Saturday, 31 December 2011

Progress Visualised

After looking at yesterday's post, my brother reminded me of Osbert Lancaster and the town he invented called Drayneflete. Lancaster made detailed drawings of this imaginary place, chronicling how it changed through the ages:

As well as illustrating his own fictional town, Lancaster also made drawings showing what he thought might have become of other artists' fictional places:

These pictures all come from a catalogue by John Murray, produced to coincide with an exhibition of Osbert Lancaster's work a year or two ago. It is a lovely book and well worth searching out on Abebooks.

Friday, 30 December 2011


"You can't stand in the way of progress". This, I suspect, was the guiding principle of town planners all over the world in my youth. It was their justification for sweeping away many fine old buildings. On the whole, I think that they were wrong.

This is partly because I believe that buildings that were put together largely by craftsmen, rather than machines, provided greater satisfaction to their makers and somehow pass on the pride and pleasure that went into their creation to the people who use them or look at them today. I also think such buildings are the result of a way of life that was more nourishing to the human spirit than are many of the ways of life on offer in our more automated world.

While being freed from the demands of relentless backbreaking work has to be a good thing, being freed from the demands of skilful labour may not be so great. Michael Innes, as I mentioned the other day, described - with great prescience, since he was writing way back in the 1930s - some of the problems that result from suddenly having a lot of time on your hands:

"Appleby drew deep breaths of June air as he went briskly down the drive. The summer was advanced in this southland country; from somewhere came the scent of the first hay and already the oak-leaves were darkening. Over his left shoulder he looked up at Horton Hill. Across the crown there must be some right-of-way, for no attempt had been made to eject the people gathering there. It was quite a crowd now: idlers in the neighbouring towns, reading the stimulating news in their morning paper, had hurried to get out the car and motor over to see what they could. And soon there would be similar arrivals from London; people 'running down for the day'. And portents these, thought Appleby, of a society running down in another sense: clogged by its own mass-production of individuals who, let loose from a day's or a lifetime's specialized routine, will neither think nor read nor practise any craft, but only gape."

On the other hand, I have gradually learned to admire, in lieu of minute craftsmanship, the astonishing skill that must be needed to organise an airport, (I may be alone in this, but I'm rather fond of airports), and, indeed, that must be needed to design the engine of an aeroplane. Reading Clive James's new collection of essays, taken from the BBC radio programme Point of View, I realise he would understand this.

In one of the essays in the book, he talks about his longstanding admiration for the beauty of technology. He suggests that we should not object to all modern architecture but instead should reject "Le Corbusier's horrible plans for a modernized Paris", while recognising more worthy designs.

James though is commenting on the battle between those in society who favour the built world and all the advances that go with it and see "planes, trains and automobiles" as "human creations ... as interesting as poems, paintings and pieces of music" and the Rousseauesque others, who "hanker... for a return to nature".

My concern is slightly different. I am not against comfort; I don't want to live in a mud hut with no running water. All the same, I want to be certain what exactly 'progress' brings. Aside from the puzzle of why it makes sense to liberate people so that they have nothing to do, when that only makes them feel worthless (oh yes, I forgot, it saves their employers money), what I am very unsure about is whether replacing something beautifully-made is ever a good idea.

Technological advance may be useful, but is it better? Is there really any justification for replacing a handbuilt structure that exhibits everywhere the signs of individual craftsmanship with a piece of sturdy but impersonal engineering, whose concrete, steel, glass et cetera components are produced in a factory and slotted together without the need for really fine artisanship - particularly as the change in method is largely the product of economic imperative rather than any aesthetic belief, (whatever supporters of Modernism may say, the fact that their mad theories also led to lower costs was of the greatest assistance in their achieving success)? I recognise that the skills of the design engineer are enormous and extraordinary but I feel somehow that, with the disappearance of much handcrafting in the making of buildings, we have lost more than we realise.

As a result of my conflicting feelings about these things, I find myself, whenever I go to the State Library of New South Wales and look at the two panoramic photographs they have on display, showing central Sydney in 1904 and then again a couple of years ago, unable to decide what I think about the changes that have taken place in the interval between the two:

I usually tell myself that the city would look odd and false if the streetscapes had stayed as they were. Then I think of Vienna and Budapest, where very little has been altered since the nineteenth century. I don't feel the lack of shiny skyscrapers there. However, the surviving buildings in those cities do tend to be of a grander scale than those in the early Sydney picture, so perhaps scale is the important factor here. Three-storey terraces in the centre of a city, however pretty, might look silly in the modern age. Perhaps, if they had all been preserved, central Sydney would have the air of an odd little toy town. On the other hand, the streets in the area called The Rocks, where the buildings have been allowed to remain standing, is absolutely lovely and full of real character.

The CBD, with its soaring glass and steel constructions is impressive, but it could be in Canada as easily as Australia.  The buildings that confront people as their ferries berth at Circular Quay create no dialogue between us and the individuals who put them up. They bear no trace of a particular human being's patient skill and craftsmanship. Their scale is so inhuman and their style so impersonal that it would be easy to believe they were made without the aid of any human hand at all. Having been constructed using methods that were automated rather than individual, their character seems largely to be missing. Their facades are smooth and featureless. They exude no sense of personality. They lack warmth. They are not unique. They are simply the products of machines.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Strains of Christmas

At the local shop yesterday, I was on my knees, hunting on a low shelf for some soft food for the stray cat we look after, (she recently seems to have mislaid all her front teeth in some late night feline punch up - or perhaps just through old age).

Over my head, two women discussed their Christmas.

'We had mum to stay,' said the first one, 'it was hard going.' 'Was she here long?', asked the other. 'A week and a half. She was very demanding.'

Neither of them spoke for a moment and then the first one began again. 'I love my mother,' she said, 'but I don't like her. That's what I realised while she was here.' 'Oh,' said the second one, 'I feel the reverse about mine.'

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

It All Depends Where

On my walk each morning, I have to climb a set of steps - 39 of them, incidentally, such an odd number that I am convinced the designer was a fan of John Buchan, although others in my family say it's pure coincidence:

Although I am not keen on step climbing, (unlike the sweaty figures who run up and down these four times, while I am  plodding up them only once), this particular staircase provokes not only dread but joy in me.

My reaction would be different if the staircase was positioned right at the start of my journey. In fact, if it were there, it might serve as a disincentive, looming large in my mind as I lay in bed trying to persuade myself to get up and go out. Similarly, if it were plonked right in the middle of the climb, I might hate it bitterly, regarding it as the worst bit of the whole enterprise.

As it is, because it is positioned at the very end of my walk, while it still represents a steep upward slog, it also signals that the pain is almost over. Therefore, although I still don't exactly leap for joy when I see the thing rising up before me, I do feel happy, because it means I'm almost at the end.

What's in a Name

Ages ago, I mentioned a poem by AD Hope that featured Australian place names. Now I've discovered another, on a similar theme, this time by John Manifold:

The Map

Devil take our city-minded, imitative gran'dads who
Saddled us with Warwick, Ipswich, Bloomsbury, (near Yalbaroo),
Surbiton on Belyando - names like these will never do!

Mount Mistake, The Risk, The Blunder, Wilson's Downfall make a change,
But the names I like are those that show a sense of somewhere strange -
One Tree Hill and Wild Horse Mountain, Razorback and Nightcap Range -

And at sundown, when the hills are monstrous and the bunyip stirs,
I am pretty sure the native names are what the land prefers:
Murderer's Flat was our invention, but Eurunderee was hers.

Jundah, Thunda, Nocatunga, Thargomindah, Gunnewin,
Tarrewinnabar, Canungra, Tabragalba, Coolwinpin,
Ulandilla by the Maranoa where the songs begin.

Binna Burra, Bindebango, Mullumbimby - these belong! -
Bunya, Quinalow, Nanango, Tallebudgera, Durong
Xylophones among the timber,
   Bellbirds in the border mountains,
        Wallangarra, Woodenbong.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Lessons of Christmas

1. Always tip well in restaurants - cooking is very hard work.

2. Nigella Lawson, annoying though some people find her, (not me - I love her), has made at least one major contribution to modern life - namely, recommending that you should use foil baking trays, so that you can throw them away instead of having to wash them all up.

3. Cooking is exhausting - oh, did I mention that already? Well, it's worth mentioning again. It strikes me as a form of brinksmanship, if that's the right word - to be fresh and delicious and hot and so forth, most food has to be prepared right at the last minute, leaving no room for mistakes or complete stuff ups - which reminds me, obliquely, of the story my friend's aunt, a Sydney girl who married a New South Wales farmer, used to tell:

In her effete urban manner, she'd prepared for the first Sunday lunch after their marriage - the first she'd prepared for her country relations - some kind of light first course, (cold consomme, possibly), and then a roast chicken, plus salad and a scattering of roast potatoes and pumpkin. She'd planned to offer fresh fruit after that, but, as the meal proceeded, it became clear to her that she hadn't cooked nearly enough meat or roast vegetables and that, even if she had, this particular mob regarded a hearty pudding as the only fitting end to such an occasion - or indeed to any meal.

She wanted to make a good impression, but she had no pudding - what was she to do? Finally, she came up with a plan that, while not actually providing a pudding, would go a long way to saving her reputation as someone who knows how to plan - if not execute - a decent feed.

Jumping up from the table, she hurried into the kitchen, turned on the gas flame and poured sugar over it. As the smell of burning sugar began to spread through the air, she dashed back to the dining room, tea towel in hand. 'I'm  terribly sorry,' she cried, 'I completely forgot to keep an eye on the pudding - it's burnt to a cinder.' While they all went away a bit hungry, at least they didn't go away believing her to be a woman who didn't understand the importance of pudding.

4. Once a year is often enough for Christmas and, having done it and got it out of the way for this year, I can only quote TS Eliot's typist (while acknowledging that she was referring to an utterly different circumstance):

'Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over.'

Friday, 23 December 2011

Gone Cooking

This year, more than most, the lead up to Christmas has been about the hard scrabble of making ends meet and keeping the wolf from the door:

 (And, among the many questions raised by the new economic situation is this: just how many foam reindeer antlers can one city actually absorb?):

I hope though that, when the big day arrives at last, it will be okay to relax and forget the troubles of the world for a few hours, to copy these boys and go for a surf, (and possibly then have a beer against a background of tinsel - that would be a perfect Australian Christmas, surely):

Whoever reads this, wherever you are, I wish you a very happy Christmas. I will be attempting to cook lunch for 21 brave people. Unusually, (five years ago, in the midst of drought, I would never have predicted this), my biggest concern - apart from justifiable doubts about my competence in the kitchen - is the possibility it may rain.

Happy Christmas and a Merry New Year.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

It's in the Name

One of the papers - possibly the Australian - has a column where they interview a new person each week. The people they interview are selected on the grounds that they have an unusual job. The other day the turn came for a stamp designer for Australia Post.

She told the paper that she was busy producing 'three secular Christmas stamps'. There was a picture of them. They showed a wrapped present, a Christmas tree, (looking a lot classier than any we've ever managed in this household), and some kind of bauble for hanging on a tree.

The designer explained, 'We have to be mindful that not everybody will like the one definition of Christmas.'
So, although we are all being given a holiday as a result of a religious festival, we should avoid mentioning the religious element, it seems.

I don't think you have to be a wild-eyed Bible-basher to object to this. While I would never argue that anyone should have to go to church or pray or pretend they believe in Christianity, I think it is basic good manners to acknowledge the underlying reason that we are celebrating Christmas. We may well have got the date wrong, but everything we are doing - getting time off, giving presents, putting up trees - is done as a way of celebrating the birth of Christ. That's why it's called Christmas - the clue is there, in the first syllable of the holiday's name.

So who exactly does Australia Post think will not like this definition of Christmas. Who do they imagine is going to storm out of the post office, when offered stamps showing a manger and three wise men? If they are worried about giving offence to people of other faiths, I think this letter demonstrates that that is a silly and pointless effort:

More Bush

When we were in Sydney the other day we took a walk from Manly Beach to the North Head. As we plodded along, I found myself thinking about the late Alan Clark and his highly successful diaries.

This might seem surprising, since Alan Clark was a rather sleazy old snob whose private jottings are principally of use in revealing to any outsider the impossibility of ever being accepted by the upper middle classes in England. Clark's comments on the events of his life and the people he meets are infused with an understanding of - and devotion to - an unspoken and exclusive code that dictates what is correct behaviour in every area of human activity.

The best illustration of the kind of thing I mean is Clark's dismissal of Heseltine as a man who bought his own furniture, (rather than inheriting it, presumably). While I don't think I could ever find it in my heart to feel sorry for Heseltine about anything, I do think being criticised for one's choice of parents is a bit unkind.

Anyway, the reason Alan Clark and his diaries came to mind was that he also noted, disparagingly, of someone or other, (possibly Heseltine again, come to think of it), that, when he visited them, they had no flowers in the house. Looking around at the bush we were passing through, I thought how hard it would be to please Alan Clark in this regard, if he were visiting you in Australia.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there are plenty of flowers and pretty things in our landscape, but they do not leap out at you - nor (apart from the good old wattle, which, as we all know has basically been put on earth to be shoved into a bottle) would they be easy to gather into a bunch and use to decorate your house.

To demonstrate what I mean, here are some of the blooms I spotted on our route. Some might be chivvied into a tiny posy, but none, I think, would be effective as a genuine, Clark-pleasing 'floral display':