Sunday, 13 March 2016

Getting Better All the Time?

I never took a photograph until a year or two ago, but, now that I've started, I'm at it all the time. Everywhere I go, I'm on the look out for Instagram possibilities. The world for me these days is just a series of brightly coloured squares.

But this afternoon, in pursuit of my new happy-snappy hobby, a rather awful thought came into my mind.

I was standing on a bridge in a pretty Belgian town called Durbuy when it happened. I had just gazed through the viewfinder, hoping to frame an attractive shot, but, as so often happens, I'd realised it wasn't going to be possible. And the reason it wasn't going to be possible was the same one it always is. The problem was that the scene contained too many traces of post-1950s human activity.

It should have been simply lovely. After all there was the river, which was flowing and sparkling and generally being an exceptionally nice stretch of moving water. And lining the river there were willow trees whose weeping boughs had that smudged glow that is not quite a colour, that has no form and yet, for all its intangibility, is the clearest of all indications that spring is just around the corner. In addition to these natural attractions, there were ancient stone buildings and a church with a pretty steeple.

All the major elements that might have made up my picture were attractive, but they were undermined by small but unignorable flaws.

The first was  a large plastic sack full of some kind of agricultural chemical, which someone had dumped on the riverbank. I suppose, if I'd been really keen, I could have gone down and dragged that out of view. But then there was the ugly stretch of municipal fencing that appeared to have been put up the day before yesterday, presumably in response to some EU directive about protecting people from moving water and the possibility of  their falling into same. And running alongside that was a carefully placed row of concrete edging bricks that it probably took several committee meetings and a number of discussion papers to come up with, plus the labour of a dozen or so men to lay so neatly along the upper edge of the riverbank. Plus, of course, there were the bright green plastic rubbish bins fixed to several of the willow trees and, in every possible spare space, the rows and rows of cars.

If I were original, if I had a genius's vision, I might see the beauty in bright green plastic and, as it was a car that brought me to Durbuy, I really ought to have appreciated the sight of massed automobiles.

Stupidly though,  I remain romantically attached to the handmade (not merely notionally; I make a lot of things by hand myself, I should point out). As a result I find myself wondering whether we humans still contribute to the beauty of our surroundings or whether we only detract from it these days.

I've  tried to think of one example where we've improved an old town with our erections. The Sydney Opera House has been suggested as one possibility but it has got location on its side - and I've never been convinced that it's a really resolved design anyway (its base has always bothered me).

Besides, I'm really thinking about domestic architecture, the fabric of the towns we live in. Will any housing cluster today be as attractive to visitors of five or six centuries in the future as, say, Lavenham is to us today?


  1. So far, I've seen no postwar housing that inspires me. Older buildings have an organic quality that modern ones lack - the use of local materials, the slight asymmetry and the signs of weathering make them feel part of the landscape, not at odds with it. That's why I enjoy living in Lewes - not a large town, but packed with so many quirky narrow streets and eccentric buildings, I feel that if they were all unravelled, they would stretch for hundreds of miles, like the body's blood vessels. It's an Instagramer's paradise.

    But if I drove to a largely new town like Burgess Hill, ten miles away, I'd struggle to find anything to photo, other than some of its more decorative residents.

    Sadly, the likes of Boros Johnson and co seem intent on installing as many badly-designed office blocks as they can. I never thought I'd miss Battersea Power station, but last week I was disappointed to see that the view from the train is now obscured by a cluster of 'luxury' flats'.

  2. Agree on all counts - plus signage & bollards & who knows what else also adds to the ugliness. Love this sentence: ...if they were all unravelled they would stretch for hundreds of miles, like the body's blood vessels