The price of progress (Oxford and Gatwick)

“I have the greatest respect for Oxford University and its 800 years of tireless intellectual toil, but I must confess that I’m not entirely clear what it’s for…

See all these dons and scholars striding past, absorbed in deep discussions about the Leibniz-Clarke controversy or post-Kantian aesthetics and you think:

Most impressive, but perhaps a tad indulgent in a country with 3 million unemployed?”
Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Country

“My gripe with Oxford is that so much of it is ugly.” Ibid.

Oxford is an architectural treasure house with one of the densest assemblages of historic buildings in the world, a portrait of studied calm and soft golden glow, with prospects of gables, wrought-iron gates and ancient townhouses, yet their facades are disfigured by electrical wiring.

Amid lanes and warrens are jumbles of row after row of parked cars and abandoned vehicles in front of shopping complexes designed by architects whose idea of beauty is a dumpster.

The University Offices are dispiriting.

The Clarendon Shopping Centre is an eyesore.

The Westgate Shopping Centre is unlovable.

The central library is heartless.

“Now none of this would bother me a great deal except that everyone you talk to in Oxford thinks that it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with all that that implies in terms of careful preservation and general liveability…

Oxford has moments of unutterable beauty: Christ Church Meadow, Radcliffe Square, the college quads, the botanical garden, Port Meadow, University Parks, Clarendon House, North Oxford…

It has the best collection of bookshops in the world…splendid pubs (Canada Slim’s personal favourite: the Isis)…wonderful museums…terrific indoor market…the Sheldonian Theatre…the Bodleian Library…views that melt the heart…

Then committees of finely educated minds…show the most extraordinary indifference to their responsibilities to posterity and say to themselves:

“You know, we’ve been putting up handsome buildings since 1264, let’s have ugly ones for a change.” Ibid.

More and more the Oxford I remember and love is more and more being submerged in an ocean of fast food joints, shopping malls, parking lots and post-modern monstrosities of merely utilitarian purpose.

And so some reason, this malaise follows one throughout…

Left England yesterday via Gatwick Airport whose sole raison d’etre seems to be:

Eliminate any and all human assistance and interaction completely.

Buy a newspaper.

No one to parlay with except a scanner.

Check-in for your flight.

Scan your boarding pass.

Have your luggage weighed.

Place it on the plane trolley.

Find your boarding gate…

All without any human contact…

It is fast and efficient and considered an improvement, despite the loss of human personnel and the increase of alienation between passenger and airline.

Maybe I am too critical.

Maybe I should fix my gaze on the good things and never go anywhere.

They pave Paradise and put up a parking lot. (Joni Mitchell)


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