman on this recently), and the lack of *any* decent elements in their wider party or movement. Or lack of moderation / compromise on areas like Europe, the public sector.