Saving the heritage
Patrick Cosg rave
Nowadays, and more often than not fairly, we blame government for most of the ills that have befallen the nation. That judgment is not unfair, not least because the politicians who make up governments have in the pastpromised so much, and promised so extravagantly, that they deserve little sympathy, when their more ludicrous and ill-thought-out schemes for social engineering come adrift. It is a new one on me, though, to blame government for the loss, between 1945 and 1970, of 4,500 miles of hedgerow a year; and to Predict that the devastation of the hedgerows which are among the chief beauties of the British countryside, the indispensable refuges of the blackbird, the thrush and the chaffinch, the best nurseries for fine stands of oak, ash and sycamore, will continue as long as profligate government continues. For all its unlikelihood it is, however, a most convincing thesis, as expounded by Mr Patrick Cormack in a new book, Heritage in Danger*. To go'on a moment
with this—one among many examples— of an eternally greedy, high taxation and high inflation economy (for which government, and government alone, must be held responsible), Mr Cormack argues powerfully that 'the problems and pressures of producing food and earning a living in the twentieth century, and the fiscal inhibitions that a farmer faces, often make him, albeit reluctantly, put financial considerations first.' It follows that the most brutally technological forms of farming must be employed; the short-term gain is the one most commonly sought; and anything of beauty or even long-term prospect is swept aside. Like-the Chancellor of the Exchequer, borrowing desperately, not to create investment, but simply to maintain the currency at a level above that which the marketplace decrees, the farmer scythes down the saplings that produce one fifth of the national reserves of oak, ash, elm, beech and sycamore to meet the demands of this year's tax man, or last year's inflation: like Mr Healey, he penalises—but he is forced to penalise—long-term growth on behalf of this week's illusory grab. And if you are insufficiently impressed by the figures quoted above for 1945-70, remember that the process has been going on for twenty years; in that period we have lost 100,000 miles of hedges.
I started with hedgerows because they are perhaps a less familiar case of victims of depredation than the beautiful pictures and statues, the country houses and richly picturesque churches, which make up other chapters in his fascinating and well-nigh comprehensive bosik. The struggle over the wealth tax—entering its latest stage with a rapacious trade union movement insisting that what it does not possess, however treasured, cared-for or honourably owned, should be taken away from those who have it and destroyed—has made us familiar with the melancholy spectacle of a whole section of the community—the unions, the Labour Party and the general rabble of socialists— bent on bringing to an end a national treasure trove the variety of which is unequalled in any other country. It is less clear that the economic policies followed by successive governments are bringing about the death of much more of the very fabric of the countryside itself.
It may seem excessive, however strong one's opposition to a wealth tax, to argue that it necessarily involves the destruction of the artefacts themselves. But it is certain thatIthe dispossession of most of those who own our great treasures would follow its introduction: they would be forced either to sell abroad, or pass their pictures and statues into the public domain. And the fact is that our galleries and museums are simply not equipped to take care of them: on those walls, on those plinths, decay would rapidly set in. That is, it would set in unless enormous sums were spent on the preparation of public repositories for their new tenants. And if ypu can see the howling mob of sansculottes at a Labour conference, the mostly disaffected babble on Labour's back benches, or the hard-eyed men of the TUC voting for any such expenditure then you have learned nothing from the Socialist Utopia that has been a-building in Britain for the last decade and more.
Physical decay, though, rather than politics, is Mr Cormack's main theme. Again and again he hammers home, with a wealth of detail and an accumulation of love, the consequences of neglect, rapacity and greed, not just for what is beautiful merely, but for the whole structure of the environment. When I am asked to define our heritage,' he writes, 'I do not think in dictionary terms, but instead reflect on certain sights and sounds. I think of a morning mist on the Tweed at Dryburgh when the magic of Turner and the romance of Scott both come fleetingly to life; of a celebration of the Eucharist in a quiet Norfolk church with the mediaeval glass filtering thecolours and the early noise of the harvesting coming through the open door; or of standing at any time before the Wilton Diptych.'
That sounds like an over-romantic passage. On closer analysis, it is remarkable how concrete it is. The most enduring and worthwhile feature of the book is just that concreteness, over an astonishingly wide range of material. Not only throughout the text, but also in six valuable appendices listing the constituent elements of the heritage, Mr Cormack is never lost for a telling example, a pointed illustration. It is, indeed, in the pointing of his moral that he adorns the tale.
It is, alas, a sorry tale. The increasingly frenetic pressure of life in Britain, the constant narrowing of vision coincident with the rise of sordid expectations since the war, the increasing din of politicians making regulations for this and that (not to mention the other), as well as their consumption of more than sixty per cent of the gross national product, to the obvious and individual detriment of the ability of the citizen burdened by their exactions to take much care for his own possessions let alone those of the nation, have deprived and even bereaved our country. It was once well said that beauty had its use, because those who destroyed beauty ultimately destroyed themselves. Down that path to destruction we now walk.