February 1, 2013 6:58 pm

The past is a time whose time has come

It is a fine balance that any society must navigate: between the urge to cherish the past and the desire to start all over again

Fighting to maintain the physical wellbeing of the nation can be a harrowing task. But Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage, had a spring in his step this week as he announced the organisation’s plans for the future. Indeed, he started with a joke. What was it, he asked, that united McDonald’s, baseball caps, Cameron Diaz and the 1913 Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act?

Came the slightly sheepish reply: we have the Americans to thank for all of them. A forgivable stab of humour: kicking off a centenary celebration for a dully named piece of legislation is as forbidding as dealing with dry rot under the floorboards. Yet there is a fascinating history to the 1913 act, which was prompted by the sale, two years earlier, of Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire.

It seems that the charms of the castle were brought to the attention of a consortium of American businessmen, who so admired its 15th-century stone fireplaces that they removed them, planning to ship them back to their homeland. Enter into the fray Lord Curzon, former viceroy of India and restorer of the Taj Mahal, whose distaste for the project was such that he – what else? – bought the castle and the surrounding land himself, just to spite the Yankee plunderers.

The rest had a touch of police thriller about it: Curzon had the major ports watched to prevent the fireplaces being smuggled out of the country. They were finally found dumped in a London mews, and ceremoniously returned to the castle on horse-drawn carriages, draped proudly in Union flags.

There was no mistaking the symbolism of that little episode. The 1913 act marked a turning point in Britain’s attitude to its past. The introduction of preservation orders and the scheduling of monuments of national importance were symptoms of a fresh respect for the physical remnants of history.

The 19th century had hurtled towards industrialisation with a palpable lack of regard for the world it was leaving behind. Among the many things in which Britain led the world was the destruction of its past. Monument after monument was levelled in the cause of progress. But now things would be different.

Of course, it turns out that 1913 was a funny old year. For most of the cultural institutions currently seeking centenaries to freshen up their programming, it symbolises something very different from new-found respect for the past – the precise opposite, in fact.

As we are constantly being reminded, 1913 was the year of two epochal arts events: the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring , and the appearance at New York’s Armory Show of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)”. These works wrought their own havoc on the past. Unconcerned with building on the legacies of their cultural antecedents, they invented new languages and new forms. They prefigured an era of extraordinary artistic invention.

So we had these conflicting cultural impulses in a Europe that was just about to enter one of its darkest periods. There was the sudden urge to cherish the past and its grandest monuments, to allow a country’s physical fabric to tell its stories as eloquently as any schoolbook; yet there was also the near-savage desire to rip everything up and start all over again.

. . .

Both attitudes are worthy of commemoration. It is a fine balance that any society must navigate, between the extremes of sentiment-ridden nostalgia and the frantic call of rash visionaries. Pay too much respect to the past and you lapse into decadence; sprint too hurriedly into the future and you may find yourself in a very strange and hostile place.

It is now considered a truism to declare a country’s heritage an indelible part of its identity. We know that the essence of Britain lies as surely in its medieval stone chapels as in its hip Hoxton lofts. Ancient and contemporary voices compete for attention – and that is how it should be. It forms a national conversation that is more vital and more engaging than most political debate. And it is, generally speaking, in good shape right now.

Thurley even had a piece of long-overdue good news to deliver at his press conference, confirming the closure and grassing-over, later this year, of the A344 road in Wiltshire. This is the infamous highway that separates the prehistoric monument of Stonehenge from its surrounding area, and has long (the road’s closure was first mooted in 1929) been considered a national embarrassment.

That magical clump of rocks has been mightily patient, but its time has come. Congratulations to all involved. Sometimes the true visionaries are the ones that can look furthest into their own (pre-)history.

peter.aspden@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/aspden

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