So, @cinemashoebox on the twitter says:
a Soviet Bus Stops/Yugoslav Memorials-style coffee table book of shitty Millennium municipal features in British towns and villages
— Ben (@cinemashoebox) May 2, 2020
Well, I’m sure we all know the feeling. Staines decided to replicate Saddam Hussein’s Victory Arch, not once but twice. The other one is at the entrance to a car park, and I can’t find a photo, perhaps because someone decided there was enough tragedy in the world without unnecessarily raking over the present.
But I can’t agree with this project, possibly because of Boring Postcards, Martin Parr’s 1999 novelty publishing hit. This was launched exactly at the millenium and the moment of transition from mocking well-off cranky people with reactionary tastes to celebrating and indulging their whining, and did amazing business. In a kind of Kwik Save Braudelian way, the question here is whether the book was the last gasp of the great swing of fashion against post-war modernism and indeed modernity that ran from the beginning of punk forwards, or else the first hint of the Hatherleycore revival that was yet to come.
For myself, I remember thinking that so much of the project was deeply unworthy and unfair – a jeering, finger-pointing exercise in kicking down on things that were basically good and worthwhile, that had been left behind by fashion, and in fact were already being reconsidered and revived even as the book’s publicity campaign did the rounds of the papers.
In terms of style, a lot of the postcards are statements of international modernism and of Mod, and in terms of content, a lot of them are statements of optimism, public and shared achievement. Perhaps the element of style that condemned them to Parr is that a lot of them are serious; there is a whole series of photos of then brand-new power stations from the inside. Boring? Only in the sense of spitting at the kid who’s reading a book. Another telling string of choices is a succession from the trade union education centres that existed in the high postwar. Boring? Who knows, but definitely egalitarian, serious, and gone, and here held up for public contempt.
One of the postcards is the now-celebrated Preston bus station. Hur hur hur! Why would you produce postcards of a bus station? Well…public transport is not a bad thing and neither are civic pride or achievement. The culture that bought Boring Postcards considered images of Victorian railway stations to be fine examples of these things, and not boring at all, although why? Why would fake Gothic be more exciting, of all qualities? Surely the point here is that the Victorian era was far enough away to brick its supposed values up behind a wall of nostalgia and received taste.
So the broad aesthetic thrust of Boring Postcards was to mock anyone naive enough to think that public spaces might possibly improve, to express the reactionary taste canon that had been in force for two decades, and to bully the nerds for taking serious things seriously. It’s perhaps no surprise it dropped when it did; it was about the last moment when hipster irony was cool rather than itself being an ironic hipster trope.
Crap as the millennium projects were, they were crap for the same kind of reasons that meant Parr could get a rise with Boring Postcards – they required people to risk a little optimism, to think about the future, and to shape public space as a community. The daddy of them all, the Dome, seems to be getting a reconsideration. Looking back, the dog’s abuse everyone involved got from horrible self-important blue ticks and their vacuous opinionating seems like a preview of the future more than anything you could have put inside the thing.
It therefore worries me that dragging them again is just condemning the unfashionable for the crime of being unfashionable, which like death will happen to us all. Fortunately we won’t have any monuments but our blogs.