If I ruled the world: Loyd Grossman

Cherish our heritage, not Kim Kardashian

July 17, 2014
"It is our heritage that defines us, that tells the story, that makes our country look the way it does." © David Fisher/REX
"It is our heritage that defines us, that tells the story, that makes our country look the way it does." © David Fisher/REX
Listen to Loyd reading his musings aloud

If I ruled the world, I would—before I was kicked out, strung up or sent into exile—encourage a closer engagement with the past. Like my illustrious predecessor on this page, Simon Schama, I go for the idea of making history a compulsory subject until the age of 16. Whether you wish to be a biochemist, hedge fund tycoon, lobsterman or—God forbid—an MP, not a lot in the world around us makes sense without a thorough grounding in what one of my school history teachers used to loftily proclaim was “the queen of disciplines.”

But aside from such required book learning in the classroom, I would decree that all should benefit from a more thorough acquaintance with the stuff left over from the past: all those castles, gardens, stately homes, locomotives, libraries, market crosses, parish churches, sailing ships, cathedrals, canals, viaducts, watering troughs, theatres, town halls, city walls, signalling boxes, landscapes, gardens, menhirs, dolmens, follies, mausoleums and ring forts; all that stuff that proves that we were not the first nor will be the last to tread this blessed plot. All that stuff that we now call heritage.

It is our heritage that defines us, that tells the story, that makes our country look the way it does, that provides the context in which we can be enterprising, creative, studious or even downright lazy. Beauty and joy are sadly unfashionable words in a world driven by what one of my heroes, RH Tawney, described in the 1920s as “the naive and uncritical worship of economic power.” A world in which it sometimes seems that the prevailing philosophy is a sort of lumpen cynicism blended with social Darwinism and a general yearning for Kim Kardashian’s lifestyle.

I do not, however, wish to sound like Cato the Elder ranting against declining standards, because, let’s face it, in spite of the political, economic, social, religious, cultural and climatic horrors of the early 21st century, more people are living more decently than ever before. But a decent standard of living may be too low a bar to set for a country like the UK, which is—and this is sometimes hard to believe—the sixth richest place on earth (by the size of its economy, although not by GDP per head). Whether it is through study, contemplation or just the mere sight of it, our heritage has the ability, through its beauty and intricacy, to bring joy to people. However you define it, our heritage can give us citizens a sense of belonging to something that is actually worth belonging to.

Speaking of belonging, over six million of us belong to, volunteer or work for one of the thousands of heritage organisations in the country. Yes, the heritage is fragile—old buildings, like old people, become more expensive to keep in good shape with each passing year—but once it is gone it is gone forever. Too often, and for too long, governments of varying hue have treated the heritage as if it is a problem to be propped up by subsidy. Our heritage needs to be supported, protected and regulated not because it is a problem, but because it is of such immense value. Where is the government policy that treats heritage not as a burden, but as one of our greatest national assets? An asset that brings pleasure and inspiration to millions, that defines and bonds communities, that galvanises volunteers and philanthropists. An asset that is robust and requires investment and a forward-looking and benign legislative framework.

Can no government grasp the value of heritage and do something positive? If we must talk about money, let’s reiterate the fact that heritage is the most significant driver of our booming, prosperous, awash-with-foreign-exchange, tourism industry—the fifth largest industry in the UK. So dear Chancellor, if you are reading this—and if I ruled the world you would be—please think about getting rid of the ridiculous VAT regime which slaps a full rate of tax on the repair and maintenance of old buildings, but levies zero per cent on new build and demolition. Go figure.

It is, I think, a special privilege for all writers of this page to be able to condemn and subsequently ban the latest meaningless and insincere phraseology of the day. None of us ever believed that maître d’s, waitresses and shop assistants were even remotely concerned about our future welfare when they mechanically wished us to “Have a nice day.” And I almost had to stop going to restaurants when even the most uninspiring plate of muck was delivered with an exuberant instruction to “Enjoy!” I am now almost nostalgic for those days as the new shibboleth of speciously personal service has arrived. If one more person asks me “How’s your day been?” I will immediately resign as ruler of the world.

Oh. And one last, but important thing. I would ban gels, foams and anything that sounded as if it had something to do with shaving from the menus of fancy restaurants.