Context 159 - May 2019

42 C O N T E X T 1 5 9 : M A Y 2 0 1 9 DAVID GARRARD Bricks and mortar, flesh and blood Philosophical reflection can hold up a mirror in which we can recognise the structures of theory and evaluation concealed within conservationists’ familiar routines of professional judgment. Someone (I used to think it was John Betjeman 1 ) once said that, if forced to choose, they preferred buildings to people. Whoever gave voice to this thought, it is one that historic conservationists could usefully dwell on. How, in our system of priorities, do we weigh the claims of bricks and mortar against those of flesh and blood? Is our practice ultimately about trying to improve people’s lives in the present (or the future) – or about keeping faith with people in the past – or just about preserving, for its own sake, that which we regard as valuable? As a conservation lecturer with an academic background in philosophy, such questions have a particular resonance for me. For all their abstractness, they have a direct bearing on the practical choices we make as conservation profes- sionals. Our everyday decisions rest, in part, on a number of – usually unspoken – philosophical intuitions: here, about the nature and structure of so-called ‘heritage values’; their relation to personal welfare, communal standards and the ‘public interest’; the respective roles of expert judgment, majority preference and minority prerogative in determining their scope; and the proper function of official heritage bodies in deciding which values will be supported under which circumstances. Let me try to examine, in a philosophical spirit, part of the structure of ideas underlying certain familiar debates over historic environ- ment policy. This article is meditative rather than polemical in purpose, seeking to explore and clarify disagreements rather than arguing for a particular stance; although I do intend, in displaying the complexity of the issues at stake, to show why these questions can not have straightforward answers. Let us try, as philosophers are wont to do, to illuminate these abstract problems by means of a concrete, if imaginary example. Suppose that the grants panel of some public funding body – say the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) 2 – has to choose between two conservation projects. To simplify certain issues (even if it perhaps complicates others), let us say that they both involve 19th-century churches. 3 The first, St Aldhelm’s, is a purist’s delight: a masterpiece by that doyen of high Victorian architecture Sir Gilbert Bodfield, superbly built and fitted out in the finest materials by the lead- ing craftsmen of the day. It is of course Grade I listed, and gets the full five stars from Simon Jenkins. There is only one drawback: it is stuck out on a remote and unromantic stretch of East Anglian fen, with a congregation of seven elderly St Ald’s: a masterpiece by that doyen of high Victorian architecture, Sir Gilbert Bodfield (Drawings: James Hall) References 1 The internet seems to think it was Andrew O’Hagan, in a 1999 debate with Will Self, who apparently replied: ‘Well, you spend more time inside them, don’t you?’ 2 My example reflects the genesis of this article: a conversation at an IHBC event with Sara Crofts of the HLF, to whose insights concerning heritage funding dilemmas I am indebted. The issues that interest me are raised by such dilemmas; but they are present throughout the sector, and a similar thought experiment could be devised involving, for instance, a heritage planning dispute. 3 Again, while the choice of a religious building focuses some of the issues, the same fundamental questions could arise for any building type.