REVIEW: Clean Living under Difficult Circumstances: Finding a Home in the Ruins of Modernism, by Owen Hatherley

As the title implies, Owen Hatherley is trying his best in trying times. This collection of his essays covers everything from tributes to Black Box Recorder to shop signs in Walthamstow High Street, from early blog posts to recent essays for the London Review of Books, as Britain staggers from late Blairism to coalition austerity and on to the nightmare of eternal hyper-Toryism.

What’s remarkable is how the author’s cool, mildly ironical style alters not one jot throughout, as though he emerged, fully formed, from the primordial Southampton soup.

Hatherley came to prominence via the mid-noughties blogger clique of London-adjacent intellectuals. K-Punk, aka Mark Fisher, took him under his establishment-averse wing and perhaps helped Hatherley to avoid the fate of death by a thousand coffee table tomes.

Indeed, here he shows a certain regret for his part in making modernism groovy again. His city-essay series, initially for Building Design [1] and collected in two wonderful books [2], eviscerated the New Labour and early coalition additions to our urban landscape. An article, included here, from 2013 on the state of Britain’s libraries reveal the turn of phrase that made those books such a joy.

Here, for example, is Cardiff Central Library: “A quote on a plaque from the Manic Street Preachers – ‘Libraries Gave Us Power’ – is far less prominent than the sign for Wagamama”. After eight further years of austerity, the question of whether civic spaces should be dominated by chain restaurants seems almost quaint, in a bittersweet way.

And there, beautifully put, is Adam Curtis’ descent into self-parody: 

“The mission of educating and informing – and making coherent arguments that could be conveyed in a multi-part series – was gradually replaced by a diffuse, intentionally disorienting approach that replicates the bafflement which Curtis argues is deliberately created by those in power. The tics remained the same, but something had shifted.”

Hatherley writes best when considering what we’ve lost and why it didn’t have to be that way, so it’s unsurprising there is an air of yearning melancholy amid the sarcasm, particularly when dealing with housing and architecture in places not quite along the neoliberal road as Britain, like Warsaw and Vienna. The sadness is knowing what comes next.

I wish he’d explore the personal more, in fact. His take on the decline of public conveniences, The Socialist Lavatory League, is enlivened both by the knowledge of the author’s own Crohn’s disease and his anger at how the British love of the scatalogical prevents editors and commentators alike from taking this shit seriously.

This collection ends with a review of Fisher’s posthumous collected works, translated here from the original Russian. 

The two men were once close. Hatherley’s skewering of Fisher’s more adolescent tracts [3] and frustration at the wasted years and occasional ideological contradictions feels like something he wrote never expecting it to see the light of day in English. This frankness and expertise adds weight to his analysis of the older man’s brilliance and importance as we all figure out a way to emerge from this Boring Dystopia. 

Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, with its explorations of what it means to live in a world where an alternative to neoliberalism is beyond the cultural imagination, was a life changing publication for many on the left of my generation. And as Hatherley reveals, he was working on a follow-up at the time of his death. 

He is much-missed. And as a humble blogger, I hope the author won’t mind my quoting the conclusion to his K-Punk tribute in full:

“So much of this book is about the memory of having your own world transformed, your world in Loughborough in the 1970s, completely transformed and turned upside-down by a record, a children’s programme, a TV play, which has beamed in from another dimension and taken you elsewhere, and offered you one of Herbert Marcuse’s moments of prefigurative utopia.

“Expanded out of his own head, out of his own time, Mark demands that everyone have access to this experience, and not as individuals struggling with their own ill-adapted mind and body – but as a collective, as a social body, as communism.”

Owen Hatherley’s Clean Living In Difficult Circumstances is available via Verso Books

[1] the kind of trade mag that once had the budget for original writing and is now an algorithm and listings based mess

[2] A Guide To The New Ruins of Great Britain and A New Kind of Bleak, for New Labour and Coalition era landscapes accordingly

[3] such as: why did he think Nolan was ever an interesting director? Is the eroticism stuff a bit beneath a man then in his late thirties? Does he regret self-spiking a piece for The Times by quoting his own editorial brief in the copy?

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