Magazine article The Spectator

Scarborough Unfair

Magazine article The Spectator

Scarborough Unfair

Article excerpt

This fine spa town is now materially and spiritually impoverished

If it is evidence of the decline of British civilisation that you are after, you can - not do better than go to Scarborough.

It is precisely because the material traces of that civilisation are still so much in evidence there, albeit dolefully altered, that the impression is so strong and so painful.

The town retains its wonderful position, of course. One is still struck immediately on arrival by 'the freshness of the air, so different from what is breathed in the interior of England', as described by Dr John Kelk in his The Scarborough Spa, its new chemical analysis and medicinal uses; to which is added, On the Utility of the Bath (3rd ed. 1855). To see people walking their dogs and playing with them on the beach is to be reminded of the simplicity of many of the greatest pleasures in life. And the custom of endowing a public bench in memory of departed parents, schoolteachers, appreciative visitors or local notables, so that strangers might sit and con - template the splendid view in silence, has always seemed to me a noble one.

But there is no disguising the very considerable impoverishment of the town, an impoverishment that is actually characteristic of a high proportion of the country. This impoverishment is as much of the spirit as economic: nowhere in the world (at least nowhere known to me, including very many poorer places) do you see such a concentration of people who have given up on themselves, or rather, who never had any self-respect to give up on.

What one sees is a purely materialist society that is not even very good materialism, for it does not promote even those mental and moral disciplines that promote material success. A large proportion of the population has been left to the mercies of a popular culture whose main characteristic is the willing suspension of intelligence, and which does not merely fail to inculcate refinement, grace, elegance and the desire for improvement, but actively prevents them and causes them to be feared and despised. An inability and unwillingness to discriminate always leads, by default, to the overgrowth of the worst, from which the better can never recover.

The magnificent architectural heritage of Scarborough has been not so much destroyed as comprehensively spoilt by a combination of the ceaseless social engineering that, mysteriously enough, never results in the social equality that is it supposedly designed to bring about, and the ram - pant, cheap and short-term commercialism that such engineering inevitably calls forth:

for the more you suppress the opportunities to make money, the less constructive will be the means by which people strive to make it.

And what Scarborough demonstrates, apart from architectural vandalism, is architectural spivvery.

It is true that the centre of the town has been subjected, like almost everywhere else in Britain, to the destructive impulses of the modernist brute, by comparison with which the Luftwaffe employed mere pea-shooters.

The architectural historian, Anthony Vidler, described the modernist sensibility as the desire to escape history and raze the past as a kind of therapeutic procedure: a barbaric, egoistic and fundamentally stupid sensibility, if sensibility is quite the word for it. …

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