11 February 2023. Endings | Spaces
Reckoning with life in the ruins of modernity. // The fast food franchise as a place of respite.
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The writer Dougald Hine is currently on a speaking and meeting tour of the UK to talk about his new book At Work in the Ruins, published yesterday. Time was that I might have also called Dougald ‘a climate campaigner’, but reading—so far—the first couple of chapters it could have been subtitled, ‘Why I am no longer talking about climate change’. The publishers preferred the more nuanced and SEO-richer ‘Finding our place in the time of science, climate change, pandemics, & all the other emergencies.’
(Photo: Andrew Curry, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Anyway, during the course of the week Dougald has published both an extract from the actual introduction to the book, and an extract from a section that he later discarded. This sort of thing is catnip to writers, so I’m going to include some extracts from both here. Here’s one from the published book. For, if we are sitting in the ruins, we need to know what it is that is ending, and that it will end. The extract starts with a quote from Ben Okri:
‘In these times, all we can do is be a sign,’ a father tells his daughter in Ben Okri’s novel The Freedom Artist. ‘We have to help to bring about the end of the world.’ We must do this, he goes on, so that a new beginning can come. ‘But first there must be an end.’
But many ends are possible. One of the problems of reading books like this is that it points you to other books, and I was immediately attracted by the title of Vanessa Machado de Oliveira’s book Hospicing Modernity:
The title invites us to a kind of work in which the focus is not on saving modernity, or bringing it down, or rushing to build what comes afterwards, but doing what we can to give it a good ending. To let it hand on its gifts and teach the lessons that may only become apparent as the end approaches... No one I’ve met has more to offer by way of tools for the work of hospicing, but the way Vanessa tells it, this must be accompanied by a work of midwifery: assisting with the birth of something new, unfamiliar and possibly (but not necessarily) wiser.
In a similar vein he also quotes the philosopher Federico Campagna, who also talks of living at the end of a world.
In such a time, he suggests, the work is no longer to concern ourselves with making sense according to the logic of the world that is ending, but to leave good ruins, clues and starting points for those who come after, that they may use in building a world that is – as Vanessa would say – ‘presently unimaginable’.
All of this resonated with me because when I explain how the Three Horizons framework works, I often use a quote from the American politician John Vasconcellos, which I learned from the work of Graham Leicester:
We need to be hospice workers for the dying culture and midwives for the new.
I also liked the idea of ‘good ruins, clues and starting points’, which spoke to me of a certain humility in imagining how future generations might want to shape the world they inherit from us.
The introduction that didn’t get used—his editor proposed that he cut it, and Hine accepted the suggestion—was more sweeping, big picture history, flashing past the Aztecs and Hindu mythology to land in a Europe that had found science and lost its mythos:
History is written by the victors, but their memories are short. ‘Preindustrial Europe had little that was in demand by the rest of the world,’ Sven Lindqvist points out. ‘Our most important export was violence. All over the rest of the world, we were seen as nomadic warriors in the manner of the Mongols or the Tartars. They ruled from the backs of horses, we from the decks of ships.’... (W)hen our ship-borne warriors crossed the horizon into other people’s worlds, we were the barbarians.
It’s a version of that world that is ending now, and there’s a passage in this unused introduction that connects the fate of many cultures when they met those Europeans with the fate that we can see for ourselves now. This, at least, is the observation of the anthropologists Mario Blaser and Marisol de la Cadena, in their book, A World of Many Worlds.
”The world of the powerful is now sensitive to the plausibility of its own destruction in a way that may compare, at least in some ways, with the threat imposed on worlds sentenced to disappearance in the name of the common goods of progress, civilization, development, and liberal inclusion.”
Or, as Hine summarises:
We went around the world, ending other people’s worlds and calling it progress, and now it dawns on us that our world too could end.
He says of this unused piece that he’s glad the editor made this suggestion, because the big narrative sweep did not sit well with the rest of the book, which is more intimate, “a story told from a particular place and time, shaped by personal experiences”. All the same, their idea remains central to the narrative of At Work in the Ruins, and he says that A World of Many Worlds made the deepest impression on him in his work on his book. (Another one for the reading list, perhaps).
One of the reasons for this is that they describe a fork in the road that follows from the realisation that one’s own world is ending, especially when that world has been used to terraforming lands and cultures into its own likeness:
it can be a humbling moment, brought down to earth and able to hear at last what those on the receiving end of Western projects of colonisation, salvation, modernisation and development have been trying to tell us for generations. Or it can be the licence for the grandest version of that project yet: an attempt to turn our planetary home and all those we share it with, our human kin and our more-than-human kith, into an object of global management and control.
There needs to be an ending. One of my continuing touchpoints in all of this is the base case of The Limits to Growth (in this case the 30th anniversary edition) in which global industrial production per capita stagnates and then declines at some time in the 2020s, and global population starts to decline sometime in the 2030s. It’s the base case because it assumes our behaviour as a species doesn’t change. In their model, technology doesn’t help here: it delays the crash, but the crash, when it comes, is faster and harder.
And what I take from this is that we don’t get to choose whether or not there is an ending. We only get to choose what kind of ending we have, and therefore what we have left to build from.
2: The fast food franchise as a place of respite
At the Vittles newsletter, which writes about food in the broadest possible way, Ruby Tandoh has a column about her experience of budget cafes and restaurants that also operate as semi-public space for people who, for whatever reason, have no particular place to go.
The piece is called “Restaurants as living rooms”, and we’ve all had that experience, I think, of needing to be somewhere for a while and wanting to be warm and not spend much money.
(McDonalds, Charing Cross, London. Image: European A La Carte blog. CC BY-ND 2.0)
She starts in a McDonalds that she used to use as a kind of waiting room for a regular appointment for which she couldn’t be late and so was always far too early, and spent her time watching the others in the place:
dads jabbing at unresponsive menu screens and children hurtling around the restaurant with school socks slumped around their ankles. There were groups of teens huddling around a single milkshake and pensioners with hands wrapped around a tea. Most of us weren’t brought there by anything so vague as appetite but to sit, congregate, use the bathroom, talk, decompress, spread shopping bags across a spare bench, warm up, reply to messages and breathe.
The article ranges widely, both culturally—Walter Benjamin and Georges Perec both get name-checked, even A.A. Gill—and historically, back into the 19th century and the re-shaping of our cities then.
Before the restaurant was the restaurant, we had the public house, while ‘saloon’ has the same etymological roots as salon, which would eventually become the modern-day sitting room or living room. The home, with its division of spaces into zones for living, eating, cooking, washing and sleeping, forms a blueprint for how our cities function: I’d argue that restaurants, particularly inexpensive and chain restaurants, aren’t the kitchen, hearth or dining room of our collective dwelling space but the living room.
One of the things that this reminded me of was the idea of the ‘third place’ that emerged in the 1980s and became popular as a cultural idea just as we got used to the effects of the laptop computer and the world wide web in the following decade. The third place was a place that wasn’t home (first place) or work (second place).
But that was always quite a purposeful idea. You went to the third place to do something—meet people, do work away from the workplace, and so on. Tandoh, instead, is writing about places where we can go “just to be”—often in cities where the public realm has sometimes been aggressively redesigned to prevent people from just sitting and being in public space or on public streets:
In order to relax, we need to cross over from public clamour into the private realm, where for a price we can buy some peace. More often than not, this means finding a place to eat.
And most of those places are national, or international, food franchises. Tandoh doesn’t feel particularly good about this:
I won’t be greeted by name in these places or have the satisfaction of feeding my money back into the local market. I will almost certainly not have outstanding food.
And some of those franchises definitely don’t want her to come in and hang around. The interior styling of Pret A Manger, for example, is designed quite aggressively to make sure that if you stop there, you don’t stop for long. (Pret is the commercial equivalent of those narrow backless benches that urban designers sometimes put into parks to pretend that they are designed to be sociable, but aren’t). Even McDonalds is an anxious place to wait:
Still, as humans we’ve made it our business to find ways of living in even the most inhospitable environments. The city’s living room is a composite of thousands upon thousands of small, not entirely welcoming spaces: franchise cafés in station ticket halls, chain pubs, chicken shops and shopping centre food courts that, in spite of their best efforts, add up to something like an infrastructure of rest. The food in these places is secondary to the fact of chairs, tables, plug sockets, space, toilets and warmth.
Even if you might need to ask the staff for a code to get to use the toilets. But the point here is that there is a familiarity about all of these chains. As Helen Rosner writes of the US food chain Olive Garden, “There is only one Olive Garden, but it has a thousand doors.” Tandoh writes of a friend who has a similar experience of Weatherspoons:
They can feel at home without having to perform gratitude. They can commandeer a table near to a plug socket without any guilt. While there, they buy time with a pint and the 10-12 chips that seem to comprise a portion. In chains, we know exactly how things work and what to expect.
Tandoh nods, too, to a wonderful essay by Yvonne Maxwell, also in Vittles, about the Brixton McDonalds, where Maxwell’s mother worked for 30 years, and which was once visited, improbably, by Muhammed Ali.
For Tandoh, on those appointment days,
I would linger over whatever inexpensive thing I had bought – a cheeseburger, a tea – while collecting a few stray thoughts. The setting did not invite calmness... But in spite of the ruckus, this McDonald’s became a refuge exactly like a family living room, which is to say it is wearying, comfortable, relentlessly mundane, steeped with memory, populated by some people who I begrudgingly loved and others who I loved begrudging.
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