What does culture mean to you?

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By Kenn Taylor

I happened to read that quote just before I met Leanne Buchan to talk about Leeds’ cultural strategy and its bid to be European Capital of Culture in 2023. The quote is from the cultural critic Raymond Williams who, like me, was the child of a railway worker and the first in his family to attend university.

Leanne asked if I wanted to write something for the development of the strategy and this quote remained ringing in my ears. I considered writing something quite formal, based on my professional experience, but I’d already kind of done that here. So instead I thought I’d do a more personal response to the very good question, what does culture mean to you?

It’s hard to remember when I first became aware of the word culture as it is used in this context. Though I do know one early point must have been when Liverpool, which I grew up on the fringe of, announced its bid around 1999 to be European Capital of Culture in 2008. As a teenager, my understanding of culture was very much based around films, music and magazines, to me the stuff that made life more interesting. Even if I didn’t really know what such a bid was all about, in an area much maligned by the rest of the country, it was exciting. It seemed like it might help change things, that there might be more to see and do and be part of.

Over subsequent years, what culture meant to me was a slow opening out of ideas and things, places and people and getting to grips with all of that. Sometimes however ‘culture’ seemed a remote and inaccessible world. One dominated by a small circle of people who lived in a different part of town or far away in London. It was exciting. And it was difficult.

In a deprived city like Liverpool in the 90s, the question was asked even more than now in our post Credit Crunch times, ‘Why focus on culture? What about other things in the hierarchy of needs like food and shelter?’ To me, because it opens up the potential to tell stories and to ask questions, to make and do and change, even sometimes in things like food and shelter. Culture is not a panacea, but it’s something that represents an opening out of possibilities in a way that few other things do.

Liverpool leading up to and being Capital of Culture was exciting. And it was difficult. Authority and grassroots, mainstream and alternative, local and international, labels we give each other and make ourselves. Each claiming to be the ‘real’ culture when, to me, exactly what is culture in a city is the tension, the dialogue, the call and response between all of these. Hosting the title was grist to this mill, acting as a powerful catalyst for creation and debate. In enabled me and others to ask what did it mean to us and how do we make sure we’re heard?

On January 1st 2008, we joked ‘Well, I guess we’re cultural now’. It was the process though, before, during and after that year, the ups and downs and the conversations which I remember most now and that were the most important. These were the things which made people think and change locally, nationally and internationally, more so than the big headline events and pictures which get pulled out for brochures, though they were fun too.

Culture became a very big part of my life, even now years later, here I am still thinking and writing about it and you know, it’s still exciting and it’s still difficult. Working with artists, making things happen, working out an idea and seeing it come off, from a workshop to an exhibition to a book to a major event or a piece of public art. Getting to these end points can be a challenge but, as often, it’s the doing it, not the finished thing, that is the most exhilarating aspect, even if it doesn’t seem so at the time.

As I see it, so much of culture in the end is about ideas and stories and in particular, about whose ideas and stories get told and to whom. If you control the ideas and the stories, you control everything. That’s why it’s important to me that people at all levels are given genuine opportunities, space and platforms to develop and express their voice. Otherwise the voice of culture risks becoming a stale echo.

If culture is one of the most complicated words in the English language, then writing a culture strategy is an unenviable task. It also means that this co-production process that has been set in motion by Leanne and her supporters is then perhaps the only thing to do to make one. Being open like this is a risk and a challenge. It could go in all sorts of directions. That’s why it’s cultural. The more people who take part, the more difficult it might be, but also the more exciting. More cities should do it. As to 2023, bidding for Capital of Culture is a lot more difficult than bidding for the Olympics because it’s much less clear what exactly as a city you are expected to deliver, but that’s also why it is more exciting.

I started this with a quote from a Welshman I admired and I’ll end it with another, from Nye Bevan, which sums up to me why culture is important and even more so why making sure that the voices we hear in culture are not narrow: ‘This is my truth, tell me yours.”

This piece was published by the Leeds Culture Strategy Initiative in May 2016.

Residential Dreams

By Kenn Taylor

Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train,
With a thousand Ta’s and Pardon’s
Daintily alights Elaine;
Hurries down the concrete station
With a frown of concentration,
Out into the outskirt’s edges
Where a few surviving hedges
Keep our lost Elysium alive – rural
Middlesex again.1

So wrote John Betjeman in ‘Middlesex’, one of his poems that celebrated the suburbs north of London, suburbs which he further eulogised in his famous 1973 documentary, Metro-land.

The Metro-land he wrote of was created and branded as such by the Metropolitan Railway as it built its route out of London in the first half of the 20th century. The company famously promoted Metro-land aggressively and creatively, even having songs written that extolled the virtue of the new housing estates it built along the route of the line. A private precursor to today’s Stagecoach or FirstGroup, the Metropolitan Railway didn’t build Metro-land to inspire poets though, but to make money by selling the dream of country living to those who could afford it.

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It was Metro-land I thought of as I explored the very different environment of Battersea Power Station. This monolithic exercise in brick by Giles Gilbert Scott is, after years of decay and dereliction, being turned into a new residential development with both Normal Foster and Richard Rogers working on elements of it. I was privileged to see it close up before its transformation and pleased that it would find a new use other than to decay into dust. Yet what struck me most as I wandered through, were the slogans on the brightly coloured construction hoardings around it, like those that accompany almost every major, high-density urban development these days:

A PLACE OF VISION AND MAJESTY; A THRIVING. DIVERSE AND SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITY; AN ICONIC RIVERFRONT ADDRESS; A CULTURAL POWERHOUSE

Just as the songs and pamphlets advertising Metro-land once promised, the hoardings around the Battersea Power Station development promote a lifestyle keenly desired by much of the aspirational middle class. It’s marketing of course and whether it’s a fridge, a car or a home, they long ago realised that if they sell you an idea, a dream and a lifestyle rather than just a product, you’re more likely to spend. What struck me in relation to housing though, was how ultimately those seeking a particular lifestyle via where they live often unthinkingly contribute to the very destruction of what it is they cherish most about it.

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In reality the creation of Metro-land saw fields torn up and replaced with row upon row of near identical housing. As Ross Clark notes:
“It was, of course, largely a con. The creation of Metro-land destroyed the very thing – open countryside – which was used to advertise it. The speculative homes thrown up around the new stations bore few resemblances to the Tudor cottages depicted in the advertising materials: most were dreary semis, constructed at great haste.”2

Rural ways of life were replaced by the thousands of commuters Betjeman references in ‘Middlesex’, leaving every morning to their work in the city via a concrete tube station and returning later to live out an image of the country idyll. For many, this is still the dream, a dream which year on year sees ever more green space turned into housing, driven by the desire of so many of us to have our own personal ‘lost Elysium’.

The tear between the respective lures of the country and the city is a long-held one. Yet in the decades since Betjeman wrote about the romance of certain suburbs, we have seen the emergence of a more contemporary dream of attaining a lifestyle via where you live. A new concept of Elysium that, just as 100 years ago, property developers are only to keen to sell to those with the means. That is the lifestyle of living in a THRIVING, DIVERSE AND SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITY and a CULTURAL POWERHOUSE such as is now promised at Battersea. One of the key things to open up Battersea to new residential development is its new tube station. Just as 100 years ago connectivity drives forward the residential property market, only now it is inward rather than outward expansion, driven by the growth in desire for ‘inner city living’.

This desire for a certain kind of urban living that has ‘cultural authenticity’ dates perhaps from the same 1960s when John Betjeman was writing of his distaste for the demolition of Victorian and Georgian buildings for new developments influenced by Modernism.

Many of the people who backed Betjeman’s cause were amongst the first ‘gentrifiers’. A section of society identified by sociologist Ruth Glass who coined the term in 1964. Just a couple of years in fact before Betjeman led the way in saving from demolition the Neo-Gothic Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras designed by George Gilbert Scott – father of Battersea Power Station designer, Giles. In this era Glass noted the changing demographic of the urban environment in North London not far from St Pancras: “One by one, many of the working class neighbourhoods of London have been invaded by the middle-classes—upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews and cottages—two rooms up and two down—have been taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residences…Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly, until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”3

The suburban dream of Metro-land began to be less desirable for some by the 1960s, while the inner-city, where, in the earlier 20th century at least, people only generally lived if they could not manage to live elsewhere, began to be seen as more attractive.
The inner city did physically change around this time and became more ‘liveable’. For example, the thick pollution of central London was significantly reduced by the likes of the decline of manufacturing and the Clean Air Act.4 Yet, the kind of ‘culture’ offered by inner city living remained key to this shift.

In the essay ‘The Birth of Gentrification’, Lees, Slater and Wyly note it was the likes of Betjeman himself that began this trend:
“In both the United States and in Britain, post-war urban renewal meant the bulldozing of old neighborhoods to be replaced by modern housing and highways. As the destruction spread, so did the rebellion against it. In the beginning the protesters were mainly historians and architecture buffs, but slowly these were joined by young, middle-class families who bought and lovingly reconditioned beat-up, turn-of-the-century houses in ‘bad’ neighborhoods.”5

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As I have discussed previously here, ‘creatives’ play a key role in increasing the societal desire for such lifestyles. For years artists, critics and the like left the ‘comfortable’ suburbs in search of the ‘truth’ and the ‘real’ in the inner city, most of all what they perceived as CULTURE, especially for the mega cities of London and New York. Or rather, they headed for the ‘outer’ inner city, away from actual centres of business, tourism and authority, but not so far out as to live in the middle-class suburbs. They moved to areas by and large populated by people who could not afford to live either in the centre or the suburbs.

It was these fringe places that were seen as the ultimate reality, the edge of capitalism, aside from the bourgeois self-satisfaction and complacency of the suburbs and the glitzy but false centre. In these locations, artists could live cheaply and relatively free, with plenty of space for venues, studios, galleries, parties, etc. Such locations became the home of a class of people who came from all over to take up what they saw as ‘authentic’ urban lifestyles. This process expanded as continued post-war industrial decline made such locations even less economically viable and desirable to many than they already where.

As young artists mature though, they usually begin to have changing priorities; they pair off, have children, and settle. Some move out to Metro-land or its equivalents, but others stay and frequently end up transforming the area around them into something quasi-suburban. This has led to a strange phenomenon, where, in many respects, the city centre fringe has in fact become the new suburbs. Locations which are then sold as the ideal spot to live for those who wish, and have the means, to buy straight in to a ‘culturally developed’ area. This was noted by Ruth Glass: “Urban, suburban and rural areas have thus become encouraged to merge into one another; and they have lost some of their differentiating features.”6

After successive waves of people seeking such a lifestyle from the 1960s onwards, year by year the urban cultural authentic dream has become more and more removed from reality. Gentrifiers made such areas more desirable and thus eventually more expensive, leading to the displacement of poorer residents. This prevented new ‘creative pioneers’ from settling and so forced them to seek new places to occupy. Focusing on London, the areas identified by Glass in the 1960s, such as Islington, were fairly quickly transformed out of the reach of new would-be urban authentics. So soon they moved onto other areas of North London, then later East London, now on even further out to the likes of Peckham and Camberwell in South London. This phenomenon was predicted by Bruce London and John Palen back in 1984: “Current urban neighbourhoods are generally sited favourably within the city, having good transport access to the central business district…The future of the renovation movement, and in fact the ultimate future of the city as a place of residential choice, will depend to the extent to which restoration and renovation become increasingly widespread.”7 And so it did.

Where the artists lead, the capitalists capitalise, selling the opportunity to live in A CULTURAL POWERHOUSE to those who can afford it, albeit perhaps one with security gates between the property and the DIVERSE COMMUNITY. The term ‘village’ is often bandied about in such developments, for those who wish to combine the security and order of a ‘village’ with just enough of an ‘urban cultural’ feel, just enough of a ‘village’ feel, just enough of an ‘urban cultural’ feel, and so and so forth, with New York’s Greenwich Village as the archetype.

Yet such areas are neither villages nor urban cultural powerhouses. These new ‘suburbs’ are literally Metroland, the city as fantasy consumer product. Gradually, the ‘authenticity’ and ‘edginess’ that generated the desire for many to live in such locations declines and, more often than not, they become home to a wealthy monoculture, living in generic apartment blocks with, if you have the means to afford it, ‘heritage features’. A carefully managed version of the city, created for those who wish to embody a particular lifestyle by those with an interest in profiting from land. The expensive done-up terraces of East London, previously occupied by the industrial working classes, are now nearly as desired in the property market as Cotswold thatched cottages were forty years ago by those seeking a country idyll in somewhere previously occupied by the rural poor.

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Indeed the strong relationship in ‘authentic culture seeking’ between the desire for a rural Elysium of a previous generation and the newer search for an urban Elysium was noted by Irving Allen in the 1980s:
“If the older generation looked to the suburbs for romantic middle-class communities that represented a new way of life, some members of the young generation may well be looking to cities for romantic middle-class communities that represent an alternative to the suburbs…it is safe to assume that many of the new settlers are seeking a selective, buffered, and entertaining encounter with the social diversity of city life. Their parents sought a selective, buffered, and entertaining encounter with small-town and ‘rural’ life.”8

This desire to attain authenticity through your residential location is always tempered by the fact that this desire is in itself pretty inauthentic. As chronicler of the gentrification of New York’s old warehouses into ‘artists’ lofts’, Sharon Zukin, pointed out, “Only people who do not know the steam and sweat of a real factory can find industrial space romantic or interesting.”9 As someone whose grandfather, an agricultural labourer, died short of his 65th birthday, the same could be said for the idea of the rural idyll.

Metro-land cut Mock Tudor furrows through rural Middlesex and sold former city dwellers the country dream to the point that what they liked about that countryside largely disappeared. So to the developers of the late 20th century sold the urban dream to those who fled the Metro-land suburbs, to the point were these new residents ended up helping to drive away what it was they perceived to be authentic about the city. Replacing it with non other than a more high-density version of suburbia, packaged, just as Metro-land was, with slogans promising a life that has already disappeared, if it ever even existed.

An interesting shift in the path of urban gentrification in recent years however is the type of property that fuels such dreams. With many of those Georgian and Victorian buildings so beloved in the 1960s now out of the reach of would-be gentrifiers, not to mention this generation rejecting as ever the fashions and social mores of the previous, a new gentrifier generation has emerged that now embraces rather than is repulsed by Modernism. To these rebellious aesthetes, the Brutalist architectural works by the likes of Erno Goldfinger and Alison and Peter Smithson, once reviled by gentrifiers for their role in the destruction of old neighbourhoods, are the new objects of residential desire. To be just as strongly defended from the ‘cretins’ who care not for the architecture of the immediate past and its association with poverty as Georgian and Victorian properties once were.

As Ruth Glass noted 18th and 19th century housing once occupied by working class people becoming home to wealthy residents, so today former concrete social housing like Trellick Tower in West London and Sheffield’s Park Hill, the latter renovated by trendy property firm Urban Splash, become home to new creative pioneers keen on a new type of character property. That is of course once they have been ‘done up’, just as the former ‘slums’ were, and filled with graphic-designed Brutalist tribute mugs and, if you can afford it, original 60s brightly coloured Hygena Formica kitchen cabinets. Such fashions no doubt inspired in part by the likes of Owen Hatherley writing of the poetry of curving, rain-stained concrete car parks just as John Betjeman writing of the soot-covered Gothic Revival spires of the Midland Grand helped inspire the ‘Victoriana’ of a previous generation.

As a past generation saw new possibilities and a sense of nostalgia for the 19th century city as a reaction against collapsing Modernist ideology, so this generation is filled with nostalgia for the Modernist vision of utopia as Neo-Liberalism crumbles. Connected to this is a lament by many artists and critics for the ‘lost nobility’ of industrial communities. A community and culture increasingly of the past as the people who embodied it have often left the inner city with the decline of the industries that they once relied on, while many of those who stayed are now often being pushed out by gentrification. An idealised vision of industrial communities looms large in the work of those who, as ever, find distaste with contemporary culture and people they see as ‘corrupted’ by consumerism, having left their ‘authentic’ lives connected to industry.

Of course, it is ironic that an earlier generation of artists and critics felt that same sort of nobility and authenticity was to be found outside of the city. In the 1800s the likes of William Morris, William Wordsworth, John Ruskin and the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood promoted the authenticity of the rural over the rapidly developing and industrialising cities, even of course as they often sold their expensive works of art to wealthy industrialists. They lionised their imagined experience of ‘peasant’ life in the countryside and despaired of those who left for better pay in urban areas and became ‘corrupted’ by industrialisation. These creatives of the past promoted a romantic nostalgia for a more rural past they usually had little direct experience of just as today’s generation of artists often romanticise the industrial inner-urban era without really knowing it.

Many artists in Victorian times headed out of the cities to embody a certain type of lifestyle they held up as the ideal and thousands followed them. With the market demand that they helped to create fulfilled by developers like those behind Metro-land. To the point that ‘rural Middlesex’ literally no longer existed, the county being absorbed by Greater London in 1965. In reality, agricultural workers were often only too keen to leave the country for better pay as industry and urban life grew and, generations later, many inner-city industrial workers were only too keen to leave those Victorian dwellings, if not their neighbourhoods so much, for better housing. Thus as people try to live out their own version of a perceived past authenticity in these vacated spaces, in both cases, the original occupiers were, in general, moving on to better opportunities.

Scott Greer considered the ideology which rejects the contemporary for an imagined better past, whether urban or rural, labelling it as ‘conservative utopian’: “At one time they believed the rural life to be the only one fit for man, the city evil. Today they remain fixated on the past, but it is now the dense, polyethnic, centralized city of the railroad age.”10 As the Romantics inadvertently brought urbanism to the country and the first gentrifiers the suburbs to the city, so now the Modernist urban fringe is the new frontier. Yet this generation’s dreams will likely have as similar unintended consequences as previous ones as they look back to a supposed better past without the knowledge of what was wrong with it.

So while those with the means pursue their urban and rural residential dreams, those keen as ever to be seen to be on ‘the edge’ and reject society’s current conventions, look for new marginal spaces. The latest move it seems is to find fascination with the liminal space beyond the suburbs; the new towns, isolated estates and small, post-industrial towns that remain resolutely unfashionable and ‘off the grid’. Literally in some cases in relation to transport: Metro-land is yet to arrive there. Some of these locations, in particular some ex-seaside towns, show signs of the same gentrifying change, but many others, often a long way from work and central cities, have become the only places that retain a perceived authenticity. Witness London chronicler Iain Sinclair’s growing interest in the outer fringes of the capital documented in his book London Orbital. Especially so now that the Hackney area he lives in that had formed the basis for much of his work has long succumb to gentrification due to the likes of, well, people like Iain Sinclair moving there.

Sinclair moved to Hackney from his native Wales after study at Trinity College Dublin, Courtauld Institute and London Film School. His criticisms of the development of the Olympic Park in East London and the loss of ‘fringe space’ around the Lea Valley were dissected somewhat on Channel 4 News by Paralympian Basketball player Ade Adepitan, who grew up in Newham, having been born in Nigeria. One gentrifier’s ‘exciting edge’ is of course another resident’s reason to fear for their family and the following exchange reveals a great deal about dreams and realities in gentrification:

Ade Adepitan: “I lived on Carpenters Road, did you see all those dodgy garages, cut and shut?”
Iain Sinclair: “I loved all those dodgy garages!”
Ade Adepitan “Well I was worried about my mum walking home at night on that dark street.”11

Authenticity is always greener on the other side and the more people try to embody a particular lifestyle through property and escape what they perceive as contemporary corruption, the more they corrupt what it is they try to inhabit. As John Betjeman once wrote of the loss of rural idyll and Victorian wonders so today the press is littered with tomes on the loss of inner city culture and authenticity, almost inevitably penned by the same people who began such changes.

The urban life those billboards in Battersea promise is just a much a fantasy as that sold in the songs of Metro-land nearly 100 years ago and just as alluring. One selling the dream of open air, health, greenery, space and peace, the other of connectivity, currentness, vibrancy and culture. As Tristan Hunt notes, “From the beginning, suburbia was more a state of mind than geographical location.”12 ‘Inner city living’ is just as much of an escapist fantasy as the suburbs. The difference perhaps, is that Metro-land’s housing was quite a bit more accessible than many of the inner-city flats now being sold. As Ross Clark notes, a Metro-land home could be “sold for as little as £400 each. Modern first-time buyers can only dream: that is equivalent to just £20,000 in today’s money.”13 Far less that what you’ll have to pay to live in Rogers or Foster’s CULTURAL POWERHOUSE in Battersea.

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Of course, some do protest at all of this. Foxtons, the high-end estate agent associated with gentrification, has had its branches vandalised while Country Life magazine seems keen on extolling the virtues of country life, that is as long as not too many other people have access to it and ruin it for them. Yet since Ruth Glass first noted gentrification, save for some successful islands of resistance and peaks and troughs cause by recession, the market forces of Britain continue to drag development in both directions to sell everyone who can afford it the country dream or the city dream, or, if you have enough capital, both, however diluted dreams both have become.

The more it turns the more London in particular is transformed into a total fantasy. An urban playground for those with the means, Metroland now attracts wealthy people now from as far afield as Russia, Dubai, France and Australia. Just as it span outwards to the original London ‘outer suburbs’ of St John’s Wood and Hampstead on to Ruislip Gardens, Milton Keynes and Basildon, then back inward from Islington to Camden to Shoreditch to Peckham to Barking to wherever next, maybe even out again to Birmingham if HS2 gets built. Everyone keeps on chasing, hoping that, if they try hard enough, they will get their own little residential dream, whatever happens to anyone else. And those who paint pictures of our perfect lifestyle remain only too keen to sell us the ticket to our dream and tell us, Elysium is still waiting.

An abridged version of this eassy was published on Thinking City in March 2015.

References
1. Betjeman, J., 1954. Middlesex. In: Hunt, T., 2009. The suburbs are derided by snobs, yet they offer hope for our future [Online]. London: The Guardian. Available at: <URL:
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/jul/19/suburbs-snobbery&gt; [Accessed 6th November 2014].
2. Clark, R., 2006. Betjeman’s metro-land revisited [Online]. London: The Daily Telegraph. Available at: <URL:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/3353156/Betjemans-metro-land-revisited.html > [Accessed 6th November 2014].
3. Glass, R., 1964. London: aspects of change. In: Lees, L. Slater, S. and Wyly, E. Gentrification. New York: Routledge, 2008, p.4.
4. WIKIMEDIA FOUNDATION INC, 2014. Clear Air Act 1956 [Online]. San Francisco: WIKIMEDIA. Available at: [Accessed 6th November 2014].
5. Lees, L. Salter, S. and Wyly, E. Gentrification. New York: Routledge, 2008, p.5.
6. Glass, R., 1989. Cliches of Urban Doom. In: Lees, L. Slater, S. and Wyly, E. Gentrification. New York: Routledge, 2008, p.130.
7. London, B. and Palen, J. Gentrification, Displacement and Neighbourhood Revitalization. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984, p.11.
8. Allen, I.L., 1984. The Ideology of Dense Neighbourhood Redevelopment. In: London, B. and 9. Palen, J. Gentrification, Displacement and Neighbourhood Revitalization. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984, p.35.
10. Zukin, S., 1989. Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. In: Lees, L., Salter, S., and Wyly, E. Gentrification. New York: Routledge, 2008, p.121.
11. Greer, S., 1972. The Urbane View: Life and Politics in Metropolitan America. In: London, B., and Palen, J. Gentrification, Displacement and Neighbourhood Revitalization. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984, p. 28.
12. INDEPENDENT TELEVISION NEWS, 2012. What next for the Olympic Park? [Online]. London: ITN. Available at: [Accessed 4th November 2014].
13. Hunt, T., 2009. The suburbs are derided by snobs, yet they offer hope for our future [Online]. London: The Guardian. Available at: <URL:http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/jul/19/suburbs-snobbery&gt; [Accessed 6th November 2014].
14. Clark, R., 2006. Betjeman’s metro-land revisited [Online]. London: The Daily Telegraph. Available at: <URL:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/3353156/Betjemans-metro-land-revisited.html > [Accessed 6th November 2014].