Ground Control: Fear And Happiness In The Twenty First Century City. Anna Minton, Penguin 2009
This book control covers an intensely important issue in modern British life: the alienation of public spaces from the public. However, it is not a good book. It’s the kind of book you sometimes see quoted in Guardian comment pieces as if Minton were an expert on the subject (which she is patently not) and the book proves a point (which it entirely fails to do).
And the primary complaint is true. One can’t even picnic near major London landmarks without being moved on by council wardens. You can’t take photographs in the street without being harassed by the police. Urban designers and traffic planners are engaged to make public places physically inaccessible and unpleasant. Public highways are sold to private companies, who get to make and enforce new rules beyond the law. This is important stuff. Sadly, this is a basically lazy and incurious little book, written fairly badly by a journalist who hasn’t mastered long-form writing.
There is one good section: a straightforward journalistic account of the last Labour government’s scandalous ‘pathfinder’ scheme of housing demolitions, which bulldozed houses on behalf of property developers without giving the displaced communities proper recompense.
Anna Minton is a journalist, and as such she has picked up a lot of bad habits that make her attempt at a long-form wholly annoying to read. The standard technique of the newspaper commentariat is to write 500 words consisting of: statement of thesis, personal anecdote, supportive quote from ‘authoritative source’, restatement of thesis. Five-hundred words, all done. Minton’s book repeats this formula over and over.
She is also lazy like many journalists are lazy. There isn’t a single original thought here. There is no attempt to connect the disparate issues covered together with anything other than Minton’s preexisting and unexamined prejudices.
She also writes with the very distinctively Guardianey tone of a person writing about social problems and the poor from the comfort of a Tuscan villa. Indeed, most of the policy recommendations, such as they are, come from her experiences of living in a Milanese apartment, dining by the Grand canal in Venice and on Roman piazzas, and holidaying in various European capitals.
And while she waxes lyrical about her holiday memories (without ever examining them in detail), it is pretty clear that she never really bothered visiting the places in the UK she writes about.
It just so happens that she uses my own neighbourhood in East London as one of her examples. She describes a new shopping mall in Stratford as being an alien imposition on the landscape, unavailable and unused by local people. But she didn’t survey shoppers to find out where they were from. I don’t think she even visited – her description of ‘high-end’ retail ‘out of reach of local people’ doesn’t match the standard high street offer of the mall. She writes about sitting by the canal in Venice, lamenting that she “couldn’t do this in England”. Had she walked a few minutes along the Regents Canal or Lea Navigation from the aforementioned mall, she could have found dozens of places to do just that, whether hipster coffee shops at Fish Island, barge-cafes in Mile End, or old Clapton boozers.
At one point the book turns from lazy to disgraceful. She spends pages detailing the travails of a family in London and their attitudes to crime. One of the family members looks out from his gated community across the Isle of Dogs and trembles in fear of the locals. Another struggles to find a builder who is willing to remove the security features her flat came installed with. The older members of the family read the Daily Mail and fret about the crime rate. BUT THEN, after pages of this, Minton writes: “they are, of course, a fictitious family which I invented to illustrate [my thesis].” This was supposed to be non-fiction. It made me wonder what other ‘interviewees’ were invented too.
Most of it is just rehashed commentariat talking points about ASBOs and criticism of the right-wing media. No attempt is made to link these to the built-environment issues supposedly at the core of the book. Because that would require both original research and original thought, things which Minton is apparently incapable of.