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Genteel persuasion

Indignation: The Campaign for Conservation By Mavis Batey, David Lambert and Kim Wilkie. Kit-Cat Books, 2000. 63pp. £6.50. (Available from 020 8846 9550)

'Indignation' scorn derived from a perceived wrong or injustice, is a fairly bourgeois title for a protest group. These three essays trace the past, present and future relevance of the amenity movement and argue for the restitution of a sympathetic understanding of the historic environment. The title derives, in part, from 'indignation meetings' held in 1901 to protect the views from Richmond Hill in London from development, and the booklet seeks to explain the differences and similarities in the way we view heritage, public amenity and communal memory.

Mavis Batey starts with a sweeping statement that 'Ruskin was the greatest moral authority and prophet of the nineteenth century', apparently predictive of the environmental arena we find ourselves in today. Both Ruskin and Morris, she asserts, 'saw that man was part of an ecostructure . . . understood about water and air pollution and it seems that Ruskin had even foreseen the greenhouse effect'.

This is reading history backwards, and confuses Romantic notions of the primacy of natural beauty, which were driven by fears of social conflict in the industrial late-nineteenth-century, with the non-conflictual deindustrialized markets of Britain today. A hundred years ago the elevation of nature was propounded as a disdainful rejection of the dominant political and economic system, whereas today's environmental concerns spring from a desperation for legitimacy in an ideological vacuum.

At least the Romantics were anti-philistine. Today's protesters, on the other hand, refuse to assert artistic and social standards, relying instead on the concept of participation; so the notion of beauty becomes relative and 'change' is a negotiated process, rather than a radical act. Unwilling to assert arrogant universal standards, the authors are loath even to suggest that their indignation might be 'righteous'.

David Lambert says that setting up amenity organisations is peculiarly British.

He argues that if the heritage movement is to tap into the 'populist strain' of conservation, it needs 'to acknowledge that a shack can be valued as highly as a medieval bridge'. In an interesting essay, he recognises that values change over the years (noting that in the 1930s the pylons of the National Grid were welcomed as of 'real beauty'), and seems to go against the grain of sustainability by arguing that we should therefore 'preserve first for ourselves' rather than future generations (who may not like what we've kept).

But this is just sustainability as a straw man. Lambert misses the fundamental issue: whatever is to be conserved must have social and artistic merit in its own terms, rather than simply be fetishizing individual memory.

Conservation, in this book, is about a process of dialogue rather than about art and architecture. Kim Wilkie advocates more predictive indignation, protesting in advance of 'some injustice being perpetrated in the first place', and notes that this needs 'someone who has the time to visit all the key players and gradually combine and inform the results of the discussions'. Presumably the authors are available for offers.

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