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Britain from above: blue sky topography in the second age of synergy

Over 16,000 aerial photographs capturing history dating from near the beginning of the last century were made freely available last week as part of the project 'Britain from Above'. Jamie Mackay explains how these images of our collective past can inspire discussions on the long-term fate of our shared spaces.

Jamie Mackay
3 July 2012

This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.

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Last week, over 16,000 aerial photographs of Britain from the years 1919-1953 were made available to view online free of charge. Compiled from archive material in the national aerofilms collection, ‘Britain from above’ presents a country inspired by the ‘Age of Synergy’, even while ravaged by the geographical impact of two world wars. Ceremonial bombast is contrasted with the everyday and domestic. There are sports stadiums and RAF planes alongside terraced houses and country roads. Images of imposing factories at the time of the General Strike sit alongside careful documentation of Blackpool’s leisure industry. As with any such exhibition, most striking are the uneven developments; spikes and moments of continuity in the reshaping of landscape and technology.

Ascendency, nostalgia and the heady aroma of the Home Counties. The collection is perceptive and subtle in its attempts to overcome such received images of elite expertise and dry statistics. There has certainly been a significant popular buzz around the project from the press, the motivation behind which remains unclear and unusual. Not every new release of such materials garnishes this gratified response. Whether the timing of this unveiling in the uneasy gap between the Jubilee and Olympics was part of a carefully planned dissemination strategy, or whether it was simply taken up as a good scoop, the launch of the collection is by occasion alone melded with the discourse of this Great British Summer.

But while the title may suggest a celebration of magisterial Britain, the collation of this work is systematic, austere and logical, and reading this arrangement as a cynical attempt at fostering national unity against growing threats to the union would be sophistic indeed. In funding terms, the project was the result of a deal between English Heritage and the Royal Commissions on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and Wales respectively; nominally, at least, autonomous. Even the BBC, in a short but sensitive piece of journalism (dubious soundtrack aside), was diligent to flag this up in their report, which conceded to acknowledge at least some of the contradictory experiences of national identity within the UK. Due in part to this impressive coverage, bolstered by several other articles from sources across the political spectrum, the ‘Britain from above’ website crashed upon launch due to an unexpected volume of traffic.

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It is difficult to see why. Scrolling through the endless rows of black and white prints on a sleek high definition laptop screen is an isolated, alienating experience. This is a demanding exercise - not fit for a 5 minute distraction from work - and the latent question as to the ever-elusive bonds between locality, nationality and globalisation is cleverly foregrounded by the site’s organisation. But it feels perverted and uncomfortable to intrude back to a time before McDonald’s; I feel ashamed of my converse shoes and smart phone. It is indeed difficult not to fall into that perilous and condescending rhetoric of ‘simpler times’ before the MTV generation. By means of an antidote, the search function, enabling the viewer to find places of interest to them, is an essential part of the project. Wading through the still incomplete catalogue, I feel a strange sense of communion with the areas where I grew up: where I used to catch the bus, where I used to play football, where the train station used to be.

The neoliberal malaise in which we have become entrenched is one in which emotional attachment to land is perceived either as a duplicitous mask for aggressive forms of ethnic nationalism or simply a backward medievalism; a retrograde to the supposedly productive forces of constant liquidity. The subtitle of the collection, squashed into the taskbar, reads ‘rescue the past’ – an urgent if ambiguous sentiment that is certainly open to appropriation by both of these forces. Does this suggest a self-conscious revisionism? A romantic celebration of the golden age of manufacturing? A call for gentrification?

For me, these images triggered a reflection on my own history and to speculate on that of the community around me. I thought about the anonymous faces I walk past each day, I thought of what my grandparents lived through, I thought of the complex stories of the individuals, families, and crowds who have felt investment in my city and beyond. In a 1928 essay, ‘The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia’, Walter Benjamin introduces the idea of the ‘revolutionary energies of the outmoded’. This concept, far from engaging in reconstruction as a process of validation, sees in such examples the space for contemporary metamorphosis: finding the future, like the surrealists, in rusty, derailed trains, steam powered boats and the memory of things and people passed on.

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Collections such as ‘Britain from above’ are significant, as they resist immediate interpretation. This is what makes them exhausting and this is what makes them dangerous. It would be churlish to discard these images offhand as merely another component in the heritage industry’s strategy to bolster national pride and reinforce cultural division. But likewise it is important to overcome the nostalgic impulse and use such felt experience to question and develop our sense of values with a mind to the future. These resources are in the public domain for our use – and precisely what that means is refreshingly undetermined. In the gap between image and experience, between coal-covered miners and suits trapped in glass office blocks, let’s use this opportunity to rediscover the surrealists’ sense of vision and stimulate much-needed discussions about the kind of long-term change we want to see in Britain.

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