Sunday, September 09, 2007


Missing the Boat

Now I’m doing more blogging, I’ve found myself thinking about some of the things I missed in those months while illness and a certain amount of indolence were intervening. There were two new Prime Ministers – one a scary, warmongering, manipulator who tolerates no opposition and wreaks a terrible vengeance on his enemies, and the other in truth the Master. Doctor Who was outstanding (and, in related news, I briefly became a model). Fabulously and astoundingly, the Traveling Wilburys topped the album charts. And one Lib Dem blog post in particular wound me up, so here’s an incredibly late reply…

So whose post was it?

Well, obviously there were plenty that I disagreed with over the months that I slowed to a trickle (still having arm problems, but they’ve eased a lot), but with all these awards doing the rounds, who else could I give my own special award to but (lower lights, cue sinister music)… Laurence Boyce, the notorious Phantom of the Voice. Yes, it’s that terrifying genius who, cruelly denied a blog of his own, haunts the cellars of Liberal Democrat Voice. Happy first birthday to it and the team, but like every grand edifice, the grandest of all Lib Dem Blogs hides a dark secret (well, he’s not exactly a secret. There’s no shutting him up, and long may he continue). Can it be a coincidence that Lib Dem Voice creator Rob Fenwick was visited by a ghastly punishment at the Paris Opera House Royal Albert Hall on the eve of this very anniversary? Or that Ryan, Mark and Stephen always look upwards nervously in case the chandelier suddenly topples down on them? Ming, if you should visit the Voice, don’t sit in the middle!

Oddly enough, though Laurence Boyce is a terrific political blogger and delights in being a controversial one, it wasn’t really a political subject that got my goat. I’m sure Mr Boyce will still be delighted: with the article I’m talking about he had the grand ambition of “becoming the most reviled person in the country” but, as I can be frightfully old-fashioned and British at times, this is going to be a bit more of a tut, a pair of pursed lips and a ‘Well, honestly, that wasn’t very nice’. Sorry to leave my blazing torch at home but, you know, fire can be jolly dangerous. And speaking of my home, in true daytime TV fashion, I live on the Isle of Dogs, out by the Thames in East London. Walk a few minutes down the riverside and there’s the foot tunnel to Greenwich, coming out by the Cutty Sark. Though I’ve lived here with Richard for over a dozen years, I still have fond memories of the Cutty Sark from over a dozen years earlier, when we visited it on a family trip and first walked through to the Isle of Dogs, little thinking that I’d grow up to fall in love and go to live there. And I’ve also since childhood had a love of history, even if I’ve never done much about it. So when, at ten to seven on the morning of May 21st, I heard a bulletin on the Today Programme saying that the Cutty Sark was in flames, I was horrified. Richard felt the same, and together we walked down to see the old ship, more than once that day and in those that followed.

Cutty Sark Frame Prow May 2007
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“It’s Only a Boat”

Mr Boyce’s opinion, on the other hand, was that “It’s only a boat”. There are certain phrases that tend to make me narrow my eyes. ‘Opinion polls say we have to do it,’ before dropping a policy or making one up to suit the Daily Mail.‘I’m not homophobic, but…’ before supporting discrimination or making us out to be sick (to be pitied or ‘cured’), criminal (to be condemned) or intrinsically immoral (to be consigned to Hell). ‘It’s only a TV show,’ as if that’s an excuse for demolishing or denying support to everything that’s fun in the world. It’s only a statue. Only a painting. Only a building. Well, life’s about more than things that make money, or do the government’s bidding, or are ‘good for you’. And now ‘It’s only a boat’. Mr Boyce “was not in the least bit upset” about the fire. Fair enough. There are plenty of works of art or treasures of history about which, really, I never spare a thought – but some people do, and if they’re significant, my instinct is to preserve them for more people to enjoy in the future. Whatever floats your boat, you know.

I don’t want you to think Mr Boyce has some specific vendetta against the Cutty Sark. No, he also piled into such “lunacies” of the Heritage Lottery Fund as baths, churches, moths, archaeological sites and Agatha Christie. What sort of moral deviant could possibly want any of them to survive, eh? Now, if you’ve not read his piece, I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. He fervently believes that some aspects of heritage should be preserved. Well, ‘fervently’ is exaggerating things slightly. He ‘mildly’ believes. Or, well, doesn’t actively oppose, providing absolutely no money is involved. Hmm. Now I look at it, the phraseology might be tiptoeing away from conceding any actual cases, and more in the direction of ‘covering one’s arse’. Let’s see what he has to say:

“Look, I don’t want to sound like a total Philistine,”
No, no, seriously, folks.

“and I’m sure that the Heritage Lottery Fund helps out many deserving causes,”
Though he doesn’t in fact come up with any at all, or even any notion of what sort of thing that might cover, excepting the aforementioned hindquarters. And on that subject, do you feel a ‘but’ coming on?

“but there has to be a limit to the amount of old tat we might wish to preserve for future generations. Surely it would make sense, given how space is at such a premium, to allow a number of old buildings and churches to gently decay, before respectfully bulldozing them.”
History Matters

I wrote last year about why history matters to me. It’s always fascinated me, and I occasionally, say, dip into one of Conrad Russell’s Civil War books or just bounce around Wikipedia simply for the pleasure of it. There are few things sillier or more dangerous than a politician insisting that people share their pleasures, though; I just object to Mr Boyce calling for one of my pleasures to go up in flames. And, surely, for anyone with an interest in politics a sense of history is vital. It’s a cliché to say that you should learn history’s lessons or must repeat them, but it’s still true. When our world and our culture is changing so rapidly, though, it’s important to remember that history is a living thing and not just the fossil record. Know where you come from, cherish the best bits and remember the worst, but don’t hang onto them like grim death and let them prevent you going on anywhere else. Perhaps more importantly still, with so many of the world’s more intractable problems mired in history and grievances that sometimes go back centuries, in many cases the most important lesson of history isn’t who did what and who’s to blame, but that, if you can see that it’s all gone on so long and still nobody’s happy with it, perhaps it’s time to let go at last. History isn’t just the past; it’s about the future, too. And that, I think, is the fundamental flaw in Mr Boyce’s position. I don’t disagree that it’s impossible and even undesirable to preserve everything. It’s that, coming from the other instinctive end of the argument to me, he follows it almost to its natural conclusion and implies nothing about the past can be relevant to today, except in that it gets in the way. He seems to leave no room for learning from the past, still less (heavens forfend!) innocently enjoying it.

“National pride has got to comprise something greater than being in possession of old ships with rigging and everything. Perhaps the sad demise of the Cutty Sark marks an appropriate moment to take stock of our collective sense of priorities, and to remind ourselves that the future is always more important than the past.”
Does anyone seriously doubt that “National pride has got to comprise something greater than being in possession of old ships”? And it’s absurd to suggest that spending on all forms of heritage combined amounts to any more than the teeniest fraction of national expenditure; it’s hardly a “priority”. So it wasn’t Mr Boyce’s Philistinism or different tastes that got on my wick. It was that startling combination of straw man, false choice and post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Liberals shouldn’t abandon emotion, or history. I thought we’d gone way past the caricature of every progressive as someone who wants to start everything at year zero and tear down everything that’s not in their grand new utopian design. I suppose that, when talking about getting rid of old stuff in favour of ‘progress’, there should be a special version of Godwin’s Law: not the first to mention the Nazis, but the first to mention ’60s tower blocks should be told off for resorting to cliché. Still, I’m going to go for it anyway. Not everything old is bad, or unloved; not everything new is better, or will win people over. Why should society choose right down the middle? My Liberalism’s rarely been attracted to ‘Neither one thing nor the other, but somewhere in between,’ but I’ll happily go along with ‘Neither one thing nor the other, but both’. The Cutty Sark is a famous London landmark that I look at and go ‘Ooh’ – so is the Gherkin. And what’s wrong with that?

Cutty Sark Frame Main May 2007
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National Treasures

Over the summer, Radio 4 broadcast a series called National Treasures, in each of which an artificial choice was posed between two different aspects of British heritage, new or old, built or natural, large or small, and let experts and a guest politician – Edwina Currie, Julia Goldsworthy – decide which should get an imaginary investment. The week they pitted Canterbury Cathedral and Damien Hirst’s Bling Skull against each other for £50 million left me a little cold; an interesting debate, but neither much moved me. The one that grabbed my attention was a fight between the Cutty Sark and the National Archive of the British Film Institute for £30 million of hypothetical restoration money. I cared about each of those and, if I won half a billion or so on the Lottery, I’d have been tempted to give £30 million to both. And yet, if I really was faced with that dilemma… Well, I’d have gone for the BFI Archive, surprisingly enough. Three-quarters of a million film and television programmes, described as “A library of moments of time” and the greatest archive of film in the world (though nowhere near as great as the British Library is for books) – I’d just have to restore all those before that single ship. But again, why always pose that artificial choice? And why can history and innovation not go together?

One of the most important pieces of television ever made was The Quatermass Experiment, the first British drama serial originated for television and looking into the future. Stretching the BBC’s technical innovation further than anything else by then, it featured the British Experimental Rocket Group’s ill-fated first expedition into space. Part of it was broadcast 54 years to the day before that edition of National Treasures, but it isn’t in the BFI archive – most of it no longer exists at all (though if you hurry down to your local WH Smith, they’re currently flogging off the DVD set of the third of it that’s left and the two complete follow-up serials for just £12). And I’m not rambling completely off the point, because the Cutty Sark, with its combination of the highest technology and speed of the time, is almost a Victorian precursor to the Quatermass rocket; I’m fond of it for some of the same reasons I’d like us to build spacecraft (though I think I’m more likely to get a Cutty Sark fund past Vince Cable). It doesn’t just stand for heritage, but as a reminder of the advantages of scientific advances. All that, and it’s named after the Eighteenth Century equivalent of a Carry On film, to continue the BFI comparisons – in Rabbie Burns’ poem, a ‘cutty sark’ means a short undergarment (before I read about the ship and saw this, I just knew the word from ‘bare sark’, stripping off and literally going berserk), and it’s about a man getting into trouble for peeping at a scantily-clad witch. Which you would.

The Cutty Sark is well worth restoring. It’s given pleasure to millions of tourists, even if it may have bored millions of schoolchildren (well, no bit of heritage is perfect). Despite the fire – and in part because much of it had already been removed for renovation – only about 5% of the ship has been lost, and the hull was untouched, with much of the fabric surviving from her original construction. With 95% of our trade coming by sea, the only remaining tea clipper is a part of our technological, cultural and economic heritage – and is also preserved in part as a memorial to the merchant seamen who lost their lives in the world wars. And if you wander down to Greenwich, though you’ll find a great big white tent covering the ship itself for quite a while longer, there’s a little spiky-tented visitors’ centre where you might learn a thing or two, or buy some tea, cuddly rats, tea chests, books, tea towels, electrolysed salt, teacups and t-shirts. Alternatively, you can just donate to the restoration fund directly.

Laurence Boyce mockingly talked of

“A majestic ship, which for years ruled the South China Sea, as she conveyed to the nation that most essential of commodities – a nice cup of tea.”
I’m happy with most of that description taken straight, and if that was all the Cutty Sark was about, I’d still want it restored. But in addition to that combination of homeliness and a seagoing sense of wonder, the old ship stands for something else. It proudly symbolises both technological innovation and free trade. And for a Liberal who cares about the future, that isn’t an irrelevance. It’s an inspiration.

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Hey, thanks Alex! It’s a real honour to be fisked nearly four months after the original article!
…But compared to my reviews of decades-old Doctor Who stories, that’s practically overnight ;-)

Good to hear from you, Laurence – I was hoping to meet you at the Blog of the Year do last night, but didn’t spot you; will you at the blogger drinks tomorrow evening, or are you not at Lib Dem Conference?
Sorry, I’m not at conference. I’ve only been a Lib Dem a few months. But I’m looking forward to my first local function next week!
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