Over the last few years, Owen Hatherley has established himself as one of the brightest young cultural commentators in the UK and while most of his recent work (including last year’s excellent Landscapes of Communism) has focussed on architecture and the built environment, his latest book, The Ministry of Nostalgia, can be seen almost as a companion piece to his first.
Militant Modernism (2009) was an exhilarating and eclectic defence of a modernist cultural continuum that encompassed everything from early 20th century vorticist literature and the brutalist social housing of the 1960s to 1980s cyberpunk fiction and techno music in the 1990s. The Ministry of Nostalgia is a similarly spirited counterblast against what Hatherley astutely diagnoses as a kind of ‘legislated nostalgia’ for Austerity Britain Mk.1 (1945 – 1951) in Austerity Britain Mk.2 (2010 – present).
This nostalgia, Hatherley argues, has infected almost every facet of our cultural and political life though it is most forcefully represented by the ubiquity and seemingly endless mutability of the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster, which, since its first appearance in 2008 (as Hatherley points out, the poster, though dating from the Second World War, was never actually produced by the wartime Ministry of Information) has
gone on to become a global brand. This evocation of a mythical British stoicism in the face of adversity hasn’t merely been the harbinger of a stultifying cultural conservatism, but has been an ideological tool of capital-c Conservatism as well, seemingly propping up other more pernicious political myths such as the well-worn mercantilist fiction that the nation is essentially a profligate household which, having ‘maxed out our credit card’, must now tighten its collective belt, to say nothing of the self-evident falsehood that ‘we are all in this together’ (an obvious invocation of the ‘Blitz/Dunkirk spirit’).
Even more alarming for Hatherley though is the way this same mentality has seemingly hobbled the left who should be its greatest enemies. His analysis of Ken Loach’s The Spirit of‘45 (2015) and the uncritical nostalgia for the early welfare state it represents (see also the spectacular love letter to the NHS that was Danny Boyle’s Olympic
opening ceremony) is incisive and necessary. It’s this refusal to confine himself to soft targets that is arguably Hatherley’s greatest strength as a polemicist: I suspect there will be many among his readership who, like me, smugly nodded their approval of his (actually laudably even-handed) critique of Jamie Oliver only to find themselves discomfited a few pages later when he turns his attention to the ‘hauntological’ aesthetic of Ghost Box Records and Peter Strickland’s superb Berberian Sound Studio (2012).
Hatherley’s thesis is provocative but persuasive and highly entertaining, though it does begin to recede from view at around the book’s halfway point. It’s always a pleasure to read Hatherley on architecture and design but the book’s second half reads more as a series of historical digressions than as intrinsic stages of his argument. It should be said however that these digressions are both fascinating and incredibly important in the way they write the legacy of imperialism and the reality of class conflict back into the simpler narratives of heroism that underpin the national myth of the Second World War and the social revolution that came in its aftermath. After reading this book, you’ll never look at an iteration of the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ meme in the same way again (though, depressingly, you will inevitably look at one soon enough), but you may find yourself seeing other parts of our shared culture and history with new, more sceptical eyes as well and therein lies the real importance of this excellent little book.