- Edward R. Murrow, 1958.
- Jane Jacobs, 1992.
- Alan Sillitoe, 2010.
Numero Uno—“This just might do nobody any good. At the end of this discourse a few people may accuse this reporter of fouling his own comfortable nest, and your organization may be accused of having given hospitality to heretical and even dangerous thoughts. But I am persuaded that the elaborate structure of networks, advertising agencies and sponsors will not be shaken or altered. It is my desire, if not my duty, to try to talk to you journeymen with some candor about what is happening to radio and television in this generous and capacious land. I have no technical advice or counsel to offer those of you who labor in this vineyard the one that produces words and pictures. You will, I am sure, forgive me for not telling you that the instruments with which you work are miraculous, that your responsibility is unprecedented or that your aspirations are frequently frustrated. It is not necessary to remind you of the fact that your voice, amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other, does not confer upon you greater wisdom than when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other. All of these things you know.
You should also know at the outset that, in the manner of witnesses before Congressional committees, I appear here voluntarily–by invitation–that I am an employee of the Columbia Broadcasting System, that I am neither an officer nor any longer a director of that corporation and that these remarks are strictly of a ‘do-it-yourself’ nature. If what I have to say is responsible, then I alone am responsible for the saying of it. Seeking neither approbation from my employers, nor new sponsors, nor acclaim from the critics of radio and television, I cannot very well be disappointed. Believing that potentially the commercial system of broadcasting as practiced in this country is the best and freest yet devised, I have decided to express my concern about what I believe to be happening to radio and television. These instruments have been good to me beyond my due. There exists in mind no reasonable grounds for any kind of personal complaint. I have no feud, either with my employers, any sponsors, or with the professional critics of radio and television. But I am seized with an abiding fear regarding what these two instruments are doing to our society, our culture and our heritage.
Our history will be what we make it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or perhaps in color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. I invite your attention to the television schedules of all networks between the hours of 8 and 11 p.m., Eastern Time. Here you will find only fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger. There are, it is true, occasional informative programs presented in that intellectual ghetto on Sunday afternoons. But during the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live. If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read: LOOK NOW, AND PAY LATER.
For surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must indeed be faced if we are to survive. And I mean the word survive, quite literally. If there were to be a competition in indifference, or perhaps in insulation from reality, then Nero and his fiddle, Chamberlain and his umbrella, could not find a place on an early afternoon sustaining show. If Hollywood were to run out of Indians, the program schedules would be mangled beyond all recognition. Then perhaps, some young and courageous soul with a small budget might do a documentary telling what, in fact, we have done–and are still doing–to the Indians in this country. But that would be unpleasant. And we must at all costs shield the sensitive citizen from anything that is unpleasant.
I am entirely persuaded that the American public is more reasonable, restrained and more mature than most of our industry’s program planners believe. Their fear of controversy is not warranted by the evidence. I have reason to know, as do many of you, that when the evidence on a controversial subject is fairly and calmly presented, the public recognizes it for what it is–an effort to illuminate rather than to agitate.
Several years ago, when we undertook to do a program on Egypt and Israel, well-meaning, experienced and intelligent friends in the business said, ‘This you cannot do. This time you will be handed your head. It is an emotion-packed controversy, and there is no room for reason in it.’ We did the program. Zionists, anti-Zionists, the friends of the Middle East, Egyptian and Israeli officials said, I must confess with a faint tone of surprise, ‘It was a fair account. The information was there. We have no complaints.’
Our experience was similar with two half-hour programs dealing with cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Both the medical profession and the tobacco industry cooperated, but in a rather wary fashion. But in the end of the day they were both reasonably content. The subject of radioactive fallout and the banning of nuclear tests was, and is, highly controversial. But according to what little evidence there is, viewers were prepared to listen to both sides with reason and restraint. This is not said to claim any special or unusual competence in the presentation of controversial subjects, but rather to indicate that timidity in these areas is not warranted by the evidence.
Recently, network spokesmen have been disposed to complain that the professional critics of television in print have been rather beastly. There have been ill-disguised hints that somehow competition for the advertising dollar has caused the critics in print to gang up on television and radio. This reporter has no desire to defend the critics. They have space in which to do that on their own behalf. But it remains a fact that the newspapers and magazines are the only instruments of mass communication which remain free from sustained and regular critical comment. I would suggest that if the network spokesmen are so anguished about what appears in print, then let them come forth and engage in a little sustained and regular comment regarding newspapers and magazines. It is an ancient and sad fact that most people in network television, and radio, have an exaggerated regard for what appears in print. And there have been cases where executives have refused to make even private comment on a program for which they are responsible until they had read the reviews in print. This is hardly an exhibition of confidence in their own judgment.
The oldest excuse of the networks for their timidity is their youth. Their spokesmen say, “We are young. We have not developed the traditions. nor acquired the experience of the older media.” If they but knew it, they are building those traditions and creating those precedents every day. Each time they yield to a voice from Washington or any political pressure, each time they eliminate something that might offend some section of the community, they are creating their own body of precedent and tradition, and it will continue to pursue them. They are, in fact, not content to be half safe.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than by the fact that the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission publicly prods broadcasters to engage in their legal right to editorialize. Of course, to undertake an editorial policy; overt, clearly labeled, and obviously unsponsored; requires a station or a network to be responsible. Most stations today probably do not have the manpower to assume this responsibility, but the manpower could be recruited. Editorials, of course, would not be profitable. If they had a cutting edge, they might even offend. It is much easier, much less troublesome, to use this money-making machine of television and radio merely as a conduit through which to channel anything that will be paid for that is not libelous, obscene or defamatory. In that way one has the illusion of power without responsibility.
So far as radio–that most satisfying, ancient but rewarding instrument–is concerned, the diagnosis of the difficulties is not too difficult. And obviously I speak only of news and information. In order to progress, it need only go backward. Back to the time when singing commercials were not allowed on news reports, when there was no middle commercial in a 15-minute news report, when radio was rather proud, and alert, and fast. I recently asked a network official, “Why this great rash of five-minute news reports (including three commercials) on weekends?” And he replied, “Because that seems to be the only thing we can sell.”
Well, in this kind of complex and confusing world, you can’t tell very much about the “why” of the news in a broadcast where only three minutes is available for news. The only man who could do that was Elmer Davis, and his kind aren’t around any more. If radio news is to be regarded as a commodity, only acceptable when saleable, and only when packaged to fit the advertising appropriate of a sponsor, then I don’t care what you call it–I say it isn’t news.
My memory — and I have not yet reached the point where my memories fascinate me — but my memory also goes back to the time when the fear of a slight reduction in business did not result in an immediate cutback in bodies in the news and public affairs department, at a time when network profits had just reached an all-time high. We would all agree, I think, that whether on a station or a network, the stapling machine is a very poor substitute for a newsroom typewriter, and somebody to beat it properly.
One of the minor tragedies of television news and information is that the networks will not even defend their vital interests. When my employer, CBS, through a combination of enterprise and good luck, did an interview with Nikita Khrushchev, the President uttered a few ill-chosen, uninformed words on the subject, and the network thereupon practically apologized. This produced something of a rarity: Many newspapers defended the CBS right to produce the program and commended it for its initiative. The other networks remained silent.
Likewise, when John Foster Dulles, by personal decree, banned American journalists from going to Communist China, and subsequently offered seven contradictory explanations, for his fiat the networks entered only a mild protest. Then they apparently forgot the unpleasantness. Can it be that this national industry is content to serve the public interest only with the trickle of news that comes out of Hong Kong, to leave its viewers in ignorance of the cataclysmic changes that are occurring in a nation of six hundred million people? I have no illusions about the difficulties of reporting from a dictatorship, but our British and French allies have been better served–in their public interest–with some very useful information from their reporters in Communist China.
One of the basic troubles with radio and television news is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news. Each of the three is a rather bizarre and, at times, demanding profession. And when you get all three under one roof, the dust never settles. The top management of the networks with a few notable exceptions, has been trained in advertising, research, sales or show business. But by the nature of the corporate structure, they also make the final and crucial decisions having to do with news and public affairs. Frequently they have neither the time nor the competence to do this. It is, after all, not easy for the same small group of men to decide whether to buy a new station for millions of dollars, build a new building, alter the rate card, buy a new Western, sell a soap opera, decide what defensive line to take in connection with the latest Congressional inquiry, how much money to spend on promoting a new program, what additions or deletions should be made in the existing covey or clutch of vice-presidents, and at the same time– frequently on the long, same long day–to give mature, thoughtful consideration to the manifold problems that confront those who are charged with the responsibility for news and public affairs.
Sometimes there is a clash between the public interest and the corporate interest. A telephone call or a letter from a proper quarter in Washington is treated rather more seriously than a communication from an irate but not politically potent viewer. It is tempting enough to give away a little air time for frequently irresponsible and unwarranted utterances in an effort to temper the wind of political criticism. But this could well be the subject of a separate and even lengthier and drearier dissertation.
Upon occasion, economics and editorial judgment are in conflict. And there is no law which says that dollars will be defeated by duty. Not so long ago the President of the United States delivered a television address to the nation. He was discoursing on the possibility or the probability of war between this nation and the Soviet Union and Communist China. It would seem to have been a reasonably compelling subject, with a degree of urgency attached. Two networks, CBS and NBC, delayed that broadcast for an hour and fifteen minutes. If this decision was dictated by anything other than financial reasons, the networks didn’t deign to explain those reasons. That hour-and-fifteen-minute delay, by the way, is a little more than twice the time required for an ICBM to travel from the Soviet Union to major targets in the United States. It is difficult to believe that this decision was made by men who love, respect and understand news.
I have been dealing largely with the deficit side of the ledger, and the items could be expanded. But I have said, and I believe, that potentially we have in this country a free enterprise system of radio and television which is superior to any other. But to achieve its promise, it must be both free and enterprising. There is no suggestion here that networks or individual stations should operate as philanthropies. But I can find nothing in the Bill of Rights or in the Communications Act which says that they must increase their net profits each year, lest the republic collapse. I do not suggest that news and information should be subsidized by foundations or private subscriptions. I am aware that the networks have expended, and are expending, very considerable sums of money on public affairs programs from which they cannot receive any financial reward. I have had the privilege at CBS of presiding over a considerable number of such programs. And I am able to stand here and say, that I have never had a program turned down by my superiors just because of the money it would cost.
But we all know that you cannot reach the potential maximum audience in marginal time with a sustaining program. This is so because so many stations on the network–any network–will decline to carry it. Every licensee who applies for a grant to operate in the public interest, convenience and necessity makes certain promises as to what he will do in terms of program content. Many recipients of licenses have, in blunt language, just plain welshed on those promises. The money-making machine somehow blunts their memories. The only remedy for this is closer inspection and punitive action by the F.C.C. But in the view of many, this would come perilously close to supervision of program content by a federal agency.
So it seems that we cannot rely on philanthropic support or foundation subsidies. We cannot follow the sustaining route. The networks cannot pay all the freight. And the F.C.C. cannot, will not, or should not discipline those who abuse the facilities that belong to the public. What, then, is the answer? Do we merely stay in our comfortable nests, concluding that the obligation of these instruments has been discharged when we work at the job of informing the public for a minimum of time? Or do we believe that the preservation of the republic is a seven-day-a-week job, demanding more awareness, better skills and more perseverance than we have yet contemplated.
I am frightened by the imbalance, the constant striving to reach the largest possible audience for everything; by the absence of a sustained study of the state of the nation. Heywood Broun once said, “No body politic is healthy until it begins to itch.” I would like television to produce some itching pills rather than this endless outpouring of tranquilizers. It can be done. Maybe it won’t be, but it could. But let us not shoot the wrong piano player. Do not be deluded into believing that the titular heads of the networks control what appears on their networks. They all have better taste. All are responsible to stockholders, and in my experience all are honorable men. But they must schedule what they can sell in the public market.
And this brings us to the nub of the question. In one sense it rather revolves around the phrase heard frequently along Madison Avenue: “The Corporate Image.” I am not precisely sure what this phrase means, but I would imagine that it reflects a desire on the part of the corporations who pay the advertising bills to have a public image, or believe that they are not merely bodies with no souls, panting in pursuit of elusive dollars. They would like us to believe that they can distinguish between the public good and the private or corporate gain. So the question is this: Are the big corporations who pay who pay the freight for radio and television programs to use that time exclusively for the sale of goods and services? Is it in their own interest and that of the stockholders so to do? The sponsor of an hour’s television program is not buying merely the six minutes devoted to his commercial message. He is determining, within broad limits, the sum total of the impact of the entire hour. If he always, invariably, reaches for the largest possible audience, then this process of insulation, of escape from reality, will continue to be massively financed, and its apologists will continue to make winsome speeches about giving the public what it wants, or letting the public decide.
I refuse to believe that the presidents and chairmen of the boards of these big corporations want their corporate image to consist exclusively of a solemn voice in an echo chamber, or a pretty girl opening the door of a refrigerator, or a horse that talks. They want something better, and on occasion some of them have demonstrated it. But most of the men whose legal and moral responsibility it is to spend the stockholders’ money for advertising are, in fact, removed from the realities of the mass media by five, six, or a dozen contraceptive layers of vice-presidents, public relations counsel and advertising agencies. Their business is to sell goods, and the competition is pretty tough.
But this nation is now in competition with malignant forces of evil who are using every instrument at their command to empty the minds of their subjects and fill those minds with slogans, determination and faith in the future. If we go on as we are, we are protecting the mind of the American public from any real contact with the menacing world that squeezes in upon us. We are engaged in a great experiment to discover whether a free public opinion can devise and direct methods of managing the affairs of the nation. We may fail. But in terms of information, we are handicapping ourselves needlessly.
Let us have a little competition not only in selling soap, cigarettes and automobiles, but in informing a troubled, apprehensive but receptive public. Why should not each of the 20 or 30 big corporations–and they dominate radio and television–decide that they will give up one or two of their regularly scheduled programs each year, turn the time over to the networks and say in effect: “This is a tiny tithe, just a little bit of our profits. On this particular night we aren’t going to try to sell cigarettes or automobiles; this is merely a gesture to indicate our belief in the importance of ideas.” The networks should, and I think they would, pay for the cost of producing the program. The advertiser, the sponsor, would get name credit but would have nothing to do with the content of the program. Would this blemish the corporate image? Would the stockholders rise up and object? I think not. For if the premise upon which our pluralistic society rests, which as I understand it is that if the people are given sufficient undiluted information, they will then somehow, even after long, sober second thoughts, reach the right conclusion. If that premise is wrong, then not only the corporate image but the corporations and the rest of us are done for.
There used to be an old phrase in this country, employed when someone talked too much. I am grateful to all of you for not having employed it earlier. The phrase was: “Go hire a hall.” Under this proposal, the sponsor would have hired the hall; he has bought the time. The local station operator, no matter how indifferent, is going to carry the program–he has to–he’s getting paid for it. Then it’s up to the networks to fill the hall. I am not here talking about editorializing but about straightaway exposition as direct, unadorned and impartial as fallible human beings can make it. Just once in a while let us exalt the importance of ideas and information. Let us dream to the extent of saying that on a given Sunday night the time normally occupied by Ed Sullivan is given over to a clinical survey of the state of American education, and a week or two later the time normally used by Steve Allen is devoted to a thoroughgoing study of American policy in the Middle East. Would the corporate image of their respective sponsors be damaged? Would the stockholders rise up and complain? Would anything happen other than that a few million people would have received a little illumination on subjects that may well determine the future of this country, and therefore also the future of the corporations? This method would also provide real competition between the networks as to which could outdo the others in the palatable presentation of information. It would provide an outlet for the young men of skill, and there are many, even of dedication, who would like to do something other than devise methods of insulating while selling.
There may be other and simpler methods of utilizing these instruments of radio and television in the interest of a free society. But I know of none that could be so easily accomplished inside the framework of the existing commercial system. I don’t know how you would measure the success or failure of a given program. And it would be very hard to prove the magnitude of the benefit accruing to the corporation which gave up one night of a variety or quiz show in order that the network might marshal its skills to do a thorough-going job on the present status of NATO, or plans for controlling nuclear tests. But I would reckon that the president, and indeed the stockholders of the corporation who sponsored such a venture, would feel just a little bit better about both the corporation and the country.
It may be that this present system, with no modifications and no experiments, can survive. Perhaps the money-making machine has some kind of built-in perpetual motion, but I do not think so. To a very considerable extent, the media of mass communications in a given country reflects the political, economic and social climate in which it grows and flourishes. That is the reason our system differs from the British and the French, and also from the Russian and the Chinese. We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. And our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.
I do not advocate that we turn television into a 27-inch wailing wall, where longhairs constantly moan about the state of our culture and our defense. But I would just like to see it reflect occasionally the hard, unyielding realities of the world in which we live. I would like to see it done inside the existing framework, and I would like to see the doing of it redound to the credit of those who finance and program it. Measure the results by Nielsen, Trendex or Silex–it doesn’t matter. The main thing is to try. The responsibility can be easily placed, in spite of all the mouthings about giving the public what it wants. It rests on big business, and on big television, and it rests on the top. Responsibility is not something that can be assigned or delegated. And it promises its own reward: both good business and good television.
Perhaps no one will do anything about it. I have ventured to outline it against a background of criticism that may have been too harsh only because I could think of nothing better. Someone once said–and I think it was Max Eastman–that ‘that publisher serves his advertiser best who best serves his readers.’ I cannot believe that radio and television, or the corporations that finance the programs, are serving well or truly their viewers or their listeners, or themselves.
I began by saying that our history will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, then history will take its revenge, and retribution will not limp in catching up with us.
We are to a large extent an imitative society. If one or two or three corporations would undertake to devote just a small fraction of their advertising appropriation along the lines that I have suggested, the procedure might well grow by contagion; the economic burden would be bearable, and there might ensue a most exciting adventure–exposure to ideas and the bringing of reality into the homes of the nation.
To those who say people wouldn’t look; they wouldn’t be interested; they’re too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter’s opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.
This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.
Stonewall Jackson, who is generally believed to have known something about weapons, is reported to have said, ‘When war comes, you must draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.’ The trouble with television is that it is rusting in the scabbard during a battle for survival. Thank you for your patience.” Edward R. Murrow, “Wires and Lights in a Box;” speech to the RTNDA, which became the Radio Television Digital News Association, 1958
Numero Dos—“When I began work on this book in 1958, I expected merely to describe the civilizing and enjoyable services that good city street life casually provides–and to deplore planning fads and architectural fashions that were expunging these necessities and charms instead of helping to strengthen them. Some of Part One of this book: that’s all I intended.
But learning and thinking about city streets and the trickiness of city parks launched me into an unexpected treasure hunt. I quickly found that the valuables in plain sight–streets and parks–were intimately mingled with clues and keys to other peculiarities of cities. Thus one discovery led to another, then another. Some of the findings from the hunt fill the rest of this book. Others, as they turned up, have gone into four further books. Obviously, this book exerted an influence on me, and lured me into my subsequent life’s work. But has it been influential otherwise? My own appraisal is yes and no.
Some people prefer doing their workaday errands on foot, or feel they would like to if they lived in a place where they could. Other people prefer hopping into the car to do errands, or would like to if they had a car. In the old days, before automobiles, some people liked ordering up carriages or sedan chairs and many wished they could. But as we know from novels, biographies, and legends, some people whose social positions required them to ride–except for rural rambles–wistfully peered out at passing street scenes and longed to participate in their camaraderie, bustle, and promises of surprise and adventure.
In a kind of shorthand, we can speak of foot people and car people. This book was instantly understood by foot people, both actual and wishful. They recognized that what it said jibed with their own enjoyment, concerns, and experiences, which is hardly surprising, since much of the book’s information came from observing and listening to foot people. They were collaborators in the research. Then, reciprocally, the book collaborated with foot people by giving legitimacy to what they already knew for themselves. Experts of the time did not respect what foot people knew and valued. They were deemed old-fashioned and selfish–troublesome sand in the wheels of progress. It is not easy for uncredentialed people to stand up to the credentialed, even when the so-called expertise is grounded in ignorance and folly. This book turned out to be helpful ammunition against such experts. But it is less accurate to call this effect ‘influence’ than to see it as corroboration and collaboration. Conversely, the book neither collaborated with car people nor had an influence on them. It still does not, as far as I can see.
The case of students of city planning and architecture is similarly mixed, but with special oddities. At the time of the book’s publication, no matter whether the students were foot or car people by experience and temperament, they were being rigorously trained as anti-city and anti-street designers and planners: trained as if they were fanatic car people and so was everybody else. Their teachers had been trained or indoctrinated that way too. So in effect, the whole establishment concerned with the physical form of cities (including bankers, developers, and politicians who had assimilated the planning and architectural visions and theories) acted as gatekeepers protecting forms and visions inimical to city life. However, among architectural students especially, and to some extent among planning students, there were foot people. To them, the book made sense. Their teachers (though not all) tended to consider it trash or “bitter, coffee-house rambling” as one planner put it. Yet the book, curiously enough, found its way onto required or optional reading lists-sometimes, I suspect, to arm students with awareness of the benighted ideas they would be up against as practitioners. Indeed, one university teacher told me just that. But for foot people among students, the book was subversive. Of course their subversion was by no means all my doing. Other authors and researchers-notably William H. Whyte-were also exposing the unworkability and joylessness of anti-city visions. In London, editors and writers of The Architectural Review were already up to the same thing in the mid-1950s.
Nowadays, many architects, and some among the younger generation of planners, have excellent ideas-beautiful, ingenious ideas-for strengthening city life. They also have the skills to carry out their plans. These people are a far cry from the ruthless, heedless city manipulators I have castigated.
But here we come to something sad. Although the numbers of arrogant old gatekeepers have dwindled with time, the gates themselves are another matter. Anti-city planning remains amazingly sturdy in American cities. It is still embodied in thousands of regulations, bylaws, and codes, also in bureaucratic timidities owing to accepted practices, and in unexamined public attitudes hardened by time. Thus, one may be sure that there have been enormous and dedicated efforts in the face of these obstacles wherever one sees stretches of old city buildings that have been usefully recycled for new and different purposes; wherever sidewalks have been widened and vehicular roadways narrowed precisely where they should be-on streets in which pedestrian traffic is bustling and plentiful; wherever downtowns are not deserted after their offices close; wherever new, fine-grained mixtures of street uses have been fostered successfully; wherever new buildings have been sensitively inserted among old ones to knit up holes and tatters in a city neighborhood so that the mending is all but invisible. Some foreign cities have become pretty good at these feats. But to try to accomplish such sensible things in America is a daunting ordeal at best, and often enough heartbreaking.
In Chapter Twenty of this book I proposed that the ground levels of self-isolating projects within cities could be radically erased and reconstituted with two objects in view: linking the projects into the normal city by fitting them out with plentiful, new, connecting streets; and converting the projects themselves into urban places at the same time, by adding diverse new facilities along those added streets. The catch here, of course, is that new commercial facilities would need to work out economically, as a measure of their genuine and not fake usefulness.
It is disappointing that this sort of radical replanning has not been tried-as far as I know-in the more than thirty years since this book was published. To be sure, with every decade that passes, the task of carrying out the proposal would seem to be more difficult. That is because anti-city projects, especially massive public housing projects, tend to cause their city surroundings to deteriorate, so that as time passes, less and less healthy adjoining city is available to tie into.
Even so, good opportunities still exist for converting city projects into city. Easy ones ought to be tried first on the premise that this is a learning challenge, and it is good policy for all learning to start with easy cases and work up to more difficult ones. The time is coming when we will sorely need to apply this learning to suburban sprawls since it is unlikely we can continue extending them without limit. The costs in energy waste, infrastructure waste, and land waste are too high. Yet if already existing sprawls are intensified, in favor of thriftier use of resources, we need to have learned how to make the intensifications and linkages attractive, enjoyable, safe, and sustainable-for foot people as well as car people.
Occasionally this book has been credited with having helped halt urban-renewal and slum-clearance programs. I would be delighted to take credit if this were true. It isn’t. Urban renewal and slum clearance succumbed to their own failures and fiascos, after continuing with their extravagant outrages for many years after this book was published. Even now they pop up when wishful thinking and forgetfulness set in, abetted by sufficient cataclysmic money lent to developers and sufficient political hubris and public subsidies. A recent example, for instance, is the grandiose but bankrupt Canary Wharf project set in isolation in what were London’s dilapidated docklands and the demolished, modest Isle of Dogs community, beloved by its inhabitants.
To return to the treasure hunt that began with the streets and one thing leading to another and another: at some point along the trail I realized I was engaged in studying the ecology of cities. Offhand, this sounds like taking note that raccoons nourish themselves from city backyard gardens and garbage bags (in my own city they do, sometimes even downtown), that hawks can possibly reduce pigeon populations among skyscrapers, and so on. But by city ecology I mean something different from, yet similar to, natural ecology as students of wilderness address the subject. A natural ecosystem is defined as “composed of physical-chemical-biological processes active within a space-time unit of any magnitude.” A city ecosystem is composed of physical-economic-ethical processes active at a given time within a city and its close dependencies. I’ve made up this definition, by analogy.
The two sorts of ecosystems-one created by nature, the other by human beings-have fundamental principles in common. For instance, both types of ecosystems-assuming they are not barren-require much diversity to sustain themselves. In both cases, the diversity develops organically over time, and the varied components are interdependent in complex ways. The more niches for diversity of life and livelihoods in either kind of ecosystem, the greater its carrying capacity for life. In both types of ecosystems, many small and obscure components-easily overlooked by superficial observation can be vital to the whole, far out of proportion to their own tininess of scale or aggregate quantities. In natural ecosystems, gene pools are fundamental treasures. In city ecosystems, kinds of work are fundamental treasures; furthermore, forms of work not only reproduce themselves in newly created proliferating organizations, they also hybridize, and even mutate into unprecedented kinds of work. And because of their complex interdependencies of components, both kinds of ecosystems are vulnerable and fragile, easily disrupted or destroyed.
If not fatally disrupted, however, they are tough and resilient. And when their processes are working well, ecosystems appear stable. But in a profound sense, the stability is an illusion. As a Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, observed long ago, everything in the natural world is in flux. When we suppose we see static situations, we actually see processes of beginning and processes of ending occurring simultaneously. Nothing is static. It is the same with cities. Thus, to investigate either natural or city ecosystems demands the same kind of thinking. It does not do to focus on ‘things’ and expect them to explain much in themselves. Processes are always of the essence; things have significances as participants in processes, for better or worse.
This way of seeing is fairly young and new, which is perhaps why the hunt for knowledge to understand either natural or city ecology seems so inexhaustible. Little is known; so much yet to know.
We human beings are the only city-building creatures in the world. The hives of social insects are fundamentally different in how they develop, what they do, and their potentialities. Cities are in a sense natural ecosystems too-for us. They are not disposable. Whenever and wherever societies have flourished and prospered rather than stagnated and decayed, creative and workable cities have been at the core of the phenomenon; they have pulled their weight and more. It is the same still. Decaying cities, declining economies, and mounting social troubles travel together. The combination is not coincidental.
It is urgent that human beings understand as much as we can about city ecology–starting at any point in city processes. The humble, vital services performed by grace of good city streets and neighborhoods are probably as good a starting point as any. So I find it heartening that The Modem Library is issuing this beautiful new edition for a new generation of readers who, I hope, will become interested in city ecology, respect its marvels, discover more. ” Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities; “Foreword to the Modern Library Edition,” 1992
Numero Tres—“Mr Sillitoe…
It’s Alan. Please call me Alan.
Alan. Firstly, thanks a lot for agreeing to do the interview, we really appreciate it. You’ve been a big influence on LeftLion and one of the reasons we started up – so much so that we nicked ‘All The Rest Is Propaganda’ off you…
I noticed. That was wonderful of you, thank you very much.
No, thank you.
I’ve got the last two copies of the paper. It’s wonderful. Spot on.
OK, let’s talk about your childhood and see where it goes from there. What was it like growing up in Nottingham, and whereabouts did you live?
I lived in Radford, mostly. And it was very good really. It was a jungle. I don’t mean a terrible jungle, but a benign jungle where we knew every twist and turn and double alley.
A happy place?
We all felt perfectly safe as kids and it was a good place to grow up actually. I had a good education at Radford Boulevard. They taught me to read, taught me to write, they gave me an interest in history and geography, and that’s all I needed. In those days, you had to spell properly – nowadays it’s doesn’t matter, apparently, but I think that’s a load o’ bollocks. If you can spell, you can do everything with the English language that you need to.
Radford’s slowly becoming a student area now…
I’ve been around, yeah, sure. I think the Radford Arms is still there though. At least it was when I was last there. It was a big pub, standing in a vast open space and they decided to leave it.
Well I’m sure the developers will be eyeing it up sooner or later.
Oh yes, they do things like that. Some of the houses they knock down are alright, actually. The house we lived in wasn’t particularly okay, although it wasn’t bad. People used to say to me ‘what was it like growing up in the slums?’, and I’d say ‘fuck you. I didn’t grow up in the slums’. Radford was alright, it wasn’t slummy. We all knew where everything was and we had a good time.
So whereabouts in Radford?
We lived about a hundred yards from the Raleigh Factory where we were on munitions during the war. When I say munitions, I mean shell taps and fuses, things like that. I went to work there in 1942 when I was fourteen, and stayed there for three months and then went somewhere else to a place on Dulwich Road, which I don’t think exists any longer. They were making plywood parts for invasion barges and Mosquito bombers. All I wanted to do was get in the Air Force and bomb Germany. That’s all you wanted to do in those days of course.
You attracted a lot of attention a few years ago by being one of the few authors to support the Iraq War. Given what’s happened since, is it a view you still stand by?
Not entirely. But to a certain extent, I do, because I believe that giving the people there a say in their own destiny is a good idea. But obviously they don’t seem to think so. And now it’s very difficult for us to come out of it and leave them on their own. It’s a shame they they’re not more educated, and that religion has such a high place in their life. If it didn’t, they’d be alright. But they’ve buggered it up, really. You can’t help some people.
I think the problem with modern warfare, and I’m thinking in particular of Afghanistan and Iraq, is that the motives are dubious to say the least. There isn’t the same moral conviction or sense of purpose that your generation, rightly, felt. You knew who the enemy was. I’m worried that we don’t.
It’s more complicated now, that’s a fact. But there’s another major difference. These days soldiers are volunteers.
You can’t volunteer for the army today and not expect that you won’t be bloody killed. It’s terrible. I (long pause) grieve for the parents, I really do. You’re a young man of twenty or sixteen, and the minute you volunteer your life is at risk from that point onwards. That’s your lot, really. You can’t volunteer and not expect to be put at risk. It’s terrible, but fact.
I apologise if the next few questions cause offence, because they’re certainly not intended to. They’re about the double-edged effect your fame has had on Nottingham. Firstly, you have become synonymous with the city and as a result, every new local writer who breaks through is instantly compared to you. How does this make you feel?
Well it doesn’t make me feel very good, really. Every new writer has their own blueprint, or purpose. Fingerprint, if you like. I suppose it’s a matter of art – if you can stomach that word. I don’t use it lightly. If you’ve got something to say, you’ve got to say it in the most direct way possible. There’s this [Nicola] Monaghan woman who wrote The Killing Jar, she’s really very good. She’s got her own private, personal, stamp on writing. If you don’t find that, then it’s no good.
Where did you find your voice?
I found mine, well…it took about ten years, but I did find it eventually. But to go back to your original question, I don’t feel good when they compare me to them or them to me. I don’t feel terrible either. But let them. This is what the media do. You have to fight free of all types of prejudices in life.
A lot of your characters, particularly in the short stories, escape the humdrum of their lives through petty crime or heavy drinking. Presently, Nottingham has a bad reputation for both, not to mention gun crime. Do you think your stories have somehow contributed to this myth, or that the media have perhaps used it for their own agenda?
I don’t know really. I mean this type of crime you get in Nottingham now is nothing like the kind of crime the people I knew when growing up would ever perpetrate. We wouldn’t dare. I wrote before the druggy era and what they then called the ‘black crime’- which sounds terrible to hear of now as the drug pushers are both black and white, of course.
Do you sense this change in the city when you visit?
I came up to Nottingham about two years ago, and instead of going to stay with my brothers I stayed in a hotel right at the top of Hockley, behind the Council House. It was Friday night, and I went out after having a bite to eat and I saw all these lovely girls, queuing up at cashpoints to get money and go to the clubs and get stinking!
Did they try to shoot you?
(laughs) They were all very nice. I didn’t stay out till 2am in the morning to see what the scene was like then, but I enjoyed seeing the beginning and stayed out till midnight. Then I went and got some kip. The girls, the boys, the young men, they were all really polite.
So should we be afraid of the new generation?
I don’t believe that they’re all wicked kids, these young people, and that they should be stopped from drinking, smoking, fucking, hunting… whatever they want to do. The administrators would like everyone to be tame and not do anything that they wouldn’t approve of. I don’t know.
To go back to your earlier point, I wonder if there is a generational difference in attitude towards crime, perhaps even in need. People don’t seem to be committing crime out of necessity but rather for the sheer hell of it, which is more or less what the media seem to be indicating.
Well if it’s there, nick it. That’s what we used to say.
So things haven’t changed at all?
When I grew up in Nottingham, up to the age of eighteen, I, we, were lucky. I had plenty of work and I didn’t have to do anything that I didn’t want to do. All I did was work, which was alright – because after all, that’s what you’re on the Earth for, you know. So I consider myself lucky. I don’t know what young people are meant to do these days when they can’t work but then they don’t start, that’s a fact.
I don’t think we have the same level of ‘want’ though. We can get anything on credit. Nobody seems to go without.
I was brought up not to do that. You didn’t get anything on tick. You either paid or went without.
A lesson learnt from personal experience?
Having seen my father taken off to prison because he got something on tick that he couldn’t finally afford to pay, I thought, fuck that, that’s no good. And I never did it. I never owed any money. But I emphasise that I was lucky because I could earn it. Not a lot, mind you, but enough to keep me in the clear.
The fact that people can’t earn enough to pay their mortgage or even put petrol in the car seems to have culminated in a real fatalism about Saturday night that you’ve got to get drunker than ever, more so perhaps than Arthur Seaton ever needed to.
There’s a part of me that thinks fucking good; get drunk, get pissed up, why not, what the hell. Then there’s another part of me that thinks no, don’t do it, learn, be careful, hoard your money, work as hard as you can. I’m sort of two people in that respect. But I can’t help admiring people who say, ‘fuck ‘em all, let’s get pissed’.
I suppose this is Arthur Seaton’s dilemma?
True enough. That’s why I was taken to draw him in a realistic way, with sympathy. Because people that you write about, you’ve got to love in a way, otherwise you won’t get the truth.
I guess conformity is inevitable in the end. At the end of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Arthur gets engaged and reflects that ‘we’re all caught one way or another’.
There’s a rite of passage that you go through. I didn’t really need to do it because of various circumstances, but a lot fight their way through then settle down. It’s better to do it and settle down than not do it and settle down in my view.
The need for escapism is as relevant now as it was fifty years ago. The only difference being that Arthur’s lathe has been replaced with a computer terminal.
I honestly don’t know. I suppose he’d have a job driving a van somewhere, but I can’t say.
In this sense Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a more prophetic vision of society than say 1984, which hasn’t, in most respects, come true. Is the need to escape therefore an ageless thing, part of the human condition?
A book like 1984 is pretty good, but it’s a work of the imagination. It’s right in some ways and not in others, like everything else. But I don’t know whether Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was prophetic. To me I sat under an orange tree in Majorca writing it, thinking this is all right because I’m writing about something I know, and so on. I wasn’t sitting there thinking, ‘ah, this is fucking prophetic, mate,’ not at all. You write and do the best you can and you wait, if you’re daft enough, for the critics to tell you what you’ve done and what was in your mind, although you don’t think anything of them either. You just do what you want to do. Do what you have to do, and do what you can do.
Do you think you would have still been able to write the novel if you had remained in Nottingham?
I’m not sure. I think I still would have been able to produce it but it would have been twice as long and therefore not as good. A thousand miles south meant I was perhaps able to produce it a lot clearer than if I had stayed in Nottingham. You just don’t know. If. If. If. What can you say?
Don’t you think it’s ironic that you’re the literary voice of Nottingham when you left here before you were even published?
I don’t think I’ve left Nottingham altogether – I certainly never left it in my spirit. I physically left it not because I disliked it, but because I wanted to see other places in the world.
Well, you can return anytime you like, now that you’ve been given the keys to the city. How does that feel?
I thought it was very good. I’ve always had a very soft spot for Nottingham. I was born there, brought up there, been in contact with the place through family in all the time I’ve lived in other places. I really do have a soft spot for it, like it, and I’m always up and down anyway. Apart from that, it’s a wonderful place. It really is one of the great cities of England. There’s no doubt about that at all.
We interviewed local grocers the Thompson brothers recently, and they said that Nottingham is a friendly place due to it having such a mix of industries. Is this something you would agree with, having grown up when there actually was industry?
Yes, I think that could possibly be true. You had Boots, Raleigh, Players, lots of other little cottage industries, but I think the most important thing was the housing. If you lived in Radford, Basford or West Bridgford you were living in each other’s pockets in a way, or houses. You couldn’t really do anything bad, because everyone had their noses out of the windows and would say, ‘hey you, what are you fucking around with? Our Fred will set onto you’. It was quite rich.
So what do you miss about Nottingham?
The thing I notice about Nottingham or have done over the years is that when I come back and call on my two brothers and we all put on our flat caps and go to the pub, I find that however much people seem to change, they still retain the same accent and slang. There’s a certain core, and of course even other people like Muslims pick it up, which is good because it helps them integrate. I think this is what I really like about the place; the accent is still there and so people of Nottingham are quite eternal to me. People are very nice. Charming. You know where you stand with them, at least.
Now the factories are gone, Nottingham seems to be casting round for a new identity. What do you think about that?
If you leave it to the people, they’ll give you the identity. The people of Nottingham are so positive in a sense, that when the factories go, a new identity will be brewed out of the people, who sooner or later will see what is exactly needed. You can try to give a place an identity, but it’s the people who live there that make it happen.
We’ll be able to use a Speaker’s Corner soon. What do you think about things like that?
Speakers’ Corner is a good idea, but it’s a way of keeping the people down. As long as they’ve got a place to spout what they think they won’t go out and blow any buildings up, which is fair enough. We don’t want that anyway.
What do you think Arthur Seaton would say?
Fucking hell, and God, he might say that as well! (Laughter) It would definitely be off the cuff that’s for sure. I wrote a novel called Birthday which I think probably gives a good indication of what Arthur Seaton would say today because it’s about his present life and how he went on from SaturdayNight and Sunday Morning.
And what would you talk about?
Oh, I don’t know, I’d have to think about that a little more. I couldn’t just say it off the cuff. I would waffle on I suppose about non-smoking, non- drinking, non-fucking, non-hunting, non-this and that and the way the puritanical system was trying to beat one down.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is such a cult novel because it’s about fighting against the system, which seems increasingly difficult to do today. What can people do to stop the bastards grinding them down?
You can’t do anything. You walk around and you’ve got cameras looking at you. Take a piss in the corner and they take a picture.
In the book Arthur is bedridden for three days, which is difficult for him to deal with as he is always active. Was this based on the eighteen months you spent in hospital with tuberculosis?
No, it wasn’t. It just came out of imagination. Arthur is bedridden out of self-indulgence. He just couldn’t get over the idea that he’d been pissed about with and beaten up, and wanted to reflect on his life without too much disturbance from the outside world.
Arthur finds escapism at the lathe or fishing. Are these introspections the only place we can find true freedom?
You find your own ways of doing things, that’s all, and I just imagined that these were the kind of things these people would find.
Freedom for Colin Smith in Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner comes from deliberately losing the race. Was this always your intention, or did it become clearer as the book progressed?
Yes, it was my intention from the start to make Colin Smith lose the race. If he had won the race, he wouldn’t have been half the man he was. He had to lose.
Fifty years on we have the iPod generation. It would seem everybody wants distracting, rather than freedom to think.
Well, you don’t need these cheap toys. I just have a pen and a typewriter. Mind you, I have the radio as well of course. But you can live without all these toys.
Ernest Burton, whose grave the Seaton brothers visit towards the end of A Man of His Time, was too busy grafting to put food on the table to think. What can we learn from him?
I think he’s someone to emulate – not in his worst moments, but in his attitude. He lived through a terrible time. People could learn from his stoicism, hard work and so on.
And it also seems to me that one lesson readers can learn from Burton, Arthur Seaton and Colin Smith is that status, authority even, is something earned rather than inherited.
I’ve always strongly believed in a meritocracy, where people make their mark through their talent alone. There was a stage in my life where I truly thought the class system was dying out, and I still hope it does. Some of the greatest English people England has ever produced – engineers, scientists, even writers – never even went to university.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to LeftLion readers?
Keep on keeping on. Believe in yourself, and be kind to other people. Something nonsensical like that.” Alan Sillitoe, “The Alan Sillitoe Interview;” LeftLion, 2010