Saturday, 8 June 2013

Houses v Fields

The debate has been raging for a long, long time, as Radio 4's "Archive on 4" revealed this evening.

Image for Houses v Fields

Houses v Fields

First broadcast: Saturday 26 May 2012
Which is a better use of our land? A beautiful green field, or a human home? We have long tied ourselves in knots trying to answer this question. Anne McElvoy ploughs the BBC archive to unearth the tangled roots of one this country's great, eternal inner conflicts.

Anne listens to a stinging mid-century polemic against new 'ribbon developments'. And she finds out which writer was so incensed at suburban sprawl that she burned cardboard models of suburbs in her garden.

But she also hears interviews with those who had managed to flee the slums and who were enraptured by the fresh air on new estates. One ex-EastEnder is agog simply at the fact that she has running water upstairs.

In this new, planning-friendly world, Prime Minister Winston Churchill broadcast to the nation on the virtues of the new emergency pre-fabricated houses - complete with "excellent baths". He expresses impatience with those who would "plan every acre" to ensure the landscape was not spoiled.

But she also hears the rough reception that greeted the Minister who ventured to Stevenage to extol the virtues of the coming new town.

This opposition to new building on ancient fields came to a new crisis in the 1980s when the boom in the south east led to extraordinary tensions. 

Environment Secretary Nicholas Ridley backed plans to build new settlements in the Home Counties. Protestors burned him in effigy in a Hampshire field.

And with the Coalition Government trying to encourage development while empowering local communities, Anne asks Planning Minister Nicholas Boles how he is trying to resolve the struggle between houses and fields.

With Nicholas Boles, John Carey, Juliet Gardiner, Tristram Hunt, Roger Scruton, Christine Whitehead

BBC Radio 4 - Archive on 4, Houses v Fields

The poet Philip Larkin was quoted with his fears of the loss of fields under houses: here is archive footage of him reading his 1972 poem 'Going, going': 

Philip Larkin reading "Going Going" - YouTube

Philip Larkin saw the countryside as a place 'where people are not': a sort of emptiness. But, then, he didn't visit the countryside too often and didn't care for people that much either. And yet the question of 'when are you going to stop?' still applies. As the programme pointed out, later generations might not care anyway about 'the concrete and the tyres' because they will not know what it is that they have 'lost'...

But there are other points of view: on the blog iGreen there's been quite a debate about this:

I’ve put this up because it is probably Larkin’s most obviously conservationist poem. However, I think his sentiments turned out wrong.  
He wrote it aged 50, fairly late in his poetry-writing career.   Although he lived till 1985, he wrote few poems after his last collection, High Windows in 1974.   By then he was getting pretty grumpy.  He had lived through 30 years of post war austerity, municipal socialism, high-rise blocks and regional development grants.   How was he to know that the sunlit uplands of Margaret Thatcher’s revolution were less than a decade away?   

GOING, GOING by Philip Larkin. (January 1972)

I thought it would last my time -
The sense that, beyond the town,
There would always be fields and farms,
Where the village louts could climb
Such trees as were not cut down;
I knew there'd be false alarms

In the papers about old streets
And split level shopping, but some
Have always been left so far;
And when the old part retreats
As the bleak high-risers come
We can always escape in the car.

Things are tougher than we are, just
As earth will always respond
However we mess it about;
Chuck filth in the sea, if you must:
The tides will be clean beyond.
- But what do I feel now? Doubt?

Or age, simply? The crowd
Is young in the M1 cafe;
Their kids are screaming for more -
More houses, more parking allowed,
More caravan sites, more pay.
On the Business Page, a score

Of spectacled grins approve
Some takeover bid that entails
Five per cent profit (and ten
Per cent more in the estuaries): move
Your works to the unspoilt dales
(Grey area grants)! And when

You try to get near the sea
In summer . . .
        It seems, just now,
To be happening so very fast;
Despite all the land left free
For the first time I feel somehow
That it isn't going to last,

That before I snuff it, the whole
Boiling will be bricked in
Except for the tourist parts -
First slum of Europe: a role
It won't be hard to win,
With a cast of crooks and tarts.

And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There'll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.

Most things are never meant.
This won't be, most likely; but greeds
And garbage are too thick-strewn
To be swept up now, or invent
Excuses that make them all needs.
I just think it will happen, soon.

12 Oct 2004 Update.   My comments above annoyed some people. 


Robin Carmody writes:
I read with interest your comments about the Philip Larkin poem on your website.
When I read the reference to "the sunlit uplands of Margaret Thatcher's revolution" I initially thought your tongue must be in your cheek, before I realised with horror that you actually meant it.  I very much take issue with the idea that Thatcherism has caused a reduction in the cultural tendencies that Larkin condemned; it has merely accelerated it, condemned us to ever greater rootlessness, isolation and loss.  Its uncritical embrace of global capitalism has led to an ever greater disconnection from "guildhalls and carved choirs" - those who once aspired to such things are now winning Pop Idol or marrying Gwyneth Paltrow while informing us that "every white boy growing up in Devon dreams of being able to rap".
It may well be that the last 25 years have given us the phenomenon of "heritage" architecture as an extension of the wider Heritage Britain PLC, vide Dorchester/Poundbury (which is merely my nearest example), but this is hardly a restoration of the romantic view of England that Larkin expressed; I very strongly suspect that he would find it cold, soulless, meaningless, emotionless, "un-meant", "un-felt".
I realise that you are deliberately "iconoclastic" and "unorthodox" in your political position, but even you must realise that there is a point where you just start to look ridiculous to pretty much everyone.
Robin Carmody

My reply: 
Hi Robin,
Good to hear from you.  One of the pleasures of running iGreens is hearing from environmentalists who object to my claim that the private sector and capitalism generally protect the environment better than the public sector and socialism do.  It’s an extra pleasure when they also object to my reading of Larkin.
I think you make three main points. 
That capitalism/Thatcherism is more likely to destroy Larkin’s England, “guildhalls and carved choirs” etc. than socialism.   I disagree, but the question is not really answerable, and I don’t really want to argue about it.  You may even be right.     
I guess you also think that if Larkin were alive now he would disagree with my more general argument.  I doubt it.   I agree that in the poem Going Going he suggests that capitalism is the agent of environmental destruction.  When he was writing that was just conventional wisdom.
Larkin was a wise man, but he was hardly an economist or political philosopher.  The  analyses of Hayek, Friedman, Coase, Buchanan, Becker and their colleagues were hardly written down, let alone available to Larkin in 1972.  Even now their ideas are far from common currency, but I think Larkin would have understood. 
He was after all a strong supporter of Margaret Thatcher herself.   He knew Thatcherism had not condemned us to “rootlessness, isolation and loss”.  The destruction of real community, of Burke’s little platoons, by the welfare state did that.  
You cite Dorchester/Poundbury as “not a restoration of the romantic view of England that Larkin expressed”.   Indeed it is not.  But neither is it remotely a product of the market.  Unless I’m very much mistaken, Poundbury is a planned village, moreover one planned by the heir to the throne.  I rest my case. 
Oh yes.  You also accuse me of being iconoclastic and unorthodox.  I plead guilty.    
Thanks again for writing.  If I may I will add your letter and this reply, as a footnote to the poem.   I’ve just discovered that if you type “Going Going Larkin” into Google, iGreens comes top, so it will annoy lots of people!   J   
Best wishes
Jim Thornton


No comments: