24 May 2013

Imminent Domain

"Towards the end of the 1980s, it became apparent that many British cities were gradually but perceptibly becoming identical. Once noticed, this phenomenon appeared to accelerate -- and within a decade the process was complete.

Where once the distinguishing characteristics of a place -- a corner, a main street, a square -- had each enjoyed their own personality, now a fungus-like growth of dreary shopfronts, damp precincts and hot, airless cafes had all but taken over. Walls were thinner, ceilings lower, floor dirtier. The old institutional buildings, once representative of moral and social authority -- churches and banks -- were stripped of their fittings, filled with wide-screen televisions, and turned into vast, barn-like bars. All throughout the town, and throughout every town, the same two dozen or so brand names could be found, repeated over and over above the wide doorways.

On the edges of these identical towns and cities, chilly crepuscular hinterlands of carpet showrooms, DIY superstores and sportswear clearance warehouses stretched out in all directions, as far as the eye could see. And even further -- because at some point on the horizon their prairie-like expanses merged with those of the adjoining conurbations, like the land masses on maps of the prehistoric world. A few fields of wiry grass, colourless in the pinkish gleam of immensely tall streetlights, were the only slight variations -- a tiny swell in the sea of sameness -- that occurred within the landscape.

To entertain the inhabitants of this new mono-environment, the various strands of the national media came up with cheap, nasty tasteless gimmicks. In addition to which, strong alcohol was made available in the same flavours as children's sweets and snacks. Toffee Crisp-flavoured vodka shots, Bubblegum tequila, Monster Munch Bacardi....Mobile phones destroyed the distinction between public and personal space. ... 
When you applied for a mortgage, you were given a voucher for a free Mochaccino Latte. ...

The wealthiest and most fashionable people in this new Britain were made even more wealthier and more fashionable, by poorer people who paid to look at pictures of them going to private parties and expensive restaurants, or to read accounts of their luxurious lifestyles and love affairs. Pensioners began to dress like rappers. Clumsy fistfights broke out between businessmen on commuter trains. Toddlers were known to stab each other with screwdrivers. Truancy was rife. Most jobs were dull and poorly paid. The weather became first mild, then humid. The sun looked bigger and redder, and lower in the sky. Dead polar bears were found washing up on the shores of Scandinavia.

These events did not occur in a way that was particularly dramatic, let alone apocalyptic. Rather, they had an atherosclerotic, sluggish momentum -- their progress was incremental, as opposed to declamatory. It was as though history had ended, and the concept of the future, too; and all that was left was the sweeping up, at the close of a hot,windy day of low white skies. Horses, their ribs showing through their skin, stood very still on the edges of toxic landfill sites. Jut-jawed, heavy-browed, tattooed on calf or small of back, territorially hostile, the last of the consumers became more like scavengers. Their expressions were hostile, and they were swift to take offence. Their children were first spoilt, then cursed for being alive.

It was only when one managed to somehow gain a great height over the new landscape, and look down upon it, that you realized what had happened. In the space of a relatively short amount of time, the whole of Britain had turned into one enormous shop. And everything that had not assisted the shop in making more profit, had either been forced into dereliction or declared eccentric. And thus, after just a few years, all that was lovely or gentle, or, to use an old-fashioned word, 'seemly' -- had been destroyed.

- Michael Bracewell, from The Book of Shrigley, 2005  [ # ]

image: Laura Oldfield Ford

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