Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Real values

We've often remarked amongst ourselves how similar the rural architecture is between Ireland and France, and Wales has to come into it and Scotland too but I have not been there for a while.   We could probably include Cornwall, and the Isle of Man.  It's absolutely not the same as English rural architecture. The placement of buildings inside their plots, the shapes and exterior surfaces, the details of doors and windows - these have an insistent Celtic quality to them which is absolutely unfamiliar to a southern Englishwoman. But it never dawned on me till this Christmas weekend in Tipperary what this is about.
The significant thing is that none of these cultures are English. They have - for various reasons - eschewed some of the dominant stylistic choices of the English, and so what we see in the Celtic regions is what we ourselves might have had if it had not been for the successfully long reigns of some British Queens. In particular we can think of Elizabeth I, Victoria and (to some extent) Elizabeth II.
The English have been utterly mesmerised for centuries by a dream of greatness, reflected in architecture by a consistent return to the styles of Tudor domestic - black-and-white, gable-fronted, modest homes with leaded windows (very often with diamond panes), and with any luck, roses round the door.  We had a wonderful romance (wrong word!) with Georgian classicism in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but couldn't help ourselves and rolled back to ornamental brickwork and then into Tudorbethan suburban expansion, millions of small homes built in long rows, some as solos and some semidetached or even terraced.
This was all coinciding with our nation's extraordinary (and in many ways repulsive) empire-building outreach and the industrial revolution which stole and created so much wealth, and has been almost universally regarded as brilliantly successful.
Even in the decades since WW2, when we have seen a further massive expansion of housing provision across England, we have favoured a particular kind of twiddle, the 'Englishman's home is his castle' kind of propriety, with front walls in particular being more often than not adorned with false fronts - white-painted wood, and latterly plastic planking, or vertical tiling being popular (and cheap).
However, our neighbours did not necessarily take the same view of all this activity or style.  They did not generate quite the same jingoistic view of the explosion of capitalist activity, although of course they provided huge amounts of the necessary labour and raw materials - the coal, iron, plate, chains, rails, engines etc.
And, because they did not produce such a massive number of new industrial cities with all the attendant social relocatoin, they had nothing like the same disruption to their peasant heritage... so the dreams from the ancient days remained more intact.  The idea would be that - one day, if all went well - you'd be able to afford a new house (no rats, no silverfish, no cockroaches, no mud, proper drains, separate bedrooms, etc etc) sitting plum in the middle of your own terrain, something to be proud of, a shining homestead for the family to call home. The whole slant was different.
They did not need the beguiling details of tiling or gables or black-and-white or leaded windows to demonstrate the success of the family's endeavours - the house itself is enough.
So when you stroll down a quiet lane, or drive around any of the Irish or French or Welsh towns, you will see proud newish houses, very clean, usually bang in the middle of the ground, with distinct boundary walls and gates, and a driveway, and sometimes it's a bit naff or blingy, but it's unmistakable - the shining demonstration of a family's achievement.
In England, by contrast, we have tightly-huddled clusters of new homes far too small, with a lot of attention paid to exterior styling and none at all to layout and purpose - the the needs of families - garden space, laundry space, shed space, privacy, community.  They are shockingly, achingly overpriced. We have by far the smallest square footage per new dwelling in the whole of Europe.
These minute new homes are also quite often built using timber-framing and infill - but priced as if they were made of brick and mortar. And they are not as fireproof as you'd like either - the fire which ripped through the top floors of the ludicrous new Lego-style apartments at the Tannery roundabout in Canterbury a couple of years ago showed that the industry has now adopted the American style of residential building. They may look safe and sound, but they are not.  Why do you think the firemen are regarded as such heroes in the USA? Because they are. They have to be. The number of fires and the speed at which they rip through buildings in the States is shocking to a European.  If you walk through any American city on any day, you will see the glorious fire-engines out at work - or patrolling and reminding people they're there: that just doesn't happen in Europe, not on any average day.
I have nothing against firemen, of course. But I think this is another example of how (in England) the standards have been allowed or encouraged to slip.... the residential property development industry could make more money with shoddy techniques during the last 50 years property-boom, and so they did.
So you get a very distinct cultural difference. And it's not them who are abnormal - it's us.
It's not all bad of course. Out of the weird mix of character which is called 'typically English' with its absurd class-structure and casual violence, we also shaped a whole new world during these centuries. And we did it with very small tools.....  First, our visionaries (monarchs, soldiers, capitalists) looked to the nearest sources of raw wealth - Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, etc.   And because in some ways not very much has happened to change things in those areas, it's easy to find and marvel at the railway engineering, the mines, mills, bridges, canals, wharves and warehouses which are still there. The extraordinary thing about the canals is how tiny they were and are.  Some are barely ten feet wide. Yet it was on these tiny threads of access that the whole international business was constructed. They are capillary-small. It's almost inconceivable to a modern eye.
Walking along the rural Irish lanes, you can see the modern revolutions happening in front of your eyes.   The proud new family homes are built along the lanes which have had almost nothing happening in them otherwise for 1000 years.  You must have a car to live there now, and you can be in the beautiful countryside with your land about you and feel satisfied. Down the road, are some tiny stone cottages falling into complete decay, and the occasional small family farm built of stone with mud and cows and gates held shut with string.
Occasionally, near the ports or or business parks, these old functional buildings are converted to huge brand new steel-and-concrete hotels and conference centres (we stayed last night at one near Rosslare, called The Farmers Kitchen, a massive depressing plastique place). But the name gives away the nostalgic and powerful marketing tool.... There was a woman once called Irene Scallan, whose kitchen was a bit of a bar, and then it all grew from there.  The receptionist said some of the old buildings are still there, out back.  You can visit once-thriving market-towns like Thurles or Bunclody which have wonderful family names (such as Stakelums) adorning the buildings once dedicated to pharmacy or butchery or alcohol or clothing, but the centres are now mostly used as carparks.  All through France this summer, we found the old family restaurants shut down, and new American-style diners operating in the new shopping parks in their place (food handed over on plastic or paper sheets or cups). We live in an age of transition. People gratefully walk away from the rotten old stuff, and have to choose what they like from the future.
In the Celtic lands, their choices look more sound, for the most part. In England, we're still transfixed by the facade, what things look like rather than what they do.  The great Abstract Expressionist artist Rothko called his paintings facades. It's a word with a double meaning. Is what you see the real thing, or is something being hidden?
However small the 18th century canals were, they weren't hiding anything. They didn't pretend. Our modern life is mostly about pretence. Going to an empty rural country like Ireland reminds you of real values.

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