Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Preserving the past is killing the future

When I'm on room 101 English Heritage are going in. In fact the whole idea of preserving piles of stones that have nothing left to tell us about the past, and aren't useful anymore is going right down the shute. The National Trust are on my list too here's why...

Recently arriving on Lindisfarne to be offered the chance to pay 6 quid to enter an old ruined priory I reached a tipping point. I am now in a "what would be so bad about a better future" mindset. Six quid to be inside the priory looking out at old stone, rather than outside looking in seemed ludicrous. I walked round outside for a bit  then spent the six quid on a crab sandwich.

I ought to point out that keeping a nice significant old or ancient building in decent repair, with things like a roof and windows makes sense. Ideally if you can find something to put in it like some art, a climbing wall or a cafe doing nice chips that seems fair enough.

Honestly though "preserving ruins" seems a bit mental. Sure they sometimes work pretty well as sculpture but this pay per view, come and see the lovely old stones shtick that English Heritage are peddling is poor and just shows a lack of cultural imagination. Training people up in ancient trades to restore things that are "authentic" but also crap compared to what we can do now is just daft as well. Why not just make it better than when it was built?

Another example Wuthering Heights, it's a cracking book. I was rather apalled recently to find thousands of pounds have been spent putting a concrete cap on the Top Withens ruins, the supposed inspiration for the novel. So a tumbledown farm that may well have inspired a great artist to imagine a moody manor, is to be preserved in a state that it wasn't when the author first saw it. It looked quite bleak and atmospheric decaying back into the landscape last time I went. It looks like some kind of WW2 coastal defence from the pictures now.

Surely the book is the sacred relic here and Bronte's genius the remarkable thing not the stones? She could have been just as inspired in Tesco. Let the stones fall down but hold the book in high regard forever.

Take a similar landscape the Yorkshire Sculpture park? World class art in a man made landscape, doing the job it was designed for and telling me things about the human condition. I want this kind of decent public art everywhere, in a built environment that meets the needs of the modern world. I wan't more Banksy, less traffic a more insulated, lower carbon, well lit utopia. I also want way less shallow Farrow and Ball, Victorian worshipping country style, retro-fakery.

At this point some will scream but "This stuff is who we are, this is England. Along with "If we don't learn from history's mistakes we are condemned to repeat them." Help me out here, in what way exactly did all this heritage stop us invading Iraq and Afghanistan? I didn't see an army of National Trust tea ladies tutting and then proclaiming from their kiosks "This is madness. In the name of Fountains Abbey don't send our children to die prosecuting an illegal war for the flimsiest of reasons."

The Cutty Sark? A symbol of our former maritime might according to the Duke of Edinburgh. Recently it was falling apart because ships are designed to be in water not a dry dock. Millions of lottery millions have helped to preserve it. Much of the ship being replaced as its frame was steel and had rusted away. Not so it can sail again don't be daft, but so it will be strong enough to be hoisted into the air so you can walk under it. This modern keel hauling I am sure won't come cheap and it won't be the original boat either most of it will be "new old" go figure.

This England, This other Eden, that sections of the middle class recreate and preserve with "real" stone, artisan craft and embroidered antimacassars never really existed. At the time that people made these things. They  were just doing the best they could with the tools and materials they had on the budgets they were given. If we could all stop focusing on a fake contemporary past a little less and look forward perhaps we could build a better future, rather than celebrating times gone that we endlessly over romanticise.

A heritage incidentally when life expectancy was short for most and reading was the preserve of the church elite. A time when many black people and children were slaves. A past when women had no vote and watching your children die in infancy was the norm. When justice was something dispensed by self appointed dictators often on whim and an infected wound would be treated by someone sawing your arm off whilst you were a bit tipsy.

The heritage madness cranks up into over drive when we get into listed buildings and conservation areas. So I may buy and own a listed building in a conservation zone but English Heritage and their like and their heirs and successors can tell me how I may or may not restore it. Or I may if I choose to, let it fall down. This is the sign of a mature democracy how? I may buy and live in a house in a conservation area, but I may not double glaze the windows. Thus ensuring that my house is authentically cold, draughty and contributes authentically to global warming. Better surely that it's how it was originally envisaged and the oceans swallow us all up it would appear.

If this trend isn't stopped what will we save in a centuries time? Will we preserve those early mega malls from the 1990's? Will the Metro Centre, minus it's roof and it's gaudy facades become a middle class shrine to an era in our history when everyone had a pair of Jimmy Choo's. Now of course the steel work will be muted beige its original bright colours removed like the plasterwork in all those cathedrals and the dazzling task lighting will be gone. Low energy lighting now protecting the original inks on the buy one get one free offers on cashmere cardigans. The only sign of commerce will be a cafe selling slightly stale scones, served slowly. A grey haired, well meaning Akela type in Brasher boots trying to pressure sell you family membership while you recoil in horror at the entry fee and decide to sod heritage and go shopping at home.


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