Section under Construction

19 September 2005

Black and White Town

Heygate Estate, Elephant & Castle

Boxer Prollboy

Just as I was about to leave London a new cultural phenomenon was rapidly taking hold, spawning in its wake what would become in my absence the latest addition to British youth subculture. The Chav had arrived and to my consternation he didn't look good at all. In actual fact he and his female version had been knocking around for quite a while before being even termed 'chavs' - apparently an old word dating back to the original Indo-European pool with equivalents all over the European linguistic family. Having lived on Islington's notorious Packington Square and witnessed the slow agony of the Marquess Estate down the road (a classic amongst Pevsner obsessives but sadly no longer with us) during which whole generations of proto-chavs seemingly vanished without trace - a chav culling secretly conducted by the council? - I'd become accustomed to the stylistic idiosyncrasies of what only beleaguered remnants of old white, working class communities in the midst of galloping gentrification could come up with. The teasing sight of ankles left uncovered by elasticated tracksuit-bottoms for boys and the obligatory, lonely stuck-to-the-forehead-kiss curl and supersize hoops for strangely boyish-looking girls, screaming their heads off late at night in the not-so-lovely-anymore streets of Islington to the music of the delightful Mike Skinner aka The Streets - had become a vague object of curiosity for me, something intrinsically English in its inward-lookingness, something from another age, the last of the working-class youth archetypes, as incongruous and endangered as their decrepit, asbestos-infested flats.

How they came to be fetishised by the media is not quite clear. All I know is the that The Sun started devoting whole spreads to the subject with Jordan crowned as the Über-Chav with a full hierarchy of lesser incarnations cascading all the way down to the most anonymous Romford pissheads. Then Julie Burchill, in a groundbreaking piece of writing for The Times, came to their defence and even claimed to be one herself. Thus a whole stratum of society became almost overnight the object of intense media scrutiny and in the process lost the little mystique it may have had in the first place. For the chav, unlike the first mods, skinheads or punks, who upon their sudden appearance startled and scared the nation senseless, is fundamentally a media construct and is therefore instantly absorbed and domesticated by them, and for all its disastrous social skills and poor hygiene credentials, turned into an almost cuddly creature. He is tame and helpless as he becomes the target of national ridicule, all smelly trainers, inarticulacy and promiscuous sex, which nicely ties in with previous discourses on the working class - above all the exclusive preserve of The Daily Mail: aberrant, monstrous sexuality with boys and girls alike relentlessly at it. It is actually interesting to put the figure of the chav into perspective with that of the skinhead, who started terrorising populations in 1969 and underwent a number of transformations and appropriations over the following decades. A cursory comparison of the two is indeed revealing of the way the perception of the working class has changed over the years, leading to its complete neutralisation and infantalisation. As the first skins emerged in East London the working class was still an awesome social force to be reckoned with and the docks were still in relative activity. Their appearance was otherworldly, like nothing else seen before, and their sense of elegance unmatched. Their alienness and ultra-violence took British society by surprise which saw in them the high level of danger and aggravation the working classes were still capable of.

A thatcho-blairite revolution and a few property boom-busts at Canary Wharf later and not much is left of them in that elusive, global pursuit of middle-class belonging. That's why I feel very sorry for chavs as far as their iconic status is concerned because on top of looking shoddy they have entirely been recuperated by the media and the construction of their image can now be only determined by its own rules - whereas the skinhead, in all his haughtiness, could still have enough defiance and charisma to evade all reductive representations of himself - he did at least lend itself to the wildest romanticising as the Richard Allen novels testify. No such thing with the chavs, whose horrendous tastes and low spending-power irremediably position them at the shabby end of the consumerist chain, as a debased descendant of older youth subcultures, the laughing stock of a nation hellbent on prole-bashing. However they seem to have found an sympathetic audience in some gay circles who, prone to eroticise all that is deemed authentic in the working class - as their ongoing flirtation with skinhead imagery has shown - have let out the chav in them and discovered a penchant for bling, dirty sneakers and smelly feet. Even a trendy gay porn production company has released an entire chav-themed collection. And just like with gay skins in the good old nineties, knives are out between those who ARE the genuine article from Bermondsey and those for whom it's just a weekend look to get cock. As I was staying in East London a couple of weeks ago I couldn't help fantasising about the exact whereabouts of the chavs, like some mythical territory that lay beyond my personal mapping of the city, just like it was a few years ago when men were roaming in the dark on Hoxton Square and the whole of London felt like an immense sexual magnetic field. That I could be magnetised by a Burberry-clad, weedy youth from Basildon might be pushing it a bit, though.

Prollboy asleep

Heygate Estate, Elephant & Castle

30 March 2005

Alpha Child

English version

Samuda Estate, Isle of Dogs, London

Cosmos 1999 passait le samedi après-midi dans un programme grand-public. C'était invariablement à l'heure des visites familiales obligatoires, un rite incontournable planifié à la minute près. Nous savions que la fin d'un feuilleton historique d'aventures ou de Titi le Canari marquait le passage d'une grand-mère à l'autre. Dans l'immense périphérie parisienne, jusqu'a l'aéroport d'Orly qui barrait l'horizon de sa masse bleutée, chaque ville était marquée du même ennui. Dans cette atmosphère elles étaient toutes identiques, toutes désertes, toutes pleines de familles réunies devant leur télé et votant pour le meilleur programme à diffuser. C'est cet exercice hebdomadaire de démocratie qui assurait immanquablement le triomphe de Cosmos 1999 et l'excitation mêlée de crainte qui faisait que pour rien au monde sa diffusion n'aurait coïncidé avec le transit inter-grand-mères. Et pour cause, Cosmos 1999 (première saison - je n'entrerai pas dans la polémique) est la meilleure série de science fiction jamais produite, dans son élaboration visuelle, sa poésie et sa portée métaphysique.

Elle se place dans la droite lignée de 2001: A Space Odyssey, et ne souffre aucune autre comparaison. La classe totale. L'ennui qui écrasait la base lunaire, qui ressemblait au labyrinthe de notre cité futuriste où nous étions comme englués dans un temps en décélération, ses couloirs interminables, la dérive à laquelle la colonie humaine était condamnée, sa vulnérabilité face aux terreurs de l'univers, la musique lancinante et mélancolique qui enveloppait chaque episode laissaient dans l'esprit un souvenir tenace et puissant. Il était toujours difficile à la fin d'un épisode de redescendre dans le monde réel et de se réaccoutumer à sa lumière trop forte, à sa sensualité foisonnante. La semaine je passais des heures à dessiner la base de mémoire et élaborais mes propres vaisseaux spatiaux en carton. Je sentais jusque dans ma chair la noirceur glaciale des espaces interstellaires et la solitude d'une humanité propulsée loin de la securité d'une Terre devenue inaccessible.

Abbeyfield Estate, Southwark, London

Les années soixante-dix furent marquées par un changement dramatique dans l'idée du progrès humain, jusqu'alors jugé illimité, une crise de la modernité et une vision dystopique de l'avenir. La catastrophe inauguratrice de la série - la Lune éjectée de son orbite à la suite d'un cataclysme nucléaire - résonnait en moi de facon singulière mais semblait aussi en phase avec l'époque elle-même. Les samedi après-midis étaient dans mon esprit des moments d'apocalypse imminente, dans les centres commerciaux, le long des autoroutes, une électricité dans l'air - ou étaient-ce les tensions intra-familiales?- le sentiment d'un désastre sur la ville. C'est l'époque aussi où j'ai commencé à rêver d'Angleterre. Une Angleterre fantasmée et étrange dont les pôles magnétiques étaitent ma cité du futur désertée l'après-midi, David Bowie et Cosmos 1999, tous trois d'une grandeur plastique et éminemment pop. À Londres aussi le temps semblait s'embourber dans le calvaire sans fin des coupures d'électricité et des grèves d'éboueurs. Là-bas plus que nulle part ailleurs a-t-on dû aussi avoir le sentiment de se trouver sur la Base Alpha en pleine dérive intergalactique.

Et là-bas aussi la modernité architecturale s'écrasait dans les gravats encore fumants de Ronan Point. Les tours d'habitation commençaient à se détériorer quelques années seulement après leur ouverture. Des bandes d'adolescents en jeans moule-bittes et coupes à la Sweet (Teenage Rampage) terrorisaient les populations. Les locaux de vides-ordures étaient régulièrement incendiés, on pissait sur les coursives de desserte et quelque chose dans le déroulement de l'histoire s'était à jamais désagrégé, une sorte de violence pernicieuse qui gagnait tous les secteurs de la société, un durcissement de la vie dans un petit pays froid, plongé dans le noir à huit heures du soir et cantonnné les week-ends dans ses tours ruinées et pleines de détritus. On songe immédiatement à A Clockwork Orange, mais je pense que c'est Get Carter, filmé la même année, qui donne véritablement le ton et montre une Angleterre en chute libre, pauvre et miteuse, en proie à un cauchemard dont l'issue sera à la fin de la décennie un cauchemard autrement plus spectaculaire. L'Année Zéro, le Big Bang. Le Breakaway de Moonbase Albion.


The Bringers of Wonder

Space 1999 was shown on Saturday afternoon on the first channel. It would invariably happen during the obligatory family visits, which were timed to the minute. We knew that at the closing credits of some period drama or of Tweety Bird we had to switch from one grandma to the other. In the Paris peripheral zones, up to the gigantic, blue mass of Orly airport that stood on the horizon, each town was afflicted by the same boredom. In such an atmosphere they all looked the same, all deserted and full of families gathered around TV screens, voting for the best series to be broadcast. It was this weekly exercise in democracy that guaranteed the triumph of Space 1999 and our excitement tinged with secret fears ensured that its screening wasn't to fall into the crack of the inter-grandma thirty-minute transit. The reason was simple: Space 1999 (at least its first incarnation - I won't enter into any polemic) is by far the best sci-fi series ever produced in terms of visual sophistication, poetry and metaphysical scope. It is right in the lineage of 2001: A Space Odyssey and doesn't allow for any other comparison.

It truly has a class of its own. The crushing boredom afflicting the lunar base, which looked like our own futuristic town where we were getting caught in an ever decelerating time, its endless corridors, the perpetually drifting, doomed humanity, its vulnerability in the midst of a terrifying, unfathomable universe, the music, whose haunting beauty suffused each episode, left a lasting, overpowering impression. After the rarefied atmosphere and dimmed lighting of the prefabricated base it was always difficult to readjust to the normal, sensually teeming world we were inhabiting. During the week I would from memory recreate the set on paper and design my own spaceship out of cardboard cut-outs. The fate of the lonely community drifting into the freezing interstellar infinity far away from the safety of Mother-Earth shook me to the core and provided a powerful visual metaphor to deep-seated anxieties. These fantasies re-emerged and expanded whenever Space 1999 was rescheduled by TV networks over the years.

Stifford Estate, Stepney Green

The Seventies were marked by a dramatic shift in the conception of human progress - hitherto considered boundless - a crisis of modernity and an ubiquitously dystopian vision of the future. The original catastrophe - the moon blasted out of orbit by a nuclear disaster - awoke in me something powerful as it also seemed to tap into the decade's general unease. Saturday afternoons felt like the the apocalypse might happen any time. In the regional shopping-centres ringing Paris, along the motorways, there was electricity in the air - or was it family tensions between two grandma visits? - exacerbating the anxiety of an impending disaster in the city. It was also the time when I started dreaming about England. A strange, idiosyncratic, phantasmagorical England whose sources of inspiration was the loneliness of my futuristic town, David Bowie and Space 1999, all eminently plastic and pop artefacts. In London time also seemed to sink into the endless ordeal of power cuts and refuse collectors' strikes. Over there more than anywhere else people must have had the feeling to be embarked on the interminable intergalactic trek of Moonbase Alpha.

And there too were modern architecture's social ambitions pronounced dead, buried as they were under the smoking rubble of Ronan Point. Tower blocks started to fall apart only a few years after completion. Teenage gangs in crotch-hugging jeans and Sweet hairstyles (They're out in the streets, they turn on the heat) terrorised beleaguered populations, set ablaze rubbish chute closets and pissed all over the decks and streets in the sky. Something in the course of history had irredeemably disintegrated and from it oozed a dull, all-pervasive violence affecting all levels of society, the hardening of the life of a small, cold country where it was total blackout at eight o'clock and where families locked themselves up in rubbish strewn, ruined towers at weekends. A Clockwork Orange immediately springs to mind but I think that Get Carter, which was made the same year, really sets the tone in its depiction of an England in free fall, poor and shabby, tormented by a nightmare whose end a few years later was to result in a nightmare of much greater amplitude. Its Year Zero, a Big Bang, Moonbase Albion's very own Breakaway.