July 29th, 2010



As the car climbed over the top of the hill, there was revealed a wide plane below us, filled with factory sheds and chimneys and concrete and steel and roads. And my father declared:

'That's what I like to see! Industry!'

Sat in the rear seat, looking on the same scene, I could only wordlessly reflect that it was what I did not like to see. It was ugly. It was rusting. It was smoky. There wasn't a tree in sight. There was a faint brownish haze over it all, obscuring the distant horizon.

This memory came filtering back today as an example of how, in my late teens, I did not agree very much with my father.

I'm beginning to wonder whether, when people first arrive in the world, they can only see what's wrong with it. And that when they are about to leave it, they can only see what's right with it. It is a bit like walking into a bar somewhere for the first time. You notice the slightly shabby decor, the worn seats, the battered tables, the faded posters on the wall, the paunchy unshaven barman, the scruffy dog asleep near the door. And you think how it could do with a coat of paint, a few new chairs and tables, perhaps an art nouveau poster or two. But after you've been coming for a few weeks, it's become a familiar place, with the welcoming Vicenzo behind the bar, and little Pepe the dog to greet you, and as you sit at your favourite table having your cup of cafe con leche you wouldn't change anything, because it's perfect already, and you're just sorry that tomorrow you're going to climb on a plane and fly away and never see it again.

The people who look on the world with critical, fault-finding eyes are the Left. And the people who look on the world with accepting, affectionate eyes are the Right. The Left want to change everything. And the Right want to change nothing. And the passage through life is usually, and perhaps even normally, a transition from Left to Right. After all, it's not very often that you hear of old men who have belatedly joined some guerrilla army fighting against the Iniquity of Capitalism. Nor is it very often that you encounter young men who speak with feeling and passion about the singular beauty of the parking lots of their factory home town.

Back in my late teens, the world did not seem a very beautiful place. Places like London seemed like endless, featureless dull bricks and tiles and chimneys and discarded bottles and broken bicycles. Everywhere seemed exactly the same as everywhere else. And I could well understand the desire to tear it all down, and build modern multistorey apartment blocks, inspired by Le Corbusier, but built a bit more cheaply, set in airy green parks. Wouldn't it all be so much better! Wouldn't the residents be pleased to wake up every morning with a view over London! Of course it would be better. It would be a great improvement. There might be a slight disruption to the existing communities. But people could still see their friends. They'd just be 10 floors up on Block B on the other side of the railway. And they could use the new state-of-the-art lifts, when they were delivered.

The antismokers are zealots in much the same way as the town planning zealots in the 60s and 70s who tore down entire entire streets and erected multistorey blocks in their place. They hate the smoky old bars just like the architects and town planners hated the dirty old winding streets full of broken bicycles and headless dolls. They wanted to sweep it all away. Because it would be so much better. So much cleaner and fresher and healthier. Just like the new modern high rise estates.

In time, the town planners realised they'd made a mistake. Because it turned out that people didn't want to live in high rise apartment blocks. They wanted to live in little houses with their own front door onto the street, and enough of a front garden to sport a few struggling flowers among the broken bicycles and discarded tyres. For the tower blocks weren't communities in the way that the untidy old low rise streets used to be.

And one day the healthist zealots will maybe realise that the healthy, smoke-free pubs aren't communities like the smoky old pubs used to be.

It's a kind of blindness. It's perhaps because community and belonging and character are invisible. They're not visible like clean tables. They can't be added to architectural drawings.

To my teenage eyes, the world was insufferably dull and dreary. It was all roads and houses and cars and factories, and then more roads and houses and cars and factories. There were too many of them. And there were too many people walking along the crowded streets. The city was like a disease, a cancer spreading tendrils. It was asphyxiating. A green park with leafy trees came as a blessed relief. The park was a place to escape the interminable city.

And all the paintings that I painted were green. All the paintings were full of trees and grass and flowers. In my room in the city, I would spend hours painting pictures of forests and meadows and rivers and glades. Green was the antidote to brick and concrete and steel and tarmac. Flowing green was the cure for cubes and rectangles and straight lines.

I think that it's in this sort of reaction to a built environment that the Green movement arises. The Green movement and the Green Party is something that arises in cities in reaction to the city itself. Britain's only Green MP, Caroline Lucas, comes from Brighton, which is a city as big as Bristol. But people who live surrounded by green all their lives don't share the same sentiment. For them the surrounding greenery is a kind of enemy, a kind of awful green cancer spreading tendrils and shoots everywhere. It's something to be fought, year after year, with scythes and secateurs and power strimmers. And it's full of verminous foxes and squirrels and stoats and bees.

mondrianAnd when farmers paint pictures, they will be filled with straight lines and rectangles and cubes. They will paint pictures of cities, filled with lots of people, lots of glorious people. And at night they will dream of brick houses with rusting broken bicycles in the back yards.

The artist Piet Mondrian, famous for his paintings of brightly coloured rectangles, hated the colour green. I once read that he hated trees as well. Perhaps that's because he grew up in the Dutch countryside, and was thoroughly sick of trees and of green. He'd had it up to here with all that.