Thursday, April 07, 2011


The Devouring Grasp of Progress

H.J. Massingham, excerpt from The Heritage of Man (London: J. Cape, 1929), rpt. in A Mirror of England: An Anthology of the Writings of H. J. Massingham (1888-1952), ed. Edward Abelson (Bideford, Devon: Green Books, 1988), pp. 38-39:
Other multifarious consequences of man's industrial mood of conquest over Nature have manifested themselves in all directions. The mongrel suburb has destroyed the particularity of division between town and country, in which each, living side by side, was true to itself. The oak, the beech, the lime and the elm, which shared their individualities between human tradition and natural nobility, are being replaced by the monotony of disciplined conifers, as standarized as the commercial mentality which has ordained them. The harsh lines of the quarry obliterate the green rollers of the downs. The motor road, inhuman, unnatural and altogether relentless, drives like a ram through the countryside with as much regard for its forms and design as a hot poker drawn over a carpet. Its great scars across the face of England lead us towards what Professor G.M. Trevelyan calls 'the mechanized landscape of the future.' The old roads, often buttressed with primrosed banks, and so truly modelled to the country qualities on either side of them, give way to these great tar tracks with their concrete borders, rows of equidistant trees, metal vomit of petrol stations and bellowing advertisements. The builder riots through the land like a skin disease, spilling scarlet hutments all over Salisbury Plain, making fungus pleasure towns sprout over the turf solitudes of the downs, putting up red brick in the stone countries. The old woods are grubbed up — Harewood Forest, the scene of W.H. Hudson's romance, Dead Man's Plack, disappeared during the War — and the starveling wire fence evolves in the march of civilization from the hedge with all its prodigalities of life, colour, form and line. It is a melancholy and ironic reflection that the wide distribution for the first time in history of a real love for the country should correspond with a period in which enlightened bodies like the National Trust have to wrest inches of untouched England from the devouring grasp of Progress.

Yet as the horde of speculators, company promoters, advertisement agents, country-house builders, bungaloiders, signposters, petrol-pumpers, river-polluters and all the motley caterers of profit and pleasure erupts in lava streams over the land, it should be possible to detect some method or guiding principle in the madness.

Let me take some particular examples of the way Englishmen are dealing with England and try to gather from them where or what is the heart of the malady. The street outside my house is planted with lime-trees. Every year, therefore, the servants of the Urban District assemble with the abhorrèd shears and proceed to cut down their twigging to the very bone. When the trees are leafless, they look like the next morning after a concentrated air-bombardment upon my particular street the night before. When a starveling leafage bashfully appears, these forlorn trees only lack plate-glass in front of them to resemble a shop-window exhibition of a more than usually nauseous decorated wallpaper. Since the last thing that would ever occur to my local government would be to plant wayfaring trees, hawthorns, rowans or other arborescent diminutives, it is local government itself which makes the Town Planning Act the dead letter Professor Abercrombie admits it to be. Or take the Forestry Commission. This worthy body is setting an example of industry by turning the unique Breckland of southwest Norfolk into a parade ground for conifers, equidistant, each the spit of its brother and all of them set out in standardized rows as though the voice of Nature had just bawled 'Attention!' The Commission is going to do the same for the New Forest. In its zeal for making profitable citizens of natural heaths and woodlands, this Government institution has an eye for pitching on the only two landscapes of their kind left over from the unkempt England of the past. And the Brighton Town Council that has made itself recently notorious — its Tories, Liberals and Labour men combined to plot part of the English downland near the Devil's Dyke under a dirt-track for bet-upon and bellowing motorcyclists. This unabashedly dissolute scheme for ravaging the downs, for making a profit out of them by pandering to mob excitements, was the plan of a local authority who no doubt take the utmost moral pride in defending Brighton from any breaches in decorum.
Hat tip: Eric Thomson.


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