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Urban geography reading list – Tom Slater’s top 10

The following article was first published by ex-University of Bristol academic, Tom Slater, in the Urban Geography Journal in 2013. The article no longer exists at that link and the author has kindly given his permission for me to reproduce it here.

Bristol is in line for some big changes to its landscape — tall and wide changes, really, with new towers set to be built of over 20-storeys tall and new homes set to reconfigure the look of the Cumberland Basin, not to mention the new housing planned, and yesterday further ‘allowed’ by Theresa May.

At the same time, Mayor Marvin Rees has been on a real estate tour trying to attract investment from China. Never has ‘sold out’ and ‘gentrification’ been as loudly sung as in Bristol at the moment. From student housing to multinational corporations creating villages at the outskirts, it is time to learn from other’s struggles.

My definitive moment in understanding the potential for destruction came from the description of Chris Allen’s Housing Market Renewal and Social Class. The idea behind this following thought (from a different review admittedly!) completely blew me away: “ontologically, working class households relate to their homes in terms of a ‘we being’, as sites where their lives with others are played out, which is contrasted to the ‘me being’ demonstrated among middle class homeowners who seek to use their homes as a means to secure their class position, increase their wealth and impose themselves on the urban landscape.”

Homes for some of us are spaces for cohesion and family, while for others they are money-making opportunities. Which reality wins out from these two perspectives, or which is promoted, defines our societies and our lives. There is much more to all of this but that was for me a huge starting point.

I leave the rest to Tom Slater. I can’t possibly do it the justice it deserves, mixed with personal observations and context-setting, this is a thrilling read and insight into the urban studies literature.

Tom Slater’s Top 10 Urban Studies Books

This was an extraordinarily difficult yet very enjoyable assignment. I dislike intensely the league table and ranking culture that has permeated academic life under its neoliberal assault, but as I work on my latest book this task gave me a welcome opportunity to reflect upon the ingredients that make ‘books on and of cities’ memorable. I began scanning my office bookshelves and 10 minutes later I had pulled out 37 books for the shortlist! I then decided upon two criteria to reduce the pile to 10.
1. “Urban studies books that I found intellectually transformative”
2. “Urban studies books that I found emotionally stirring.”
It was deflating to find that some stunning works, ones I have cited many times and found utterly foundational for what I think about on a daily basis, did not make my top 10. An assignment like this demands terrible ruthlessness in the selection process! Nevertheless, here are my top 10 urban studies books, in alphabetical order by author (it would be pointless – and further agony – to try and rank them). Please note that they are my top 10 urban studies books – my top 10 academic books would probably include some of these, but not all.

Chris Allen (2008) Housing Market Renewal and Social Class (Routledge).

I’ve always wondered if it was the somewhat bland title and cover of this book that have led to it being so underrated. It was an honour to be asked by the author to write an endorsement for its back cover, for I consider this one of the finest urban studies monographs to have been produced by a British social scientist in decades, and certainly it is one of the most important, given the destruction of working class quarters of northern English cities caused by “Housing Market Renewal” (HMR) – a policy designed (shockingly) by UK housing scholars. The book is organised into three parts, of which the first two offer wonderful theoretical guidance and insight in respect of class formation in contemporary Britain. The author has encyclopaedic knowledge of the generic modes and traditions of class analysis (via Weber, Marx & Bourdieu), and also of their influence on contemporary writers such as Bev Skeggs, Rosemary Crompton, Mike Savage, Tim Butler. He then applies his knowledge of social class to the housing question, offering ammunition for the argument (inspired by phenomenology and drawing upon extensive interview data) that working class people see houses in terms of their practicalities (dwelling space) and memories, in contrast to the middle class people seeing them primarily as financial assets and a way to secure their class position. This argument is then hammered home in the final part of the book via a devastating critique of HMR, a policy that had as its foundation a fanatical devotion to the absurd view that urban “decline” in northern English cities was due to “housing market failure” caused by an “obsolete” terraced housing stock (officially, “unwanted dwellings”) that no longer “supported” an industrial working class.

The HMR strategy was violent and extraordinarily sweeping – vast swathes of terraced housing were placed under compulsory purchase (‘eminent domain’ in the US) in many cities and then demolished, their occupants were inadequately compensated, and the land was thus cleared for new developments more “attractive” to middle-class homebuyers. Allen’s book documents the appalling consequences of this policy (specifically, in the Kensington neighbourhood of Liverpool), its rogue “evidence base”, and the ways in which the meanings of both housing and home for working class people – within the overall “space of positions” that constitutes an inner-urban housing market – were completely disregarded by policy elites and academics behind this gentrification strategy.
Since the publication of this book, Chris Allen has been subjected to extraordinary and inexcusable abuse from those with vested interests in HMR, specifically its academic architects, who tried to block its publication whilst embarking on a campaign of public denigration, intimidation, verbal harassment and behind-the-scenes bullying. This has extended to the ongoing appearance of journal articles by UK housing scholars defending and/or lauding HMR, which exhibit tired critiques of the book based on their personal sentiment rather than any careful analytic scrutiny (the most popular and laughable critique is that Allen has somehow “romanticised the working class”). I invite anyone interested in joining in to read the book, and especially the words of people Allen interviewed, before forming an opinion on it. They deserve so much better.

Javier Auyero and Debora Alejandra Swistun (2009) Flammable: Environmental Suffering in an Argentine Shantytown (Oxford University Press).

I became truly aware of the raw power of this remarkable ethnographic study when I read out the first three pages of the Introduction in a lecture theatre packed with 2nd year undergraduates a couple of years ago. These pages introduce the almost unimaginable suffering of a woman named Sandra Martinez, her husband, and their four children, who live in Villa Inflamable, an informal settlement on the outskirts of Buenos Aires “surrounded by one of the largest petrochemical compounds in the country, by a highly polluted river that flows with the toxic waste of tanneries and other industries, by a hazardous waste incinerator, and by an unmonitored landfill.” (p.4) As I read out Auyero and Swistun’s description of the terrible health consequences for (and dire economic needs of) this family, the students were unusually captivated. When I finished reading the pages and looked around, I noticed several students visibly moved, some even to tears. At 9am on a Monday morning, on a compulsory 2nd year introductory economic geography course, this rarely happens.
Flammable is an extraordinary exposé of the environmental, political and economic conditions not of the making of the approximately 5000 inhabitants who call this part of Buenos Aires home. The product of 2.5 years of collaborative ethnography between a non-resident (Auyero) and resident (Swistun) of Flammable – including a stunning demonstration of the power of visual methods (students at the local school were given disposable cameras to document ‘what they liked about the neighbourhood and what they did not like’) – it dissects the “toxic uncertainty” experienced by Flammable residents due to the practices of external actors contributing to what they know about their place. State officials, company personnel, physicians, teachers, journalists, and lawyers “influence what they [residents] ignore, what they want to know, and what they misrecognise” (p.5) – which contributes to the suffering already inflicted upon them.

What I found most memorable about this book was that it wasn’t a familiar “I began to get ideas in the field” ethnography, but rather a theoretically-guided one, using insights from Bourdieu, Scheper-Hughes and Ortner to inform an inquiry that was at heart interested in the linkages between collective suffering and power relations, where “data collection should be properly termed data production in that it was intimately bound with the theoretical construction of the object.” (p.160) The methodological lessons this book offers are therefore as powerful as its intense political urgency. Heartbreaking and stirring in equal measure, it is a beautiful example of the ethnographic craft in the context of urban marginality fuelled by the social and political production of a polluted reality.

Elijah Anderson (2003) A Place on the Corner (2nd Edition) (University of Chicago Press).

There are many classics in the genre that has become known as “street corner sociology”, several of which came close to making my top 10. In the end I picked this one for the elegance of the prose, for the extent to which the reader feels as if they are actually there, both outside and inside a bar/liquor store called Jelly’s in the South Side ghetto of Chicago in the early 1970s. But above all, I picked it because it stands as the most important work in the refutation of the infamous “social disorganisation” thesis that still rears its head in discussions today of causal “neighbourhood effects” and assorted “underclass” (contagion) theories of urban poverty. Ever since the early Chicago School of human ecology, the poorest urban neighbourhoods in the US have tended to receive scholarly treatments pinpointing their shortcomings and those of their residents, including a focus on how both diverge from ‘mainstream’ society as measured by middle-class standards. The legacy of this reasoning – sustained by its illustrious intellectual pedigree – is present today in work arguing that the clustering of poor people in neighbourhoods, or the “concentration of poverty”, is responsible for all the social problems present in cities (e.g. crime, unemployment, substandard housing, delinquency, low educational attainment, joblessness, and so on.)
Yet these sentences, themselves indicative of the straightforward, pragmatic tone of A Place on the Corner, tell a different story:

“After being around Jelly’s neighbourhood for a while and getting to know its people, the outside observer can begin to see that there is order to this social world. For example, the wineheads turn out to be harmless, for they generally do the things people expect them to do: they drink on the street, beg passers-by for change, and sometimes stumble up and down the street cursing at others. One also begins to understand that what looks like a fight to the death usually doesn’t come near a fatal end. Often such a ‘fight’ turns out to be a full-dress game in which only ‘best friends’ or ‘cousins’ participate…. The city does not pay as much attention to this area as many residents would like, but somehow it doesn’t really seem to matter to anyone. People go about their business. …Most people who use this general area have come to accept their deteriorated physical world as it is. They simply make the best of it.” (p.2-3)

Anderson’s intensive, ground-level scrutiny based on direct observation reveals that, far from being “socially disorganised”, this part of Chicago is organised according to different principles – social life there is in response to a unique set of structural and racial constraints. I chose this 2003 edition for my top 10 as it includes a delightful ethnographic memoir that did not appear in the original 1978 publication. Teachers and students of qualitative methods would do well to study and absorb Anderson’s eloquent recollections of key events, meeting key informants, and analysing the data produced via the fascinating process of deep ethnographic immersion. Anderson has since published ethnographic works such as Streetwise and Code of the Street that have not sustained the important critique of the social disorganisation thesis, and worse, have been picked up by conservative politicians in the UK to endorse punitive welfare reform agendas. They should all be reminded of A Place on the Corner.

Philippe Bourgois (2003) In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio (2nd edition) (Cambridge University Press).

It’s very difficult to convey the emotional whirlwind any reader will experience reading this book. Many times I had to put it down through sheer exhaustion, through outrage at the scenes and injustices the author was describing in such elaborate detail. I cried, laughed, vented, marvelled, worried. Bourgois and his family spent 5 years (from 1985-1990) living next door to a crackhouse in East Harlem in New York City, the apex years of the crack cocaine crisis in poor neighbourhoods of urban America. In a research project that was simultaneously dedicated and intensely courageous, the author unravels the dynamics of social marginalization, ethnic segregation and alienation in a book that is so much more than simply a study of drugs (I have often heard it referred to as a “book about crack”, which is a laughable caricature). As he states early on,
“The two dozen street dealers and their families that I befriended were not interested in talking primarily about drugs. On the contrary, they wanted me to learn all about their daily struggles for subsistence and dignity at the poverty line.” (p.2)

At times, the brutal honesty of the author makes the book a very tough read indeed. Bourgois shares accounts of appalling street violence and also of gendered brutality (one of the most distressing moments in the book is when we encounter a drug dealer boasting to the author about having participated in gang rape, and then we see the author’s disbelief and then his anguish in respect of the appalling ethical dilemma he faced in deciding how to report that particular conversation). In a chapter entitled “Families and Children in Pain”, there is a particularly haunting passage where we learn about the wholesale destruction of the children in the neighbourhood during the time the author was there, including an “outgoing, cute, eager-to-please” little girl who metamorphosed into “a homeless, pregnant, crack-using thirteen year old ‘teenager’” (p.261). This is not a book for the faint of heart. But it is certainly a book for the serious analyst, a book for those who want to look beyond demonising portraits and simplistic stereotypes, a book for those who want to know why people think, feel, and act the way that they do in this particular context.

It is in the final chapter of the book where its extraordinary importance becomes undeniable. Bourgois is clear that he is writing about “the public enemies of the United States”, and that his goal has not been to sanitize or romanticise their plight, but rather to present honest accounts of their struggles and survival and thus contribute “on a concrete practical level to calling attention to the tragedy of persistent poverty.” (p.318) The book closes with a series of policy recommendations that serve as an urgent plea to reconnect sterile policy debates with the empirical realities of the polarization of US poverty (along ethnoracial, class and generational axes) and longer-term structural trends in the world economy that have contributed to the vicious street scenes he described. Making it clear that self-destructive addiction is merely the medium for desperate people to internalize their frustration, resistance and powerlessness, he concludes that the economic dynamism of the drug economy must be reduced through drug decriminalization; that the fragility and hostility of the entry-level labour market needs to be transformed, and that prison is not the answer for drug dealers or users. These issues are dealt with sensitively and humanely in the 2nd edition, which contains an instructive Preface and a deeply moving Epilogue that revisits the neighbourhood and the updates us on the central characters still in search of respect.

Mindy Fullilove (2004) Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About it (One World Books).

It may seem strange that one of my top 10 urban studies books is not written by a social scientist, but rather a clinical psychiatrist. Until 2008 I had no idea that the book even existed, until Chester Hartman (himself nothing short of a legend for anyone working seriously on questions of urban displacement) spoke very highly of it at a conference I attended in Berlin that year. Directly after the conference I got hold of a copy and found myself arrested by the narrative, the importance of the observations and especially the argument. I should stress that Root Shock really is a scholarly tome, not a “how to” book like the awful subtitle suggests.

Root Shock is a book about the psychosocial stress that results from forced eviction and displacement. This was a condition that Fullilove “bumped into” in her clinical practice, and she did not feel there were adequate terms to capture the devastating experiences of those who had lost their place. Root shock was the term thus coined by the author to describe the “traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or one part of one’s emotion ecosystem” (p.11) that results from having one’s roots to a place involuntarily severed by an external force. So, for a period of 8 years, she “logged thousands of air miles, walked hundreds of city streets, examined archives, collected photographs, and talked to people who had stories to tell” (p.3). The result is a breathtaking historical survey of neighbourhoods in three US cities (Roanake, Newark, Pittsburgh) that were subjected to the violence and injustices of “urban renewal” (usually callous obliteration by bulldozer and wrecking ball, and profoundly affecting these segregated African-American communities). Working from the point of departure that “we can’t understand the losses unless we first appreciate what was there” (p.20), the author’s elderly respondents offer elaborate portraits of what mattered to them in the places they once called home. The reader becomes aware immediately that far from being “blighted” places in need of conversion to “highest and best use” (to use the diabolical language much beloved of neoclassical economists and some urban planners), the areas where so much was lost were places where happiness occurred, where memories accrued that were nothing to do with the stigmatising images associated with them.
For the reader that may be inclined immediately to think that this book is some sort of “romanticisation” of urban poverty, nothing could be further from the truth. This is because the author lets the data speak, lets her respondents tell us in their own words what their neighbourhoods meant to them (three chapters end with lengthy extracts from interviews with three key informants, hammering home the arguments Fullilove is making about the inestimable importance of social networks, kinship, and meeting points for the urban working class, rooted in place). I should add that the root shock conceptualisation spoke to me very vividly and personally, as it reminded me of the conversations I had (during my PhD research) with people either living under the threat of displacement, or who had actually been displaced in some form. These conversations – effectively expressions of grief – still haunt me today, and will all my life. As anyone who has conducted such research will testify, displacement is a shattering experience, and it matters much that urbanists follow Fullilove’s lead and document its effects – and offer thoughts on what might be done to stop it.

David Harvey (1973) Social Justice and the City (Edward Arnold).

So much has been said and written about this book that it is probably impossible to say anything original about it. No self-respecting urbanist can possibly be unfamiliar with its arguments, its impact on the field, and its importance in how we understand urban places. I first encountered it, like all geography students do, as an undergraduate (from 1995-1998). I studied at Queen Mary, University of London, where I was privileged to be given a crash course on Harvey’s famous metamorphosis (from quantitative spatial scientist to revolutionary Marxist) by David M. Smith, as part of his spellbinding and existentially exhilarating course entitled “Geography and Social Justice” (his book of the same name is easily in my all-time top 10 books, but it’s not strictly an urban studies book). I remember Smith describing the AAG meeting he attended in Boston in 1971, where Harvey apparently arrived at some radical geography sessions organised by Dick Peet looking more ready for a commune than a conference. Harvey gave a paper at that meeting entitled “Revolutionary and counter-revolutionary theory in geography and the problem of ghetto formation”, which apparently rocked the house. The book was no different – it rocked the entire disciplines of geography and urban studies – and that paper is now the chapter in the book that students consult to see Harvey’s “Socialist Formulations” in his switch to Marxism, from which he has never looked back.

These days the story behind SJ&C is as familiar as the arguments within it. In 1969, Harvey decamped from his first teaching post in England and arrived in Baltimore, a city with districts hit hard by grotesque racial injustices, systematic disinvestment and rioting in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The previous year Harvey had submitted the manuscript of Explanation in Geography (a landmark text in the quantitative/positivist geographical tradition), and felt politically irresponsible, as he later recounted:
“I turned in the manuscript in the summer of 1968 with near revolutions going on in Paris, Berlin, Mexico City, Bangkok, Chicago and San Francisco. I had hardly noticed what was happening. I felt sort of idiotic. It seemed absurd to be writing when the world was collapsing in chaos around me and cities were going up in flames.”

In SJ&C, I still get excited reading Harvey’s blistering critique of the neoclassical land-use models of urban structure that had been built upon the analytic foundations laid by J-H. von Thünen (a Prussian landowner). Harvey argued that eliminating urban inequality requires “the von Thünen theory of the urban land market to become not true.” That theory involved one central mechanism – competitive bidding for the use of land – and Harvey argued with characteristic gusto that we must simply “eliminate” that mechanism if we want to address the crisis of urban inequality that had led to Baltimore going up in flames. This critique is not now a victim of history. It is acutely relevant today, at a time when neoclassical land use assumptions have been revitalized and appropriated by the political triumphs of neoliberalism. It helps to keep reading SJ&C to understand what needs to be done.

Neil Smith (1996) The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (Routledge).

The tragic early death of Neil Smith last September hit geography and urban studies very hard. The torrent of heartfelt tributes that were posted on the webpages of CUNY, where Neil worked, confirmed that, among other wonderful qualities, he was a massive intellectual influence on generations of urbanists, and will always remain so. This book is very special, and unmissable for any scholar of urban affairs (especially gentrification). As well as collating, synthesising and updating all of his foundational writings on gentrification (notably the brilliant simplicity of the concept of the rent gap), the book contains a remarkably cogent and gripping argument, based on Smith’s identification of striking similarity between the political climates of late 19th century Paris and late 20th century New York City. “Revanchists” (from the French word revanche, meaning revenge) were a group of bourgeois nationalist reactionaries opposed to the liberalism of the Second Republic, the decadence of the monarchy, and especially the socialist uprising of the Paris Commune, where the working-classes took over from the defeated government of Napolean III and controlled the city for months. The revanchists were determined to reinstate the bourgeois order with a strategy that fused militarism and moralism with claims about restoring public order on the streets. They hunted down enemies (the Communards) with a noxious blend of hatred and viciousness, intent on exacting revenge upon all those who had ‘stolen’ their vision of French society from them. In the late 1980s, Smith was disturbed by the developments in New York City that had emerged to fill the vacuum left by the disintegration of 1960s/70s liberal urban policy. He coined the concept of the ‘revanchist city’ to capture the disturbing urban condition created by a seismic political shift: whereas the liberal era of the post-1960s period was characterised by redistributive policy, affirmative action and antipoverty legislation, the era of neoliberal revanchism was characterised by a discourse of revenge against minorities, the working class, feminists, environmental activists, gays and lesbians, and recent immigrants: the ‘public enemies’ of the bourgeois political elite and their supporters.

Under the Rudolph Giuliani mayoral administration, New York City in the 1990s became an arena for concerted attacks on affirmative action and immigration policy, street violence against homeless people, aggressive policing techniques, feminist-bashing and public campaigns against political correctness and multiculturalism. Just as the bourgeois order was perceived as under threat by the revanchists of 1890s Paris, in 1990s New York a particular, exclusionary vision of ‘civil society’ was being reinstated with a vengeance – an attempt to banish those not part of that vision from the city altogether. Having witnessed the Tompkins Square Park class struggles of 1988-9, the author argued that gentrification was the leading edge of a state strategy of revenge – an attempt to retake the city from the working class. The New Urban Frontier, just like pretty much all Neil Smith’s work, was and remains hugely influential, inspiring inquiries into revanchism all over the world. It is tremendously gripping and urgent scholarship – I remember reading it as an undergraduate not long after it was published and rising from my seat in excitement! I loved the elegance of the prose (Neil was a wonderfully talented writer), admired the fierce quarrying of raw and secondary material, and felt deeply the author’s seething anger at what was happening to the poorest residents of the city where he lived. The arguments in the book always inspire debate and critical engagement among my students, which is usually a marker of stellar scholarship and original, potent ideas. As much as I will always miss my friend and mentor, I know that I can always dip into this book for inspiration and insights.

Loic Wacquant (2008) Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (Polity Press).

Loic Wacquant is one of the most exciting writers and speakers I have encountered in my time as an academic. About 10 years ago I was surprised and annoyed to see that urban geographers were largely unaware of his work, so I’ve tried to bring his rich body of scholarship on urban marginality to a geographical audience, drawing upon it extensively and extending his analyses where necessary. The conceptual logic of Wacquant’s writings (which draw theoretical inspiration above all from his mentor and teacher Pierre Bourdieu) is always instructive, precise, and conveyed with an urgency and analytic intensity I find refreshing. His writings also exhibit that rare combination of intellectual firepower and political commitment (just look at his book Prisons of Poverty for more of that!).
The comparative perspective on the rise of advanced marginality is arguably the most important and original contribution of Urban Outcasts (and a perspective that has been sadly ignored in many reviews and symposia on the book). Based on fieldwork conducted in the South Side of Chicago and in La Courneuve in Paris, Wacquant offers a sustained critique of French urban policy toward its marginal neighborhoods – policy that has for some years now has been guided by the myth that the cites (housing projects) in the working-class banlieues (suburbs) of its largest cities are very similar, if not identical, to African-American ghettos in the United States. Wacquant’s fine-grained comparative analysis explains how surface similarities in lived experience, in both working-class French banlieues and U.S. ghettos, mask deep differences in their scale, structure, and function. The population residing within the French urban periphery is characterized by remarkable ethnic heterogeneity, as opposed to the strictly enforced ethnic homogeneity of the American ghetto. In no cite or banlieue in France is there evidence of a set of parallel institutions forming to serve the basic needs of the excluded population – by contrast with what is common to ghettos throughout history, these are areas where the tentacles of the state, while shorter than in previous decades, still stretch into and attempt to assist the lives of those at the bottom of the class structure. Furthermore, residents in the housing projects of the French urban periphery have regular contact with and dependency on (through employment and consumption practices) residents of adjacent neighborhoods or those in the central city, which is not the case for those residing in the U.S. ghetto. Finding similar patterns elsewhere in Europe, and dramatising his point, Wacquant concludes that working-class territories of European cities are best conceptualized as “anti-ghettos.” The very crucial point he is making is that to designate as ghettos the European marginal neighborhoods where class, not ‘race’, is the main organizing principle of social life, leads to both analytical and public policy errors, and creates damaging myths and stigma where facts and sensitivity are required.
Urban Outcasts, as well as offering a masterclass in comparative urbanism, is full of concepts to interpret the present urban condition that are tremendously helpful to researchers, among them territorial stigmatisation: the way in which people are discredited and devalued because of the urban places with which they are associated. Bursting with ideas and infectious energy (as the author always is in person), I find this book a treasure trove, and a wonderful deployment of Bourdieu’s teachings in the city. So many myths fly around about poor neighbourhoods and the people who are relegated to them – Urban Outcasts shatters them with theoretical jousting, ethnographic observation, conceptual clarity, and rousing prose.

John Western (1996) Outcast Cape Town (2nd edition) (University of California Press).

This book has a special place in my library for many reasons. The first is a 1st year undergraduate lecture delivered by David M. Smith in 1995. South Africa was close to David’s heart as he had spent several years at Wits in the 1970s analysing urban inequality under apartheid, and in the process of teaching us about it he included short extracts from Outcast Cape Town, first published in 1981. I was utterly captivated, so much so that I walked very fast to the Queen Mary library after the lecture to borrow the book before anyone else got it (who does that as an undergraduate?!). I read it from cover to cover, totally absorbed by an elaborate historical and social dissection of Cape Town – and what apartheid did to that city – written by a thoughtful, humane and eloquent scholar. The second reason is for the power of the interview method, and my own practical struggles with it during my PhD research in Toronto in 2000-1. During those struggles I emailed John Western to ask him for guidance, and he took the trouble to arrange an evening phone call, during which we spoke for over 90 absorbing minutes about qualitative methods. I have never forgotten that act of kindness, and how much I learned from that conversation. The third reason is my own 2004 visit to District Six, a multi-ethnic and by all accounts vibrant part of central Cape Town that was in 1966 classified for “white persons only” (under the demonic Group Areas Act) and subsequently razed to the ground, with many thousands of families displaced to the Cape Flats. Although Western’s main focus was the neighbourhood of Mowbray (also subject to Group Areas travesties), he had written briefly about District Six in the book and later supervised the work of Deborah Hart, who wrote a hauntingly beautiful essay on District Six in the journal Urban Geography in 1988. My visit to District Six was all the more informative and poignant because of these writings. I mentioned both Western and Hart to staff in the District Six Museum (which is a beautiful memorial to the neighbourhood that was), and was then treated to a 2 hour walk around the still-vacant land from someone who was a young man when his family were displaced. It was a profound moment in my life, and an invaluable experience for a scholar with interests in urban displacement and forced eviction.

Outcast Cape Town is often classified as a landmark study in humanistic geography, but it is much more than that. Whilst it was one of the first books in geography to showcase the power and significance of qualitative encounters, this is by no means at the expense of attention to economic, political and social structures (impossible to ignore, given the geographical context). The cogent argument running through the book us that in remaking the city, apartheid also remade the people who live in it – an empirical demonstration of Ed Soja’s famous “socio-spatial dialectic” (Soja supervised Western’s PhD research which led to this book). The writing is engaging, vivid, and free of academic obfuscation or pretention. The inhuman forced removals of people on the basis of the colour of their skins were documented with poignant clarity, especially when seen through the eyes of people the author interviewed, such as this one:
‘‘A lot of people died after they left Mowbray. It was heartbreaking for the old people. My husband was poorly, and he used to just sit and look out the window. Then before he died he said, ‘You must dress me and take me to Mowbray. My Mum and Dad are looking for me, and they can’t find me in Mowbray.’ Yes, a lot of people died of broken hearts.’’ (p. 219)

Analysing such distressing data, Western remarked that it ‘‘seems coolly insensitive to ask whether there is any evidence of this impression being statistically valid’’ – words that reveal a consummate qualitative researcher, as indeed do his subsequent books on Barbadians in London and on long-term residents of Strasbourg. I recommend the 2nd edition of Outcast Cape Town as it is book-ended by a new Prologue and Epilogue reporting on Western’s revisit to Cape Town in the mid-1990s, where he was even able to track down some of the interviewees from the 1970s, and then offer some initial impressions of post-apartheid society. I remember thinking when I first read Outcast Cape Town in 1995 that “When I grow up, I want to do what this man does, and write like him!” I still feel the same way today.

Sharon Zukin (1989) Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (Paperback Edition) (Rutgers University Press).

About a decade ago I recall a friend of mine telling me about an estate agent showing him a “loft apartment” somewhere in Manchester. He said the place was staggeringly overpriced “as you have to sleep in the living room and they forgot to plaster the walls.” Likewise, I’ve never understood the attraction of “loft living” in the warehouses of formerly industrial districts, and for a long time such developments in UK cities were flagpoles of obnoxious New Labour gentrification strategies disguised as positive and necessary “regeneration”. This book is a wonderful dissection of the phenomenon in its birthplace – SoHo in New York City. Zukin explained how derelict manufacturing spaces in SoHo attracted artists in the 1960s and 1970s, and thereafter provided a cultural impetus for the commercial redevelopment of Lower Manhattan. Arguably the most important concept introduced in this book, and central to Zukin’s admirably thorough and inclusive explanation of gentrification, is what she called the Artistic Mode of Production (AMP), quite simply an attempt by large-scale investors in the built environment to ride out and to control a precarious investment climate, using the culture industries as a tool for attracting capital. Zukin demonstrated that the precarious economic conditions of the time were highly conducive to “a seemingly modest redevelopment strategy based on the arts and on historic preservation” (p.176). In short, large-scale investors were forced to redirect their attentions towards a strategy of cultural consumption if profits were to be extracted from the built environment. Zukin showed how capital incorporated culture to open up devalorized industrial land markets to more market forces – what she memorably called an “historic compromise” between culture and capital in the urban core.

In her discussion of consumer demand for lofts, Zukin’s historical-materialist analysis was laser-like in its precision:
“[P]erhaps there is an aesthetic component to the demand factor – a zeitgeist that finds expression in the old factory spaces and thus identifying in some existential way with an archaic past or an artistic style of life. If this is true, then the question of timing becomes crucial. Sweatshops existed for many years, and no-one had suggested that moving into a sweatshop was chic. …So if people found lofts attractive in the 1970s, some changes in values must have ‘come together’ in the 1960s. There must have been an ‘aesthetic conjuncture.’ On the one hand, artists’ living habits become a cultural model for the middle class. On the other hand, old factories became a means of expression for a ‘post-industrial’ civilization. A heightened sense of art and history, space and time, was dramatized by the taste-setting mass media.” (p.14-5)

Once this ‘dramatization’ occurred, loft residence quickly moved away from its bohemian, marginal, artist ‘live-work’ roots into a commodity, a way of life for the wealthy urban professional (and now, in SoHo, celebrities). The creation of a loft identity has since been astonishingly successful – ‘New York-style’ lofts are now marketed and sold in cities all over the world; the market leader in the UK is, tellingly, the Manhattan Loft Corporation.

Loft Living is a model piece of urban scholarship – exhaustively researched, inclusive of numerous influences and approaches from the political-economic to cultural studies, and alert to the ways in which the state, the market and the desires of investors in and consumers of urban space work together to produce a distinctive urban form. There is also a spirit of social critique running through the book, as evidenced by phrases such as “only people who do not know the steam and sweat of a real factory can find industrial space romantic or interesting.” (p.59) For those frustrated by the ludicrous stalemate in gentrification debates about what forces are more important in driving the process, this book combines culture and capital in a way that has never been equalled.


The original URL was:

Book review, The Psychology of Time Travel

This is the debut novel from Kate Mascarenhas who is a part-Irish, part-Seychellois midlander. Since 2017, Kate has been a chartered psychologist. Before that she worked as a copywriter, a dolls’ house maker, and a bookbinder. She lives with her husband in a small terraced house which she is slowly filling with Sindy dolls. This is her first novel.

They say write what you know so some characters are Irish and some are Seychellois. There is a psychologist in the story and many many of the same people but in duplicate as created during time travel. One Goodreads review complained bitterly that Mascarenhas had gone against well-known time-travel narratives as established in Doctor Who and marked the book lower than low. I think she has used an ingenious device to deal with it and one probably much closer to what would ever happen in reality.

This is a smart book with a well-thought out background but more importantly, the plot and characters are believable and likeable. I stayed up all night to read it and the world the author created felt just right. It was only after I finished that I realised it was mainly a female based cast and this tickled me. Men were assuredly not missed.

Some excellent writing.

The Psychology of Time Travel is published 9 August 2018.

Review, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (not!)

In this tale, which seems like the female and slightly less funny but more sinister version of The Rosie Project, Eleanor Oliphant is ‘weird’ and fine with being alone and with her routine until she decides she’s in love and is going to do something about it.

The narrative proceeds then to follow someone pursuing this path that would be ‘normal’ for most of the population but through the eyes of someone who doesn’t fit into the social spectrum deemed normal by the media and most institutions in society.

It’s a typical ploy used to exploit ‘other’ points of view so that we can have a laugh at them. She complains about the lack of other people’s manners while behaving in a way that the reader would immediately know is not socially polite. We are invited to look down and laugh at her through her very own narrative, in a sense.

By the end of chapter two I already disliked the book. Half-way through story I could no longer stand the exploitation and mockery of someone who the author was quite clearly suggesting had been abused and traumatised. There are horrible and sickening allusions and I couldn’t take it.

I read a review of the book on Shona Craven’s site and I agree with the following:

The biggest problem with the book as a work of literature is that there is barely a scene in it that rings true. As a character, Eleanor is utterly implausible, a crude caricature. Does she have autistic spectrum disorder? Post-traumatic stress disorder? Some kind of dissociative disorder? It’s barely worth speculating, as she is nothing but a figment of the author’s imagination. No-one like her exists in the real world. And as such, the book has nothing whatsoever of value to say.

But the reason it matters is that this is a book about a character who is part of one of the most marginalised and misunderstood populations in society – care-experienced young people. She is a young woman who has experienced childhood trauma, and moved around foster placements, and struggled to form relationships.

The average person doesn’t know a great deal about the care system. Neither, is seems, does Gail Honeyman, who has nonetheless written a novel about a care-experienced character who at the outset has no friends, no social skills and a ludicrously limited understanding of the world she has inhabited for 30 years. The novel is set in contemporary Glasgow, yet the author seems to have no interest in getting very basic facts right. She perpetuates a number of harmful myths about social services, including that workers conceal vital information from foster carers, that young people are not included in decision-making about their lives, and that trauma-experienced social work clients (whether adults or children) receive no meaningful support whatsoever.

This is an irresponsible book that ‘others’ certain behaviours for effect. It does feel harmful and it’s a sad state of affairs that people think they can understand others’ trauma by reading through the lens of mockery.


The last days of Bristol’s libraries

A year from now, Mayor Marvin Rees will begin campaigning for his next term of office and the number of libraries open in Bristol will be down by 63%. Most libraries will only open for three days a week.

There are now 27 funded by the Bristol City Council but after the horrific Conservative austerity cuts to local funding, piled on top of extra responsibilities for social care, there is less money to go around.

[The rest of this post is up on my new blog dedicated to the Bristol Library changes* taking place.

*Being defunded and divested of local control

Bristol author Jeff Dowson talks books, Bristol and his favourite screenwriters

Director, producer, and screenwriter Jeff Dowson, has added novelist to his string of titles recently and has launched his second series of books set in Bristol. His first is based around Detective Jack Shepherd and is set in the current time.

One Fight at a Time (2018) is the beginning of  Dowson’s new series, set in the 1950s and starring Ed Grover. It was a time when Bristol was a broken city and was going broke. Well, Bristol is going broke now too so the latest book feels particularly apt but why start a new series?

“I decided a change of style was needed for One Fight At A Time.  I wanted to write in the third person — Jack Shepherd belongs to a first-person tradition where the reader learns no more than the lead character discovers — and I wanted to sprawl a bit. Use a different writing style altogether.

“I looked around for an historical setting that would give me lots of scope. Ed is an American, in England with the Eagle Squadron long before the US enters the war, who transfers to the infantry before D Day. He battles his way across Europe from Omaha Beach to help win the war, spends another four years in West Berlin trying to win the peace, before being sent home. Just before his repatriation, Ed ends up in Bristol visiting a family he knows, and from there the front story begins.

“I grew up in the 1950s,” Dowson says. “As a kid, I didn’t realise just how bad times were – I was protected from that by my parents who struggled physically and psychologically to get through the years following World War II. It’s only during the last 10 or 15 years that I’ve looked back at that time.

“The early 1950s is a rich vein to mine – the recovery from a world war, rationing, the black market, extortion, corruption, capital punishment, the terrors of being homosexual, racism faced by the actual ‘Windrush Generation’, soldiers coming home from leave with Lugers taken from dead Germans, the infamous underworld of 1950s club land, the growth of organised crime… the material just keeps on giving.

“Bristol influences my writing to a huge extent. I was born in Blaydon on Tyne, lived in the Northeast until I went university, then moved to Bristol at the close of the 1970s. I’ve lived here ever since. Like Jack Shepherd I know the place.  I want the city to be another character in the stories – like Edinburgh is to Rebus, Northumberland is to Vera, Shetland is to Jimmy Perez, LA is to Jim Rockford. I hope I’m doing that successfully.”

Dowson comes to the Bristol-novel scene with a wealth of experience and I ask him about the difference between screenplays and writing fiction in story form.

“Actually the skillsets merge much more than they used to, thanks to the advent of studio theatres and live multi-tasking technology. But the basic difference is still there. For the theatre you write in words and sentences. For the screen you write in pictures and moments. And you have at your disposal BIG close ups, in which you can see your characters thinking. Just take a look at Douglas Henshall playing Jimmy Perez and watch him thinking… Terrific.

When I started to write Closing the Distance, it was the first lonely thing I had done. Plays and films are collaborative efforts – sometimes involving hundreds of people. What was liberating with the book was discovering the joy of writing sentences again. But there I was, channelling Elmore Leonard, until my agent said, ‘Why is Jack Shepherd doing that?’
‘It’s obvious,’ I said.
‘No, it isn’t,’  she said.
I realised I was making transitions between sequences, visualising them in my head, but not getting them down onto the page. That problem took some serious work to solve.

I’m over it now. The stuff is still lean and fast paced, but it’s much improved.”

Seeing as he is going on to write his fourth book in the Jack Shepherd series and the second in his Ed Grover one, I had to ask for his advice to writers.

“Advice for other authors, oh God… Just write. Whatever else you do. However crappy it reads on the page. Write every day, however good or bad you feel about yourself, or the material… And in time you’ll find something you want to say and the way to say it.”

I ask him if he imagines his stories as screenplays and it’s more out of curiosity about the difference between the two mediums. I imagine that sticking to ‘showing’ what is happening rather than ‘telling’ must be great practice in writing.

“No, I don’t imagine my stories as screenplays; although there is a great deal of the screenwriter in me always. And I think it helps, because as a screenwriter, you have to get to the point. You can’t meander off into side roads or unnecessary thinking. Again, if I can call upon Elmore Leonard… I try not to write the stuff that the reader skips over.

I haven’t the patience or the concentration level to read long books. So I don’t write them. I believe that if you can’t say what you have to say in a riveting story over 350 pages you shouldn’t be in the trade. Books, all books, should be page turners. But no writer should give any reader too many pages to turn.”

Bristol  again feels like it’s going broke and due to the cuts foisted on the council by the Conservative Government, crime writing and thrillers feel like ever-more prominent echoes of reality. While looking through his website I spot a particularly great quotation from famed Screenwriter Cannell and it easily applies to our city too.

“One of my heroes, Stephen J Cannell, said about writing crime stories… ‘All the way through, keep asking yourself – what is the bad guy doing?’”

One Fight at a Time is out now. 



Louise Conan Doyle stars in her own mystery set in Bristol

Front cover of book Brimstone by John Allen

Californian author John Allen is so convinced that Sherlock Holmes was created by Arthur Conan Doyle’s wife that he has written the first in 12-part series of books in which she is the sleuth. Louise Hawkins Conan Doyle investigates her first mystery in Allen’s book Brimstone, set in Bristol, 1879.

Allen was born in California and first latched on to the idea that Arthur Conan Doyle couldn’t have been the writer after he read a 1980s essay by Martin Gardner called “The Irrelevance of Arthur Conan Doyle.” Gardner claimed that Arthur was “too gullible and to easily duped to have created Sherlock Holmes.”

Allen’s thirty year fascination with the true Sherlock creator culminated in his book Shadow Woman published in 2017. He has also published original research about his stylometric method for author identification.

The claims include the theory that Louise and Arthur co-wrote the Sherlock Holmes portion of the first Sherlock Holmes Adventure, A Study in Scarlet while Arthur wrote the Utah narrative of that novel. Louise wrote each of every other early Holmes adventure, up to and including The Hound of the Baskervilles, two of the intermediate stories –those collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes– and Arthur wrote two of those intermediate stories.

Allen says, “I have never been to Bristol. But I have grown quite fond of Bristol from afar, researching it extensively for the Louise stories that will be set there. I’ve walked remotely through Bristol’s streets via Google Maps street level view. I’ve studied old maps of Bristol and refer to them frequently. I’ve studied Temple Meads Station, and New Gaol Prison, and police stations, and pubs, and churches, and the observatory. I would really like to visit, but time and distance and money are considerable barriers.

“Regarding why I located Louise’s first novel in Bristol. I did so because she lived there as a teenager, at least she lived in Clifton. She was a resident student at Badminton School for Girls, and I have the census records to prove it. I discovered them while working on Shadow Woman, and I consider it one of the great discoveries of my effort.

“Louise Hawkins [w]as a resident student at Badminton School in 1871. She was only thirteen at the time, tied for youngest of the students.”

Allen is not the first author to set their Sherlock Holmes-ian tales in Bristol. In Cavan Scott’s Cry of the Innocents, Sherlock and Watson visit the city to investigate the killing of a priest. The series Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch has filmed in Bristol a fair few times and you can follow the film trail from here.

The ‘original’ Sherlock, just as in the new Louise Conan Doyle books, never did go to Bristol but the city is mentioned in The Boscombe Valley Mystery where one of the characters visits for three days to be with his barmaid wife. Sherlock will not be making an appearance in the new series either.

Further information is available at the following URL:

Brimstone is published 18 May on Amazon

My naivete at Corbyn being in power and a letter to an MP


to: “MCCARTHY, Kerry” <>
date: 6 July 2017 at 17:06
subject: Re: consultations about budget cuts and a question about business rates

Dear Kerry,

Thank you once again for being so open to discussion.
Your question to Sajid about local councils keeping more of their money at least puts his response on record, however vague it is.
As a very worried Bristolian I would love to know what you think of the possibility of opposing the cuts that have been imposed on Bristol. Jeremy Corbyn is sure to be in power within months and if we allow the cuts to go through and the libraries and services shut down and cut off, it will be so hard – if not impossible – to get them back.
Is this not the best time to refuse to impose the cuts? Labour are so close to power now and there must be some leverage.
Also, what do you think of the possibility of the Local Government Finance Bill not being debated and passed since it was not in the Queen’s Speech? It is looking extremely unlikely that we will be able to keep 100% of our business rates from 2020, so what do we for the budget already announced?
I am not asking you to reply in place of Marvin, I’m just hoping for some perspective on what’s possible.
Where do you think Glenn Vowles got it wrong in his article?
Thank you so much,
Joanna Booth (@stillawake)
There was no response and our libraries are still in the plans for being defunded, shut down, and turned over to mutual public trusts, which in turn will see many of them defunded and shut down.

Review, The Body Library by Jeff Noon

The Body Library is the second book in the Nyquist Mysteries series published by Angry Robots but this is the first of Jeff Noon’s books I’ve picked up.

There is a fluidness to Noon’s writing that initially made me think The Body Library would be like Ishiguro’s dream-like The Unconsoled. As I read further, however, I felt more like I was in the atmosphere of 1408 by Stephen King or the movie Dark City —  the noir settings and slip-away realities where what’s around the corner can’t be articulated and yet … Things change and reality is different but the writing is well-structured so it’s easy to follow. The writing is as much of a treat as the setting and the story and the characters.

In this magical realism structure, writing such as that below, fits in seamlessly before we go back to the pace of the noir setting.

INK   … his eyes closed and he sank further down into the dark into the flow the fluid all was fluid a black liquid in which his body floated drifted suspended submerged breathing yes still breathing in the liquid in the blackness of the pool he sank down and lay there suspended and dreaming and being read yes being read head to foot every part of him his mind his thoughts his blood and bone his eyes his limbs his heart yes all of him read again and again as a book of flesh where the ink was seeking the stories all the stories of his life every last one being read by the pool of ink in which he lay suspended drifting floating submerged breathing yes breathing still and being read and his eyes…

I loved the story with its world of writing and the mechanics of it all come to life. In 1959, Storyville, Private  Eye John Nyquist is set on the trail of a man who doesn’t seem to be doing much apart from talking to people but as the trail leads to a tower at the edge of the city and an illicit book — the Body Library — he both can’t and can escape.

When narrative structure becomes legislated and mandatory, abstract experimental works become intoxicating. The writer’s life becomes a metaphor for the human condition, which Noon brings to life and then deconstructs again. And when you break down life there’s always some pain right in the middle of everything.

A great read with a creepy child and a place where you can check in any time but you can never leave.

The Body Library is published on April 3 2018.

Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks

It’s a shame really that Tom Hanks is so rich that he immediately garners huge publicity for his book without it needing to be any good. These stories could have been good. There’s a lovely touch of humanity to all of them and a great way of noticing the little details that make up characters.

The ‘atta boy’ from the first story, the effort to not slip in the snow in the second story because Virgil has a prosthetic leg, the light touch of the social influencers in an actor’s interview schedule. The little bits and pieces are there but the narrative arcs fall clumsily right around the middle of each piece.

You can’t fill a story with funny and touching details and assume it will make up for having no purpose. Short stories are tough work and they may take a lot less to construct than a novel but that makes them even more important.

I imagine that fans will love this collection as there are traces of Hanks throughout. He uses the details well and it’s an opportunity to catch a glimpse of his life that isn’t hidden too much. The wealthy man who has nothing to do but is happy with his life, for example, but blended with characters from Saving Private Ryan and every interview schedule in “A Junket in the City of Light”.

They are nice enough stories. They could have been better.

Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks is out now.

Review, Lobbying for Change by Alberto Alemanno

Alberto Alemanno is an academic and an advocate for citizen lobbying and this book fits in well with both of those narratives. The content is well-researched and comprehensive without losing focus on the main purpose: how to lobby as a citizen.

I admit I was a bit impatient about getting to the lobbying part, which doesn’t get addressed until the 30% mark of the book. The theory is important, however, and since I quickly waned in my interest after finding out what lobbying is and how to do it — with some specific and concise examples and a handy instruction section — I can appreciate the effort that went into the first part of the book.

The instructions on how to lobby are clear and accessible and dispel the notion that only a few well-placed people or corporations in society can take part in this type of activity.

One of the latest lobbying actions Alemanno took part in was trying to get glyphosates banned through the EU. The chemical that has been linked to health concerns was renewed for five years through parliament but it could have been renewed for fifteen years. Citizen lobbying has helped in limiting the renewal to a much smaller space of time.

After years of campaigning by NGOs and citizens about its alleged harmful health effects, demonstrated by the four million signatures collected by the European Citizen Initiative (ECI) ‘Stop Glyphosate’ supported by WeMove and Avaaz, no decision-maker could turn a blind eye to such concerns.

Alemanno writes about lobbying the EU but there are legitimate avenues for citizens to have their voices heard in local arenas too and instructions can be found for those as well. When efforts are harnessed in the right way we can all make change happen to a certain extent.  Lobbying for Change: Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society reveals various routes  other than through the traditional forms such as voting. This is called citizen-lobbying and through these years of austerity it’s a nice start to be given directions about how to help.

One example in the UK is the Petitions Committee that provides a mechanism for people’s opinions to be heard. If a petition receives 10,000 signatures, Government will provide a response; if it reaches 100,000 signatures, it will be debated in parliament. So far there have been 44 responses and two debates in parliament.

This book feels like a positive addition to our times, which aims to empower when all around feels like a disempowering exercise to benefit corporations and those already in power. A small read for a greater purpose.

[Also see this book review on the LSE blogs]

Lobbying for Change by Alberto Alemanno available through The Hive (which benefits local bookshops)