Today was the first true winter day of the year. It was cold and crisp, the sky was ice blue, and yellow leaves were skimming in gusts around the pavement. I felt an urgent need to procrastinate before I began writing this article, so I decided to go for a walk along the canal.
I’ve always loved the Oxford Canal. In the 10 years I’ve known it, it’s had a glamorously down-at-heel character. It’s a place of ramshackle factories and teetering, palatial Victorian houses – all dark red brick and long thin gardens. Old arched bridges and dozens of scruffy residential narrowboats are lined up bow to stern along the banks, their mooring ropes tangled together, their chimneys belching the sweet smell of coal smoke into the cold air. The canal runs right through my neighbourhood, and it makes the neighbourhood what it is. It has a nature, a character, a personality of its own.
Or it did have. That character is rapidly being erased in the name of those two trusty old soldiers, progress and economic rationalism. Up and down the towpath, their marks can be seen. Where once there was a long strip of ‘waste’ ground, there is now a building site, on which tall new flats have risen in less than a year, like sunflowers on a prairie. Where only recently there was a working boatyard there is now an empty acre of concrete and unused sheds, where more executive flats will soon rise. Where once was a line of moored residential narrowboats is now a line of worried boaters, recently informed that their mooring fees will be more than doubled, and that if they don’t like it they can, well, buy one of the new flats. As if they could afford it.
And today, the old factory is breathing its last. Beside the waterfront, its walls and windows are shuttered with the scaffolding of demolition crews, here to tear down what remains of its old shell. Of everything that has happened to the canal, somehow, and for some reason, it’s the last gasp of this industrial relic – this wonderful and strangely disturbing old landmark – that affects me the most.
W. Lucy and Co began operating the Eagle Ironworks, on the edge of the Oxford Canal, in 1812. For nearly two centuries they designed and cast whatever the city needed, and stamped it with their name. Drain covers, palings, church gates, street lamps and a hundred odd, small, necessary, unnoticed things came daily from the works, through the cast-iron gates crowned with their eagle-head logo. Their great skulking, redbrick factory has towered over the canal for two centuries, its cracked and smeared windows, florid gates, cobbled yard and asymmetrical buildings a curious, wonderful and slightly disturbing presence.
Not any more. The Lucy ironworks, so cobwebbed and intriguing, so distinctive and apparently timeless, is to become yet another gated complex of luxury flats. This quirky, entirely unique old building is to be replaced by one that could be mistaken for any building, anywhere: spruced up, divided, polished, sucked clean of all dirt, danger and character and made fit for commuters in silver cars who work in London. As the factory dies, so too does a part of the canal, the boatyard, the neighbourhood and the wider city.
Something is happening here, and nobody seems to want to talk about it.
Who cares about any of this, and why should it matter? It’s easy, after all, to lament change, and easy too to forget that change is the only constant. The old Lucy factory was polluting, messy and, finally, uneconomic. New housing is urgently needed, and it surely has to be better to build it on old industrial sites than in the green belt. Had I been walking along the canal when the factory and boatyard were being built, I would no doubt have lamented that too. If there’s one thing the English have always been good at, it’s lamenting.
The cost of ‘progress’
Maybe. But this is not the real story, for what is happening just around the corner from me is probably also happening just around the corner from you. It’s not isolated, it’s not irrelevant and it’s not to be dismissed. It is part of something wider – a larger, and more significant trend, which is sold to us as ‘progress’, but is actually something very different.
Put simply, the things that make our towns, villages, cities and landscapes different, distinctive or special are being eroded, and replaced by things that would be familiar anywhere. It is happening all over the country – you can probably see at least one example of it from where you’re sitting right now. The same chain stores in every high street, the same bricks in every new housing estate, the same signs on every road, and the same menu in every pub.
What these changes have in common is this: in each case, something distinctive is replaced by something bland; something organic by something manufactured; something definably local with something emptily placeless; something humanscale with something impersonal. The result is stark, simple and brutal: everywhere is becoming the same as everywhere else. Character is being erased in the name of those two trusty old soldiers, progress and economic rationalism
The small, the ancient, the indefinable, the unprofitable, the meaningful, the interesting and the quirky are being scoured out and bulldozed to make way for the clean, the sophisticated, the alien, the progressive, the corporate. It feels, to me, like a great loss – a hard-to-define but biting loss, which seems to suck the meaning from the places I care for or feel I belong to. It matters.
Why? Because in the name of economic efficiency, the things that really matter in life – the texture, the colour, the detail, the complex web of intimate relationships between people and communities and the landscape they inhabit – are being dismantled, with nobody’s permission. Because our landscape is being rapidly and thoughtlessly remoulded to meet the short-term needs of a global economy that is built on sand. And because what we are losing, in the name of progress, is being replaced, in most cases, with things that are not better, but worse.
A sense of place
What we are losing is something that is uniquely, exquisitely small, local and impossible to define: a sense of place. It is a sense of place that binds healthy communities together, and distinguishes living cultures from dead ones. It is a sense of place that makes the difference between a country that is worth living in and one that isn’t. And the paradox is that this galloping destruction of local distinctiveness has very global roots – for it is primarily the ever-expanding global economy that is responsible.
Put crudely, a global market requires a global identity; not just goods, but landscapes themselves must be branded and made safe for the universal act of consumption. A global market requires global tastes – we all have to want the same things, feel the same things, like or dislike the same things. Only that way can markets cross cultural boundaries. At the same time, an advanced industrial economy requires economies of scale – which means mass production, the smoothing-out of edges, uniform and characterless development; the standardised manufacture of entire landscapes.
In order for the consumer economy to progress, we must cease to be people who belong to neighbourhoods, communities, localities. We must cease to value the distinctiveness of where we are. We must become consumers, bargain-hunters, dealers on a faceless, placeless international trading floor. We must cease to identify with place, or to care about it. We must cease, finally and forever, to belong to the land.
This loss of a sense of place – this loss of place itself – is both widely felt and largely unmentioned. While very large numbers of us can see this happening, and are concerned about it, few people join the dots – or feel they are allowed to. In every local paper, in every local pub, in every community centre, every week of the year, people will be discussing these issues – at a very local level. This new housing development, that new megastore, this street market closing down, the list goes on. People know something is wrong; they just don’t know quite what, or why, or what to do about it. And if they complain, they are told by the political classes, and often by the media and its associated pundits, that none of this really matters. They are told that these are small, insignificant local issues, of no importance in the grand scheme of things.
They are told to think about something more important: economic growth, perhaps, or the War on Terror. And if they persist, they are called ‘nimbys’, and pigeonholed as reactionaries or nostalgic idealists. No one, runs the subtext, has the right to take up arms in defence of their place, their sense of belonging, their attachment to a locality. We should all have better things to do.
Getting the message loud and clear
But there are surely few better things to do. And the good news is that an increasing number of people seem to know it; and are starting to say it, loud and clear.
Some of this good news is on show back on the Oxford Canal. A few hundred yards down from the shivering shell of the old ironworks lies Castlemill Boatyard.
Owned, like the canal itself, by the government body British Waterways, Castlemill has been the site of a fierce local battle for over a year. British Waterways, against the will of the local community and virtually all the boaters on the Oxford Canal, has closed Castlemill, which operated vital repair and maintenance services for canal boats, and wants to sell the site for – yes, you guessed it – luxury housing and a slick waterfront restaurant. It had already struck a deal with a housing developer, Bellway Homes, before it closed the yard down. Planning permission was to be just a formality. British Waterways, supposed guardians of the canal network, would pocket £2 million, and the last publicly accessible working boatyard in the city would be no more.
But the locals and the boaters fought back, mounting a fierce campaign to save the boatyard. It led to planning permission being turned down by the city council. British Waterways appealed, and a long planning inquiry was held, which BW and Bellway Homes stuffed with expensive taxpayer-funded lawyers – and lost again. Undeterred, BW moved in and ejected the boatyard’s tenant, whose lease with them had run out – only to have the yard occupied by the boaters themselves, who are still there, refusing to leave and vowing to take British Waterways all the way to the high court.
‘What they are is asset-strippers,’ says Matt Morton, an ecologist and former boater who is now leading the fight to save the boatyard. ‘British Waterways are supposed to be guardians of the network. They’re nothing of the sort – they’re scouring the canals, looking for land they can flog off for expensive housing, to cover a hole in their finances caused by a government funding cut. In the process, they’re destroying the character of the whole network. They’re more interested in shareholders than boaters.’
British Waterways and Bellway, say the Castlemill boaters, want to take this very distinctive place – with its scruffy narrowboat, bounding dogs, welding gear and random piles of wood and metal – and replace it with a nonplace; the kind of executive development that can be seen in any town, anywhere in Britain. They are prepared to stand up for this place – and the nomadic, slow, low-impact lifestyle that springs from it – because they believe it matters. In this case, almost everyone else, from the local community centre to the city council, seems to agree with them.
This is just one example, but when you start to look around you see it is one of many, and that the forces ranged against each other are always similar. On one side some sprawling government bureaucracy or corporation – or often, as in the case of Castlemill, both. On the other, a small but determined gaggle of locals, specialist interest groups and people who believe, simply, that something unique is worth fighting for. Often that is all they have in common; but they add up to something.
Preparing to fight
All over the UK, for example, you will find communities and individuals working to save their local pubs. You don’t get much more of a distinctive marker of place than a local boozer, but thanks to corporate consolidation and dubious legislation, the traditional local is under threat as never before. According to the Campaign for Real Ale, 26 pubs close every month – virtually one a day.
Giant, ever-expanding pub corporations, with names like the Spirit Group and Enterprise Inns, who long ago took over ownership of pubs from brewers, are selling them off for housing or converting them into hip bars, identikit chains or eateries. In response, communities all over the country have been banding together to fight closures, and in some cases even buy pubs themselves, to protect them from the asset-strippers. Groups like the Community Pubs Association and Freedom for Pubs are growing larger as the pub companies continue. The local pub means too much to people to allow it to be homogenised into history.
Pubs, boatyards, crumbling factories… people will put up a fight for any number of weird and wonderful local landmarks if they mean enough to them. In London’s Chinatown, a coalition of locals calling themselves the Save Chinatown Campaign, are currently crossing swords with yet another developer, the Rosewheel Corporation, which is busy ejecting small Chinese shopkeepers from the area and threatening to knock down the famous pagoda. In Herefordshire and Somerset, campaigners are fighting to protect ancient orchards, bulging with rare and traditional varieties of fruit, from being grubbed up by farmers who can’t sell their wares to the ever-dominant superstores.
In Birmingham, urban black communities are working to save their street markets from demolition and replacement by office blocks. In Brighton, locals are fighting to prevent the creation of yet another Starbucks. And in Bury St Edmunds, the fight is becoming something literal, with the formation of a group of anonymous vigilantes, the Knights of St Edmund, who have sworn to defend their town against a new development spearheaded by Debenhams. The company has 18 days to withdraw a plan to redevelop the town centre, say the knights, or they will unleash an ancient curse on the sleepy Suffolk town.
Not everyone is prepared to go this far; but, nationally, plenty of people are prepared to take a stand – it is a long, long list, and it seems a growing one. In a rapidly homogenising world, place, belonging, distinctiveness, and character seem to become more and more important in peoples’ lives. Valuing common things, defending detail, understanding culture and landscape and fighting for its integrity in the face of an onrush of standardisation; suddenly, the small things seem terribly important after all.
Perhaps what we are witnessing here is the shy emergence of something newly self-aware: a politics of belonging. All over the country, the extinction of that sense of place is resisted by those on the margins of political debate and economic influence. They are people who refuse to lie down before the juggernaut of a spurious progress, or to sacrifice the landscapes and cultures that matter to them for the benefit of a global economy that is beyond their control.
Standing up for our places – fighting for them, refusing to let them be steamrollered by the consumer juggernaut; making them live again – is something that should be able to unite left and right and everyone in-between. It is something that will annoy politicians of all stripes, and get right up the nose of a global money machine that wants us all to stop moaning, give up and go shopping.
In an age of global consumerism, corporate power and the dominance of a homogenising, placeless, economic ideology, it could be that the one truly radical thing to do is to belong.
Paul Kingsnorth’s is working on a book about place and the English landscape, to be published by Portobello in 2007.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2005