Sitting down to write this I don’t think it requires 1500 words and I’m not sure I have the time. There are dogs to walk, punts to sit in, garden furniture to build and ale to be drunk. The only thing that keeps me sane in this town is taking pleasure in the finer things in life and appreciating the small things. This morning I went for a drive in the sun, but now it’s disappeared again in the spell of schizophrenic weather we are having recently. I’ve always found modern cars rather sanitized, my first car was an Alfa Spider convertible, a totally impractical choice for a first car but it was beautiful so I bought it. It was a nightmare to own but a revelation to drive, pure, rapid and with no irritating beeps and bongs every time I did something. ‘Your door is open’.. yes I know I opened it! But thanks for reminding me. ‘Your seatbelt isn’t on’- oh do shut up!!
The car this morning was a Jaguar E-Type, widely regarded as the most beautiful car of all time, even Enzo Ferrari thought so and who can argue with that? I parked up and stretched my legs around a park and everyone who walked past stopped to take a look. It’s not the fastest car I’ve driven but it’s still quick by modern standards and at the time it was much faster than everything else, leaving Ferrari’s humiliated much like it’s faster and even prettier predecessor The C-Type.
This isn’t an essay about cars though, but it is a good example. Modern cars are mostly boring, slow and ugly s**t-boxes and I hate them. Don’t get me started on diesels. The point is the élan that once went into making cars has all but disappeared, lost in safety requirements and just plain lack of imagination. It’s not impossible to build a beautiful car it’s just that now everyone has one they are like white goods. Cars are man-made objects as are houses but the fact remains that modern houses are just as hideous as modern cars, built to a budget from cheap materials and not built to last. Like modern cars how many will still be standing in 50 years’ time? Well most will but in what state? and will they ever fit in with the area? I’m not sure I could live in a modern house as I desire some character. Try finding a modern home with a real fire place or a cellar or even a larder, they are increasingly rare. Homes aren’t homely they are places to exist, not places to live and make a home. My workplace is an ultra-modern energy efficient lab building, all steel and glass etc but it’s falling down already, windows randomly shatter and building issues occur often and are sometimes serious. If it had been built of brick it would still be there in hundreds of years’ time but instead it has a lifespan of less than 50 years. £60 Million well spent? Green? A well-known example of architecture gone wrong in Cambridge is The Cripps Court, you’ll know if there’s one in your college, looking like a soviet era block of flats dumped incongruously next to a mediaeval building of great beauty; why would anyone of sound mind do that? It was the 70’s they say; maybe one too many disco biscuits at the height of the cold war.
Our public spaces, once beautifully manicured parks (visit Madingley Hall gardens if you don’t know what I mean) increasingly become an afterthought for local councils, instead of picnic tables we have graffitied concrete skate parks or it’s been sold off for housing. Is it progress to concrete over our green and pleasant land? Tower blocks instead of houses, estates that spring up outside cities like Cambridge for commuters, a victim of its own success. I’m beginning to sound like an old fuddy-duddy but I can’t imagine I’m alone and maybe it’s part and parcel of being a conservative (small c) that I want to preserve heritage and appreciate the finer things in life, like the Jag, not showy just beautiful. For me it isn’t just how beautiful an object or thing is, it is how well it is made and if it will last. Yes quality items cost more but they last longer and work better. We seem to live in an increasingly wasteful world where everything is disposable, from coffee cups to cars, clothes to toys. It’s unsustainable in a world whose population is booming and we have to be more responsible.
I don’t have all the answers to why beauty is vanishing from our world except to say that modern life seems to demand cramming more people into ever increasingly smaller spaces and the trappings that make life beautiful are sacrificed on the altar of ‘progress’. We don’t have space for that, it’ll cost too much, that’s good enough and so on. The other thing that has been in the back of my mind while writing this is that socialist countries always seem to have duller everything from cars to accommodation, and seem to revel in utilitarianism. It’s got four wheels what more do you want? Whereas societies that are free are far more creative and make things that actually make the world a better more exciting place always mindful of the aesthetic. But again these are man-made things, and perhaps the more important notion to bear in mind is the preservation of our natural environment because if we don’t see the beauty in that we’ll all end up in soviet style brutalist blocks of flats.
This essay was written for the CUCA Essay Prize