Friday 09 March 2001

Red Carpet Club Heathrow Yesterdays

Red Carpet Club, Heathrow.

Yesterday's ceremony at The University of Central England In Birmingham, or Birmingham University as I would call it, was very moving. There was a sufficient & necessary degree of ceremony to make it clear that this was not only a personal event for the participants, but that this event carried repercussions beyond the personal. In a word, I found the ceremony "real".

Toyah shone, her speech in response to receiving an honorary doctorate was well conceived and well delivered, and then some 256 students were individually called and presented to the Pro-Chancellor. Then, lunch with the power possessors of the University & City, who returned to the same ceremony with another honorary doctor and some 350 students that afternoon.

My day began at 04.10 in Dorset, then a drive to near Pershore to collect Toyah & her parents, then a drive to the ICC in Brummy Town for the presentation. Then to Pershore, then to London. Now, to leave my Wife and off to Chateau Belewbeloid.

Heathrow has changed radically since last I was here. The passenger entrance has changed, the shopping area beyond is expanded - a shopping experience maximatimum - but the main point which struck me was this: the space feels different. It is only marginally different to the place I checked in not very long ago, but Heathrow is now very different. A cog has slipped into a different wheel & the gear has changed. Or something like that.

I have been undergoing something of a grieving process recently for the loss of a particular kind of England that I know & love, although it may continue be found in pockets. This is part of a larger and ongoing debate, which has in any case been ongoing for a while. It involves Big Issues, macro-matters such as politics, economics, society, education, religion. It involves the transition of power relations & their subversion, and how it is so easy to spoil a whole (dis-integration).

In 1980, while standing in the entrance drive of Fernhill House, Witchampton (my family village) and looking south over the fields towards Badbury Rings (a Neolithic earthwork near Kingston Lacy) I suddenly had a sense of the power which lay in the earth, rather than on the surface. Simultaneously, I knew that any quality work in England had to be done privately: "in" the earth rather than on its "surface". A brief survey of any English newspapers, or tv discussion programmes, demonstrates the quality of public debate.

In 1982, looking out of an attic window in Fernhill over the same Witchampton view, just back from touring, I saw a shocking change which had taken place while I was away: all the hedgerows had been torn out. The tapestry of fields had become a vast open space & the cows who had passed for daily milking at eight in the morning never went that way again.

In this "small" way, in response to professional managerial advice given to the Crichel Estate, my life changed for the worse. This was only one "small" change of many small changes which are part of the changing life, and face, of the English countryside. I have no illusions about the roughness of authentic country living, which is unsentimental & hard. But I experienced this abrupt transition, from mature landscape to open plain, as personal loss.

In West Dorset there continue to be many fields, breathtakingly gorgeous dips & valleys, in addition to the beauty of the coastline. But the villages are scarred with building which is disruptive, dis-integrating & inappropriate to their setting. I have begun to accept the possibility that, if building in & between villages is so awful that it could hardly have been designed to be more disruptive, then perhaps on some level this was the intention: to spoil what was English, beautifully & definitively English.

Coincidentally, I accessed my diary files for March 1999. This is what I found -- Tuesday 2nd. March, 1999;

As an addendum to this comment from Rural Rides through Dorset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire & up to Manchester: "much of the countryside enjoys a sustainable poverty. The poverty is economic, cultural & of the spirit". Another way of characterising this: what I experienced was (subjective, to be sure) a poverty of the imagination.

Some Diary readers may recall Peter Gabriel's musical response to Stanley Milgram's "Obedience To Authority". The two main points I took from reading Milgram were:

1. A large proportion of ordinary, decent people will do unacceptable things when someone else accepts (or appears to accept) responsibility.

2. If we are divorced from the consequences of our actions, the manner in which those consequences unfold are inappropriate.

For example: decisions taken by agribusiness, or committees in Brussels, impact upon the countryside in ways which take no account of the communities, individuals, spirits of place, villages, and body of common practices which accomodate the force of distant, politically based decisions. One of the craziest notions I've ever heard of, referred to as "set aside", is to pay farmers not to grow anything. Rather, to pay farmers to grow nothing. I have a friend in Cornwall who is paid "set aside". He is subject to satellite surveillance to make sure there is no activity on his land (and officials visited him, when cows strayed into a field, in response to satellite monitoring).

Perhaps I am sensibly aberrant, a tragic result of my Dorset upbringing, but this seems very queer to me.

Another example: government / official architecture. Identifit buildings, such as 1960s Post Offices, dumped on town centres without regard for existing streetscapes or local materials. (Planning permission wasn't required for POs until the late 1980s / early 1990s).

A good example of this: the Wimborne library. The late Miss Coles, a good and loyal Winburnian (whose house in town became the museum upon her decease) was approached in the 1970s by the council. They wanted part of her garden as a site for the about-to-be-constructed new library. Miss Coles, according to local legend, offered to donate her garden on condition that she approve the design of the building. Her offer was turned down, the garden was compulsorily purchased, the new Wimborne library was built, and the library moved 50 yards from Church House (where I drew out books as a young person).

Anyone interested in how an impoverished imagination might construct a library can now visit Wimborne and see how it's done. While you're there wander 100 yards into Wimborne square and see if you prefer Barclays' Bank architecture of the 1980s to the Georgian Crown Hotel (where I quaffed a beer or two as a teenager) which it replaced.

Another example: current building regulations enforced by regional planning authorities would prevent the present construction of any of the buildings which comprise the nation's architectural heritage. Stone clad bungalow? Sure thing! (This is beginning to change, after the fact).

In the next village down the valley from here is a rare example of succesful low-cost housing. A row of brick & flint cottages are in keeping with other village buildings (if you ignore everything built in the past fifty years, that is). The row is not cheap building, but low-cost housing. The differences between the two are care, commitment & the creative imagination.