slices of porous chocolate

September 8, 2023, by Brigitte Nerlich

Crumbling buildings: Metaphors we live in

Metaphors are ways to make something abstract concrete…. You know where this is going…..

Metaphors make us see something as something else, for example life as a journey or institutions as buildings and failing institutions as crumbling buildings. In September 2023 this latter metaphor spread like wildfire.

RAAC (and ruin)

Our Department for Education here in the UK told schools just before the beginning of the new term that quite a few school buildings were crumbling. This was because about half a century ago the wrong concrete had been used to build them and repairs had been delayed. The concrete is called RAAC or ‘Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete’ (invented almost a century ago). It has the appearance of a porous chocolate bar. In porous chocolate bars the holes are supposed to give the chocolate a superior taste. In RAAC they give the concrete an inferior strength. This means that, in some cases, and it is uncertain how many, school buildings could collapse and literally fall on children’s heads (this also goes for hospitals, courts, theatres and other public buildings).

When this scandal broke, literally crumbling buildings came to stand metaphorically for a crumbling government. The emerging metaphors made rather abstract government actions very concrete. In this post I want to look at the metaphor explosion around RAAC in a bit more detail.

The literal and the metaphorical collide

In June 2023 the National Audit Office “found that as many as 700,000 children are being taught in schools that require major repair, having far exceeded their safe lifespan”. This was noted by a teacher writing in the i-newspaper and here is her reaction: “If you want a metaphor for the status of children in Britain, look no further than the crumbling, decaying buildings in which many of the nation’s youth are spending their formative years. You would be hard-pressed to find a symbol quite so potent for what faces the next generation than the roofs of schools literally caving in above their heads thanks in large part to long-term underfunding and chronic neglect.”

At the end of August the government alerted schools of the dangers, and on 3 September a letter published in The Guardian had the title “Crumbling concrete is a metaphor for Tory rule”. This provoked tweeters to say, for example: “Crumbling concrete no longer just literal, it’s a metaphor for the Conservative party”. Some people pointed out that the ‘schools crumbling story” is not just some “fairytale metaphor”, but that we are really “living through the Three Little Pigs”.

Extended metaphors

Some people elaborated the crumble metaphor by saying: “Everything is broken: crumbling schools are the perfect metaphor for national collapse. Just like the architecture of those rotting buildings, Britain has become a Brutalist state: it has smashed the pillars of society. Failure is now the order of the day”. Crumbling, collapsing, rotting were words applied to government. A metaphor for a style of architecture using concrete, so-called ‘brutalist’ architecture, was re-literalised and applied to government actions.

While some extended the metaphor focusing on the upper parts of building, such as pillars, others went deeper down and said that “The foundations of the public sector are crumbling”.

The Guardian letter, mentioned above, also explored actions that emphasised the opposite of destroying buildings, namely repairing or mending them: “Crumbling concrete in schools, is an apt metaphor for Tory rule. If the country were their home, they’d invest in it: mend the gutters, fix the roof. They do not see the country as their home. To them, it is a playground for profit and market forces.” People prefer a government that mends to one that destroys.

Quite often crumbling concrete is linked to the long-standing metaphor of ‘broken Britain’, a metaphor once used by the Conservative Party to denigrate the then Labour government, but is now used to describe the crumbling state of Britain under the Conservative Party.

Mixed metaphors

Some people, like Kier Starmer, leader of the Labour opposition, which uses the slogan “Building a better Britain”, mixed metaphors a bit and said: “It is a metaphor, frankly, for their sticking plaster politics: never fixing the fundamentals, always sticking plasters.”

And parliamentary sketchwriter John Crace pointed out in The Guardian: “The metaphors keep piling up like a multiple car wreck. Or do they keep crashing down? It’s so hard to keep up.”

Misplaced metaphors

In the heat of the moment, it is easy to lose track of the building metaphor and forget that glass ceilings may be part of crumbling buildings. Kier Starmer tweeted: “Children’s return to school will be delayed because their schools are literally crumbling. This broken government ignored the warnings. They have given up. Labour will shatter the class ceiling and raise school standards to give every child the opportunities they deserve.”

Inevitable metaphors

Indeed, this tsunami of metaphors, word plays and quips was inevitable once the crumbling concrete came to light. As Gaby Hinsliff wrote in The Guardian: “The metaphors about a country falling apart at the seams, and the consequences quite literally hanging over children’s heads, write themselves, reinforcing a wider national story about corners being cut and chickens squawking home to roost. What’s different about this one, however, is the trail of feathers currently being laid to Rishi Sunak’s door.” This is just a superbly fitting, perfect and apt metaphor for our times.

Obvious metaphors

The metaphor of a crumbling government has been with us for a while but has never materialised itself or manifested or, indeed, concretised itself as it has with RAAC.

In April 2019 the parliamentary sketchwriter Michael Deacon wrote an article for The Telegraph entitled: “This crumbling Parliament is a metaphor for our farcical times”, referring to the fact that the Palace of Westminster was falling apart. Here we have to switch mentally between parliament as building and parliament as institution.

The article goes on to say: “Everything’s falling apart. Brexit’s falling apart. The Government’s falling apart. The Tory party’s falling apart. And, to cap it all, Parliament’s falling apart, too. The Palace of Westminster is a costly, outmoded, crumbling wreck that is no longer fit for purpose. I know, I know. We’re working inside not only Britain’s most dangerous building, but its most clunkingly obvious metaphor.”

It’s now 2023 and we seem to be living and working in this obvious metaphor.


Image: Aero chocolate bar by Marco Verch

Posted in Metaphors