Friday, March 25, 2005

Centred on conservation

There's a really fascinating review of a new biography of H.V. Morton in the last London Review of Books. Morton was a travel writer between the wars; his big thing was 'undiscovered England', which he wanted to open up to those people who could get there by car. A deeply class-bound project, of course: this was the golden age of middle-class motoring, after car ownership had spread outside the upper class but before it became a mass phenomenon. (I wonder if the cycling clubs had a Morton?)

Anyway, the biography - and the review - quotes from Morton's diary, which shows just how class-bound his work was. Here's a quote from 1941:

I often ask myself why I love England so much. There is so much I detest about her: our Labour leaders, the crude, uneducated, spoilt lower classes, the Jews. And yet how small a thing this is compared with the grand sweep of history which is England, the green fields, the quiet rivers, the dark woods and the chalk downs, a lovely country inhabited by a race that is true and good at heart, brave and resolute, and, as human beings go, honest.

(I do like that "as human beings go". Cheers, H.V.!)

I could stop here, really, it's such a perfect summary of a certain kind of reactionary patriotism. "The grand sweep of history" and the fields and the rivers, good. The people who actually live here, well, mostly bad, quite frankly, what's a chap to do? Harrumph. But I don't think this amounts to saying that patriotism is necessarily reactionary and elitist, even when it has blood-and-soil overtones like these. Martin Kettle, describing Anthony Sampson's funeral, writes:

Later we stood again and sang the most English of songs - the real national anthem - summoning up our arrows of desire and our chariot of fire, pledging again an unceasing mental fight till we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land.

Jerusalem references are pretty cheap these days - national anthem? no thanks! - but I think those lines do capture something. Something about the importance of place, and how being on the Left doesn't necessarily mean having "no home but the struggle" - attachment to place and attachment to the status quo aren't synonymous. "Green and pleasant land" is a cliche, but it's not meaningless - there is something genuinely fulfilling and restorative about wild and rural landscapes. The same goes for some city landscapes, where they've been allowed to go wild or get old. Nature is a resource, I'm suggesting - culturally and politically as well as in economic terms. And history is a resource - the history of human management of land, or the history written into buildings. There are many social relations which need to be changed. There are many buildings which need to be preserved, not to mention rivers and trees.

Which brings me (from the sublime to the ridiculous) to Tessa Jowell, who has recently suggested that some listed buildings could be pulled down after a "a perfect virtual moving image" has been recorded - one of those VR walkthrough things that architects use, presumably. (No, I am not making this up.) The story concludes with a quote from Peter Cook (not the genius), who endorsed the idea and added: "It is beyond what I would have ever thought of, and I am usually thought of as wild."

Well, yes and no, Peter. One or two of us thought of you - in your role as the public face of the Archigram group - as the single person most responsible for ripping off, recuperating and publicising some architectural ideas put forward in the early 1960s by Constant Nieuwenhuis and the Situationist International. They were flawed ideas at best, predicated on an odd sort of tarmac-the-world techno-utopianism - the SI abandoned them quite rapidly, and Constant himself followed suit before very long. Archigram's jazzed-up and watered-down variations on Situationist themes did little more than make a certain kind of 'radical' architectural brutalism look alternative (which it really wasn't) and frivolous (which it certainly isn't). (For more on this, and on divisions within Archigram, look here.) You could argue that, however 'wild' Cook may have looked back then, he was cutting with the grain all along. He certainly is now.


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