Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Mad Max in Magnolia

Regular readers must think that Dovecot Towers looks like a scene from Mad Max, with smoking ruins dotted amongst the feint traces of some lost civilisation, all swarming with ragged feral children and their ragged feral parents. You’d be wrong. As long as you visit just after the cleaners have done their work, initially, it doesn’t seem too bad. Instead of ruins, visitors are greeted by a magnolia dystopia.

I have a theory which could explain the end result of this aesthetic desert. In central Manchester, there’s a road where drivers regularly turn left despite a ‘No Entry’ sign. Traffic management practice accepts that if people consistently repeat the same mistake, the problem lies not with the wrong-turner, but with the signals themselves. On some instinctive level the signs are confusing and lead road-users astray.

This hypothesis would explain many problems arising in the soulless urban developments covering the land. Cars roar as they jam the main road and any bare, half-arsed greenery is wilting. Once inside, there are no pictures, no colour, and nothing pleasant. The vast walls are chalky, with not so much as a solitary dribble of colour to alleviate the blankness. No bins either, since they are routinely stolen, but then residents feel entitled to help themselves, as they are relieved of service charges for very little service.

Once inside these flats, we are mostly forbidden from decorating the dispiriting white walls, or adding pleasing, homely touches to what is after all, our home. We can’t even hammer a nail in the wall to put up a picture, and - as I’ve written elsewhere - some landlords are known to inflict their own taste in art on their tenants. Rental agreements ban the fittings necessary for putting up welcoming, warming curtains (there are usually white vertical blinds, like a tax office.) We can’t add our own unique flourish. There’s no scope for individuality. We exist in an empty shell, a vacuum.

The positive effect of pleasant surroundings is well documented. Re-humanising the surroundings worked for the DWP, who stopped blocking off what are now ‘clients’ with screens, and added adornments like calming art, music, colour and plants. Attacks on staff decreased.

I appreciate that cost and safety are an issue, and don’t anticipate extravagant flourishes like tropical fish tanks, or cascading water-features alongside expensive sculptures. But is some colour on the walls other than sensory-deprivation-white too much to ask for? A few plants would be nice, even a mural. It seems so very bleak in here, and if you want to keep tenants happy and secure (so we will stay and pay your mortgage) then let us make the flat, and the building itself, feel like home.

Persistent desolation and an appalling lack of control over our environment sends a strong, if subliminal signal, just like those inadvertently misleading traffic signs. The message is clear: abandon hope all ye who enter Dovecot Towers. You are landless peasant scum. You count for nothing. This is not your home. You are vermin, infesting your landlord’s pension fund. When zoos are planned with more consideration than newbuilds, is it any wonder that tenants, so disrespected, are reluctant to stay?

(NB: The girl whose boyfriend died is absolutely devastated and utterly heart-broken, which goes without saying. I have heard from her, and she is determined to get past this appalling nightmare which - considering that her very world has come to a grinding halt - is both courageous and amazing. People stress that they were very much in love. He was twenty-three.)


ReubenH said...

This post instantly reminded me of Oscar Wilde:

“Why, Mr. Wilde, do you think America is such a violent country?”

“I can tell you why,” he said. “It’s susceptible readily of an explanation. America is such a violent country because your wallpaper is so ugly.”

Stephen Fry explained this cryptic remark in a recent(ish) podcast:

Now that seems, you might snort with laughter at first and say, “Well, how amusing.” Part you you may say, “Well this is just a typical peacocking primped camp remark from a shallow and trivial man who thinks it’s amusing to say things like that.”

But actually, to understand what the Aesthetic Movement is all about, one has to take that quite seriously. Instead of judging things as being good or bad, things are judged by whether they are beautiful or ugly. And we may say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but actually it’s a lot easier to judge when things are beautiful than it is when things are bad or good. We spend our time puzzling dreadfully over whether we can interpret something as being wicked or whether it’s virtuous. However, beauty, beauty, beauty acts on us in a very real way, and what Wilde was partly saying was, if we look out of the window into our world, we see things that are universally and entirely beautiful from nature. Whether they be palm trees swaying in an island, whether they be the arctic wastes, whether they be deserts, tundra steps. It doesn’t matter where you look in the world, we see nothing but beauty. Unconditional, remarkable beauty.

Except where man has intervened.

And what Wilde is saying is, imagine belonging to a species where all you believe that all you can do to the world is to uglify it. To make it worse. To despoil it. Which is what we do. We know that now in real and profound and terrible ways that Wilde couldn’t have known about because the science hadn’t yet discovered quite how harmful we are as a species to our planet. But he could see that we were harmful to our planet in terms of its aesthetics. That we were making the earth uglier. Uglier with bad architecture, uglier with badly designed factories, uglier with badly stamped out tin trays and cheap ornaments, ugly with appalling wallpaper. And if you’re someone who grows up in such an environment, who is surrounded by badly made ugly things, then you think ugly thoughts of yourself and world. You think ugly thoughts of your whole species. There is nothing for you to do but to, to, to crap in your own nest. It’s what we do when we don’t believe in ourselves. And so although it seems a cheap response to a question about violence, the aesthetic point if view is actually I think a very valuable one, a very profound one, a very extraordinary one. And it makes people think beyond the knee-jerk reflexes of conventional morality, of revealed texts, whether they be the Bible, the Koran or the Communist Manifesto. It doesn’t matter. You’ve got to think harder than that, Wilde was arguing.

Darsalon said...

Yes, I heard that podcast from the illustrious Mr Fry. It's a fair point and if you're not allowed to have your little nick nacks or pictures to hang up on the wall your world does get a bit soulless.
As a long time (8 years) renter again, I've been very lucky in comparison with Renter Girl. Have been able to put up pictures in 4 of the places I've rented out. In my current place I'm not but my landlady doesn't mind me putting plants in the garden which makes things a little more homely.
And thanks for the news on that poor girl. It's interesting how something like this really does make you appreciate things in life. Hope it works out for her.

RenterGirl said...

Mr Fry is right; a sense of belonging creates a sense of ownership which engernders a spirit of responsibility. Many people are just passing through, with no motivation to stay on. Like I say, I am realistic, and a friend of mine who was a landlord always berates me as he was bequeathed some nasty paintwork in the flat he let, but landlords used to redecorate: it was their job. Now, we mustn't leave a trace behind. Would a picture rail and a coat of emulsion hurt? It's not realistic. And it is ugly.
I have had some further contact with that girl, and she is being stronger than I could be.
Thanks for reading, and for your erudite comments.

Techno Mystic said...

Tenants rights is one of my personal bugbears. We have far fewer rights than on the continent for example. A family could live in a house for 10 years and have children in the local school and they still only get 2 month's notice. How are people supposed to feel part of the community like that?

Traditionally, of course, people usually had a choice between renting and buying and buying was often cheaper, or so people tell me.

But now we have people who are forced to rent when they don't want to.

I'm allowed to use picture hooks but I haven't done so far because I just can't feel comfortable in a property that I might have to leave at any moment.

Giving tenants more rights would make Buy to Let investments far less attractive which would probably cause house prices to fall which is probably why the government won't touch it.

But if the high house price problem looks like being permanent then tenants rights will have to go back on the agenda eventually as far as I'm concerned.

RenterGirl said...

You're right technomystic. The culture has shifted in the landlords favour. Experienced, established landlords know that wear and tear (as long it doesn't involved demolition) is part of the package, and we are paying to live in a home, not a museum. It's not even the blank walls, but the bare stairwells with chipped paint. The tories changed things to 'open up' the rental market. Things have gone much, much too far.