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Moving House: An Excerpt

Megan Branch, Intern

Patrick Wright a Professor at the Institute for Cultural Analysis at Nottingham Trent University and a fellow of the London Consortium.  Wright wrote On Living in An Old Country and its companion, A Journey Through Ruins: The Last Days of London (read an excerpt here). On Living in an Old Country looks at history’s role in shaping identity and everyday life in England. Below is an excerpt about the house of Miss May Alice Savidge. Upon finding out that her pre-Tudor house was scheduled for demolition to make way for road work, Savidge dismantled it, shipped it 100 miles away, and began reassembling the house piece-by-piece.

On Camping out in the Modern World

“History appears as the derailment, the disruption of the everyday…” – Karel Kosik

So far I have not identified the political complexion of the local authority in Ware, not for that matter of the national government when the decision to redevelop Miss Savidge’s home was made. This has not been the result of any reluctance to deal with the political implications of Miss Savidge’s story. On the contrary, my point is that these implications will not be appreciable unless one also grasps the extent to which politics, at least in the traditional frame of the major electoral parties, have become irrelevant to the issues finding expression in this affair.

In a phrase of Habermas’s, the political system is increasingly ‘decoupled’ from the traditional measures of everyday life, and Miss Savidge cannot be adequately defined as the victim of one party as opposed to another. She fell instead (and, of course, rose again) on the common ground of the post-war settlement, a ground which is made up of rationalised procedures and methods of administration as much as of any shared policies about, say, the efficacy of the mixed economy or the legitimacy of the welfare state. Miss Savidge’s house stood in the way of an ethos of development and a practice of social planning and calculation which have formed the procedural basis of the welfare state under both Conservative and Labour administrations. Governments have come and gone (at the behest of an electorate oscillating at a rate which itself reflects the situation), but a professionalised conduct of social administration has persisted throughout.

The professionals of this world are almost bound to see the more traditional forms of self-understanding persisting among the citizenry as merely quaint and eccentric, if not more dismissively as obstructive and inadequate to modern reality. While there is always room for an arrogant contempt to develop here, the most frequent manifestation consists of a resigned and pragmatic realism (the bureaucratic sigh which responds to people’s demands by saying that things are always more complicated than that) with which officials draw out and exhaust the discussion and patience of residents’ associations around the country. That this system of planning is less than perfect goes without saying, and Miss Savidge is well stocked with complaints on this score. For anyone who stops to ask she will talk about the callousness of the officials who turned up the Saturday before Christmas (1953) to look at the buildings which they had already decided to pull down—even though this was the first the residents had heard of it. She will mention inconsiderate rules applying to council tenants (no cat or dog unless you have a family, and so on). She will also talk about a general bureaucratic incompetence which, in her experience, made it possible to get a council grant towards the cost of installing a bathroom in a house which was already up for demolition, and which was also evident in the many changes of plan regarding the road development itself. Is it to be a new road with a roundabout, or can the old road be widened, and which local authority (town or country) is to be responsible?

Bureaucratic procedure may indeed be conducted as if its rationality were contained entirely within its own calculations, and in this respect it may well seem to stand impervious: free from any responsibility to the world in which its works eventually materialise. But whatever the appearance, this is obviously not a matter of rationality alone. The system of planning into which Miss Savidge was well caught up by 1969 is characteristic of a welfare state that was both corporatist in character (public discussion and political negotiation simulated in thoroughly institutionalised forms), and caught in the contradictions of its commodifying pact with private capital. More than this, the welfare state has developed through a period of extensive cultural upheaval, and Miss Savidge’s is therefore a story of the times in its discovery of tradition not just in the lifeworld but also in an apparently hopeless contest with modernity. While the dislocation of traditional self-understanding could indeed prepare the way for better possibilities, Miss Savidge stands there as a testimony to another scenario in which the prevailing atmosphere is one of insecurity which develops when extensive cultural dislocation has occurred without any better, or even reasonably meaningful, future coming into view.

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