Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances: A letter from the editor


Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances by Owen Hatherley is now available for preorder and is a June selection in the Verso Book Club.

If the opportunity of walking through Milton Keynes with Owen Hatherley ever comes up, take it. I once shared a panel event with him and moving from the station towards the central shopping centre, rebranded thecentre:mk, was an experience that, with each step, completely changed my view of the much maligned urban experiment. I came expecting concrete cows, I left having seen a bold modernist experiment–not always successful–but full of ideas and daring.

Since then, when I travelled to Moscow, St Petersburg and Warsaw, I have always made sure to contact Owen first to tell me what to see. He sent me underground to a elegantly chandeliered Metro station, a long discarded Soviet Wedding Hall, or a pre war tenement block that somehow survived the bombs. But I have never been disappointed by any of his recommendations or unenlightened by his observations.

It was something of a surprise last year when Owen got in contact and reminded me that it had been ten years since the first publication of A Guide to The New Ruins of Great Britain. That book established Owen as one of the most exciting architectural writers of our times. He travelled the length of Britain and with wit and impatience mourned the abandoned futures of the Post War modernist dream, while eviscerating the New Labour PFI cityscape, barcode cladding, and mealy-mouthed housing that had replaced it. The book changed the way people talked about the places they saw around them. It was a bravura performance that many have tried to emulate but few have achieved since.  

Of course, this was not Owen’s first book; he had already penned two essays, on Modernism in all its forms, and the second on the music of Pulp. More than just a commentator on buildings Owen has gone on to write books about European urbanism in its many forms, the uses of nostalgia in contemporary British popular culture, London’s socialist municipalism. He is that very rare thing, a British cultural thinker who cannot be put in a box.

Apart from his politics, Owen has always been clear-eyed about where he came from and what he believes in. And this comes through whatever he writes about. Clean Living in Difficult Circumstances brings together Owen’s writing over more than the last decade, and ranges over such a vast array of subjects it is almost impossible to encapsulate the book in one go, but I will try.

Owen weaves the politics of the Petshop Boys; the joys of libraries; the shop signs of Walthamstow High Street; why Jane Jacobs is not a saint; the decline of public toilets in the neoliberal city. The book comes together with the rallying call of how we find a home in the ruins of modernism. Owen passionately believes that city-making is a socialist project. It is about thinking of a place where equity, fairness and pleasure are part of everyday life.

I must admit that I would like to live in a city where Owen was mayor. I would enjoy seeing the way that he dismissed rhetoric and cant with a well-tuned phrase that revealed its hollowness. I would be interested to see where he would put the politicians, business parks and sports facilities. What would be in the museums? How would the citizens use the generous public spaces?

This book allows the reader to think about these possibilities while wandering through the debris of our current city. The title comes from a quote from Peter Meaden, the manager of the rock group The Who. Although he was speaking about London still on its knees after the Blitz he was speaking of the hopes of modernism. They are hopes that we should still hold on to today.

- Leo Hollis, editor