Ken Worpole left school at 16 to work in civil engineering, but re-trained as an English teacher in his early 20s. He has taught in secondary schools and in adult education, as well as being involved in setting up the radical bookshop/popular history project Centerprise in Hackney in the early 1970s which is still going strong. Over the past decade he has worked in the field of public policy, notably for the think-tanks Comedia & Demos. For most of his life he has also pursued a separate career as a writer of books exploring the relationship between culture and society. Ken Worpole’s most recent book, with photographer Jason Orton, is 350 miles: An Essex Journey (ExDRA; 2005).
Mark Thwaite: I first came across your name when I read your excellent study of working class fiction Dockers and Detectives: Popular Reading - Popular Writing. Is this an area that is still of interest to you?
Ken Worpole: I’ve carried on keeping a close eye on Jewish fiction and autobiography of East End life; less so of the other areas of popular reading and writing, largely through lack of time. It has also been interesting to watch the ‘rediscovery’ of the work of James Hanley every few years, followed by almost instant amnesia. I felt lucky to have met him and talked to him about his work before he died. In my opinion he was one of the most extraordinary novelists of the 20th century.
MT: What led you to write Last Landscapes your beautiful and thought-provoking book exploring the way death transforms ideas about landscape and architecture? Tell us a little about the ideas you explain in your book.
KW: When you visit another town, city or even village – whether at home or abroad - the cemetery is always an emotional anchor to the place, and such a rich source of information. (Think of the Jewish Cemetery in Prague). In some ways they share similarities with libraries or sculpture gardens: quiet, annotated, ordered and archived. I know I am not alone in this fascination, which since the publication of the book, many other people have confessed to me.
Last Landscapes explores the diverging traditions of cemetery design and rituals in northern and southern Europe (obviously related to Protestant and Catholic traditions). The book also contains nearly 150 colour photographs taken by my wife, Larraine Worpole, and in our travels we were often profoundly moved by the iconography of death in its sculptural, calligraphic and architectural forms. The sites visited and described in the book range from the pre-Christian Etruscan tombs at Cerveteri in Italy, the beautiful 17th century Portuguese-Jewish cemetery at Ouderkerk near Amsterdam, to the modernist Stockholm Woodland Cemetery.
MT: On your website you talk of the importance of "the renewal of public institutions ... notably parks, public libraries and even cemeteries". Why do you consider these institutions to be so important?
KW: Because in an increasingly individualised and privatised culture, these places are the last redoubts of the notion that there are some settings and public services that only gain their real cultural significance by being held in common – and expressing collective ideals and sentiments. Free parks and public libraries are the bedrock of a democratic townscape and culture.
MT: Do you think that "built space" can be democratised or must we always bow to experts and commerce?
KW: Some built and landscaped forms are democratic in intention; others achieve democratisation by popular use. The exhibition spaces, open air cafes, and buildings of the 1951 Festival of Britain, for example, including the Royal Festival Hall and the Battersea Pleasure Gardens further along the Thames, were all designed to embody a new spirit of optimism at the end of the Second World War and the period of austerity which followed it. The Royal Festival Hall still embodies this ideal – I adore it. Compare this to the corporately sponsored, hi-tech Millennium Dome: what democratic or civic virtues were expressed there?
MT: Here Comes the Sun is a "look at how social reformers, planners and architects ... tried to remake the city in the image of ... utopia". Do you think there has always been a utopian edge to the built environment or has political idealism now disappeared from urban planning? If it has, and it is important, can we bring it back?
KW: What that book was essentially about was the proliferation and inventiveness of new building types at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century throughout Europe: garden cities, health clinics, open-air schools, lidos, allotment colonies, kindergarten nurseries, seaside promenades, holiday camps, and so on. Some of the very best architects worked on these projects, which were about the design quality of everyday life and leisure. Today most well known architects are more likely to be designing corporate HQs, international stadia, and other great monoliths of global capitalism and culture.
Contemporary architectural innovation and idealism is now most often attached to environmental projects and buildings – a very good thing. But the vision of ‘the good life’ – exemplified in popular participation in recreation, combined with more associational (or self-organised) forms of leisure – seems to have gone missing. We are all consumers now.
MT: Tell us about 350 miles: An Essex Journey.
KW: 350 miles was a collaboration between the photographer, Jason Orton, and myself - a celebration of the Essex coastline, which we walked or cycled, usually separately. They are two quite independent essays, one photographic, the other literary, but they mesh together well I think, and certainly the book has been almost raptuously received. The book designer, Steve Parker, also deserves praise - it is a fabulous artefact in its own right.
MT: Do you read any literary websites!? What are your favourites?
KW: I was an early reader of Arts & Letters Daily, which I still check out from time to time.
MT: Who is your favourite writer/book? What is the best thing you have read recently
KW: Although I don’t keep re-reading him (except perhaps some of the poems), I retain my early admiration – devotion even – to the writings of D.H.Lawrence.
As an admirer of W.G.Sebald, it was gratifying to realise that his last book – before the fatal car crash – was also his best. Austerlitz is a great work, with strong echoes of Thomas Bernhard, another favourite writer.
MT: What are you working on now?
KW: I am working with photographer Jason Orton again, on a book about post-industrial landscapes in Europe and North America – former open cast mines in east Germany, parks developed from redundant gasworks in Seattle, coastal landscapes where the ruins of former fortifications, or heavy industry can still be found, and which we both feel should be respected and engaged with rather than flattened and landscaped anew.
MT: Anything else you'd like to say?
KW: The last three books I have done have been a mixture of writing and photography. As I get older I find the visual element gains in importance: words are no longer enough – at least for the things I most care about.