Thursday, April 09, 2009

[The Life of Shaun #336] Britain's self-harming

Heading out the door to catch my plane to Barcelona a few weeks ago, I grabbed Bill Bryson's "Notes From a Small Island" off my bookshelf so that I'd have something light to read should there be delays long enough to run out of battery life and, therefore, The Wire. I'm on my third read of this book now, and enjoying it quite much as it's coinciding with my year to see Britain. His intents are certainly different than mine, and our destinations only overlap in the middle, but the spirit is the same.

I've just reread a passage that explains so well a constant confoundment that comes with living in Britain. The passage is specifically about Oxford, but it could be transfused to any corner of the country and be just as true. So many times you walk around these isles and think "How did anyone ever let that get built there?" (And in the case of Milton Keynes, a whole city.) Fortunately, I am fascinated with ugly architecture, so it's a bit of a paradise for me. But it is still shameful that I am able to quench my fetish so readily in one small country.

Here, better than I could ever say it, is Mr. Bryson's lament:

But there is also so much that is so wrong. How did it happen? This is a serious question. What sort of mad seizure was it that gripped the city's planners, architects, and college authorities in the 1960s and 1970s? Did you know that is was once seriously proposed to tear down Jericho, a district of fine artisans' homes, and to run a relief road right across Christ Church Meadow? These ideas weren't just misguided, they were criminally insane. And yet on a lesser scale they were repeated over and over throughout the city. Just look at the Merton College Warden's Quarters – which is not by any means the worst building in the city. What a remarkable series of improbabilities were necessary to its construction. First, some architect had to design it, had to wander through a city steeped in eight hundred years of architectural tradition, and with great care conceive of a structure that looked like a toaster with windows. Then a committee of finely educated minds at Merton had to show the most extraordinary indifference to their responsibilities to posterity and say to themselves, 'You know, we've been putting up handsome buildings since 1264; let's have an ugly one for a change.' Then the planning authorities had to say, 'Well, why not? Plenty worse elsewhere.' Then the whole of the city—students, dons, shopkeepers, office workers, members of the Oxford Preservation Trust—had to acquiesce and not kick up a fuss. Multiply this by, say, two hundred or three hundred or four hundred and you have modern Oxford.

And in continuation of my journeys around my adopted country, I am spending the long weekend in Bradford and Leeds, a dupolar metropolis in the North. Bradford is known for being the first (or second, maybe Leicester was first) city in the UK that was minority majority and for its race riots a few years back. Leeds is known for, well, everyone knows someone that went to university there. I am getting the same amazed looks about going to Bradford as I did for Middlesbrough and Milton Keynes, so I am braced. At the very least, I expect I can get a decent curry. Leeds, I imagine, will be a giant stag do, but promises to be a fun bank holiday diversion. But in both cases, I am certain the paragraph above will assuredly apply.

Have a great weekend, all!

Still excited to take a journey by train,
Shaun H. Coley
Shadwell, Tower Hamlets
London, UK

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