If anything, the estate on the edge of the town has deteriorated in twenty years. It was a drab place when it was built and has not improved. In the 1990s, it was dull and grey, now it is dull and grey and scarred with graffiti and sectarian slogans. The explanations offered for the decline would probably include poverty, but there are other places where poverty has not produced such conditions.
One of the places that has contradicted arguments that poverty explains decline is Cornwall. In 1981, when England’s major cities were reeling at the impact of riots, the highest rates of unemployment were in rural parts of Cornwall. Poverty among some people in rural areas was as high as in the cities, and access to services much less, yet there were no protests, no disturbances. Cornwall continued to be one of the poorest places in Britain into the 1990s, but saw no unrest.
Perhaps the issue was not deprivation, but alienation, a belief that what was around was nothing to do with you, so what matter if it was destroyed.
Why is destruction an essentially urban phenomenon? Does the sense of alienation arise from seeing what is around as nothing to do with you? If it is covered in graffiti, if it is smashed, then what matter? There is no sense of beauty, no sense of the place having an intrinsic worth.
Beauty was not an word that would have occurred much in youthful years – it would have been too feminine – but there was an unconscious that the place around us was our place sense of beauty in childhood years. Our countryside in mid-Somerset is not classic picture postcard stuff, but there were sights and landscapes that had a special quality. Every village and every town had at least a handful of medieval buildings. Daily life was lived in a direct encounter with nature. We wouldn’t have been much into music and art and literature, but they were superfluous on spring and summer days when flowers and trees were a riot of colour and shapes.
How important is such beauty in creating a society that is safe to live in? Crime rates were, and remain, low. It is not that rural England is especially privileged: it is more that life is lived in a different context. The brutal ugliness of many urban landscapes has no sense of timelessness, no sense that life is more than a banal existence.
The Russian Dostoevsky has a character Prince Myshkin who is is mocked for his belief that beauty can save people from the worst:
Is it true, prince, that you once declared that ‘beauty would save the world’? Great Heaven! The prince says that beauty saves the world! And I declare that he only has such playful ideas because he’s in love!
Myshkin’s concern with the reality of the Russia in which he lived and his hopes of transforming that world threaten his relationships:
If I hear you talking about capital punishment, or the economical condition of Russia, or about Beauty redeeming the world, or anything of that sort, I’ll–well, of course I shall laugh and seem very pleased, but I warn you beforehand, don’t look me in the face again! I’m serious now, mind, this time I am really serious.” She certainly did say this very seriously, so much so, that she looked quite different from what she usually was, and the prince could not help noticing the fact. She did not seem to be joking in the slightest degree.
Myshkin, The Idiot of the book’s title is naive in his understanding; the world is quite simply not the place he imagined it might be, but is he so wrong in his hopes? Doesn’t the encounter with beauty change people for the better?
For generations working people organised to allow beauty to be accessible to all – the national parks movement in England from the 1930s, the reading rooms, the educational associations, the libraries, the summer camps, the ramblers’ groups, the choirs, the brass bands – yet having achieved the goals, it seems almost as though the struggle was given up. Reality television and tabloid stories and social networking now fill the hours which were once taken with companionship and culture. In a world where aggression and violence are presented as the norm, destroying one’s environment seems reasonable.