Each time I stumble across this mosaic in Birmingham city centre I’m a) reminded that I’ve already seen it b) confused as to why I’ve forgotten about it and c) notice that it is disintegrating rapidly. There are several of them in the city centre – they were usually in the many subterranean walkways under the ringroad; sometimes redevelopment of those walkways has meant the mosaics have been relocated, most notably the JFK memorial and the Great Western Railway mosaic.
The Horsefair mosaic is no doubt waiting its turn for some redevelopment scheme to pay for its repair and relocation. No doubt they represent a problem – they remove too much active frontage at street level – no shop windows, no office doors, no advertising space – and putting them above street level brings additional problems. At least they’re still here – I remember the murals on the walkways around the Bull Ring which only survive in photographs now.
I lazily assumed nostalgia was a yearning for the past, evoked during commemorations, re-enactments, restorations, conservation or just remembering. But it’s more sinister than that. In its worst form, it’s cultural colonialism – the privileging of a cultural moment that was racist, sexist or just different to now. It says “modern life is rubbish”. Whilst modern life may well be rubbish, it’s rubbish not because it’s modern. It’s the only life we have. This is important – the vote to leave the EU, the election of Donald Trump, the potential election of Marine Le Pen seem to me to be expressions of the zeitgeist: modern life is rubbish, and what we need is to do things like we did in the 1950s when women were women, men were men, there was no homosexuality or immigration. Crucially it was also a time when jobs were jobs, and technology was driving economic growth and incomes.
Space has an opportunity cost. A building in one spot means something else can’t go in the same spot. Attention works the same way: despite our pretence that multi-tasking is efficient, our attention given to Downton Abbey can’t be given to something or someone else at the same time. This is what I mean by the privileging of a cultural moment.
Let’s take Listed Buildings. A building (or more often, actually just a facade) is listed. This prevents the redevelopment of the Listed aspects without the consent of the local planning authority. It attempts to fix a point in time in perpetuity. But what about what existed before the building? What about the possibility to build something even better in the future?
Landowners know too well the economic impossibility this puts them in. The world, meanwhile, has moved on. There are now regulations for any redevelopment to comply with. Thankfully, buildings are safer, more accessible, more energy-efficient. But often those are entirely incompatible with the listed building. So they pay someone to torch the building in the night.
The local community is outraged and demands justice. And yet it was the same community that demanded and benefitted from the same regulations that drove the owner to their desperate act in the first place. Which is more important to them? Money talks – we are all complicit.
Today I saw a performance of a piece of music called The Way of a Monarch by Ivor McGregor. The concert notes by the composer that describe the piece is inspired by “the extraordinary story of this unusual monarch” (Charles II). It then mentions “Cromwell’s puritan interregnum” that had shut down many of the performing arts. Another privileging of a moment: what had driven thousands of men to revolt against Charles’s father in the first place? Setting aside the ambivalence the British have to their revolution, this seemingly neutral position is deeply reactionary. Cromwell may well have been a despot, but so was Charles I, James I, James II and the whole lot of them. In an exercise in change management, Cromwell had it pretty tough and failed – that doesn’t mean that the solution is to simply celebrate the status quo and all of its own injustices.
Humans crave narrative, plot and characters. The heritage industry has a raw deal trying to interpret social history in stately homes that were built by particular families in particular circumstances and the wealth of extant unique artefacts connected to them. In contrast the lives of the servants were mundane, everday and typical. I hear very few people who proudly boast of descendants who were domestic servants or labourers. There are many reasons why this is (most probably because our descendants weren’t defined by a single “career” – which is a more modern and bourgeois invention. Pre-industrial work was piecemeal, itinerant and casual), but it demonstrates our inability to accept plurality and complexity.
Let’s try and overcome this inability by recognising that Downton Abbey, Meet the Midwife, any other costume drama, every conserved or restored facade, every blue plaque and every fashion revival displaces something else – and that this displacement is a political one. It says that one is more important that all the others that could exist in its place either in the past, present or future.