A letter arrives at Self Towers from English Heritage and the Women's Institute, asking me to take part in their new, joint campaign, "Save our Streets".
A letter arrives at Self Towers from English Heritage and the Women's Institute, asking me to take part in their new, joint campaign, "Save our Streets". Together with it are a beautiful pamphlet, the cover of which has been artfully embossed to resemble a street surface, and a CD-ROM which allows me to come face-to- face with Philip Davies, the campaign's head, in the pornographic privacy of my own computer screen. Davies - who resembles a jovial pork butcher wearing a High Street suit - speaks eloquently, if jerkily, on what we can all do to banish unnecessary road furniture, signage and traffic-calming bollix.
Let's get this straight - I have nothing but admiration for English Heritage. When it comes to the English heritage business I think this organisation is, er, streets ahead of the competition. When you trouble to think about it, what's happened to the likes of Anachronistic Albion, BBF (Britain Before the Flood) and all the other quangos which have sought to protect our sceptic isle from the gleet of time? Gone, is the answer, declined into the dust to become only another layer in the mighty, papier-mâché midden of history. But English Heritage marches on: putting up its own signs, conserving buildings and generally adding to the gaiety of the nation.
This latest campaign is predicated on the indisputable facts that: "Streets are places in their own right" and further "the character of a place is defined by its streets". One of the English Heritage Commissioners, the noted anecdotalist Mr Bill Bryson, has been wheeled in to provide his own encomium: "This is a country thoughtful enough to remind people to look left and right before stepping off the kerb, and stylish enough to produce iconic pieces of street furniture such as red telephone and letter boxes. It is incumbent upon England," sez Bill, "to show world leadership in civilised streets."
I know this is true! In Gaza and Baghdad, Darfur and Aceh, they are crying out for the solid virtues of traditional English streets. If only cobblestones could be introduced to Fallujah as a traffic-calming measure then I'm certain that troublesome insurgency would soon be over! If only nice, winding rows of half-timbered houses could be put up on the West Bank then I'm sure suicide bombers would loosen their explosive girdles and take tea!
Oops! My unsightly cynicism is showing - and I promised I wouldn't let it. The real trouble with the English Heritage campaign is twofold: on the one hand, well-meaning as it may be, it still expresses itself through the biscuit-tin-lid, Middle-English received wisdom of what this country should be like.
According to Davies and his CD-ROM, the iconic street furniture worth preserving includes police boxes (in a country where the police have two-way radios); telephone boxes (in a country with 95 per cent mobile phone ownership); post boxes (surface mail all but evaporated); and horse troughs (not exactly utilitarian). While I applaud English Heritage's desire to get rid of superfluous guard rails, useless signs, groin-butting bollards and all the rest of the jumble dumped in the road by local councils deranged by their own sense of power, I can't hope noticing that all the street scenes the campaign approves of belong to ditsy Cotswold towns or somnambulant seaside resorts.
I wonder what English Heritage would've made of the medieval street scene with its tumult, garish signs and slopping ordure? If - as they contend - a messy street is a sign of a society in decline, it's a wonder that this one ever got started in the first place. It seems to me that the heritage mob always want to go back to the future - but not that far back. Still, on balance, I think their campaign - although misguided - is worth supporting. You can go to their website and download your own "street audit", which will enable you to take an inventory of all that repellent clutter, to send to your local council. They will then mount their flying pigs and do away with the offensive stuff.
While I'm waiting for this to happen I'm going to have a steam engine surgically implanted in my face, put on a frock, light a fat stogey, and go for a walk on the strand at Holkham Bay. The WI are welcome to join me.
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By Will Self
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