Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

Into the future, looking backwards…

As 2018 staggers uncertainly towards the finishing line, the image of my nation that keeps impinging on my thoughts is of a Tardis wobbling across cardboard space-time in an early BBC special effect.

Brexit-fatigue may be growing, but that vexed issue seems to have provoked a wider spate of introspection about the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything – and a general dissatisfaction with the state of our country.

The throwing of my own life into the blender a couple of years ago, just at the time when I thought I knew how the near future was going to pan out, was ample reminder not to take too much for granted. Falling out of a teaching career at the three-quarter mark due to stress-induced illness necessitated a wholesale re-appraisal of the future. There is not a lot of point of putting one’s energy into bringing back the past; much better to try to build a positive future.

The issue of EU membership has cast a harsh light on a binary division in human psychology, namely how we deal with uncertainty and the future. The matter was thrown into relief recently by the news that our ancient town is to ‘receive’ a new development of 300 houses in the next couple of years. Small fry compared to some places no doubt, but this will add around 25% to both the building stock and the local population – enough to make a significant impact on a small and historic place.

The reaction of people locally is indicative of a wider human fallibility, particularly in relation to how it deploys time. There had been warning signs for some time – with only limited reaction from the wider community. Now that a major impact is inevitable, people are asking why something could not have been done to stop it.

Given that – as far as one can tell – the human experience of Time is fairly consistent between individuals, in that it only really moves in one direction, one wonders why humanity so often still gets caught out. Hindsight is a wonderful thing – but one might have thought we would learn from the experience. It often seems not.

Actually, the problem seems to be that bit of Time which has not yet happened. People seem remarkably resistant to thinking in any disciplined way about the future. There may be very good reasons for this – not least the fact that as Keynes said, in the long term, we’re all dead. And perhaps not even the so very long term: beyond youth, a human life speeds past. Maybe that’s why people shy away from thinking about it.

Or maybe it is an acceptance that anything so unknown cannot be reckoned for. But while that is undoubtedly partly the case, denying the ability at least to influence the future seems to me very defeatist. While much does indeed remain unknown (and neither is it easy to allow for unintended consequences of any particular course of action), doing nothing is hardly better. A proportionate, realistic, but optimistic attempt to affect things for the better seems to me a much more sensible approach – while always accepting the significant degree of uncertainty involved.

What seems to me even more unwise is to seek solace in the past. Nostalgia is big business, and it affects a huge amount of human activity. The Christmas season is predicated on it – goods times past that may or may not be entirely illusory. What it is, in reality is sentimentality – an emotional response from the less rational part of the brain to the inherent uncertainty of the future – and sometimes even the present. It is more comfortable to deal with the apparent ‘knowns’ of the past – even when they may be more fiction than fact. At this time of the year, especially with the prod in the temporal ribs that passing New Year inevitably brings, it seems just more comfortable to reside in the past. And more generally, people become more resistant to change at times when change is most rapid.

More curious still is the extent to which this propensity may be culturally determined. One of my permanent frustrations with my country is the extent to which the national identity is so predicated on looking backward. I cannot think of another developed country, at least in Europe, which relies so heavily on past (supposed) glories for its sense of self. From the heritage tat we shamelessly flog to tourists (and each other), to the companies that know the best way to ingratiate their high-tech trains with customers is to paint them in heritage colours and call them GWR or LNER, this country is only ever dragged into the future looking longingly backwards.

There are some countries, of course, whose past is something to be best forgotten, and in that sense future-orientation may be more a necessity than a choice. Neither is resistance to change a purely British phenomenon. But I cannot help thinking that a country that still yearns so strongly for the past is one that has run out of good things to say about its present – not to mention any new ideas for its future. And when we do have new ideas,  we crow incessantly about them, a self-consciousness which suggests we know that somehow they  don’t sit easily.

My attempts to persuade my neighbours that the antidote to yet another Lego-clone housing estate on their historic doorsteps is to push for something that makes a confident statement about the future, seems to be something that most simply don’t want to consider. It seems the whole point of living in a historic town is to pretend that we are still living in an arcadian past when present-day problems didn’t exist – even though they patently do – and whose future we would rather not think about. When it comes, for example, to suggesting that judicious modern architecture can work even in a historic setting, the response is a knee-jerk No. Completely unbiddable. I wonder whether it is deliberate, or just the conditioned response of a lifetime lived in a change-averse culture.

I’m sure people are sincere when they say they are more comfortable with tradition – but they never stop to think about why. Why reject the benefits of modernity? Where would we be now if prehistoric people had done that, let alone those who built from new the heritage that we now venerate?

Meanwhile, the contemporary problems of the place – traffic congestion, affordable/sustainable housing, maintaining local services and the rest – remain unresolved because of the fear of thinking radically. It seems many would rather cling to an imperfect past-orientated present, rather than contemplate a future that is different, but which could be a real improvement.

Yet time waits for no one. No matter how we seek to deny the fact, or dress it up in historic garb, the future is the only destination we have. That means facing up to uncertainty, not to mention the pressures of modern life that many appear to want simply to disappear. The problem with it is that failing to live in the present (and anticipate the future) means that sooner or later that future is likely to come along anyway and kick the unprepared firmly in the arse. It has happened in the development case I mentioned above – and in the many other communities whose apparent preference for ‘traditional’ architecture gave unsentimental developers all the pretext they needed to churn out yet more estates full of tweely-named meagre little Lego boxes whose main purpose is to enhance the bonuses of those at the top – and which, of course, they will never have to live in themselves. Clinging to the past often simply makes the present, let alone the future, worse.

Another line of approach of Nostalgics is to claim that a preference for the present is a betrayal of the past, that it is somehow disrespectful not to venerate the legacy of previous generations. It is probably true that a civilisation that has no shared memory of whence it has come is indeed placing itself at risk of future mistakes – but sentimentalising and editing the past in order to make it artificially palatable is not at all the same thing – and is equally unwise. To continue with the architectural example, while conservation may be desirable, selecting only the superficially ‘pretty’ bits is dishonest, and does the opposite of creating a genuine heritage: it manufactures a shared lie, whose only effect is to reinforce the misconception that the present was a better place than the present.

The British yearning for nostalgia does serious harm to the nation. Sentimentalism smothers more realistic appraisals of the options for the future. Necessary change is avoided, or reduced to a minimum. Difficult decisions are avoided – or sent underground, difficult conversations not had, democratic compromise replaced by shouting matches. Ironically, excessive reliance on cost-benefit analyses and psephology (designed to make the future look like the past – certain and secure) increases the risk of delusion and error. Meanwhile, opportunists leap to fill the void with changes intended only to benefit themselves.

Quite apart from the damage being done to the genuine architectural heritage by the vast swathes of pseudo-heritage development, it seems to me that the issue of the moment – Brexit – is grounded on the same illusion. Most of the case for leaving the EU has been built on a return to some era when Britain was Great(er than it is now) in a way that is nothing more than a denial of the reality of the modern world. And try as we might to make this illusion reality, the only real effect will be that sooner or later the Future will once again come along and kick the nation in the arse too. Arguably it already has: one of the few explanations I can find for why this country has such unique difficulties with the idea of the EU is that it prefers to live in the past, rather than looking to the potential of European co-operation (done properly) to create a better future. I suspect the different balance that I have sensed elsewhere has a significant effect.

This is not to suggest that other nations are not respectful of their pasts too: one only has to look at the care with which the Swiss and Germans for example, preserve their heritage to see that. But they seem much less afraid of mixing it with the present, and of adapting it to modern needs. In fact, some of the most impressive conservation I have seen has been that which blends it judiciously with the ultra-modern. It is possible to respect and appreciate the past without wanting to live in it.

The other half of the binary choice is to rush open-armed indiscriminately into the future. That is probably just as unwise, as the truth is rarely found in extremes: ill-considered, ideological progressivism is probably just as risky as uncontrolled regressivism. But realistically embracing the future seems to be a much more constructive way of spending our time on this planet than yearning for that which has already passed.

Nations that get this right seem to me to have a generally healthier attitude towards Time as a whole. They seem to have a generally more can-do, less defeatist attitude. They make considered decisions that (can) lead to healthier societies. Those that seem to prefer living in an increasingly imaginary present, built mostly around a fake version of their supposed history, seem to be in a form of denial that says little other than that they are culturally bankrupt: tired and out of ideas. “It can’t be done here!” is a familiarity cry in this country. Why not?

Driving using only the rear-view mirror is not a good idea: it seems to me like a recipe for a rapid demise.


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