If it is evidence of the decline of British civilisation that you are after, you cannot do better than go to Scarborough. It is precisely because the material traces of that civilisation are still so much in evidence there, albeit dolefully altered, that the impression is so strong and so painful.
The town retains its wonderful position, of course. One is still struck immediately on arrival by ‘the freshness of the air, so different from what is breathed in the interior of England’, as described by Dr John Kelk in his The Scarborough Spa, its new chemical analysis and medicinal uses; to which is added, On the Utility of the Bath (3rd ed. 1855). To see people walking their dogs and playing with them on the beach is to be reminded of the simplicity of many of the greatest pleasures in life. And the custom of endowing a public bench in memory of departed parents, schoolteachers, appreciative visitors or local notables, so that strangers might sit and contemplate the splendid view in silence, has always seemed to me a noble one.
But there is no disguising the very considerable impoverishment of the town, an impoverishment that is actually characteristic of a high proportion of the country. This impoverishment is as much of the spirit as economic: nowhere in the world (at least nowhere known to me, including very many poorer places) do you see such a concentration of people who have given up on themselves, or rather, who never had any self-respect to give up on.
What one sees is a purely materialist society that is not even very good materialism, for it does not promote even those mental and moral disciplines that promote material success. A large proportion of the population has been left to the mercies of a popular culture whose main characteristic is the willing suspension of intelligence, and which does not merely fail to inculcate refinement, grace, elegance and the desire for improvement, but actively prevents them and causes them to be feared and despised. An inability and unwillingness to discriminate always leads, by default, to the overgrowth of the worst, from which the better can never recover.
The magnificent architectural heritage of Scarborough has been not so much destroyed as comprehensively spoilt by a combination of the ceaseless social engineering that, mysteriously enough, never results in the social equality that is it supposedly designed to bring about, and the rampant, cheap and short-term commercialism that such engineering inevitably calls forth: for the more you suppress the opportunities to make money, the less constructive will be the means by which people strive to make it. And what Scarborough demonstrates, apart from architectural vandalism, is architectural spivvery.
It is true that the centre of the town has been subjected, like almost everywhere else in Britain, to the destructive impulses of the modernist brute, by comparison with which the Luftwaffe employed mere pea-shooters. The architectural historian, Anthony Vidler, described the modernist sensibility as the desire to escape history and raze the past as a kind of therapeutic procedure: a barbaric, egoistic and fundamentally stupid sensibility, if sensibility is quite the word for it.
But this is not what has done most harm to Scarborough’s architectural heritage, bad enough as its effect has been. It is the short-term commercialism of the kind that a truly commercial nation would not display, combined with the total indifference to aesthetic considerations that years of non-discrimination have made second nature among us.
Scarborough’s Esplanade and its hinterland contains some of the most splendid Victorian domestic architecture anywhere in the country, much of it in honey-coloured stone. The architects built terraces and squares of great elegance and aesthetic unity (I remember, with rage, how in my childhood the term Victorian was still one not only of moral, but of aesthetic abuse, meaning that one could do no damage to a Victorian building because there was nothing there to damage).
The unity of these terraces and squares was destroyed, once and for all, by the humble mansard, cheaply inserted in practically every building with no regard for the overall appearance of the individual building or the whole district, which were in fact inseparable. All this was done in the 1960s and 1970s, almost certainly using the argument of economic necessity (no doubt the owners of the Crown Hotel, built in 1840, argued precisely this); the owners sought and obtained the permission of a complaisant and corrupt council — at least, one hopes it was corrupt, for any other motive is too horrible to contemplate.
What these mansards show, apart from a desire to pack as many people in and secure as much rent as possible, is the egotistical narrowing of people’s considerations. The view of the sea from picture windows was no doubt gratifying from the point of people looking out; but this was at the expense of people not in, but looking at, the building. The mansards were and are a symptom of the increasing atomisation of our society, an atomisation in part brought about, or at any rate accelerated, by social engineering, all with devastating aesthetic, or anti-aesthetic, effect.
Whether or not my analysis of the causes is correct, the lack of pride, egotism and cheap commercialism are evident everywhere in the town. The Grand Hotel, for example, was once the largest and grandest in Europe. ‘The tastes and tendencies of the present age,’ wrote a Scarborough journalist at the time of its opening in 1867, ‘are towards greatness, vastness of enterprise, magnificence of appearance.’ Actually, the building is far from my favourite in the town, but it undoubtedly has a magnificence of its own. Now the marble pillars of the portico are used mainly to support bronchitics, exiled from indoors, as they puff desperately at their fags. Criminally vulgar posters, advertising cheap meals and rooms, are posted on the dirty windows, surrounded by finely crafted architectural detail.
Everywhere there are small, as well as large, signs of degeneration. At Anne Brontë’s grave (she died and is buried in Scarborough), there was a small bouquet of flowers — stuck in a dirty jam-jar.
No greatness, no vastness of enterprise (WH Smith, Tesco and Poundsaver don’t count), no magnificence of appearance. We are barbarians living in the ruins of a civilisation.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 7, 2011