Saturday, 10 November 2007

Tidal waves and eco-towns

Like many of Suffolk’s native-born sons I was secretly hoping that the apocalyptic tidal wave approaching Norfolk’s east coast last week would perform the same function as the biblical flood, sweeping our rivals to the north into the icy waters of the North Sea as punishment for their many vices. The tsunami approaching the East Anglian coastline we were told, would be a ‘deadly tidal wave’, ‘bring the worst flooding in 50 years’ and cause ‘extreme damage to life and property’. In the event all we were left with were a few small puddles on the landward side of our flood defences, not to mention a chorus of angry voices in the media, demanding to know why East Anglia had not been annihilated as advertised. Perhaps they should adhere to the ‘Michael Fish’ rule, which is that when the media predicts a disaster, it rarely happens. It is only in cases where the onset of disaster is overlooked, such as before hurricane Katrina and the 1987 hurricane that events seem to unfold to their worst potential. Instead of doing this, the worlds press and the public at large adopt the scattergun approach, so that a new disaster is predicted daily in practically every newspaper column and water cooler conversation. The explosion of Yellowstone park, the rupture of the San Andreas fault, the submergence of most of England due to sea level rise and, most chilling of all for the general public, the prediction that house prices might actually fall to fair and realistic levels. Possibly the most entertaining of these predictions was contained in Gary Blevin’s book ‘666 the final warning’ in which he claims that Ronald Reagan was the Anti-Christ and will return to cast us all into the lake of fire, aided in this task by the Aliens, super computers, free masons, and barcodes. Implausible perhaps, but far more entertaining than ‘The Stern Review’ and less self-righteous than the ‘IPCC report on climate change’. At least he got the Ronald Reagan bit right. The scientist’s reaction to last weeks non-catastrophe was to proclaim that we had been extremely lucky and that more of these types of events to come over the next century. If by ‘these types of events’ they mean massive media hype followed by a less than damp quib, then I’m inclined to agree. I won’t be shelling out for a wetsuit just yet, unless of course it’s to protect myself from all the psuedo-scientific dribble in the media.

I believe it was Winston Churchill who said that it was a sad day for humanity when we swapped the horse and cart for the motor car. I can’t help thinking that western civilisation suffered a similar blow when we stopped building things in factories and switched to an economy, which, when you break it down, is based on typing utter gibberish to each one another in the form of memos, meeting minutes, sales proposals and tenders. Certainly we are better off, more prosperous and happier than we were during the days of the industrial revolution, but whilst there was honour and nobility in chipping away at a coalface or spinning cotton, there is little or no nobility in trying to discuss your organisations attitude to ‘change management’ or outlining your ‘Prince 2’ influenced approach to project management in a series of confused and long winded sentences.

So who to blame for the fact that linguistic atrocities are now not only acceptable but crucial if you want to get ahead?. For my part I blame modern philosophy, in particular existentialism, for if you attack the whole concept of meaning you rehabilitate the meaningless and allow it to become acceptable, in fact the very boundaries of acceptability are stretched to breaking point. An ill-conceived Olympic logo that looks like Lisa Simpson performing oral sex on a hoodie becomes “unexpectedly bold, deliberately spirited and unexpectedly dissonant, echoing London's qualities as a modern, diverse and vibrant city….inclusive ... for everyone, regardless of age, culture and language". A repellently ugly disused brutallist car park in Gateshead becomes ‘an incredible sustainable structure…an iconic cultural and architectural landmark’. And then, in one of the 21st centuries great ironies, the previously discredited new town movement returns as ‘eco towns’; ‘family friendly’, ‘carbon neutral’ dwellings, ‘built using timber, solar thermal panels, double glazing, insulation and biomass boilers that do not use fossil fuels’. Of course, reading all this you might have thought that these new settlements the government are planning would be designed to recreate the old settlements of England such as Cavendish, the village I grew up in. Timber framed houses, close knit buildings, shops within walking distance and all designed using the wonderful and varied vernacular architecture of Britain. Wrong. A cursory glance at the website of the firm which is building ‘Northstowe’, the first ‘eco town’ in Cambridgeshire, reveals that these new settlements will have more in common with the dreadfully designed new towns and London overspill estates of the 1960s and 70s than any vision of olde Albion. To add insult to injury, this town will be built in the middle of rolling countryside, since disused airfields seem to count as brownfield sites. What’s more disturbing its that by the looks of the architectural renderings you will have to be a lobotomised cardboard cut-out to actually live there. A look at the planned Cranbrook settlement in Devon reveals similar architectural folly, with the public buildings looking as if they have been designed by an artistically challenged toddler. So if I do have an apocalyptic vision for the future it is this. Future settlements in the UK will look like they came straight out of an Ikea catalogue, they are unlikely to be carbon neutral as people will still have to drive to get into work and the whole thing will be one expensive disaster, a deformed and hideous sacrifice to the New Labour god of ‘eco-sustainability’. Our one hope is that the predicted East Anglian tidal wave finally makes an appearance and washes the whole ghastly mess into the ocean.

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