Friday, 18 September 2009

Progress at all costs

It is a particularly British trait, I think, to think that modern life is rubbish and to bemoan the loss of a long gone golden age, an Arcadian past that we have eroded over the years with nasty, dirty things like progress. As I get older, I have inevitably fallen victim to crippling bouts of nostalgia myself, thinking back to the wonderful 1970’s and mourning its never-to-return perfection. Most of the time, of course, I realise that apart from the trousers and Jon Pertwee, the 70’s was a decade on the edge, a decade with problems: societal breakdown, industrial unrest, economic meltdown, war, violence, terrorism, energy crises, Bruce Forsyth…exactly the same problems as we have today, in fact.

Whenever I feel particularly negative about contemporary society, i.e. whenever I come into too close contact with it, or see a characterless office block or a Starbucks where there used to be a record shop, a Haberdashers or a wool shop, I think of Sir John Betjeman’s poem ‘Inexpensive Progress’, a work that brilliantly articulates the end of an era and the relentless encroachment of all that is bad, ugly, destructive, pointless and vulgar about the modern age...

Encase your legs in nylons,bestride your hills with pylons o age without a soul;

away with gentle willows and all the elmy billows that through your valleys roll.

Let's say goodbye to hedges and roads with grassy edges and winding country lanes;
let all things travel faster where motor car is master till only speed remains.

Destroy the ancient inn-signs but strew the roads with tin signs 'Keep Left,' 'M4,' 'Keep Out!'
Command, instruction, warning, repetitive adorning the rockeried roundabout;

For every raw obscenity must have its small 'amenity,'its patch of shaven green,
and hoardings look a wonder in banks of floribunda with floodlights in between.

Leave no old village standing which could provide a landing for aeroplanes to roar,
but spare such cheap defacements as huts with shattered casements unlived-in since the war.

Let no provincial High Street which might be your or my street look as it used to do
but let the chain stores place here their miles of black glass facia and traffic thunder through.

And if there is some scenery, some unpretentious greenery, surviving anywhere,
it does not need protecting for soon we'll be erecting a Power Station there.

When all our roads are lighted by concrete monsters sited like gallows overhead,
bathed in the yellow vomit, each monster belches from, it we'll know that we are dead.

Betjeman wrote this in 1955. I take great consolation in the fact that fifty four years has passed and we’re still clinging on to life, we still have green spaces and old places. In Britain, where there is grass and history, there’s hope.

1 comment:

Reimer said...

Looking at films like 'Perfect Friday', 'The Offence', 'The Alf Garnett Saga' & 'Villain' you can see the big changes in the built environment as concrete and tarmac spreads into countryside/margins from the mid-60s to the mid-70s.

The latest wave of such 'progress' seems to concern population replacement and dispossession of the natives.