Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Them and Us

I am a visitor. I like to visit historic monuments, stately homes, museums, gardens, parks, art galleries, and just about anything that allow the public access. Many of these places charge an entrance fee (sometimes quite a large one) and some do not. Many of them offer refreshment facilities and toilets, some do not. Some of them are clean and some are not. Many have information in the form of a guide book or leaflet, and some do not. What they all share is that they are public amenities, paid for and maintained on behalf of the public (I exclude the privately owned properties, although it could be argued that public revenue is helping them to remain part of our heritage). 

I am therefore dismayed, nay appalled, when I find that the public has abused their access by littering, scrawling graffiti, vandalising, and generally creating filth and mess. The attitude of 'it's someone else's job' or 'I've paid to come in, so it's ok'  is widespread and so some facilities decline first in appeal and then in popularity and finally in any worth. And it is the fault of not just the great British public, nor even of the great unwashed, but the authorities who have responsibility for these places. I'm aware that attendants, curators, wardens et al cost money which will inevitably come back on the consumer, but is our history, our heritage, our future in the shape of our children's  crounded education worth such ill consideration? It seems to work on Orkney.

Recently I holidayed in Orkney. For those who have not been you are missing something unique. In this day and age to experience complete and utter darkness and silence at night is to understand better the cacophony of modern life elsewhere. Frustrations abound for the townie such as the lack of the larger chains of shops, reliable internet access and patchy mobile phone coverage, but in exchange there is a surface serenity. Most Orcadians are self-employed, but there are jobs available for those who are prepared to work but they may not be in your preferred career. Working is the norm in Orkney and I saw no evidence of deprivation. Many appeared to travel to work by ferry onto a neighbouring island, or by driving from one end of Mainland to the other, but the attitude is friendly and pragmatic.

This brings me back to my theme. I am, as I said at the beginning, a visitor. On Orkney I visited many historic sites including St Magnus cathedral in Kirkwall, Skara Brae, and Maeshowe. I also walked some beaches and cliff tops. There were some small remote heritage sites such as the Earl's Bu and Kirk near Orphir, and all of them, ALL of them, were clean, graffiti free, open even if unmanned, and many of them were free to enter. What did it for me was the small remote site near Orphir. Signposted off the main Kirkwall to Stromness road down a narrow farm track, the site was open with clean (spotless) modern toilets, an automated audio/ visual presentation lasting about a quarter of an hour, a well-tended centre full of information in the form of pictograms, and deserted. In England I have no doubt that the toilets (if they existed) would be uncared for, the audio/ visual equipment would have been vandalised or stolen, and the information boards vandalised. 

So what is it about Them and Us? Is it that the English are naturally dismissive of other people? Or that the Scots, particularly here the Orcadians, are obsessively "house proud" ? Can two halves of the same island nation be so innately diametrically opposed to the same situation? I believe not. No doubt there are some Scots who are hooligan just as there are some English who are publicly "house proud". One has only to visit some Scottish towns and cities on the one hand, or some public-access sites like Chatsworth House or the New Forest on the other to see that it has little to do with geography. No. I believe that it has everything to do with education. Not formal education necessarily, but the wider sometimes street learned education to which we are all subject. Parents undoubtedly have a crucial role, and an attitude such as I witnessed some years ago when a litterer was confronted and replied "well I'd finished with it" (the offending article dropped in the street) can only have been home grown. 

Britain doesn't have to be dirty, defaced, litter-strewn and exhibiting appallingly selfish attitudes. I fear that many from other countries who come here to live must be appalled and perplexed by the generally dirty state of Britain, especially since many countries seem to be immaculate. The margins of motorways and other main roads are frequently littered with rubbish, plastic bags, take-away wrappers, and even dirty nappies. Why? Lots of these items must have been discarded from moving vehicles the occupants of which could easily retain the said items until home or reaching a proper litter bin. Lazy? Ignorant? I think it's probably a little of both. What do you think?

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