The London trilogy of Paul Kelly – Finisterre (2002), What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day (2005), This Is Tomorrow (2007) – were all marked by a certain muted romanticism: ‘adult’ portraits of the city that looked back on the longings and intensities of youth and the civic past as a kind of disappeared present. Just as in Saint Etienne’s songs that made up the soundtracks, these potentialities were recollected without any sense of loss or exile – or at least one ironicised by the comparatively jaunty presentation. How We Used To Live shares this same atmosphere for much of its length, only to end with the sense of having revealed a fatal secret within its material – and, just as quickly, brushed it off.
The film collages footage found by Kelly and script authors Travis Elborough and Bob Stanley (also principal songwriter in Saint Etienne), mostly from the BFI National Archive, shot between 1950 and 1980. In this it most readily recalls Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City (2008) – although, unlike Davies’ ostentatiously monochrome ‘city symphony’, it thankfully possesses a sense of humour. The fact that most of this footage is either sequestered in archives where the public can’t see it or on expensive BFI DVDs that no-one ever buys makes its presence here – and the accompanying chance to play the game of Nostalgia Bingo, spotting locations as they were – worth the price of admission alone. The glittering panoply of street life outside the Festival of Britain or after dark around 60s Soho (“signs I didn’t even know were there during the day”, the narrator comments with wonder), in the old Covent Garden fruit market, in City rush hours and beat clubs (there is one very amusing sequence featuring what looks like a sub-Kinks band soundtracked by Pete Wiggs’ flute-driven lounge music), swarms the screen with all the charm and dynamism of the late works of Free Cinema, the group that so much changed British urban film (one thinks of the demonic colour and pinwheeling action of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man).
Kelly’s eye is for the arresting detail and its articulation: the film opens with an overhead shot of a well-heeled woman walking through bomb damage that could have been imported from Antonioni; a crane shot of crowds forcing their way into Oxford Circus tube or the passage of a line of identical umbrellas could be co-ordinated; a surprisingly long sequence on skateboarding from the late 70s is a small masterclass in editing, including a long take of a skater weaving perilously among the crowds on London Bridge. Reversing the methodology of Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, in which the neglected backgrounds of Hollywood fiction films were scrutinised for their documentary quality, shots that would have been ignored in their original context seem to fill up with significance: the undersides of the Southwark piers passing overhead, a wide shot of Hyde Park on a spring day, of children running down a green slope between beautiful council blocks in Sydenham. Even the particular quality of light in London, that the filmmaker Patrick Keiller has commented on, with sun strained through fog, haze, dust and dense white cloud cover, comes across strongly. (A lovely sequence shows snow-carpeted terraced streets and whitened air, the narrator describing how the city “smelled of coal dust, boiled cabbage and damp wool”.)
The warmth and pleasure of the film’s nostalgia isn’t in doubt. But one is forced to ask what the precise tenor of this nostalgia is. One only needs to hold it up to the mirror of Keiller’s hypnotic diary of the capital, London (1994), to get a sense of this. For the narrator (Paul Schofield) of London and his unseen friend, Robinson, the absence of London’s civic virtues is directly palpable, the pathos of its destruction present in the rustle of every stalk of grass and ripple of water, in the mythic promise of a nature hemmed in by airports, shopping malls and the North Circular. “The failure of the English Revolution, said Robinson, is all around us.” The modernity elegised in Keiller’s film – “we remembered what we used to think of as the future” – is precisely the subject of How We Used To Live, as the periodisation mentioned above suggests: the era of the postwar consensus, the welfare state and the industrial boom that, though already breaking down by the mid-60s, created close to full employment. That period is cast in a pointedly rosy light. In spite of the objections we might raise, about the imperfections of that moment – systemic racism, sexism, the ingrained morality of the welfare system, which treated the ‘unrespectable’ poor so inhumanly – this is not a problem in and of itself. But it means that this London, the apparition of civic and public archives, lacks any glimpse of its dialectical partner. The film doesn’t engage with the other tradition, stretching from Hogarth and Blake, through Dickens, to Michael Reeves’ Boris Karloff vehicle The Sorcerers (1968), of London as the locus of dread, poverty, anguish, waste and excess – the Gothic and satirical tradition beyond which the sheer grotesquerie of the neoliberal city has long since gone. It steers away from the undecorative material found even in contemporary films: against the buoyant crowds one could set the rotting buildings and staggering meths-drinkers of The London Nobody Knows (1967), the hallucinatory gangland violence of Performance (1970) or the blackened bodies pouring out of the dosshouse at the start of Blow Up (1967).
The specificity and promise – the Aktualität, in Walter Benjamin’s phrase – of the moment that the film celebrates only comes in to focus in its historical betrayal. There is indeed a sense towards the end of the film of fear and the pain of this past’s loss. Not that far into the film there are scenes of steam engines being torn apart and stations closing in parallel with the cutting of train lines by Lord Beeching. Later, the image is interrupted by visuals of heart monitors – yellow lines scribbling violently across the screen as if in panic of what waits in store. As the film, which previously had interwoven footage of different periods to the point of being largely indistinguishable, arrives in the late 70s, the periodisation hardens. Charming footage of fumbling punk bands falls into shots of Docklands with weeds pushing through concrete. The cataclysm of Thatcher waits just out of sight. After this, the film seems to swerve into full-blown elegy: sunsets blaze, buildings crumble, landscapes pass by as if disappearing finally into the past. But there is still no sense here of grief, exile, burial in the crypt of memory – as there is in Of Time And The City (for all of its flaws) or John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses. The films ducks back into the past, and into its strategies of aesthetic dazzlement, as if its paradise had never been lost. But these problems – exigencies that affect every artwork made under late capitalism – should not prevent How We Used To Live being seen as one of the richest and most affecting of London films.