Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Book Review: 'The Ministry of Nostalgia' by Owen Hatherley

The Ministry of Nostalgia
By Owen Hatherley 

Review by David Wineberg

The Ministry of Nostalgia is a delightfully clever name for a very old problem: nostalgia is gloss. It was never like the way “they” portray it. It was clearly never the good old days. Owen Hatherly believes the Cameron government is purposely making 1945, a time of terrible privation and scarcity, into a longed-for era when everyone pulled together.

Because they had no choice.

Today’s austerity is manufactured by the government. The 99% get deeper and deeper austerity as benefits like healthcare are reduced to the point of being useless. This gives government the ammunition to cancel them outright, since they provide no value at supposedly huge expense. After all the promise and buildup of a caring state after WWII, this dismantling and artificial austerity is galling.

Hatherly’s main whipping boy is the Keep Calm And Carry On poster, which is copied, twisted, caricatured, perverted and imitated all over the world. Meaningless today (aside from manufactured nostalgia), he says it infuriated passersby when it first appeared, precisely because they had no choice but to carry on, calm or not. It was the symbolic center of an entire propaganda effort promoting empire and superiority, using, or misusing, London Transport and the Post Office, which had a remarkably professional propaganda film unit.

There are three strands in this woven rope of a book. The absurd austerity nostalgia of the Conservative government is the main strand, but then Hatherly goes off into his own nostalgia for the great and not so great Labour Party luminaries of the 20th century, Tony Blair notwithstanding. The alleviators of austerity are his heroes. The third strand is architecture. Hatherly keeps veering off to describe construction, environment, context, style and materials of various public buildings, from housing developments to Festival Hall and Underground stations. There is lots of name dropping of firms and architects. So the book is a bit of a rollercoaster.

To me it was a fascinating read, weaving these three seemingly disparate strands into a thicker, if not stronger rope. But I can also imagine throwing the book across the room in disgust at this bizarre, forced interlace.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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