Build Baby Build

I have fallen in love. Or at least, I have developed that yearning to be more like someone that we often describe as being love, though that name is misplaced. I’ve been reading Jonathan Meades’ Museum Without Walls. I’ve already watched Jerry Building, Joe Building, The Joy of Essex, Magnetic North, Ben Building. As is the way, I imagine someone will be here soon to disabuse me of my early-stage romanticism for the man — at some point, he will have offered some hideous screed that will sear away the scales from my eyes and leave me facing the cold facts.

For sure, he is hardly a flawless man. He loathes Tony Blair and his little-known tribute act, God — instincts I do not share — for example. But he is literary, readable, intelligent, engaging, perceptive — and so on. I could gush for a while, it would be more pleasant than the self-reflective and self-aggrandising script I have in mind for this post. If I were to summarise what makes him so intensely fantastic — what makes me infatuated with him — it is that he refuses to ever write down to anyone, or speak down to a camera. I feel he is unfiltered, full force, and it is a refreshing change from “short explainers” and “idiots guides” and “50 ways that you’re in fact a sentient beetle and number 17 will make your exoskeleton tingle!”

He is a writer and speaker on many issues, but in particular — place. Through his documentaries, he looks at buildings, architects, history — but all of them through the prism of place. He is seeking to understand, it seems, what place means to different people — indeed, what it means to him, and what that understanding means. It is a journey that I share in, in a smaller and meaner way, with my regular trips to old churches, my craning neck whenever I walk through a city, and my constant need to explore places.

It is also a journey that has led to him treading on my toes on a sensitive, angry issue for me, that of housebuilding. We are a nation wracked by many crises. Some, like Brexit, roar and fade comparatively quickly in the scheme of our lives. Others, like the need to house all the people of the realm, will trundle and smoulder on for decades — indeed, have done so. As part of a generation that faces a housing market increasingly stacked against it — never mind the generations behind us — I have felt a hot anger at a less secure, less balanced, less happy future in part as a result of the sheer financial cliff that guards the edges of the ill-named property market in the UK. This hot anger, as so often, turns into clear-eyed piety about simple solutions.

Build Baby Build was a conscious echo of Sarah Palin that I made a few feeble efforts to drive on Twitter. It was reflected in my screeching ignominy every time a housing development was blocked or campaign against, especially by Liberal Democrat councillors, regardless of size or scope. It was the provoker of Facebook arguments over many hours, never the sign of a healthy mind, and the scourge of precisely no-one but my own peace of mind. It was also reflected in my loathing — no, my hatred — of the green belt.

Meades runs slap into that. He tears at garden cities, at developments without a sense of place, at anti-urbanism, at simplistic elevations of the country over the city. To the shame of my clear-eyed self, I find myself shuffling along with him the more I read and watch. Every time he makes me laugh I find myself squirming a little — just a little — as he pokes at my piety and anger and asks, in essence, if my solution is the correct solution. Is it really enough to demand volume, hang the consequences, from any provider willing and able to provide? It is not just a question of pretty houses or butterflies or other such window-dressing here. It is a fundamental question about place and a sense thereof that he is going at, something deeper and more rooted.

All this leaves me without the fiery conviction of the clear-eyed zealot about the solutions I have decided are ordained by divine authority and must be beaten into reluctant others. It is an less than satisfying place to be, for sure — the housing market still faces me as a barren, fortified place, off limits to my generation unless we are blessed enough to come into tremendous wealth by raw chance. The anguish of what we must do gnaws at me. But now, I’m without the armour of the zealot, that clarity of thought and solution that grants one the ability to quickly resolve the crisis with the simple sweep of the pen, before one is able to move on to solving the other problems of the world.

For certain, I’m not sure Meades or I would disagree that we still need far more homes than we’re getting right now. Nor would we disagree that our current political system is utterly inadequate for the task, that local politicians fail to provide enough homes — but also that the right homes aren’t being built. Grenfell should serve to remind us that it is not just about enough homes — it is about good homes, properly built, maintained, not merely bandaged up to hide their grotesque shortcomings from the passing swarms of commuters.

Any housing policy has to be more than just bold on the numbers. It has to be bold on place — on creating places that are designed, and built, for the people who live there, not places that are for instagram or Twitter. It has to produce a political settlement that binds everyone into generating enough housing at a high enough standard over time to enable the country to provide a place that every individual or family or community feels is home to them. That is a colossal asking — it dwarfs the battered stump of my zealotry, glowering at with unyielding intractability. How we do that eludes me — I’m not an urban planner, an architect, an artist, any such useful profession for the practical resolution of the crisis.

All I know is that Meades has disabused me of a childish notion of a simple solution, and raised jarring questions that I find myself chewing awkwardly on. Maybe it is love then? After all, that comes after childhood, but before adulthood. My simple childish solutions are falling away. Who knows what the end result of adolescent turmoil will be — what boring settlement will take its place? Whatever it is, I hope it’s as driven by place, and as fundamental knowledge of it, as Meades has.

Some distant hope that is, mind.