Our Silent, Supine Cities

It’s been a good week’s viewing for fans of Wessex history.  On Monday the BBC ran a repeat of Michael Wood’s portrait of Alfred the Great, warming up for Neil Oliver on Tuesday, who wove a documentary about the king’s bones and their present whereabouts.  If it was supposed to be an exclusive, it didn’t work.  The press ran the story over the weekend, so it was no longer a surprise to learn that a single surviving bone excavated at Winchester’s Hyde Abbey is either Alfred’s or his son’s.  At most one bone of William the Bastard is thought to survive, in Caen, so it’s disappointing to think that Alfred has only a 50:50 chance of matching that.

There’s a slight possibility that other, scattered bones still lie beneath the site of Hyde Abbey but who will fund another excavation?  Wintonians down the centuries have had something of a love-hate relationship with their heritage, as the mixed fortunes of Hyde demonstrate.
From time to time, the city inspires a generation to really care about its past, present and future, and then slips back into its philistine ways.  We received news this month that the local civic society, the Winchester Residents’ Association, has wound up after 40 years.  Two of its stalwarts, Chris Webb and the late Alan Weeks, will be familiar to WR members as defenders not only of the city’s identity but of that of the wider Wessex region.  We can see in the demise of the Residents’ Association a metaphor for what is happening right across Wessex as a caring generation finds that there is no-one else to whom it can hand on the torch.  Thatcherism has bred a fractured and dis-spirited nation, of utilitarians contemptuous of the joy of learning and of cynics unable to believe that voting or campaigning can prevail against them.
An obituary for Alan Weeks in the Hampshire Chronicle in 2010 commented that his indefatigable campaigning had been based on a strong sense of right and wrong:  “He had a very simple view that people in Winchester must understand how important Winchester is.  He could not understand people who didn’t.”
There is no doubt that Winchester is special.  Nor is there any doubt that the threats to what makes it special have come thick and fast – motorways, urban sprawl, central area redevelopment – and while campaigners can point to some marvellous victories there have also been crushing defeats.  The water meadows at St Cross were saved from the road builders but Twyford Down was not.  It stands as a scar upon the Wessex landscape that will easily outlive humanity.  Housebuilders have deep pockets, deep enough to hire the best lawyers to take on even the London regime and over-turn its decisions if they go the ‘wrong’ way.  Barton Farm, so long the subject of citizens’ protests, is set to become a carpet of yuppy-box homes for those hurrying for the early train and another day doing despicable things in the City.  (Why do Londoners want to live in Wessex towns and cities?  Is it for any other reason than that they’ve made such an almighty mess of their own?)
If concerned residents no longer gather in their associations to express their faith in democracy, is it because local politicians have at last got the message and mended their ways?  Have the associations rendered themselves unnecessary?  Absolutely not.  Most historic cities of Winchester’s scale and vulnerability – Bath, Cambridge, Durham, Oxford, York – are protected (at least in theory) by Green Belt.  Not Winchester.  Residents still fear that the green backdrop to the city will disappear beneath housing within their lifetimes.  The city and county councils have their orders from London to build, build, build and the carrots and sticks are such that the orders must be obeyed.  Local opinion is to be fobbed off, not followed.
Local politics is the usual Tory/LibDem contest that is no real contest at all.  (The two parties are evenly matched on the current city council.)  Labour won the Parliamentary seat once, in 1945, to universal surprise (though having Eastleigh’s industrial workers helped in those days), losing it again five years later.  Wintonians have had three opportunities to elect a Wessex Regionalist MP and taken none.  Decades of conditioning have persuaded many that they are part of a London-leaning ‘South East’ rather than of Wessex.  Occasionally, conversations will start up in the city’s pubs about how Wessex could do with Home Rule.  Great idea.  Who’s going to organise it?  Oh, someone else.  Someone less busy.
And in the absence of Home Rule, Winchester is slowly ground away, made uniform with every other dormitory town within reasonable distance of London Waterloo.  Its fields are replaced by houses; its historic buildings are replaced by flats; its identity, instead of being cherished, is subverted for profit.
Winchester’s bus station, a city landmark for generations, is due to close to make way for the retail-led Silver Hill redevelopment.  The developers promised a replacement.  Now the economics suggests that it will be deleted from the scheme in order to preserve the latter’s viability.  We can see in Salisbury how that works.  Salisbury’s bus station closed this month, the buses were evicted and passengers now queue at bus shelters set up in the mediæval streets.  On pavements too narrow for the flow of pedestrians to pass comfortably behind them.
The fate of the bus stations is a sign of the times.  Privatisation of profits, including those from redevelopment.  Socialisation of losses, and of the expense involved in providing somewhere for the buses to park.  Andover and Bournemouth are determined to build new bus stations.  Clearly, there are still some who care, but how to motivate the rest?
The decline of collective responsibility happens because we accept a model of economics and politics that decrees that the community doesn’t matter.  That there is no such thing as society.  That government must help everyone to achieve their ambitions for their own lives, not those of others.  That government, be it in the form of bigger unitary councils, elected mayors, or straightforward regulatory capture through ‘partnerships’, exists to oil the wheels of commerce and certainly not to provide the context for civic virtue.  It’s tragic that Salisbury, Winchester and so many other places in Wessex are being ruined, often irreparably, but by our inaction we signal that it’s our choice.  And who in our individualistic, inward-looking world will dare argue against that?

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