Tuesday 2 September 2008

One tough choice after another

How would you rather the Government spent £100 million of your money: dualling the A1 through Northumberland or buying a couple of Titians for the National Galleries of Scotland?

How about choosing between an opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics that will make the Chinese curse themselves for not having thought of it, or granting cancer sufferers a few extra months of life with absurdly expensive drugs?

I suspect that most readers would tick the box for the last and most humane option, and that buying Old Masters (even at allegedly bargain prices) would come bottom of the list. There cannot be many who would consider it a good use of public funds to help a duke out of a hole (though there may well be some descendants of crofters evicted during the Highland Clearances who would be happy to help him into one).

Which is precisely why the National Lottery was invented, creating a voluntary tax on the most gullible members of society to fund guaranteed vote-losers like the rebuilding of the Royal Opera House. The duke must be cursing himself for not making his bid when the arts and heritage coffers were brimming, before the Government decided to divert funds to subsidise the London Olympics.

I find it hard to decide which of those “good causes” I care about less. I know that an educated bloke ought to appreciate paintings, but sadly for me they are never going to be more than extremely pricey wallpaper. The best I can say for art galleries is that I do not find them as monumentally boring as museums.

As one of those strange old fogeys whose pride is actually stirred by our flag and much maligned national anthem, I realise that I should probably have taken more interest in events in Peking [sic], and the implausible successes which Lottery funding of minority sports apparently made possible.

But the fact is that they passed me by completely. Like certain other columnists in this paper, I was hopeless at all games at school. Unlike them, I extended my resulting dislike of participating in sport into a complete lack of interest in watching it, too.

I remember explaining to a girlfriend that I simply could not feel properly involved in things I was no good at. She swiftly asserted that she could name something at which I was completely useless, but in which I was very interested indeed. I blustered at cross purposes for some time before she revealed that she was referring to opera, not the bedroom.

But while opera moves me in a way that painting and sport do not, there is one thing I rate far above it: the ravishing Northumberland landscape. That is surely the essential heritage of Britain, created through centuries of work and care, not Venetian paintings collected as trophies by the mega-rich.

No-one has yet suggested plonking a wind farm or nuclear waste dump in the middle of my favourite view, but give them time. With Britain on course to become the most populous country in the EU by 2060, according to Eurostat’s predictions last week, few corners will escape the pressure for development.

It seems strange that so many people want to join us on this already crowded island, where life often seems to consist of one tough choice after another. But then perhaps they have spotted that we are unimaginably rich and privileged by the standards of nearly all of humanity throughout history. Or maybe they just want to be part of a winning Olympic team.

In the long run nothing is sustainable, however much Government or Lottery money we may chuck at it. So whether you love the countryside or high culture, enjoy it now. It may be gone sooner than you think.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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