Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Memory Game

The very act of preservation is a futile struggle against the inevitable. For creatures such as ourselves, possessed of long and achingly accurate memories of favorite places, people, experiences, things, buildings, sights, smells and tastes – this can be agony. We try (in vain) to revisit the places of childhood, old workplaces, places where we felt happy or favorite haunts but find that change has tainted the physical reality irrevocably. I find that these trysts with time give me value only when I realise that the physical place acts as a key to unlock a depth of memories that I had thought long forgotten but that I possessed all along. The place is not a warden of the memories or strictly necessary to induce them – it’s simply very, very effective at prompting them.

Indeed, the sad realisation that I could never again stand in a particular forest glade in Sydney when the light hit it a certain way through a gap in the trees, dappling everything beautifully and making the white flowers everywhere luminesce simply made me treasure that moment in my mind all the more. That memory is of a time when skipping was still a reasonable mode of locomotion and adults were considered tall. The trees have likely grown since, the place may even have a building on it. My memory, however, is beautiful, pristine, unique – and what’s more, it’s mine and mine only.

Mysterious to me, therefore, is the fervent anger with which the demolition of an old building is met, usually on behalf of some vague collective called ‘the community’. It’s as if the building’s absence will wipe out the very memories it triggers in the minds of residents and this is reason enough to trample the property rights of its owner. Strange to me is the way people will hang on to objects almost as transportation talismans to days gone by.

Unfortunately, you can keep the stones as pristine as the day they were laid, you can manicure the garden to the point where it never seems to change, you can keep the décor exactly the same as it was long ago – but you can never again be 10 years old, scampering around after your baby sister brandishing a toad that makes her squeal. There is no power currently available to man that will achieve such a feat. Keeping a practically useless crumbly wall and a façade in roughly the same pattern as it has been for years in the vague hope that it will be the trigger for community recollections borders on the barmy.

The only thing that haphazard preservation does is amuse some at the expense of others. When a crumbling expensive-to-maintain monstrosity cannot be pulled down to erect the creation of a new architect, whom are we really oppressing – this ‘community’ or the landowner and the creative talent of the architect? Whose memories of a bygone era are we preserving and what kind of new creation is being foregone?

The worst thing about this preservation is that there isn’t a living person who would be able to take real advantage of the memory-triggering effect of scrubbing walls and painfully restoring mosaic, stonework and cornice. We’re keeping the memories of ghosts alive on the forced generosity of the public purse to some ‘noble’ end usually granted to our future generations. This is also usually tied to some ‘historical significance’ or ‘heritage’ that we all somehow share by virtue of geography at birth.

I say that if someone (or a group of people) values a building or historical site enough, they will put up their own dosh to buy it, keep it, restore it, sell chunks off to museums and perhaps even make a healthy return on ticket prices from tourists who are interested in a spot of de rigueur shuffling through something old and musty. Some sites will not be popular enough and will crumble into dust, some will simply be supported by interested parties – so be it.

The current state says that that is a preposterous idea. That no-one would actually pay for the upkeep of these buildings and that they would fall into disrepair. We also, as individuals, simply don’t have the requisite taste to decide what should stay and what should go. We are naughty, naughty, unthinking, uneducated children that don’t really know quite what’s good for us. We are to trudge to work like good little tykes, be taxed to the eyeballs and be very grateful that a handful of the bureaucratic elite are spending the proceeds wisely on ‘our’ heritage. To me, this is the absolute epitome of the idea behind a nanny state.

When we are forced, through taxes or council rates, to pay for the preservation and maintenance of publicly owned buildings dripping with stone cherubs, decorative columns and mildew – what suffers? I’d say private property does as funds are funneled away from its upgrade and maintenance. We are paying for the jollies of a handful of self-righteous academics who will invoke the spell of the interest of ‘the community’ and ‘history’ to lull us all into a compliant trance.

The discovery and accuracy of history, though important, is not worth the slavery of a single person, let alone entire nations. Surely there is a way for historians to continue their work without forcing me to pay for it? Much as I love museums, I would prefer to pay high prices for admittance and have far lower taxes. Preservation being paid for on a private basis is not unthinkable.

Progress though, not preservation, is the natural human state. Where we inhibit the former for the sake of the latter, we inhibit the advancement of us as individuals as well as a species. I would honestly rather we forget (or never discover) what the Mesopotamians had for breakfast than to forego the tremendous products, services and innovations that would be triggered by the freedom of a less taxed society. I would rather marvel at a new building than glance at an old one that’s still functioning despite itself. I would rather determine which buildings under my ownership are and are not demolished than hand over that power to a quango that I most unwillingly fund.

Old memories are important but not as important as the memories that we seek to make through living productive lives as humans. I’d like to look back in 50 year’s time and remember astounding and life-altering leaps in science than be all warm and fuzzy because 400 year old houses are still standing.

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