CHAPTER 31

The Conservative Tendency

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Just as a medicine is “conseruatyr of strength,” there must necessarily exist a connection between antiquarianism and conservatism, in its ancient sense of preservation.

The fabric and structure of Anglo-Saxon building embody “a clear impression of simplicity and veneration for the past: there seems to have been an unwillingness to sweep away old buildings to make way for modern innovations.”1 In the building of the great fourteenth-century cathedrals, “the English move was in the direction of more discipline and greater sobriety”2 in opposition to that of her continental neighbours; in England rococo was renounced in favour of classicism, and the “Flamboyant” style was ignored for the Perpendicular. English medieval painting consistently followed traditional principles, while the music of the thirteenth century manifested “an inherent conservatism” principally “by putting old techniques to new uses.”3 Note values stayed the same for two centuries. The tradition of organ music remained unchanged from the Restoration to the late nineteenth century. Even in the twentieth century Benjamin Britten was celebrated for his ability “to revitalise older elements in the musical language.” 4 Gerard Manley Hopkins and W. H. Auden revived the practice of alliteration in their various and different poetries.

It has been said that the “New Towns” constructed after the Second World War represent “extraordinary testimony to the continuities in English culture.”5 The architectural styles of the era, particularly that known generally as “Tudorbethan,” testify to an innate conservatism or nostalgia for antiquated architectural form, where an allusion to “the past” is supposed to convey substantiality and a measure of dignity to otherwise meretricious dwellings. The same pattern of permanence exists within other English structures; medieval halls become long galleries which in turn become picture galleries; Jacobeans copied Elizabethans, who in turn copied medieval floor-plans. There are certain regions of the country where “it is impossible to date buildings even roughly on style alone,” so persistent is one type of building.6 In districts where stone can be quarried, late seventeenth-century houses are “indistinguishable even in detail” from those of the early sixteenth century and, in the northern counties, the long and narrow houses have “grown out of the common type of hall with upper and lower ends,”7 thus emphasising the common medieval inheritance.

But the conservative imagination is still best exemplified by the plain or common English house, a territorial interest “unique among Europeans.”8 English family homes, in particular, are remarkable for their conservatism and ubiquity. An observer of London has noted that “the uniformity of the houses is a matter of course and has not been forced upon them”;9 it suggests some organic law of growth and being, as if the houses themselves reflect the spirit of their occupants. The same observer, Steen Eiler Rasmussen, has also noted that “the common little house of which there have been thousands and thousands is only sixteen feet broad. It has probably been the ordinary size of a site since the Middle Ages.”10

English streets often follow ancient trackways. The lanes and alleys within the City of London were first laid at the time of the Roman settlement. “Knight Rider Street,” south of St. Paul’s Cathedral, is believed to contain the line of an old circus used for gladiatorial and equestrian display. The present Guildhall, in the City of London, is established on the site of the Roman amphitheatre where administrative matters were debated and which in turn the Saxons employed for their folkmoots. There is a continuity here of some two thousand years. The administrative units of the City of London, too, were first established in Saxon times; that air of good governance, which has always been characteristic of the City and indeed of the larger country, has ancient properties. The curve of an old field path is duplicated in the shape of West Street, beside Cambridge Circus, and the cross-roads at the Angel, Islington, are a simulacrum of the crossing of tribal paths many thousands of years before. It has often been said that London, vandalised by fire and architects equally, has lost its history. The powers and forces of past time, however, are not easily destroyed; they remain visible beneath the surface of the earth.

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