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Following Owen Hatherley’s adventures over at Shiny New Books! @shinynewbooks @owenhatherley @RepeaterBooks

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Owen Hatherley is an author who’s popped up on the Ramblings before; I reviewed his stimulating book “The Chaplin Machine” back in 2016, and I read a number of his works pre-blog, so I was delighted to be able to review his most recent book for Shiny New Books. “The Adventures of Owen Hatherley in the Post Soviet Space”, with its cheeky cover homage to Herge’s “The Adventures of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets”, is a fascinating, entertaining and surprisingly deep read. If you have any interest in Soviet architecture, the state of the disassembled nations of the USSR, aesthetics and politics and how they intersect, or indeed the history of the various ex-Soviet states, this is definitely the book for you.

To go off at a slight tangent, I was (perhaps rather foolishly) surprised by the amount of discussion of iconoclasm in the book. As is fairly obvious to anyone following the Ramblings, it’s a subject that has become of increasing interest to me over the last year or two. I guess in the past, due to my reading of all things Russian, I’d thought of it as a fairly simplistic equation: Angry Mob + Statues of Hated Leaders = (Concrete) Heads Will Roll – what you might just think of as a visceral response to detested rulers. However, when I began watching the programmes of, and reading the books, by Professor Richard Clay on the subject, in particular with regard to the French revolution (though he *has* moved his study of the subject onto a wider platform more recently), I started to realise that iconoclasm was anything but straightforward.

In France, in particular, the state sponsored iconoclasm was a structured and planned approach to the removal of particular symbols thereby changing the meaning of objects in public space. This actually made me think anew about what is actually *meant* by iconoclasm; it’s not just a religious term any more, but one applied to the alteration of any symbol of control which is out of keeping with the public space in which it sits. Context is all – the objects concerned stay the same, but a statue of Lenin in a Soviet controlled country has a very different meaning and effect than one in a post-Soviet location. As I mentioned, this kind of thinking addled my brain a little when I was taking my mum round Edinburgh on our trip in 2017 – so many statues of dead white men in the city! What where they meant to be saying? What relevance did they have to today?

The topic of state-sponsored iconoclasm comes up in the Hatherley book, of course, where it’s given the heady title of decommunisation; though as Hatherley points out wryly at one point, a number of places could only be decommunised by razing them to the ground, so ingrained is the Soviet iconography. The Lenins, Stalins and Marxes have often been removed, as have the hammer and sickle emblems; but in many places they haven’t, and you wonder whether the imagery has been there so long that people just don’t see it any more, or whether they actually have a hankering for simpler times. Bearing in mind the extreme poverty which now exists in many of the cities, and the massive divide between rich and poor, I’m afraid you can see the appeal of Soviet times where the state provided everything…

Anyway – as you can tell, the Owen Hatherley book is one which provokes any number of thoughts, and I found it fascinating. You can read my thoughts about it here.

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Looking forward into 2019 – some bookish non-resolutions!

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The start of a new year is traditionally a time when we book bloggers start looking ahead and making plans and deciding what challenges to participate in and what projects to undertake. When I first began the Ramblings I was well into that kind of thing and used to fling myself into numerous commitments – usually to fail.. I think I know myself better as a reader nowadays, and for the last few years I’ve kept things light; I dip into challenges and projects as the mood takes me, and apart from our Club weeks I commit myself to pretty much nothing! This seems to work well and I can see no need to change things for 2019. 😀

Some post-Christmas book piles…. =:o

However, there are certainly a few aims I have for 2019, so time for some gratuitous book pictures and resolutions that probably will go very much awry!

LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group reads

The lovely LT Virago group plan some wonderful group reads every year; most recently focusing on specific authors every month, and I did dip in last year. 2019 is to be dedicated to reading books written in, or set in, the 1940s, with a particular theme every month. January is ‘family’, and there are a number of books from either Virago or Persephone I could choose from, and as I already have several on the shelves it’ll be a choice from these if I decide the mood is right!


I must admit that “Dimanche” and the Attia Hosain are both calling strongly; I was late to Nemirovsky’s writing but do love it; and I read “Sunlight on a Broken Column” back in 2014 and was transfixed. Watch this space to see if I *do* actually join in!

Penguin Moderns

As I mentioned yesterday, I was very fortunate to receive this box set from my lovely Offspring on Mothers’ Day, and although I was happily reading my way through it I kind of got sidetracked towards the end of the year. Hopefully, I can climb back on the wagon soon…

Poetry

2018 was a year with an increasing amount of poetry in it, particularly Russian but latterly French. I’ve been loving dipping into big collections, and I need to keep myself in the mindset that I don’t need to read a collection in one go; I *can* just dip and enjoy as the mood takes me.

The rather large Elizabeth Bishop collection requires attention, as does the lovely French book I got for my birthday from Middle Child; and I really must finish Baudelaire…

Self-imposed Challenges!

I set myself up for failure, don’t I? I get all enthusiastic about something, put together a large pile of books on the subject, read one if I’m lucky and then instantly become distracted by another subject/author/shiny new book. The curse of the grasshopper mind, I fear.

There’s the French Revolution. There’s Utopia. There’s those lovely London area books Mr. Kaggsy got me. There’s two huge volumes of Sylvia Plath’s letters and all of Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks. Any of these would be project enough for a good few months, but will I stick to anything? Not very likely…

Clearing the decks and reading more

I think ultimately that’s my aim this year. I’m not going to impose a book buying ban, because I would fail instantly, but I *am* going to try not to amass quite so many books, and to pass on a book quickly after reading it unless it moves and shakes me, or I think I want to read it again at some point. I’ve been clearing out books I’ve had for decades and either not read or only read once. I’ve hung onto them out of some kind of sentimentality perhaps, but I’ve taken a long hard look and decided in many cases that I actually don’t want to read a particular book or two, and they will go. Which will make room for the recent incomings…

Plus I need to waste less time on YouTube and mindlessly looking at social media, and simply focus on reading more. I *will* continue to enjoy good documentaries when they turn up (as I mentioned yesterday, I’m very much looking forward to Richard Clay’s forthcoming prog on viral memes) but aside from these I want to give more of my time to reading. Currently, I’m deeply involved in this chunkster for a Shiny New Books review and it’s proving completely absorbing.

Whether I can keep up this level of involvement when I go back to work remains to be seen, but I shall try! What reading plans do you have for 2019? 😉

Loving my local library (redux) – plus the Oxfam lowers its prices! #bookfinds #library

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Things really *do* never go as planned, do they??? Like so many bookish types, I try to control the flow of incoming books as we get closer to the C-word time of year as I know lovely friends and family will be gifting me with them. And I had intended to do a very small post (if at all!) this weekend featuring a modest pair of arrivals which had made their way into the Ramblings this week:

The Owen Hatherley book is one I was very excited to receive from the publishers. I’ll be covering it for Shiny New Books; I’ve read a number of his books and he’s an incisive, funny and fascinating commentator. The Friedrich Ani was a result of a giveaway on the lovely Lizzy Siddal’s blog – I have won two books there recently, which is quite unprecedented, as I *never* win things! It’s a beautiful Seagull Books crime novel and I’m *so* pleased. So that seemed quite modest for a week’s arrivals…

However, I’m still in that Baudelaire-Benjamin wormhole and I amused myself mid-week by having a look at the local library’s online catalogue to see if there was anything interesting lurking. I was having an itch to amass more of their works, one in particular, and I wondered whether anything would be available to borrow which would scratch that itch without buying more books. I had low expectations, and the local Big Town didn’t have anything in stock. However, a wider search revealed that Bury St. Edmunds, of all places, seems to be a hotbed of rebellious thought and critical theory, as they had the specific book I was after as well as a number of Other Interesting Titles. Who knew?? Anyway, I placed reserves on four books and expected to wait a while for the library service to get them over here. However, an email pinged into the inbox today informing me that all four had arrived and were ready for collection, which was speedy and surprising, and meant that I ended up lugging these four round town with me today…

Despite the weight, I’m pleased to be able to explore these four volumes. Obviously, Benjamin on Baudelaire is what was exercising my brain most, but “Baudelaire in Chains” is a biographical work which sounds intriguing… The Modernism book also sounded good, and Adorno is one of the authors mentioned in “The Grand Hotel Abyss” which I’ve started dipping into also, so this seemed a good way to have a look at his writing and see if I want to explore further.

However.

As usual on Saturdays, I fell into the Oxfam bookshop to see if anything new was on the shelves, as the stock has been moving a little faster than usual of late – and this might have happened…

Someone has obviously been donating a lot of Julian Barnes and since my love of his writing has been rekindled recently, I really couldn’t ignore these. Particularly as they were marked at 99p each. It seems that my grumpy comment about their increasing prices may have been a little premature, as across the board they didn’t seem too pricy today. As for the Robb… Well, I actually had a copy of this before, then donated it in a fit of madness and clearing out books, and then thoroughly regretted it, particularly after I enjoyed his “The Debatable Lands“. So again, a no brainer, and only £1.99. Four books of such interest at less then a fiver ain’t bad.

And coming across the Robb reminded me that a couple of weeks I hauled home a few books from the Oxfam and then shoved them on a shelf and forgot all about them. Here they are, with an Interesting Other Title on top which snuck in through the front door one day:

The Alexis de Tocqueville is one of two titles by that author I’ve picked up recently to add to the French Revolution pile. I was pleased to get this particular edition, because the translator is Stuart Gilbert, who rendered the version I own of my favourite Camus novel, “The Plague”, and I like his style. And as I said, the other three were from the Oxfam and Very Reasonably Priced. The Eric Newby is one of the few I don’t have by him – I love his travel books and his wonderful self-deprecating style. The Robb is mentioned above and I’m so pleased to have these two volumes. And “Walking in Berlin” is a book I heard about when it came out and *so* wanted to read, but didn’t get round to doing anything about. It was never going to stay on the Oxfam shelves…

So. I’m not doing too well at stemming the incoming flow of books. But do you blame me?????

Clashing Cultures

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The Chaplin Machine by Owen Hatherley

Owen Hatherley is something of a prolific author; since bursting onto the scene with his “MIlitant Modernism” book in 2009, he’s produced another five varied titles as well as a vast number of articles, most often on architecture, politics and culture. It was “Militant Modernism” that first attracted me to his work; a short and fascinating book from Zero, it threw new light on a number of aspects of the subject. I went on to read his “A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain” from Verso, and have his others on the TBR. You might have picked up that Hatherley is usually published by left-wing publishers, and his most recent work, “The Chaplin Machine”, was produced by the venerable independent, Pluto Press, and I was so pleased to receive a review copy of the book from them.

The-Chaplin-Machine

We’re used to thinking of Russia and America as enemies, two diametrically opposed forces in conflict ideologically. However, as Hatherley shows here, the West had a considerable influence on the East, and in unexpected ways. “The Chaplin Machine” takes us back to the early days of the Soviet Union when the Russians were fascinated by America, and in particular its industrial methods. At the time, the USA was in the grip of mechanisation and automation, with new methods of production line working coming to the fore; Taylorism was a kind of theory of scientific management, intended to increase the efficiency of manufacturing but often at the cost of workers, who were often regarded as no better than beasts of burden.

Such views would of course have been at odds with the Communist beliefs, but the Soviets were hypnotised by the modernity of the American workplace, and in fact often used US companies to supply (and run) their factories in an attempt to drag feudal Russia into the 20th century. The American methods didn’t only dazzle the businessmen; they also had an effect on Soviet art, in particular theatre and film-making, which was heavily influenced by the early cinema of Hollywood. Chaplin was lauded by the Russians, celebrated as not only epitomising the little man against the state, but also seen as representing a modern, almost mechanistic type of human being, with his jerky movements. Until I read Hatherley’s book I hadn’t quite appreciated how popular Chaplin (and his peers Keaton and Lloyd) were in the Soviet Union, but from the amount of material quoted here, it’s quite clear they were huge!

hatherley

The book is divided into sections, broadly covering the influence of American comedians on Constructivist art, how the science of biomechanics was used in visual arts, architecture and the use of sound films. This heady, cross-cultural mix allows Hatherley to expand his arguments about the importance of the American influence on Russia and these are never less than convincing. The absurd and eccentric was present in both American and Soviet art at the time, and was often all the more effective in the latter by taking place in an unlikely setting. The discussion of a number of well-known and lesser Soviet films was fascinating; Eisenstein is of course a film-maker I know and love (his Ivan the Terrible films are stylistically stunning), but there are a *load* of other titles I now want to seek out. And I have to say that the book itself is a lovely object; a nice hardback with a eye-catching cover, it’s illustrated with a number of film stills and posters, all of which strikingly illustrate Hatherley’s arguments.

Certainly, the early days of Soviet Union seem to have been either misjudged or dismissed, but the different influences affecting the nation at the time were fascinating. The book was developed from Hatherley’s postgraduate research but despite the occasional academic tone, it’s an absolutely exhilarating read; the breadth of his knowledge and the wide range of sources he draws on is impressive. If you have a love of Constructivism, Eisenstein, Russian film, slapstick, architecture and politics, then “The Chaplin Machine” is most definitely for you – highly recommended!

Review copy kindly provided by Pluto Press for which many thanks!

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As an aside, it’s all to easy to forget the effects that the avant-garde of the early 20th century still has on our modern art forms – until you see something like this!

Return of an Architectural Maverick

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Nairn’s Towns by Ian Nairn

Ian Nairn was a vague TV presence when I was growing up; he faded out of view after his death but recent reappraisals plus the acclamation of his work by such luminaries as Jonathan Meades and Owen Hatherley have awoken interest in his writings. He was most definitely something of a maverick and Wikipedia says: “Ian Douglas Nairn (24 August 1930 – 14 August 1983) was a British architectural critic and topographer. In 1955, Nairn established his reputation with a special issue of the Architectural Review called “Outrage” (later as a book in 1956), in which he coined the term “Subtopia” for the areas around cities that had in his view been failed by urban planning, losing their individuality and spirit of place.In addition to his journalism, Nairn became for a time a familiar face on television, producing various series called for the BBC, starting with Nairn’s North in 1967 and concluding with Nairn’s Journeys in 1978. He died on 14 August 1983, aged 52, from cirrhosis of the liver and chronic alcoholism. Consumed with a sense of failure, he sought refuge in drink and in his later years wrote almost nothing.”

antenne.books.nairns-town

Most of his books are long out of print, but fortunately Notting Hill Editions saw fit to reprint his classic “Britain’s Changing Towns” under the title “Nairn’s Towns” with foreword and updates by Owen Hatherley – so it was kind of a no brainer that I would be picking up a copy. Like all NHE books, it’s a gorgeous little clothbound hardback, with lovely thick creamy pages and also a number of photographic illustrations within the text – so, a thing of great beauty, then, before you even start to read. The original book evolved from a series of articles Nairn produced for the “Listener” magazine in 1960-1 and 1964. When they were gathered together in book form in 1967, Nairn provided updates to his earlier thoughts. This lovely version is introduced by Owen Hatherley, one of my favourite architectural writers, who also provides 2013 Postscripts which are fascinating in themselves.

The original version

The original version

Nairn was a passionate man; you only have to watch one of his TV shows to see how he wore his heart on his sleeve, and wasn’t afraid to shows how much he cared about a particular place or building. Wonderfully, his writing voice is just the same as speaking voice, and equally as engaging. Nairn didn’t start in architecture – he was a maths graduate and spent time in the RAF – but he discovered a niche saying what he felt about buildings, celebrating those he loved and verbally damning those he despised.

The big Perpendicular churches of England are a fascinating and utterly neglected psychological study. Then as now, some designers must have felt at odds with their society while some revelled in it. Chipping Campden, in particular, must have been built by a man unhappy to the edge of hysteria.

“Nairn’s Towns” takes us on a journey round the country to a variety of locations, some predictable and some rather unusual! He finds Newcastle-upon-Tyne superlative; that Sheffield has many possibilities, poised as it is on the brink of some dramatic modernist development which has since, alas, become much decried in certain quarters. Norwich, Liverpool, Derry, Brighton and many more get the Nairn treatment. Llandiloes in Wales, perhaps an unexpected choice, gets much praise from Nairn.

… there are plenty of people who would dismiss it as just sentiment or untidiness. They probably can’t see the point of cuddling their wives either.

The essays are little time capsules; views of a country still breaking away from the ways of the past, struggling to rebuild after the Second World War and trying to decide the best way to do it. And the process is erratic, piecemeal and down to the local planners, with little guidance from elsewhere. Owen Hatherley’s 2013 updates highlight the successes and failures and add the perfect coda to each piece.

Ian-Nairn-006

Ian Nairn’s tone throughout is wonderful – chatty, opinionated, funny and immensely readable, he’s the eternal optimist, always looking for the best in a place and hoping that the planners and developers will get it right. And his writing is so refreshing as he’s very much guided by the heart and not the head, refusing to subscribe to any particular ism but instead going in open-minded and open-hearted, as he puts it, ready to judge a place and its buildings by their merits. If only everyone could approach things like this! And you have to love someone who can describe a building as “the longest boardroom speech in the world made visible.”

This was such a delightful, stirring and satisfying read. In an alternative universe, Britain would have a Department of Planning controlling everything that was built in the country, and Ian Nairn would be in charge of it. Alas, we are instead subject to the maniac whims of architects wanting to leave their mark on a town or city without any thought for those living there (and Nairn always has the people who have to live in a place in the centre of his vision). But at least we can revisit the invigorating writings of this maverick and dream of the architecture we might have had.

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, very excitingly Penguin have now republished the classic work “Nairn’s London” – it looks absolutely lovely and I’m so pleased to have this to look forward to. How about “Nairn’s Paris” as well, please, Penguin! 🙂

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