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How We Used To Live

Earlier in the year, I was delighted to be asked to write a short essay for the DVD booklet of Paul Kelly’s wonderful film How We Used to Live. Here it is. If you haven’t seen the film yet, please buy or rent a copy of the DVD or stream it via your personal computer or have it downloaded straight to your eyeballs or something. It’s great.

The London Everyone Knows: How We Used To Live

Finding myself before St. Paul’s, I went in; I mounted to the dome: I saw thence London, with its river, and its bridges, and its churches; I saw antique Westminster, and the green Temple Gardens, with sun upon them, and a glad, blue sky, of early spring above; and, between them and it, not too dense a cloud of haze … Since those days, I have seen the West-end, the parks, the fine squares; but I love the city far better. The city seems so much more in earnest: its business, its rush, its roar, are such serious things, sights, and sounds. The city is getting its living – the West-end but enjoying its pleasure. At the West-end you may be amused, but in the city you are deeply excited.

Charlotte Brontë, Villette (1853)

The collaborations between director Paul Kelly and the members of Saint Etienne (collected on the BFI DVD A London Trilogy) stretch back more than a decade and until now have tended to focus on vanishing points: the Lower Lea Valley prior to its redevelopment for the 2012 Olympics in What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?, the fading cafés and snack bars which Londoners once took for granted in the Today’s Special series of shorts. How We Used to Live, drawn entirely from the various film collections in the BFI archives, represents something different. On one level, it is an assembly of nostalgic snapshots of the city going about its daily business and nightly pleasures. But it is also a celebration of London as a symbol of perpetual change. Every day, the film suggests, the sun will rise over a settlement that is two thousand years old and brand new.

The footage in How We Used to Live spans a period from the 1950s to the 1980s; “no longer post-war but pre-something else,” as Ian McShane’s narrator observes early in the film. Brick buildings are demolished by the wrecker’s ball as towering cranes swing slabs of concrete into place (“a forest of concrete and glass”). A man in an old-fashioned flat cap and overalls presides over the installation of an untarnished steel girder. Inspired by the excitement and modernity of the Festival of Britain, a baby boy is christened ‘Skylon’ – “poor sod”. It represents a time capsule but one that is not confined to the era of rolled umbrellas and coffee bars. The London of Samuel Pepys and Lucy Snowe (Charlotte Brontë’s fictional surrogate in Villette) is all about us, a place that will always be ancient and modern to those passing through it, “the city … getting its living – the West-end but enjoying its pleasure”.

The film’s visual montage blends one era into another. Commuters pour in and out of railway stations, Euston, King’s Cross, Waterloo, sometimes decades apart. Double-decker buses depart Bethnal Green in the 1970s and arrive in Piccadilly somewhere in the 1950s. A skateboarder moves with exhilarating speed through the past. And Londoners always like a drink, regardless of the time on the clock. The choice of McShane to relate Bob Stanley’s and Travis Elborough’s script is another temporal dissolve: the actor is a presence in important London films of the 1960s (The Pleasure Girls), 70s (Villain, Sitting Target) and the turn of the millennium (Sexy Beast). He also, happily, has a voice like the snug of a Mayfair boozer, black velvet and smoke.

Nostalgia, suggests Kelly, is nothing to be embarrassed by. “The interesting thing about the use of images is that they’re often drawn up out of something in the past, some experience which stimulated a strong emotional response,” announces one unknown commentator against the melancholy vista of an empty Battersea funfair at dusk or dawn. What propels How We Used to Live forward is not just Kelly’s visual cross-hatching of styles and eras but also its original score by Pete Wiggs, which balances melancholy and optimism from moment to moment for the duration of the entire film to mesmerising effect. When, after half an hour or so, the working day at an end, a few drinks to the good, the nightclubs, dancehalls and discotheques of these various Londons burst simultaneously into joyful life, it’s with the seeming inevitability of an expertly chosen record at precisely the right moment.

As journalist Neil Mudd has noted, the film evokes the work of pioneering documentary maker Humphrey Jennings, both in its emphasis on the ordinary beauty of the everyday world (as in A Diary for Timothy, 1945) and also in its “subtle and poignant use of juxtaposition”, a technique utilised most notably by Jennings in Listen to Britain (1942). But Kelly is also a filmmaker who understands pop music, just as Wiggs and Stanley are pop musicians with a longstanding affinity for film. More than anything, How We Used to Live is about rhythm: the rhythm of London life over several decades, the rhythms of many types of music and cadences of speech, and the rhythm of film itself, drummed up in an editing suite from a jumble of unexceptional sources – in Kelly’s phrase, “bins marked ‘Buses’ and bins marked ‘Trains’”.

The net effect of this rolling collage is to project a vision of London that is both familiar and novel, a landscape of metropolitan existence that should be instantly recognisable to the viewer even if the people dress funny and the buildings have been torn down. The film’s message is one of continuity and renewal: how we used to live is how we still live. It is both an elegy for the city and a love song to it and it reminds us of the truth of William Faulkner’s famous phrase from Requiem for a Nun.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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