Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 3 No. 2, December 1985

The Obscured Metropolis

Iain Chambers

It is in the city that contemporary popular culture—Woolworth Stores and moving pictures, supermarkets, pubs and breakdancing amongst the Saturday morning shoppers in Covent Garden—has its home. Take away this context and present day British popular culture becomes incomprehensible. But it is not simply the nineteenth century explosion in urban population that explains the contemporary city and sets it apart from both rural society and previous urban experience. It is industrialism, conspicuously concentrated in the ingression of speed and measured time into everyday life—from the train, tram and telephone to the factory system and the sharp separation of work from leisure, that directs cultural life into new channels, following fresh imperatives.

We will discover, however, that for many observers much in the modern city and in the wake of industrialism has been considered 'foreign', usually 'American' inspired, distinctly 'un-British'. These views, this critical and institutional consensus, which has continually attempted to match 'culture' with 'Britishness', deliberately ignore another history. This is a history drawn from the psychological and experiential landscapes of everyday life; from its textures, from the comfort of its details. It is altogether less well known, obscured, subordinated.

It is this other side of urban life that I propose to look at. It is here, I will argue, that what is peculiar to contemporary popular culture has its home. It is here that its connection and break from the past will be found. And it is here that popular culture's central role in the making of urban culture as a whole is to be appreciated.

Urban times ...

When one crosses a landscape in an automobile or an express train, the landscape loses in descriptive value, but gains in synthetic value ... A modern man registers a hundred times more sensory impressions than an eighteenth-century artist (Fernard Leger, 1914).

We live in a designed world (Michael Farr, 1964).


We begin with a view. South London. From the train there are glimpses of Croydon. A genteel suburbia full of those gabled roofs favoured by domestic architects in the 1920s and '30s; many trees. Near the railway lines, inner-city commercial over-spill finds new residence, and cheaper rents, in smoke-glassed, air-conditioned, offices. Many are empty: 'Space to Let'. Croydon gives way to inner London. There are now few trees. Low, nineteenth century housing ('labourers' dwellings' would have been the term) flank both sides of the tracks. Then come the concrete acres of Clapham: council tower blocks and housing mazes of recent construction. For a moment, the bold, futuristic, silhouette of Battersea power station, then the train crosses over the illuminated Thames to arrive in Victoria.

I have begun with this 'reading' of the city as it allows us to appreciate at a glance how the design of the world most of us inhabit—housing, railways, offices, suburbia, industry—is built into the 'very bricks and mortar' (John Clarke) of our daily surroundings. This is the recognisable syntax of urban life. And, like all space, this urban arrangement 'is charged with meaning' (Manuel Castells). It is also charged with power. For the material details of urban life—our houses, the roads we live in, the shops we frequent, the transport we use, the pubs we visit, the places we work at, the advertisements we read in the papers and the streets—suggest many of the structures for our experiences and sentiments.

1900: Britain is essentially an urban society. Eleven years later, official figures would indicate that thirty-two of its forty million in habitants live in towns. This extensive urbanisation, then without precedent in either Europe or the United States, was dominated by London. The capital contained twenty per cent of the population of England and Wales. This urban, economic and cultural concentration, aided by geography and political stability, and reinforced by a national press, was highly significant. In Britain, metropolitan styles have been rapidly assumed as national fashions.

Nineteenth century British cities, however, were hardly the pro duct of systematic planning. When we picture them, they are dominated by sprawling brick factories and warehouses, dirty canals, and row upon row of low, grimy housing: the factory-chimneyed sky lines of Manchester; grim, barrack-like, tenement blocks in Glasgow; the teeming life (and diseases—cholera, TB, scarlet fever, syphilis) of London's streets. The earlier Georgian model of geometrical symmetry—squares, circles, crescents and wide, straight roads: Bath, Cheltenham, London's Regent Street—was swamped by the nineteenth century explosion in population and the brutal rush of the industrial city bursting over the countryside and previous urban


patterns. The city was no longer an organic unity, the hub at the centre of a wheel, but an uncontrollable and unseemly growth.

For many, the chaotic assemblage of hastily thrown up tenements, filthy, undrained streets, smoke-belching factories, and everywhere the CROWD, represented a break-down in order, an 'unnatural society' (Charles Dickens). The city cut into, and separated itself, from 'nature'; it elicited the novel aesthetics of shock, not contemplation. The harmony of the 'community' was replaced by the incommensurable variety of the 'metropolis'. Physical chaos was matched by a sense of cultural disorder. The present-day theme of the city as a place of tragedy, as an experience of crisis, was as familiar to the Victorian critic as it is today. And although it was later to be investigated through the invention of two new literary genres—the detective story and science fiction—'great' British writers, with the partial exception of Dickens, found the city streets inscrutable: a metaphorical 'Africa', occasionally explored, frequently ignored.

It was as though 'culture' could not possibly hope to survive the rapid mechanisms of city life; its delicate aura would be swallowed up and lost in the anonymous crowd. In the subsequent outcry against the inhuman conditions of factory life, against the slums and urban poverty, English literary and critical writings have also consistently voiced this fear: the fear of a foreign culture, of a foreign 'way of life'.

Central to the sheer physicality of change in the nineteenth century city was a new sense of time. Time now began to be accumulated: in collective labour, in mechanical production, in the factory system. It was divided up into sequential units to be measured, defined, fought over, and consumed. Time, as it were, escaped from the natural clock and became a social construction. This led to a long struggle over whose 'time' it was: over the length of the working day, over establishing the principle of 'over-time', over the right to the two day weekend and the yearly paid holiday.

Accompanying working class and trade union agitation to establish the temporal limits of factory labour was the rise in a new commercial 'culture of pleasure'—a culture that was not part of the world of work, and was not necessarily linked (through the rites, festivals and ceremonies of the rural and pre-industrial urban calendar) to pragmatic social ends (Morin, 1962).

Urban working class life gradually acquired a new sense. The search for pleasure took place outside the factory gates in the sphere


of leisure and a personal 'free time' spent in the pub, at the dog races, breeding pigeons, tending allotments, fishing.... There, above all for men (women's domestic drudgery was rarely granted the status of work and therefore their 'leisure' remained more ambiguously defined), you also had the opportunity to 'dress up', look 'smart' or 'flash', and translate your imagination into a youth style, into dancing, into having a 'good time', into 'Saturday night'.

The introduction of new, mechanised rhythms and their chronometrical discipline (factory clocks, fixed working hours, railway timetables, office and shop hours), and the noise and dirt of rapid economic and urban growth, had not only been a shock for literature. Those who could afford to choose where they lived abandoned the city centres to day-time commerce and administration ... to philanthropists and sensationalist journalism ... to the working classes and the urban poor. London's extensive railway network and under ground carried the better-off, and the aspiring better-off (the black coated army of lower middle class clerical workers) away from the 'slimy streets' and 'screaming pavements', from the 'abyss', of Jack London's East End, travelling over and under the 'rookeries', 'dens' and slums to the residential areas that ringed the city. There, in the 'supreme ambivalence' of tree-lined suburbia, citizens of the business world and the professional classes (businessmen, lawyers, bankers, doctors, university teachers, retired army officers ...) lived in 'a gesture of non-commitment to the city in everything but function' (H.J. Dyos, in Cannadine and Reeder, 1982).

So, for the upper and much of the middle classes, the nineteenth century city becomes a foreign territory; an alien presence whose 'opaque complexity', then as now, was 'represented by crime' (Raymond Williams). There is a neurotic continuity here that runs from the 'street Arabs' of the 1840s, through the 'gangsters' of the 1860s, the 'un-English' Hooligan of the 1870s and the Northern 'scuttler' and his 'moll' in the 1890s, to the Hollywood-inspired motor bandits and bag snatchers of the 1930s, and the 'New York-inspired' black 'muggers' of the 1970s ... (Pearson, 1983). But these were only lurid symptoms. For it was the city itself that was a crime against 'culture'; peopled by a 'new race ... the city type ... voluble, excitable, with little ballast, stamina or endurance' (Charles Masterman, 1901), its obscure complexity was seen as a threat to the 'British way of life'.

The city, therefore, although initially abandoned to the working classes and the urban poor, had eventually to be reconquered, the 'wilderness of London' (Charles Dickens) to be tamed. The publication in the 1840s of a series of government Blue Books had revealed the appalling sanitary conditions in Britain's major towns. This, and


a series of housing, health and education legislation through the course of the century, formed the official framework of what would become the 'civilising mission' to the poor.

For poverty and urban squalor, at least viewed from the comfortable prospects of a Victorian drawing-room, were generally considered to be the result of immorality (the poor were 'philistines'—riddled with atheism, sexual licence and 'the demon drink'), not economic and social forces. Moral rearmament, in the form of religion, the temperance movement, schooling and education, was despatched to the 'Hottentots' in the slums of 'darkest England'. To be 'educated' for your place in society called for moral discipline rather than disinterested education. It is not surprising that personal accounts of working class education at the turn of the century reveal the hollow nature of schooling and its frequent interruption by pupils' strikes, truancy and 'larking about' (Humphries, 1981).

Following the rougher justice of the police, the ground was pre pared for an individualistic, 'self-help', 'respectable', British citizenship to grow. The idea of 'respectability'—a medium for moderation in all matters; social, sexual and political, an appeal to that sub conscious area that the American writer Norman Mailer once called the 'psychic real estate of capitalism'—although often overlooked in daily dealings came to dominate the horizons of many in the working class.

What early planning there had been in the nineteenth century city was initially concentrated in monuments to a rapidly expanding market economy: steel-girdered railway terminuses, Gothic housed banks and local stock exchanges, extravagant town houses for the rich. But from the mid-century onwards, with the Victorian mission to introduce 'respectability' into the untutored growth of the towns in full swing, and the growth of the political credo of Liberalism (where entrepreneurial energies compromised with patrician responsibilities), towns became the object of social and civic design.

Sewage disposal and the water supply was attended to, parks (the 'lungs of the city') and public libraries were opened, wash houses and swimming baths built, street improvements planned and the streets, often made of blocks of tarred wood, washed and swept each night. Of course, much of this activity, often motivated more by civic pride than social concern, was piecemeal and ineffective; the persistent sources of urban poverty, slum housing and malnutrition—the 'arithmetic of woe'—were rarely eradicated. But what had decisively changed by the end of the century was the fact that the cities—their populations, their conditions, welfare and health—could no longer


be abandoned to themselves.

In 1888 London County Council was established. Two years later with the 1890 Law for the Housing of the Working Classes, local government acquired the authority to build houses. Following the example of the LCC—its housing projects, improvement schemes and architectural solutions—housing increasingly became the central responsibility of local government, and with the 1909 Housing, Town Planning Act, a full blown state concern.

Around the question of housing, circulate a number of practices—architectural, local and national government, domestic design—that in the period 1890-1940 combined to suggest a set of views about the 'English home'. On the physical surfaces of the home in this period it is possible to trace a loaded response to the problems of inhabiting contemporary urban space, and behind that, a reply to industrial society itself.

For, surprising as it may seem, such taken for granted objects as the garden, the gabled roof and the housing estate can signal cross roads in a national landscape.

By the Edwardian period, the loss of Britain's industrial supremacy to Germany and the United States, is compensated for by a reflex prejudice against the machine and the 'rootless' flux of city life. The Empire offered a protective barrier against the outside world; and while international rivalry raged abroad, a nationalist view of reality flowered at home. Earlier criticisms of industrial society and the 'un balancing effect' of city life—individuals adrift in the crowd, with out destination or apparent purpose—were now married to the re called traditions of the land and a common, 'down to earth', wisdom of the rural eternal. The 'empty' countryside, depopulated by the harsh rationalities of agricultural and industrial revolution, became an 'integrating cultural symbol' (Martin Weiner) set against the darkness of the city; a stable referent in a rapidly changing world. [1]

In its blending of the natural and the social (the cottage, the farm, village life), this rustic vision permitted the possibility of stepping outside the competitive turmoil of industrial time into the moral order of 'Englishness', where, beneath open skies, land and blood entwined in the renewal of the 'race'. For these were also the years when both the National Trust was founded and Social Darwinism was rife: it was 'survival of the fittest' and the city was a 'jungle' populated by 'slum monkeys'; and where racism was displaced into Empire and its soldiers acquired 'little beyond a contempt for lesser breeds, a love of


family discipline and a passion for hot pickles' (Roberts, 1973: 105). [2]

This conservative 'English dream', later to become the parochial soap opera world of 'Mrs. Dale's Diary', looked backwards to the bucolic prospects of a 'Merrie England' and an 'organic community' situated somewhere between Agincourt and Shakespeare: an idealisation of the 'old tyrannies' (Philip Derbyshire). It turned out to be as influential in English socialist thought (Arnold Toynbee, William Morris, the Hammonds, R.H. Tawney), and much literary and social criticism, as it was in the Arts and Crafts Movement and the romantic reaction of the 'gentry' against industrial life.

We drove on and in the early afternoon came to our destination: wrought-iron gates and twin, classical lodges on a village green, an avenue, more gates, open park-land, a turn in the drive; and suddenly a new and secret landscape opened up before us. (Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, 1945)

In this 'countryside of the mind' (Martin Weiner) the issue of housing came to be fused with the 'question of England'. It was not only in the fabulous architecture of Voysey's houses—large sloping roofs, small windows, low ceilings—or the more modest, middle class language of Unwin and Parker, that the protective national shell of rural life was imitated. It was found everywhere: the 'cottages' on London's Hammersmith Estate (1926), the 'village model' of Port Sunlight on Merseyside and Bournville (1895), the 'garden cities' of Letchford and Welwyn (1920). When the Daily Mail launched the idea of the Ideal Home in 1901 it was the 'cottage' that dominated domestic architecture. And if the 'urban cottage', with its front and back garden, however small, located in a 'hamlet' or 'estate', became the model for domestic architecture in the suburban plans of the building societies and the minds of home owners, it was to be equally central to the newly introduced idea of 'council housing'. 3

It was not until the 1930s and major slum clearances that the detached house ideal came under siege and modernism, in the form of five- or six-storeyed apartment blocks, mass production building techniques, and clean, simple lines, came to be accepted: Kennet House, Manchester (1938); Quarry Hill, Leeds, with its wall wardrobes and radio plugs, centralised antenna and laundry, and a waste disposal system that supplied autonomous heating; White City, Hammersmith.


Fundamentally, however, the 'English home', with its roots in the comforting stability of the rural ideal, combined against the design of the industrial world and the 'unnatural' city to make anti-modernism a prevalent strand in the official varieties of 'British' culture.

Modernism was to appear elsewhere, in despised popular culture, in the architecture of dream and pleasure palaces: cinemas, dance halls, football stadiums, seaside resorts.

... and urban pastimes

They were the children of the Woolworth Stores and the moving pictures. Their world was at once larger and shallower than that of their parents. They were less English, more cosmopolitan. Mr. Smeeth could not understand George and Edna, but a host of youths in New York, Paris and Berlin would have understood them at a glance. Edna's appearance, her grimaces and gestures, were temporarily those of an Americanised Polish Jewess, who, from her mint in Hollywood, had stamped them on these young girls all over the world. George's knowing eye for a machine, his cigarettes and drooping eyelid, his sleek hair, his ties and shoes and suits, the smallest details of his motor-cycling and dancing, his staccato impersonal talk, his huge indifferences, could be matched almost exactly around every corner in any American city or European capital (J.B. Priestley, Angel Pavement 1930)

For those living inside the irreversible changes of the late nineteenth century city, cultural conservatism had little relevance. Earlier traces still clung to the streets: the costermongers with their barrows of wares, once popular amusements such as cock fighting and fairs. But, between the pressure of the law and the changed tempos of urban life, they increasingly fell into disuse. The historian Eric Hobsbawm suggests that the 1840s already 'mark the end of the era when folksong remained the major musical idiom of industrial workers' (Hobsbawm, 1969:91). It was commercial music making—song sheets and the music hall, later the radio and records—that replaced it. For while the lives of the Victorian upper and middle classes remained largely protected from the direct impact of industrialism and the wrenching forces of city life, for the working classes and urban poor this was not the case. It was their culture that changed, and often dramatically. It was they, in particular, who most keenly felt the full and novel impact of capitalism, industry and urban living. Unprotected by wealth or property, and sucked in by economic forces and daily needs, these were 'the people' who had to make Britain's


towns and cities 'habitable by their own efforts' (Hobsbawm, 1969:87) .

The earlier abandonment of the nineteenth century city by the upper and more prosperous middle classes not only meant that urban culture was decisively shaped by working class tastes. It also meant that a public gulf opened up between a subordinate 'popular culture' and the private pleasures sought by the leisured classes. The limited overlap and reciprocity between the lives of the eighteenth century gentry and plebeian culture at markets, fetes, festivals and village rites had now disappeared. A sharp geographical and social separation between different cultures was literally mapped out along the streets and districts of nineteenth century urbanisation. Official culture was publicly limited to the rhetoric of monuments in the centre of town: the university, the museum, the theatre, the concert hall; otherwise it was reserved for the 'private' space of the Victorian residence.

For those who defined 'Englishness', the urban tribes increasingly became a race apart: their amusements and pleasures examples of some very 'un-English' behaviour. Even sport was affected. After the defeat of the Old Etonians by Blackburn Olympic in the 1883 FA Cup Final, 'gentlemen' retired from football. Rugby was divided between Union and League, and boxing disappeared into rowdy halls and tough, back street gyms. Apart from their popular clientele, these sports had been transformed from exercises in the morality of amateurism into professionally organized, commercial, urban spectacles.

The forms of popular leisure that had emerged by the end of the nineteenth century were therefore quite different from those of fifty or sixty years before. The establishment of the ten hour working day in 1847 and the growing practice after the 1860s of the Saturday afternoon free for sports were changes that initially remained carefully tied to the self-righteous paraphernalia of Victorian 'respectability'. Free time was expected to be 'usefully' employed. And the tastes and activities of the 'lower-orders'—inflammatory recreation and potential 'rituals of disorder' (Douglas Reid)—were monitored and in several cases curtailed. But the growth of an urban commercial culture around drink and song, gambling and professional sport, a 'new recreational nexus' that existed outside the workplace and paternalistic control, led to important transgressions. Beyond the immediate reach of the moral economy of religion and 'respectability' there was now a culture that 'never demanded complete sobriety, self-restraint or other personal virtues recommended by working-class political and trade union leaders or the middle classes' (R.D. Storch, 1982:7).


Where local, village and street based customs and entertainment hat formed the context of early nineteenth century popular leisure, fifty years later an imposing industry of music halls, professional sport, seaside resorts and the popular press had taken their place. Local territory and street identities still remained important, even if street gangs like Manchester's Bengal Tigers, Glasgow's Redskins or the all female Check Skirt Gang from Paddington (the names were often lifted from comics) only confirmed the pathological view of urban life.

If labour, industry and city life had been revolutionised by the 'age of steam', so too had leisure. This was most strikingly illustrated in the publishing empires built on 'poor taste'. The steam driven printing press turned out song sheets, 'Gothic shockers' (Varney the Vampire, The Black Monk), boys' comics (The Gem, The Magnet - the home of Greyfriars and Billy Bunter), the popular novels of Mrs. Henry Wood, Rider Haggard and Stanley Weyman, popular journals and newspapers like Reynolds Weekly, Tit Bits, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Mail, and the more rabid chauvinism of popular Toryism: John Bull and Bulldog Drummond, where foreigners were all 'wops', 'dagos', 'frogs', 'niggers' and 'greasers'.

But the most public symbol of steam power was undoubtedly the locomotive. By 1850, nearly every major town in Britain was linked by railway. Thirty-five years later, and there existed more than 30,000 miles of track. By the end of the century, London boasted fifteen terminals. This extensive rail system, along with the introduction of cheap fares and a rise in real wages in the late nineteenth century, encouraged travel and the subsequent 'shrinkage' of Britain. The fastest growing urban centres were now the seaside resorts; towns 'designed for pleasure' (James Walvin). In the last decades of the century, the August bank holiday saw a flood of trippers taking trains from the northern industrial towns to Morecombe, Southport, Blackpool and Scarborough; more than half a million left London for the south coast resorts of Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings, or took steamship rides down the Thames to Herne Bay, Whitstable and Margate.

Over all this fun, and money, hung the shadow of American influences on British tastes and everyday life; already a favourite target for explaining national woes well before the end of the nineteenth century. The evidence stretched from the holiday snap (taken with a Kodak Brownie), the piano in the parlour (a mass produced American Steinway), to the imitation of the pleasure machinery of Coney Island (roller coasters, 'pleasure beaches', ferris wheels, extravagant illuminations), 'American vulgarity' in advertising. writing and


cinema, and the 'jungle music' of 'negro orgies' (the Daily Mail in 'jazz dances' at the Hammersmith Palais de Danse. It was here, and virtually only here, that modern sights, sounds and pleasures (cinema, leisure, dance) met modern design in monuments to the imagination.

In the present century, the greatest catalysts of change in Britain have been marked by war. And in post-bellic reconstruction the image of 'America'—its commerce, culture and assumed crassness—served to focus the collective fears of a social and cultural order that felt itself under siege. Whatever was novel, often the result of industrial innovation, organization and design—radio, records, cinema, and the tastes they fostered, had to pass through this xenophobic barrier. Intellectuals and social commentators of often very different political persuasion formed an almost unanimous critical front in their agreement that popular culture should refract a form of 'Englishness': that is, it should be grounded in the local concerns and traditions of the 'community'. This 'organic' view of culture, with its implicit appeal to either a pre-industrial, rural world, or the assumed harmony of the working class community of the late nineteenth century, was increasingly at odds with the metropolitan modernism of twentieth century popular tastes; there is where 'it was happening'. [4]

While writers bemoaned the 'loss of identity' brought about by the giddy commercial rush of urban culture, the 'victims' were busily discovering new 'identities'. The popular press, cheap literature, song sheets, music hall, 'kinema' and the gramophone, with sights, sounds and experiences unknown to the village and the crowded squalor of industrial backstreets and slums, offered a 'purchase' on this new culture. It was a culture destined to flourish without the aid or approval of intellectuals and the native 'traditions' they and others were so keen to defend. And it was almost inevitable that America, as the most advanced capitalist society in the world ('an image of the future at work', James Walvin), should become for both cultural conservatists and radicals (not necessarily different persons) the summation of all those fears of 'foreign', urban, commercial forces destroying 'English culture'.

George Orwell on English writer James Hadley Chase's No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939J:

... the career of Mr. Chase shows how deep the American influence has already gone. Not only is he himself living a continuous fantasy-life in the Chicago underworld, but he can count on hundreds of thousands of readers who know what is meant by a 'clipshop' or the 'hotsquat' do


not have to do mental arithmetic when confronted by 'fifty grand ' and understand at sight a sentence like 'Johnny was a rummy and only two jumps ahead of the nut-factory'. Evidently there are great numbers of English people who are partly Americanized in language and one ought to add, in moral outlook ' (George Orwell, 1970, Vol 3: 254-5).

By the end of the 1930s in popular literature, in pulp magazines like True Detective and Detective Weekly, in boys' comics like Hotspur, Rover, and the Wizard, and in crime fiction in general, the terse prose of transatlantic actions had replaced the drawing-room mannerisms of the English murder story. English 'remains a class language and that is its fatal defect. The English writer is a gentleman first and a writer second' (Raymond Chandler).

If the city was the obvious home of crime, the detective was its privileged literary explorer. But with Britain's most famous gentleman detective, Sherlock Holmes, the 'fogs of Baker Street' are penetrated by a 'passion for definite and exact knowledge'. Crime is removed from the streets and passions of the everyday. It becomes the object of individual logic, not city life; a 'version of pure intelligence penetrating the obscurity which beset ordinary men' (Williams, 1973:229). By the 1920s the tenuous links to urban experience in English detective stories had been almost completely severed by removal to the country house (Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, and the inevitable butler), where there is no gratuitous violence, no evil intelligence, no sex, just bloodless intrigue.

As a cipher of urban living, this gap is eventually filled by the American 'private eye'. He, and his alter-ego, the gangster, encapsulate the masculine drama of the 'man of the city'. The logic and puzzles of the 'whodunit' was replaced by the instinct, frequently survival instinct, of the 'hard-boiled' investigator who in the end does not hand over the guilty to a solid moral and social order, but reveals a battered code of individual integrity and an urban realism cynically stripped of false values: the city is corrupt, but it is real. All of which leaves George Orwell to conclude rather gloomily that 'Freud and Machiavelli have reached the outer suburbs' (George Orwell). [6]

The contradictions between a firm grasp of native values and the 'superficiality' of popular American culture are probably most neatly captured in the exposed role of the BBC in those years. Under its Director General, John Reith, the BBC, although often snubbed for being a purveyor of 'popular taste', saw itself very much as a bulwark


against mass (ie. 'American') culture. But as a popular medium—in 1931 more than four and a half million radio licences were purchased—it had constantly to confront and negotiate that pressure.

In terms of the mass culture debate, then, the BBC's production staff found themselves in an odd position. Working in a mass medium with explicitly anti-mass cultural principles, they had daily to answer the questions that other intellectuals avoided What did it mean to construct a national culture? Who were 'the people'? What did it mean to please the public? ' (Simon Frith, 1983: 105)

In the end, when the pressure of cheap commercial culture coming from Britain's wartime ally could no longer be resisted, it could only stage a delaying, rear-guard action.

... a show which had cost the sponsors $12,000 was available to the BBC for fifteen pounds. Soon Bob Hope and Jack Benny were proving popular with British audiences. But the imports were carefully restricted being broadcast at 12.30 pm on Sundays rather than in peak evening periods (David Cardiff & Paddy Scannell, 1981:67).

It was the Second World War and the stationing of American soldiers on British soil that finally turned 'mass culture' and the 'spectre of Americanization' into an immediate reality. The filtered movement of American cinema, popular music and 'Yank mags' across the Atlantic in the 1930s, was supplemented by a direct impact: gum chewing American males swigging beer straight from the bottle who had their own radio station (the American Forces Network), their own music ('swing'), their own cigarettes, their own particular presence. Despite the hostility this alien force aroused in the pinched economic and cultural prospects of war-time Britain (Americans were 'over-paid and over-sexed') it undoubtedly added concrete shape to a sense of the alternative in British popular culture. [7] This was driven home after the 1940s by the ominous vanguard of youth and the rise, as economic conditions once again permitted a certain 'purchase on style' (Geoffrey Pearson), of the 'Americanized teenager', rock'n'roll, 'juvenile delinquency', and ... 'all that jazz'.


Now I was ready to hit the town. I made my way down the stairs and into the brightness of the summer evening. I made my way down Brooke Road to the High Street, where I could catch the number 647 trolley bus to Dalston. I looked swell in my knee-length jacket, thick, crepe-soled shoes, bright yellow tie in the most gigantic knot. I wore nice, well pressed trousers on Saturday night. During the week it would be jeans or denims (Ron Barnes, 1976).

Metropolis now!

... that enormous present which is without past or future, memory or planned intention ... (Norman Mailer, 1957).

The figure of mature capitalism is the modern city, the metropolis.

Living in the city we inherit its physical structures and cultural conditions. In challenging and exploring this inheritance much of our urban 'sense' and 'self' is formed. For the metropolis is a psychological as well as a physical reality, a cultural as well as economic environment. The city exists as a series of doubles: it has official and hidden cultures, it is a real place and a site of the imagination. Its elaborate network of streets, housing, public buildings, transport systems, parks, cars ... is paralleled by a complex of attitudes, habits, customs, expectancies, and hopes that reside in us as urban subjects.

We discover that urban 'reality' is not singular but differentiated.

Marks on the skin, on the surface of the city can turn out to be as important as the underlying source of 'unity' we might assign to them. For it is on the surfaces that history intersects with desire and identities are realised; this is the 'place of sense' (G. Deleuze).

The city has also become a dirty sign, contaminated by different cultures, different forces, different desires, different needs that accumulate in the metropolitan body. And there is no guarantee that they are commensurable: there exists 'a surplus of meaning' (Ernesto Laclau) .

In the 1950s, as tower blocks were raised and a relative affluence replaced the numbing poverty of the 1930s and the deprivation of the war and immediate post-war years, Britain presented evidence of


a new social settlement: full employment, consensus politics, an economic 'boom', the 'Welfare State'. The expansion in the economy (largely based on production for domestic consumer goods), and a rise in overall living standards, was publicly contrasted with the pre war world of poverty, mass unemployment, and rigid social divisions. In the rash enthusiasm the 'age of affluence' was declared. Meanwhile, US television series such as Highway Patrol and 77 Sunset Strip, the voice of Elvis Presley, alongside Dixon of Dock Green and 6.5 Special, presented what was both a common yet simultaneously wider source of cultural experience.

Local culture, and its street economy of the corner shop, the pub, back to back housing, was increasingly subject to irruption, some times dispersal, and, almost without exception, remaking. Britain's bomb-damaged city centres were rebuilt and extensive slum clearance and rehousing programs undertaken. Private and public capital, government housing policy and architecture, the arrival of television and the expansion of the media and entertainment industries, the introduction of shopping centres and supermarkets: these all combined to remould the physical, social and symbolic structures of urban life.

Dick Hebdige has brilliantly explored how in literature, social criticism and design circles, amongst the 'taste makers', the controversy that grew in the 1950s and '60s around this overall shift in British 'life style' repeated the perennials: native traditions versus 'foreign invasions'. [3] The objects of critical disdain for some was merely modernism altogether. For others it was the threat to the uncluttered rationality of inter-war European modernism (straight lines, white surfaces, no decoration, clean functionalism, houses as 'machines for living': the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier) represented by the baroque extravagancy of 1950s American streamlining and, to a lesser extent, post-war Continental styling. The exaggerated size, shape and finish of American cars—tailfins stolen from a jet(!), four headlights, all that chrome—and the sculptured 'Italian line' in office furniture, scooters, espresso machines, coffee bars and interior design, generated a hostile reaction in various quarters in Britain. The Americans were accused of 'debauching themselves in tailfins' (Reyner Banham), and the 'effeminate', under-powered, Italian motor-scooter was compared unfavourably to that 'bestiary of power' (Roland Barthes), the noisy, British motor bike and its 'masculine culture of the road' (Dick Hebdige).

This debate, and its references to 'trash' culture and effete mannerisms, carries, through 'modernism', America, and the Continent, to the adoption of conspicuous 'foreign' habits in post-war British


youth styles. In male subcultures a foreign influence, an 'Other', frequently of transatlantic inspiration, has been unfailingly present: teddy boys and their stylistic homage to the Hollywood gangster; the mods who drew equally on black American soul music and Continental fashion, crossed James Brown with Milan and then self consciously 'drifted out at night looking for action with a black man's code to fit the facts' (Mailer, 1957).

These attempts at imposing private obsessions on public places (the 'wild ones', the 'cool ones', the 'faces'), of translating an imagined state into the clothes, music and style of a carefully studied life performance, promised a temporary escape from your time, your circumstances, your history.

The new sensibility—Baby baby baby baby where did our love go? - the new world, submerged so long, invisible, and now arising, slippy, shiny, electric—Super Scuba-man-out of the Vinyl deeps. (Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, 1966)

An attempt, if you like, to show that what is recognisable in British life need not be bound to 'solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar boxes' (Orwell, 1970, Vol. 2:76).

What was most shocking, for both left and right-wing critics, was that these youth groups adapted their styles from consumer objects, that their cultural insubordination was allied to a consumerism that touched a very un-British hedonism as it 'squandered' its money on extravagant clothing, pop records, scooters, over-priced frothy coffee, motor bikes, drugs, clubs, and attempts to create a perpetual 'weekend'. This slackness in social and sartorial decorum naturally also played upon the fears of a youthful sexuality freed from discipline and constraint (the abolition of National Service in 1960 was considered particularly significant here) ... seduced by the permissive freedom of 'America'.

Against a greenish drape background a young man plays the saxophone. In front of him a red-headed girl dressed in black is dancing alone, hands behind her head. Her body is transported by music, ecstasy, desire ... This is


the cover of the 1962 Panther edition of American beat writer Jack Kerouac's The Subterraneans. For two and sixpence you were promised an 'unashamed look' at 'weird lives' and 'wild loves ... in a jazz-haunted, desire-tormented world'.

These developments not only outraged the stiff-lipped economy of the middle classes or retired Brigadiers in Hampshire writing to The Times, but also working class 'respectability'. There, where 'masculinity' was traditionally endorsed through hard, physical work and an unambiguous toughness, all this male narcissism, with its attention to the 'look', to the details, to the length of jacket vents, velvet on the collar, and the number of buttons on the sleeves, to fussy hair styles and foppishly pointed shoes ... all this 'dressing up' in public, was disturbing.

While subcultures have been largely exercises in the physical, sexual and sartorial bravado of male street styles, playing with stylised identities is actually, in a usually much quieter fashion, a central concern for most of us in urban life. For the consumption of everyday goods simultaneously involves the consumption of social signs; we construct our identities from 'borrowed ready-mades lifted from the catalogue of urban life' (Maria Del Sapio).

For women, fashion can become a foil for public assertions, and the forbidden iconography of marginal womanhood ('vulgar' cosmetics, skimpy clothing, leather, the 'bold look') can be recycled to produce a challenge to male judgement and a refusal to be sentenced by that gaze. When 'girls want to have fun', the female libido in the promiscuous world of goods can upset previous identities: can pose threats to the powers, values and institutions of 'British manhood'. More than this, the concern with the body—both female and male—in fashion, in pop music, in dance, can lead into ambiguity, an escape from previously gendered roles and an assumption of new ones.

Of course, in times of economic recession, consumerism can turn into a mocking image, particularly for the unemployed. There the contradictions become naked, unavoidable. The recourse to crime and riots by black and white youth in the summer of 1981 seemed to converge 'on a single point of tension: desire and the absence of means, a brick and a shop window.... The right to work subsumed in the right to consume' (Hebdige, 1982:18). In its cruel eloquence this situation, these actions, speak of a world where the production of one's self operates through modes of stylised consumption: an instinctive


grasping of the fact that it is necessary to stamp your identity on the goods or else be stamped upon by them.

If you live in a black and white world, and renounce the play of ambiguity, then all this is merely the predictable product of capital ism and consumerism, of 'Americanization'. Britain 'has gone down the drain'. Yet self-righteously to castigate consumerism is to miss the point. Mentally to extract ourselves from consumer society, to turn our backs on what is actually happening, is to live an intellectual lie.


In metropolitan realities the simple distinctions collapse.

Class and culture, for example, can no longer be confidentially assigned their respective connections. Both continue to exist but in an increasingly complex, heterogeneous, pattern. There is an overflow. And then even the idea that popular culture is simply a synonym for working class leisure has never actually been the case.

Nineteenth century popular culture was already 'inclusive, welcoming into its ambit the huge human and occupational variety covered by the words "labourers, artisans, shopkeepers and tradesmen" It cannot ... be described as "a working class culture' but at the same time it was imbued with a sense of popular rights' (Cunningham, 1980:38).

Popular culture today, although still dominated by subordinated tastes and working class experience, stretches even further. On the margins of a shrinking 'traditional' working class, there exist groups—girls and women in their public and private lives, unemployed black and white youth, racially discriminated immigrants, not to speak of an indistinct grouping of white collar workers, intellectuals and radicals—who claim their 'right to the city' (Henri Lefebvre).

The 'classic' view of popular culture's working class formation between the 1880s and the First World War, followed by its slow consolidation in the inter-war years and its triumphant expansion in the late 1950s and 1960s, has in the 1980s been revised. Already by the 1930s, modernism and wider urban tastes were so mixed up in the combustible language of popular culture that 'America' and commerce proved far more convincing target for its critics than the British working class. [9] For most of them the question was larger than class; it was national, even chauvinistic. What they feared was the destruction of 'British culture'. If they were populist that meant Shakespeare and the famed British cup of tea, if they were not, then just the old institutions of cultural power.

Today, in the experience of the city, the metaphysical separation between ideas and material, between original and derivative, production and reproduction, culture and industry, falls. The struggle over 'Culture' may still be staged—at least in the universities, learned journals, art galleries, official cultural agencies, 'serious' literature, cinema and television—between these presumed opposites. But popular culture has bypassed the question and become the real source of contemporary urban tastes.

The urban machine is no longer the privileged focus of alienation. It has become the principal means of language. The city has become the semiological nexus between the imaginary and 'reality'. Its cosmopolitan grammar, sustained by the electronic language of radio, cinema, television, records, video (each historically identified 'menaces' of 'culture'), has accustomed us to hearing Afro-Caribbean rhythms coming out of Japanese stereos, of seeing British youth, dressed in Italian-style clothing, moving to US soul music. The global reach of this culture has frequently been accompanied by a sharpened sense of the immediate, the local and the particular. It has offered, as for example, in the case of reggae 'dub', 'scratch', 'rap' and 'hip hop culture', a dynamic relation between the particular syntax of local cultures, advanced technology, musical pleasure, urban aesthetics and everyday life.

'Trevor Birch is a B-Boy. That's 'B' for Bad, Beautiful, Black, Breaking, the Bronx. But in Trevor 's case, 'B ' for British. He couldn't tell you which subway line leads to the New York borough north of the Harlem River that has given him, at 18 in East London, an activity, an identity. But he has heard the records, seen the looks, knows the moves (Paul Rambali 1984).

Today, in the more easily accessed electronic archives, in the memory banks of records, films, tapes, videos, different cultures can be re-visited, revived, re-cycled, re-presented. The corollary: contemporary 'art' is no longer the privileged field of the symbolic, of the imagination; no longer a privileged reflection on the 'external'. It too has become an 'urban event', alongside television, newspapers,


graffiti, pop records; a metropolitan 'gesture'. Its previous codes are contaminated.... Art becomes pop, turns profane ... and pop, popular culture, acquires its own aesthetics and confuses them with the daily realities of consumerism.

All these are limited, but not for that insignificant, transfigurations of official versions of 'reality'. Pin pricks on the stolid body of 'common sense', no doubt. But the traces they leave accumulate an instructive shape, a possible exit from the apparently inevitable rhythms that co-ordinate our daily lives. The authority of 'culture' is broken down into the transitory, the immediate, the experienced. Inside this precarious urban collage the democracy of cultural populism becomes a possibility.

Today, popular culture has become a differential but common language that permits mutual recognition. 'High culture' has become just one more subculture in its midst.

Iain Chambers teaches at Istituto Universitario Navale, Naples.


1. During the butchery of the First World War, Lloyd George promised 'a cottage for all'. And in 1919, with the Russian Revolution resounding around the world and growing discontent at home, the government promised 500,000 new homes in the next three years and began 'building against the revolution' (Lawrence Orbach in Calabi, 1982).

2. Empire and race, with its appeal to working class territorial rivalry and aggressive masculinity, will later be distilled into the neurotic displays of white ethnicity ('wearing the flag'); when the Empire's gone, your horizons are suddenly narrowed and your own economy is in crisis.

3. In 1934, when many male clerks were earning more than five pounds a week, a twenty-four pound deposit and sixty-seven and a half pence a week for twenty years would get you a four hundred and eighty pound house. The interest rate—four and a half per cent—was very low. By 1939, one third of the nation's housing stock had been constructed after 1918 and the major part was represented by private building. Of the 4,000,000 new homes, 1,100,000 were council built and 2,900,000 privately constructed (Calabi, 1982).


4. Not that the idea of 'community' doesn't continue to be very important in particular circumstances. In Britain, the cultural resilience of West Indian, Pakistani and Indian communities is an obvious example. But the making of these communities among contemporary racial, and racist, pressures is different from the singular resistance of the mining villages through the bitter strike of 1984 to the threatened reduction of a traditional working class economy. They belong, in a certain sense, to different histories; one to the white, male, British working class; the other to imperial ism, third world poverty, immigration, racism. Their differences can be as important as their points of contact. As many of those involved, permanently unemployed black youth, for example, are strictly part of a growing 'lumpen proletariat' of urban 'marginals', neither can they automatically be slipped into the presumed solidarity of the politics and culture of the traditional 'British working class'.

5. As a gentleman detective, Holmes also bent his erudition to writing monographs on such details of detection as cigar ash and secret writing. At this point in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, detective fiction is suggestively linked through the then optimistic prospects of 'science' to that other new literary genre, science fiction.

6. I have drawn here on George Orwell's essay 'Raffles and Miss Blandish', first published in 1944. It should be read alongside another Orwellian article, 'Decline of the English Murder' (1946), to get the full flavour of Orwell's antipathy towards the 'Americanization' of British popular culture: where 'domesticity' was being unhinged by the 'anonymous life of the dance halls and the false values of American film'. The essays are in Orwell (1970) Vols. 3 and 4 respectively.

7. The social impact of the arrival of US troops in war-time Britain has been graphically recreated in John Schlesinger's film Yanks.

8. See his trilogy of essays published in the critical arts magazine Block: 'Towards a cartography of taste 1935-1962', 'Object as Image: the Italian Scooter Cycle', and 'In Poor Taste'. An edited version of the first essay has also been published in Waites, Bennett and Martin (1982).

9. It also permitted critics sympathetic to working class culture—Orwell and Hoggart, for example—to avoid the uncomfortable fact that much of this 'foreign' invasion had been thoroughly 'naturalised', that native working class culture and popular taste


had irreversibly changed, not so much for the better or the worst, but better to meet their present.


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New: 7 December, 1997 | Now: 27 April, 2015