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Monday, January 03, 2011

You can't put your arms around a memory

The debate over whether or not they should knock down the childhood home of Ringo Starr has got me thinking about our urge to preserve.

Near where I live in north London is a medium-sized park. In the middle of the park is what was once quite a grand house. Parts of it are sixteenth century but it was extensively remodelled over the years as successive generations of rich merchants tried to make it more grand or more practical. It has a staircase and some murals that are regarded as being of some note. Once the ownership passed to the local council after the war it became, as I dimly remember, a mother and baby clinic, a cafe and the kind of museum where stuffed birds greeted you with puzzled stares. The exterior of the building was half-timbered but it was about as authentically Elizabethan as the front of Liberty's. It was never a thing of beauty.

In 1984 the building was struck by fire. The council wanted to demolish the building because it was no longer safe and their responsibility. Preservation organisations sprang into action to resist. English Heritage gave it Grade Two Listing. Scaffolding was erected to keep the building up and a fence erected all around to make sure that no over-adventurous kids could get near.

The scaffolding is still there. The council proposed changing the building's Covenants, which were laid down in 1903, to allow some commercial use of a restored house. Whitbread were interested in it being a family restaurant. The local residents objected, claiming that the amount of traffic such a place would attract would make a busy area even busier. In 2003 the building was entered for the BBC programme "Restoration"in which Griff Rhys Jones invited the public to choose which of a number of proposed projects was most deserving. It lost.

In the twenty-six years since the fire all manner of proposals have been examined and discarded. Grants have been secured and very often passed on to professional consultancies. (Nowadays if you want to make a bid for lottery funding you have to hire a professional to do it.) Many of the people who led the original campaign to preserve the building have retired. Some must have died.

The latest initiative comes from the Mayor Of London's Office and involves £500,000 being granted to pay for preparatory and public consultation work about the new proposals which are a combination of restoration of the house with some form of sheltered accommodation in the stable block. If this gets the go-ahead they can apparently find a further £5,000,000 to pay for it. God knows how much further cost has already been incurred holding this building up since 1984.

There's nobody fonder of history than I am. I'm no fan of the wrecking ball. I'm a member in good standing of the National Trust. But if a small attraction like this, which is only ever likely to be appreciated by the small number of people who live locally, can only be maintained by calling upon a fund from a form of central government (either national or local) then it may be time to either do it the way the Victorians did it when they first built our parks - by raising a public subscription among the people who really care - or just letting it slip away.

The Housing Minister today said that in some people's eyes Ringo's house is "a culturally important building". English Heritage have described the house near me as "historically important" and "architecturally unique". These are the kind of baggy phrases that could be extended to justify the preservation of just about anything. In this country nothing is so guaranteed to get the public tear ducts going as the threat of something being removed. Stopping the wrecking ball is the work of a day. Deciding what to do instead can go on forever.