Maybe the French sociologists are correct and that here, in the western world, we’ve so speeded up that we’ve become detached from history. Their thesis is simple enough: since the 1990s nothing is given a chance to settle: as a result history is no longer possible: life can no longer be captured and freeze-dried (as it were).
Still, there was a time when history, even recently, was possible – and the BBC has helped us get some idea of a certain culture in time and place: it’s done this by exploring the making of classic albums – and the other day we heard about the production of Blondie’s wonderful LP record, ‘Parallel lines‘. ‘Parallel lines‘ was born out of life in New York city during the 1970s. Debbie Harry gave a riveting account of how she experienced the great city back then: it was grimy, hard-edged, dangerous, sexy and full of desire. In essence you could be ‘other’ in New York and, well, you just got on with it. New York was somewhere unique. And Debbie’s songs reflected this. Her lyrics were street-wise, raw, direct and sparing. Attitude to the power of ten: ‘I know a girl from a lonely street, cold as ice cream but still as sweet …‘ Far Rockaway and back … Bowery girl …
But then Debbie Harry said something very telling: She remarked that the New York of the 1970s has gone. Now, she said, it’s dominated by the corporations. It’s a city ‘just like everywhere else’, just like every other city. In the new forms of city everything is corporate – sloganised – homogenised – fast-paced – future-centred (and maybe history doesn’t happen anymore) …
I wonder what she’d make of London or Paris. I wonder: Have they become ‘just like every other city’?
PS.I’m writing this note because there was a time when people built mansions like the one shown in Ian Woodard’s design (in the photograph), and people like Mervyn Peake wrote the Gormenghast trilogy, and Francis Bacon painted terrific existential paintings and David Lean made ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. There was a time when corporations were secondary, life was primary. And once upon a time we thought about humanistic values and we managed to create some great and unique institutions … institutions that were nothing to do with corporations.
PPS. Bramshill, as an institution, was once just such a place.
Footnote: Ian Woodard is a great artist who once spent time with me in New York city. He now lives in Italy.