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Concrete Proof

James Moran

The News Where You Are, by Catherine O’Flynn, Viking, 311 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-0670918553

One of England’s most distinctive and iconic modernist buildings is the Birmingham Central Library, the largest local civic library in Europe. Over a million books are housed there, on thirty-two miles of shelving, and the facility attracts more than five thousand visitors a day, drawing in a wide and disparate array of people from across the city: teenagers using revision as a pretext for flirting, pasty-faced academics plodding through archives, gaping toddlers learning to read and queasy men attending health-screening clinics. Before Birmingham opened, no other European library had been designed as a complete cultural centre in this way, integrating a children’s zone, lecture hall, exhibition space and manuscripts department, all linked together with areas for music and theatre.

Just as the building’s designer intended, the Central Library also forms a distinctive part of the Birmingham skyline. The main section is a huge inverted ziggurat, and looks something like a massive pile of ever larger books reaching into the sky. This ziggurat sits astride a series of tall piers, allowing the public to wander beneath, and was intended to protect attentive readers from the bustle of the city below. A second part of the building nestles into the ziggurat, forming a smaller, curved wing that was originally designed for short visits and library lending. The presence of this second section means that the building avoids overwhelming its nineteenth century neighbours, and the overall effect is to provide a set of neat visual reminders of other British cultural buildings of the era, particularly the concrete cubes of the Royal National Theatre and the ziggurat of the Barbican.

As well as being distinctive and very well patronised, the Central Library tells a story of the success of the city’s labourers and designers. Unusually for Britain, the design company awarded the contract was based in the region, with a local man taking the role of chief architect. Built in 1974, it was put up by Robert McAlpine, who relied on many of those “fusiliers” who had come to Birmingham from Ireland and who played such a key role in constructing the culture and identity of the modern city. And yet, despite all of these reasons to applaud, the Central Library will be entirely ripped out by 2013 ‑ a move that suggests the extraction of a massive, and perfectly healthy, tooth.

Members of Birmingham city council have expressed their loathing of what they feel is a “charmless” and “decrepit” building. After all, tastes have changed since the 1970s and the main cheerleader for demolition is none other than the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles. The foibles of the Windsor family often form a relatively harmless, if nauseating, part of Britain’s national soap opera. At other times there is something more discomforting about their role (insert here your favourite high-profile instance of racism, cronyism or Nazi costuming). One of the more pernicious aspects of the modern British royalty is the way its unelected members intervene directly in public debate in the United Kingdom and are given a platform because of privilege and position rather than merit or expertise. The architectural layout of an area is scarcely the sort of thing that can be managed in a democratic way at the best of times, and perhaps that is why Prince Charles finds himself so attracted to the topic, regularly imparting his views on building design, about which he believes himself to be an expert. His personal taste is best demonstrated by a series of kitsch, faux-Georgian buildings he has erected on his “Poundbury” development in Dorset. Charles is quite clear about his hatred of modern architecture and has recently quashed a new residential development at a former army barracks in central London by asking the financiers to fund something more “old-fashioned”, like the buildings of “Bath or 18th-century Edinburgh”.

In 1988, the prince spoke out against the Birmingham Central Library in a BBC Omnibus documentary, and then published his remarks in the book A Vision of Britain, where he described it as “a place where books are incinerated, not kept … an ill-mannered essay in concrete ‘brutalism’ intended to shock”. Even for Charles, these were extremely obtuse comments. If anything, the library had been designed with particular care for books in mind. The reason why the reference library swells into the sky is precisely because each storey sticks out more than four feet beyond the one below it, protecting the books inside from damage caused by direct sunlight. (By contrast the designers of the replacement library, now being constructed, have focused on airy windows, internet terminals, and spaces for “voluble group learning”: no worries here about books and their readers.)

Nevertheless, in the late 1980s, Prince Charles’s widely reported comments struck a chord and helped to shape public opinion in a city wracked by economic decline, race riots, and a shrinking population. The prince used the term “brutalism” perfectly correctly, in the sense of its derivation from béton brut (untreated concrete), the material favoured by Le Corbusier and his admirers. Indeed it is worth using Google to compare images of Le Corbusier’s La Tourette monastery of with those of Birmingham Central Library: the influence of Le Corbusier in Birmingham, and thus the architectural accuracy of Prince Charles’s words, is there for all to see. Yet to the self-conscious ears of Birmingham’s residents, the prince’s comments about “brutalism” simply recalled the library’s “brutal” appearance: an aggressive, gawky, geometric block of concrete that scarcely fitted with contemporary building fashions, neither an ornate “heritage” building nor a sleek, glass-and-pine construction. Many people in Birmingham, hearing the assured and apparently authoritative voice of Prince Charles on the topic, came to believe that their library was no longer the iconic building praised by the previous decade’s press reports, but a crazy instance of civic self-harm.

So the Central Library now lives on borrowed time, and will disappear entirely within the next three years. It will, however, enjoy a literary afterlife through Catherine O’Flynn’s latest novel, The News Where You Are, which is partly inspired by the building and its fate. Famously, O’Flynn struggled to find a publisher for her breakthrough book, What Was Lost, with the manuscript being rejected by numerous publishers until it was taken up by a tiny, not-for-profit company. Subsequently, it won the Costa first novel award, was translated into several languages and sold more than 60,000 copies. However, for all this international recognition, What Was Lost revolved around the kind of localism that O’Flynn knew from having grown up as a second generation Irishwoman in Birmingham.

The key location of that first novel is a barely disguised version of the Merry Hill shopping centre, and it is here that the main action – the disappearance of a child – takes place. In The News Where You Are, a similarly fictionalised version of an iconic Birmingham building takes centre stage; this time the location is the Central Library, which appears in the novel as “Rhombus House”. Although no child goes missing here, the main character, Frank Allcroft, is revealed to have lost his childhood because of the building: his father is the architect who – in the passages of the book set in the 1970s – chooses to spend his time erecting such brutalist edifices around the city rather than with the family. In flashback sequences, the young Frank and his mother are increasingly ignored by this father, who works harder and harder on his designs, and eventually dies, heartbroken, when one of his urban plans is rejected.

The novel then flashes forward to 2008-9, when most of the action is set, and here the grown-up Frank Allcroft must deal with his father’s legacy. Frank is the son of an unloved architect reviled for erecting “thuggish-looking” edifices around the city. He must cope with his own conflicting feelings as his father’s buildings are razed to the ground, with only one left standing by the end of the novel. (Frank’s father is a fictionalised version of the architect who designed the Central Library, John Madin, who in real life remains entirely unrepentant about his design and has repeatedly campaigned against the “disgraceful” plans to demolish his library). In this way, The News Where You Are puts us back in familiar O’Flynn territory: the urban environment is being used to articulate a sense of loss, confusion, and bereavement, with Frank Allcroft’s very name seemingly pointing to a vanished landscape that has been swallowed up by the city, ‘all croft’ having been decisively replaced by concrete and tarmac.

In the twenty-first century, Rhombus House looks hopelessly dated, having been designed for the needs of a society that has changed and remade itself. The avant garde of an earlier era has become outmoded and ugly, and O’Flynn repeatedly makes the analogy with the way that clothing fashions change. As one of Frank’s close friends, Phil, declares:

No offence, Frank, but the building has seen better days. It’s a bit of an eyesore now. I mean this whole part of town has been redeveloped and here’s Rhombus House still stood in the middle in all its concrete glory like an old pair of flares lurking in the wardrobe. I know when it was built your father had the best intentions, and it looked amazing then, but it’s better to rip it down now rather than watch it fall apart.

Frank, on the other hand, thinks the clothing analogy is misguided, and that it is wrongheaded to tear down the buildings of the past with such haste, declaring:

It’s the newer buildings around it that are the problem. The council sold off the area around Rhombus House that was supposed to be a series of tree-lined plazas and gardens. That was integral to Dad’s plan. You can’t just hack the scheme to pieces and then blame the building for looking wrong. The council flogged the land and let developers build right up against Rhombus House and now they notice that it looks out of place. It was a landmark building – it should have been respected; it should have been planned around.

Here O’Flynn is of course addressing some of the key ideas surrounding the fate of the Central Library, which has been shockingly neglected in recent years. Visitors to the real-life building will find that buckets are often left out to catch drips from an unrepaired roof, the escalators rarely work, and the toilets are unspeakable. But O’Flynn’s book is also making a broader point about the way grand architectural visions may fail in reality. In The News Where You Are, Birmingham is accurately described as a place that is always keen to leap into the future but which consistently changes its mind – mid-leap – about what that future might be. O’Flynn describes a city caught in a cycle of repetition, making the same mistakes over and over, not really learning any lessons. She describes the orgy of destruction that brought the brutalism of the 1970s into Birmingham in the first place, during which the city tore down many of its most beautiful Victorian buildings. The Central Library itself replaced a much-loved library in the Lombardic-Renaissance style, which sat on a site needed for the ring road. O’Flynn relishes the irony that the very buildings which were constructed in that decade are now themselves the victims of the same unsentimental philosophy. As she puts it, “the craving to wipe clean and start again wouldn’t die; it was too deeply ingrained in the city’s character. The target had merely shifted.”

Although Birmingham Central Library may not have inspired any previous novelist, in literary terms O’Flynn is scarcely navigating virgin territory with her ideas about the symbolic decline of buildings. In 1938, for example, shortly before his death, WB Yeats wrote and staged a short and very peculiar play called Purgatory. As he explained: “In my play, a spirit suffers because of its share, when alive, in the destruction of an honoured house; that destruction is taking place all over Ireland to-day. Sometimes it is the result of poverty, but more often because a new individualistic generation has lost interest in the ancient sanctities.” For Yeats, the decline of the Big House in Ireland was a symptom of something far more deeply felt than simply the destruction of the buildings themselves. He believed that the demolition of this heritage signified the loss of an old and established elite culture, whose achievements were being thrown away “without apparent regret” by all of those greasy fumblers of the lamentable Catholic middle class.

At the start of Purgatory, the play appears to address the ruin of one particular building, but the piece soon articulates a set of general worries about miscegenation and the decline of the Ascendancy. In the year after Yeats wrote this piece, TS Eliot picked up on a corresponding set of ideas. Eliot’s poem “East Coker” bears a placename as a title, designating the village from which the poet’s ancestors had travelled to America more than two centuries before. He had also become preoccupied by lineage, and in 1939 had been searching out his own origins in the British Museum. Like Yeats, who conveniently forgot his largely middle class origins, Eliot took a selective view of family background. He had little time for the dull Devonshire squires he discovered at the top of his family tree and preferred to celebrate the thinkers and adventurers in his Tudor and seventeenth-century ancestry. “East Coker” alludes to those later Eliot ancestors, and, as with Yeats, Eliot depicts a house that is both a physical object and symbolic of lineage and learning. In the poem, we can read “houses” as literally meaning the buildings in which people live, but we can also assume that Eliot, like Yeats, is talking about family dynasties:

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
[...]
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation [...]

What Yeats and Eliot are doing, then – at the onset of that traumatic period of European history – is anticipating the destruction to come, and recalling a time when things were better. For Yeats this meant celebrating the distinguished Protestant culture of the eighteenth century, the era of Burke and Swift and Berkeley, while Eliot focused on the stern morality and adventurism of his own sixteenth and seventeenth century English forebears. In Eliot’s poem and Yeats’s play, then, buildings are invoked in order to contrast the sanitised hopes of the past with the grim realities of the present.

The characters of O’Flynn’s novel go through a similar process. The book gazes back from our paranoid and recession-hit modern era to what now looks like a comparatively optimistic period in the early 1970s, and the characters can only really make sense of themselves and their lives by tracing their fluctuating personal histories against the built environment. Like Yeats and Eliot, O’Flynn’s characters worry about family legacies and the way that all these legacies might be reflected in physical buildings. As Frank Allcroft punningly considers, the buildings provide “Concrete proof that he [Frank’s father] existed, but if all his buildings went, what traces of him would remain?”

Such Yeatsian links between the personal and the architectural are best developed in those sections of The News Where You Are that are set in the journalistic world of 2008-9, in which Frank has become the presenter of a local news programme. Frank’s colleague, Phil, argues with him about the city’s architecture. Whereas Frank believes his father’s brutalist buildings should be retained, Phil argues:

I don’t think it works like that in the real world. Things age, they start to look tired and crap and nobody wants to see them ...e ven if they age well. Look at me. I’m an extremely well-maintained, handsome bastard, but I have to change with the times – change my appearance, change my patter, and it’s not bloody easy keeping up with it [...] Facelifts – Jesus, yes, I’m all for ’em. And when that stops working then I’m afraid it’s time for demolition.

As Phil’s analogy develops, it becomes clear that he is not talking about buildings per se any more than Frank is, although the two men reach quite different conclusions. For Frank, local architecture provides a repository of regional and familial memories, embarrassing and gauche though those memories might be, and is therefore worth retaining. Just as in Yeats’s play, the preservation of a building ensures that a certain set of cultural ideas and assumptions can be passed on and preserved. For Phil, however, the local buildings offer instead a kind of mirror for mankind, with their inevitable decay providing a reflection of his own. After all, Phil is a newsreader, continually forced to witness his own physical deterioration and finding that he is unable to bear the thought of the demise with which the glowing television screen continually confronts him. Eventually, the thought of his own physical decline drives him to contemplate suicide. He begins to believe that, like Rhombus House, he should be destroyed. And all of the things that Phil does to protect himself against ageing – trading in his wife for a younger model, wearing makeup, taking up jogging – ultimately fail to rejuvenate him any more than the cheap 1980s fascias that are intended to revitalise Rhombus House.

O’Flynn has plotted her novel so that Phil is killed at the start of the book, and the investigations into his death give the plot its narrative drive. Were his suicidal thoughts related to his killing, or was there another reason? In constructing the book like this, O’Flynn presumably wanted to emulate something of the suspense of her previous novel. But in her new work the action does not move straightforwardly, and we move instead through reminiscences and a number of comic scenes that have a tangential relationship with the main plot. As with her previous book, the genre of The News Where You Are is difficult to define: the novel might look like a straightforward whodunit to begin with, but it quickly becomes something quite different. In fact O’Flynn appears to be toying with her readers when one of her characters declares: “This is playing detectives.”

Catherine O’Flynn’s first book proved something of a conundrum for the book trade, which generally prefers its products to appear in safely preordained and marketable categories. Her follow-up novel is equally hard to label. The News Where You Are, however, lacks something of the haunting quality of the debut novel, and this time the mysterious death plays a less successful role in propelling the plot forward. There is nevertheless a great deal to savour in this second book, in which O’Flynn manages to find pathos and humour in the bleakness of Britain’s urban landscape. And if The News Where You Are feels like a blend of differing genres, then what could be more appropriate for a book that attempts to describe the schizophrenic and disorientating geographies of the modern European city?

In real-life Birmingham, a new £200 million library is currently being built to the design of a group of Dutch architects, and the old Central Library remains marooned, still full of books and readers, but fatally unrepaired and ready for the bulldozers that will arrive after the new library opens. The site of the Central Library will then be handed over to a property developer, and the cost (both to the environment and to the ratepayer) of all this senseless building and rebuilding will doubtless be of little concern to the owners of the bars, coffee shops, and pizza restaurants that will abhor the vacuum. The Central Library will then become little more than a memory, glimpsed only in old photographs of the local landscape. In The News Where You Are, Catherine O’Flynn provides a bittersweet tribute to the building, and – just like the hope expressed in Shakespeare’s sonnets – may help to immortalise in words a physical sight that has proved to be relatively transitory and fleeting. Of course O’Flynn’s characters have no time for this kind of sentimental hogwash. As Frank Allcroft knows, “even if all his father’s buildings were torn down, his memory would live on in him, but he knew also that such an intangible legacy would have meant nothing to his father”.


James Moran is Head of Drama at the University of Nottingham. His book Irish Birmingham: A History was published in 2010 by Liverpool University Press.

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