Thinking a North London Street
Daniel Miller, at the Tate Modern
PHOTO 1 STREET
Good morning, I am going to start the day off with a distinctly anthropological perspective, one which attempts to return you to the places you have just come from, the daily life of urban and suburban streets. I am not going to tell you which North London street I am talking about, my premise is that you shouldn’t need to know. That is why I chose to work on this street in the first place. I have studied the community of a street because it isn’t a community, I studied a street because it represents no person and no group, or at least none in particular. This street is literally non-descript, a term that seems imply something that defies simple description because of its very ordinariness, that there is nothing special about it. It is genuinely hard to describe the non-descript, and for important reasons. This was my criteria, I went in search of the non-descript, that which seemed in some way below the level of description, too ordinary, too mundane, too everything but nothing in particular. The slides I will be showing are therefore not from there, they are from around where I live and intended to be just as ordinary.
I went in search of the non-descript in particular, because my starting point in this quest to think the street was a conviction of my own ignorance. I began with reasonable confidence that although I dwell in a city - I was born in Baker Street, I have little understanding of what this means, or how to think the city. The anthropologist who studies their own society is expected to begin with such an act of de-familiarising. So in returning you this morning to your daily life of urban and suburban streets, I need you to share my assumptions that you are as ignorant about that which is most familiar as I am. My approach will be ethnographic rather than theoretical. I was brought up as an academic to think that to progress to knowledge depended upon theory. I would look to phenomenology or urban geography. At that time theory, seemed and I think was challenging and radical. But today theory saturates ones vision. I cant look at a city except through filters of `is it postmodern, is it dystopian, is it working class or gendered’. In such a landscape of discourses, my desire for some kind of ignorance becomes itself a utopian ideal of tearing away filters and forced foci of attention. I didn’t want to relate this quest to any debate in cultural studies, or comparison in anthropology. At least not at first, that could come later. A colleague refers to this as radical empiricism, and I think that’s right, perhaps empiricism has become the new radicalism.
In such a quest the non-descript is my ally. Because in resisting description it resists theory, it is not evidently an example of anything in particular. So when I searched for my street I looked for nothing special. I didn’t want some sink council estate that stood for poverty, or some mansions that stood for wealth. I didn’t want a black area or a white area. I wanted a `whatever’ area. And when with my co-fieldworker Alison Clarke we finally selected a street that is what we got. Who lives on this street - the city lives there, the non-descript of London. One household are refugees from Somalia, another third generation London Irish, the next part Jewish, the next from South America or Cyprus; but the street has no ethnicity, no one group dominates, black and white make little sense here, and many households are mixed. One household is a nuclear family, the next a group of students, the next has an au-pair, many on the council estate are widowed elderly living in awkward juxtaposition to single mothers with their noisy teenage children. There is a disabled Asian, an English rose, but nobody came out as gay, `What no gay people’ said one academic listening to a paper I gave, it was like start again, your sample is wrong, you need a gay. No I don’t. This is not a sample, you can’t sample a city, I don’t want people as tokens of some category. Would this gay that I missed stand for all gay people, or those of North-London, would sexual orientation allow me to proffer something to a `debate’. There is too much mixture, categories blend and change, a city is non-descript, more sort-of gay, in some contexts black, not especially female females.
But let me not mislead you, I do want to work with categories, I want to theorise. Mere relativism, `everyone’s different, they’re all special’
is terribly nice but leads to little by way of further understanding and accepts no responsibility. Its just I want to allow categories to emerge as salient, to feel confident in the humiliation of my expectations in the mire of my empiricism. Let categories come, slowly, emerging from the field experience until I can’t resist them. And then consider their status. An example, the core to this paper, is class. I sought to avoid the extremes because I didn’t want areas of housing to stand for a pre-given called class, I wanted to see if I could avoid it, come up with something more original, cross-cutting, innovative. But I couldn’t. Class met me from day one and remained my constant companion. Nearly everyone in this London street speaks to class, sees the world through class, only the most recent immigrants are immune. For some its not explicit, it is simply the way they speak about certain others, about smells, behaviour, bad taste, being stuck-up and posh. I do not resist for long, the integrity of this radical empiricism is its claim to listen to acknowledge the salient, but then to analyse it. Why class, is it because they too think in terms of debates, discourses, languages from which none can escape. Is it just categories of work or income. Is it a deeper sense of the foundations of themselves, what they were born to, cling on to, is it the way they classify experiences.
Because discourse is not just the burden of academics. We all live through and with the legitimate ways of seeing and speaking, and indeed thinking the city. And my interest today is one of the most powerful of these tropes, the discourse of the street. I don’t claim this is uniquely British but it is extraordinarily pervasive. Think of the British Soap Opera, Coronation Street, Albert Square, Brookside. The street is the primary form through which the British think the city. A Londoner can visit the West End, shop at Bluewater, commute to work, but we live the street. And that means we live the discourse of the street, the fantasy of community, of neighbourhood, of history, of local identity, of street festivals, street complaints, street parking, and of corner shops.
So my concern emerging from my radical empiricism is with the problem of what is a London street, and how this imagination of the street as a means to think the city articulates with the experience of actual households, my eclectic collection of fortuitous juxtapositions that is any actual street, my particular, nothing in particular, non-descript street. During the year in which Alison Clarke and myself spent with some 76 households on and around this street it was quickly clear that there could be no presumption that a street in a modern city was in any sense a community. Soon after we began a major crime occurred at one end of the street, one that involved a celebrity and reached the newspapers. Yet it never travelled as gossip to the other end of the street. Some community! Nevertheless the street is a major point of reference to city living and I was certainly concerned to understand how street dwellers think the city through thinking the street.
As with most city streets there are few obvious entry points to this task. There is no church, no street organisation, no neighbourhood groups, no social network that takes its identity from the street. Yet almost every household is glued almost everyday to television stories based on the ideology of streets. Indeed one of the most common phrases I heard during this year were variants upon the line `this isn’t Coronation Street you know’. Indeed it wasn’t. Consistent with Young and Willmotts studies of London in the 50’s the prevailing ideal is for people to keep themselves to themselves. There was, however, one clear mode for the objectification of street consciousness and street sociability and for the rest of my talk I want to focus upon this and its relationship to what I will call the aesthetic of the street. At one end of the street were a group of shops and both historically and today these became the symbolic means for the activity one might term thinking the street.
Shops and shopping may well, along with streets, have a rather more central role in Londoner’s consciousness of themselves than in many other areas. London is after all one of the regions where the modern shop first arose and we are well aware of our reputation as the nation of shopkeepers. Much of the employment in the area is based on retail, an extraordinary number of the people I met had worked at some time in their lives in shops. But soap opera and popular culture imagine shops not through the things that can be bought there but as the centre of the public sphere. In our imagination this is the place where people meet and talk - where Betty gossips about Linda Snell’s husband. For various reasons both the home and the workplace are seen as relatively constrained sites for sociality.
My initial guess was that only a few types of shop could stand for and create this sociable world, a pub maybe or a post office. In fact the oral histories I collected revealed that the possibility of a shop occupying this niche depended much more on particular shopkeepers and their personalities, than the shop’s function. At different times, the pub, the post office and the laundrette had all been the hub of the street. Today they are all socially dead spaces. The betting shop is important to around 40 people mostly men whose conversation consists mainly of horseracing but will on occasion expand to dogs and football. But only two of the twenty shops are genuinely successful in creating a sense of the street, the hairdresser and the hardware store.
PHOTO 2 HAIRDRESSER
The hairdresser was run by a fashionable looking male with several young female assistants in a modern, largely white, small salon that was constantly full, appealing beyond the street to female aspiring professionals from more affluent roads, as well as some men and families, while special rates for pensioners also brought in a more local group. On my first session, sitting and listening, a man having his haircut was talking avidly to the hairdresser about the other members of his family, Both his wife and two daughters had their hair cut there and it was soon evident that he was fishing for information about them. When they had gone I asked the hairdresser if this was common. He replied:-
`Oh very much so and very much so with married couples. It's quite interesting really because it's amazing what they want to tell each other, but don't have the time. Or they're too self conscious or inhibited to tell each other which is quite as interesting. There is this really stupid example. Two people wanted to go on holiday. Wanted to go to the same place on holiday, but didn't tell each other that they wanted to go there, and I just happened to say "Oh I hear you want to go to such and such a place" and "Yes, but how did you know?" and I said "Well I gather that the wife was talking about it" and he was quite taken a back because he said "Oh I didn't think she really wanted to go" You know there's that kind of thing. Then there is a common case of them talking about kids and private education and state education. One who is terribly for it and one who is terribly against it, but again for political reasons. Yes they'd each sort of talk to me about it and what have you. It's almost like they're sounding me out before they confront the partner and I try and stay as neutral as possible. We do also have examples of marital difficulties, when we know there's a third party involved, that I find difficult because then I am involved in that.'
PHOTO 3 HAIRDRESSER
Evidently the hairdresser has become a kind of conduit, not only within families but even more between people whose friendship is constituted by their common use of his salon. Quite often clients will come weekly in recognition that they will meet other regulars for that time slot. By contrast the elderly are much more prone to create a general collective chat, or to sit together in twos for long periods. As the hairdresser remarked:- `Oh those two they chat like a couple of old birds, like budgies they are. They'll talk to anybody which is lovely.' The hairdresser acknowledges a certain responsibility to his elderly regulars and will initiate enquiries if they do not turn up when expected. Later on I will introduce you to a similar tale of Do it All Bob the hardware man, not a kids tv program but the way people referred to the other shop that created a sense of the street.
PHOTO 4 FUNERAL
But these two shops were conspicuously different from the other shops most of which reflected the current condition of corner shops throughout Britain, one of decline, I am tempted to add terminal, a depressed and tragic condition. This is evident in their lack of stock, the constant closures, the self exploitation of a shopkeeper who has never taken a day off since his shop opened - not even Christmas - and who was to suffer a nervous breakdown soon after my work was completed. One sees here the end of a line that stretches back to the perspicacity of Emile Zola writing The Ladies Paradise and describing with Zola’s typical ethnographic detail the tragedy of the unviable small shop already at the moment of birth of the first major store. It would be easy to read into this another unwelcome observation, Many of these other stores are owned by immigrants from South Asia, unlike the hairdresser and Bob, but while racism is certainly there and explicit, I came to see this as much as effect as cause.
As I have noted my search for the non-descript was halted by a wall of class I could not and should not attempt to scale. Its foundations support an edifice that dominates any conceptual view of this street. Class was central to the understanding of these shops and their fate. On the whole working class attitudes to the local shops was quite straightforward at least when it came to privately expressed opinions. The most common sentiment expressed was anything but sentimental; it amounted to a communal `good riddance’. Typical comments were
`Well their prices are you know, they stick it on don't they'
`Across the road, it's not a delicatessen now it's a dirty old shop. Very sort of worried sometimes about buying things in there. I bought some whole runner beans, frozen Birds Eye whole runner beans. I know they're frozen right but I didn't notice until I'd eaten them that the sell by date on them was a year old. They were perfectly OK but they shouldn't have sold them to me at the price they sold them to me at'
PHOTO 5 CORNER
They were not wrong. Most local shops haven’t a snowballs chance in hell of competing with the major supermarkets when it comes to price. And the supermarkets haven’t exactly been sentimental either. First it was food, but now its medicines and newspapers. Even a cursory glance would demonstrate that local shops are indeed offering less good quality at higher prices. Surprisingly both the working-class that use and those that avoid these shops seemed more or less equal in their vehement denial of any positive relationship with such shops. So notwithstanding relationships to individual shops such as the hardware or betting shop, most working-class people living on the estates do not see corner shops as constituting any kind of neighbourhood with which they would wish to identify. At best there is a reference to emergencies, to things forgotten during a real shop - followed by the remark that corner shops probably wouldn’t stock the forgotten items anyway. Of course talking of a street is to generalise, to ignore exceptions.. There are those who make constant use of corner shops and speak glowingly of their friendships, but they are shockingly rare. So even though it was recognised that their demise would be at some cost in terms of convenience, it was `good riddance’ that seemed to sum up the general attitude.
The relationship of the middle class to the corner shop was much more complex and mediated by what I now want to call an urban aesthetic. By this term I mean no more than a form of representation or objectification that mediates the relationship between subjects and the world they live within and perhaps a vaguely Kantian inference that the aesthetic resists any immediate incorporation of that environment. For this class their relationship to any actual shop is strongly influenced by a conviction that corner shops should represent particular values or idealisations of the street itself. For them the soap opera representation of shops and streets have become a normative aesthetic, how things are supposed to be. They have their own uses of corner shops for example a training group for their young children in learning to shop or as a kind of minimal leisure outing from the claustrophobia of child care. But their comments reveal a web of ambivalence and ideology. Typical comments were:-
`I use them For newspapers as much as often, and we buy emergency eggs or taramasalata, potatoes, veg and the local hardware shop when we need it - we try and support them'
I mean I did actually go through a phase when I did try very very hard at this corner shop down here.
And another voice
I would very much like to have local shops. I don't allow them to buy magazines or newspapers or I wont buy flowers in the supermarket. So I use that as a form of boycotting really because I really do feel that they have taken any incentive away from anybody to open anything up on a smaller basis really. There is this curious feeling when you have got a few local shops around you it changes the atmosphere of the neighbourhood. It gives it a kind of centre whatever that means. If it was all houses all the way it would make a difference in appearance terms which would somehow matter.'
But patronising attitudes rarely translate into actual patronage, and there lies the rub for local shops. For the middle class they are the good guys while the supermarkets are castigated as the embodiments of materialistic evil. One can find articles in the middle-class newspapers almost every week that reflect such sentiments; bemoaning the death of small shops under the onslaught of supermarkets and out of town malls. Yet there is a consistent avoidance of the very shops they espouse. The explanation for this discrepancy lies in the presence of an alternative objectification of community that exists for this class. There is another locality which has grown up to satisfy their projected discourse of community, their aesthetic sensibility.
PHOTO 6 IBIS
My example I call Ibis Pond, although there are many similar shopping areas that serve the suburbs of London. These are mainly based around the various `villages' that existed prior to their incorporation within the expansion of London itself.
PHOTO 7 IBIS
The shops in Ibis Pond are generally far more expensive than even the local corner shops. But this expense is matched by what might be called the `high production values' which lie behind Ibis Pond's performance as culture. The olde-worlde shop fronts, means that Ibis Pond is not just an enactment of community - it does it with style.
It also means that members of the middle class can indeed browse the shop windows of Ibis Pond and not only meet people they know, but the locality (usually reached by car) has largely filtered out the working class shoppers they would meet in the corner shops, so everyone is familiar with the relevant rituals of the croissant and coffee crescents. The primary school with clear middle class aspirations and identity is situated much closer to Ibis Pond itself, and during the ethnography it was the parents of children at that school who were most likely to meet each other while shopping in Ibis Pond.
PHOTO 8 GIFT
Ibis Pond is replete with the little arts and crafts shops and the charity shops that emphasise gift related sociality. This kind of `delicatessen as neighbourhood' was clearly a viable alternative for the middle class who could use the supermarkets in the same area for their basic food provisioning, though supermarkets were excluded from the dominant image of Ibis Pond.
PHOTO 9 SEPIA
Community is represented by the images of the shops themselves. A woman talks lyrically of buying dried fruits to make her own Christmas cake. The shop referred to looks like it comes straight out of a sepia photo of shops in Victorian England. The smells of the new coffee shops are joined by those of the antique shops.
PHOTO 10 STARBUCK
Ibis Pond exists to objectify the `dreamtime' to use the Australian aboriginal term, of middle class North London. This is a nostalgic image consisting of vaguely rural ancestors who once populated a landscape taken from photo books about the `village’ as it looked a century ago.
By comparison the run-down local shops of the street where we worked can ill afford such decorative facades. They simply do not look the part for playing a role as the pivot of middle class community life. Indeed in discussing the future of the street parade, `gentrification' was seen by these shoppers as one solution:-
`I can't think that people wouldn't start shopping locally with a butcher any more. The butcher in (a nearby area), for example, they're very badly effected by the supermarket. But they've made an effort. They now do some organic and they do a lot of nice Greek sausages so there's still. They're making an effort really to say to people you will get different things here.
PHOTO 11 RUN DOWN
While such shops are holding on by the skin of their sausages. Ibis Pond can charge its high prices because what it is selling is itself as a mediation in the contradiction between a discourse of community and a dissatisfaction with the actual locality that ought to objectify this discourse - that is the local shops.
There is a further contradiction. The middle class do not usually justify their defence of the corner shop in terms of their own needs, it is projected instead as their assumption as to what working class people really want. It is on the latter’s behalf that the middle class sacrifices its convenience and falsely claims to patronise the corner shop. It is the middle class shoppers that constantly told me the corner shop should be defended to help poor people, the unemployed, the disabled the very people who are desperate to replace them with supermarket goods. So what I am arguing here is a rather classic anthropological gambit, that a mythic or here an aesthetic form is important in the resolution of contradictions. The trouble is that while myths resolving contradictions sounds rather wonderful when it is Levi-Strauss talking about Amazonian Indians, aesthetic projections that resolve the contradictions of the middle class in North London may have rather more negative consequences.
Some of these are political. I suspect the current government is much in hoc to this aestheticised sensibility of the middle class, and is leading the charge against what are regarded as the ugly imposed supermarkets, which are assumed to be equally an eye sore whether they choose a now anachronistic modernism or the new postmodern fake clocktower and gables. This seems to me to be in ignorance of the preferences of those that use them want to more access to such supermarkets and centres. In accompanying the impoverished elderly from the estates, for example, I found a multitude of creative ways they use to colonise and appropriate supermarkets as their own. Those who have worked in shops themselves find all sorts of ways to humanise the supermarket, chat to its workers, hang around its coffee shops. As a result of my study I am interested in the politics of saving local shops, but it seems clear from these studies that a conservative attitude to the preservation of the status quo in order to fulfil a middle class romance does nothing for working class people either as shopworkers or as shopkeepers. A positive political agenda is only likely to follow an acknowledgement of the necessity for change.
My interest today, however, is in the role of this urban aesthetic rather than its political fall out. Because what I am describing is a particularly urban dialectic of consciousness. The city provides the scale and possibility for such myths.. In thinking the city we have no problem simultaneously passing our street of actual shops, but taking our images of authenticity from television soap opera, and then creating an alternative imagination out of organic butchers and shops that sell those `special’ gifts. The most successful retail theme parks are not those facades of Mediterranean streets that have become popular in the modern malls, but the little shopping villages where I and I suspect most of you prefer to shop.
PHOTO 12 ELECTRIC
The problematic consequences of this aesthetic are best explored by returning to the street and its local shops. Remember Bob the Do It All man. Bob rivals the hairdresser as the point of identification between the street and its population. More than anyone else in the street Bob represents the current approximation to the nostalgic image people have of the neighbourhood retailer.
`Yeah. He's great, he's really great, have you come across him? Bob we call him, `Do It All Bob'. No matter what you want, you go in, and you want a light bulb and he says "Oh 60p to you", and he's always. I don't know how he does things quite as cheap as he does, and I don't quite want to know, but he is a really nice guy. Everybody in the neighbourhood likes him. '
One of the reasons for Bob's popularity is that he never seems to charge the full price for anything that he sells. In most transactions he ignores the label and simply quotes a special price, which at the same time become a token that between himself and the customer there exists a relationship that goes beyond that of the single transaction, which is also the way the bargain is read by the customer. By rights this ought to make for a loyal and devoted clientele and in turn a shop that comes to profit in turnover what it sacrifices in margins.
Unfortunately there are two negative sides to the constant chatting in the street about Bob and his shop. The first is the sheer disbelief that a shopkeeper can create these bargains and be legitimate in his business.
PHOTO 13 DIY
Take that remark `I don't know how he does things quite as cheap as he does, and I don't quite want to know'. This idea that Bob must in some way be on the fiddle was a constant feature of the conversations that were held about him. Several people were convinced he was a drug dealer. The middle class were simply unwilling to accept that a local shop could compete with the high street, since it contradicted their own generalisations. Most often they respond by ignoring the evidence that he is indeed cheaper and buying at high street shops such as Argos at higher prices.
So although Bob does not suffer the racism of many shopkeepers and is actually better value, he will only survive because he is prepared to sacrifice a decent living for the same enjoyment of sociability. Not a choice he would have wished to make. The irony is that at the very same time there is an ever-growing ideological desire to construct images of a socially active neighbourhood and community, it has become harder for actual local shops to serve in this role. So far from sentiment being the saving of the corner shop, as journalists and others presume, it is likely to spell their doom.
PHOTO 14 STREET
To conclude. Not surprisingly people living in urban areas have their own ideas about the cultures of cities, and several aesthetics that objectify those ideals. In the dreamtime landscapes of suburbia the London aboriginal hunts and gathers their provisions in shops created according to a vision of the ancestors, a dreamtime of pure social relations and neighbourhoods, giving gifts and drinking tea - now coffee. But this is an aesthetic that is used to compensate for practice. Their idealisation of streets as localities compensates for the degree to which they don’t actually use the streets they live in, and the result is foisted onto those that are forced to remain with the experience of genuinely local shops, humiliated by their reliance upon them and feeling deprived by their lack of access to what they see as the common culture of the supermarket and shopping centre, that the rest of the population takes for granted as a right. In short the aestheticisation of urban landscapes often has clear consequences, which can be destructive for the very populations that are used to legitimate it.
PHOTO 15 URBAN
I have suggested that the description of such an urban aesthetic might best begin from an admission that although we live the city, it is the familiar that we least understand. We may need to return to a radical empiricism whose instrument is the non-descript, the mundane street that is not a community but an eclectic juxtaposition of the whoevers and whatevers that happen to live in the equally fortuitous little groups of semis and tower blocks and terraces that make up most of what our city is. From there we need to build up brick by concrete block our understanding of those urban aesthetics that are already held by the various populations that make up this city and the consequences of their markedly differential ability to develop the city according to some rather than others of these visions of urban life. Starting from the non-descript, my particular, nothing in particular street, encourages us to avoid projecting our assumptions as to what a given architecture or object such as a street should be, must be. Instead our concern is rather with what it has turned out to be in effect. For this reason I strongly suspect that terms such as postmodern or dystopian tell us very little about cities, though they might be relevant to the study of architects. Thinking the city needs to start from the differential ability of urban populations to both construct images and to imagine constructions. Our attempt to understand not just how people experience the city but how they determine the nature of that experience often in both nuanced and contradictory ways, of which I have to tried to present merely an example.
Request page update
UCL Anthropology, 14 Taviton Street, London, WC1H 0BW Tel: +44 (0)20 7679 8633