There are various universal truths that, despite not being true at all, remain obstinately stuck in people’s minds, however often evidence to the contrary is rolled out.
I’m not thinking of the sort of things that delight us on BBC TV’s QI where the studio bells and klaxons sound as the hapless panellist declares that the statue in the centre of Piccadilly Circus depicts Eros*, nor the folk lore of our grandparents such as the gloomy advice to ‘cast ne’er a clout, ‘til May is out.’**
No. What I’m thinking about are those less specific ‘truths’ such as the one that insists that you can either have ‘heritage’ or you can have growth and economic prosperity, but you can’t have both. And this, they say, has something to do with the former being backward looking while the latter is all about boldness and modernity, breaking free from the shackles of outmoded ways of thinking.
Castles and cathedrals, pageantry and palaces
The truth, though, is that the two can get along just fine. Our heritage – and I use the term as shorthand for castles and cathedrals, pageantry and palaces and the whole idea of the UK as a historical entity with traditions unique to itself – does in fact make a massive contribution to our economic success. Inbound tourism has shown pretty well uninterrupted growth since 1950 when a mere 2.5 million people travelled here from abroad to visit us to the situation today where the best part of 30 million a year come. And it’s heritage that one in three of them cite as a key reason for coming, comfortably outstripping theatre, museums and sport and overtaken only by socialising, the pub and shopping in the ‘popular things to do in the UK’ stakes. This is further borne out by a piece of research that shows a clear link between popularity as tourist destination and number of local listed buildings.
So far, so obvious. A more subtle point though is the fact, again supported by research, that ‘heritage’ attracts businesses and economic migrants to the UK. Skilled workers prefer to live and work in places where distinctive architecture, cultural facilities and access to natural amenities are to be found. And when it comes to the old saw that listed buildings are less economically attractive to business, we find that designated commercial, industrial or office property brings in a higher level of total return than the broader sector in each case.
And there’s plenty more in the same vein once you start rooting through the statistics. The overall message for us all, I think, is that our heritage plays – and will continue to play – a really important part in our national prosperity. It’s not just right to support and cherish it – it’s good business too.
Petrol station canopies
If all this feels a bit worthy and dry, I should also point out that listed buildings can be exciting and fun too. Last week I listed two petrol station canopies and a World War One aerodrome, all of which make this point rather well.
Let’s hear it for England’s biggest fan
And while I’ve got your attention, I hope you’ll join me in congratulating Lancashire’s Rachel Kershaw who has just won a VisitEngland competition to find ‘England’s Biggest fan’. Rachel impressed the judges with her ‘passion for England and her zest for life’ and wins a ten-week road trip around England in a camper van, starting in Land’s End on Saturday. She’ll be doing so in the spirit of the Torch Relay, staying overnight on camping and caravanning sites to mirror the torch’s progress, and using social media to promote places she visits. You can follow Rachel’s progress on the @faninavan Twitter feed and/or the VisitEngland blog – it promises to be fun.
A slap from A A Gill
And finally, I’m pleased to announce my entry into that not-especially-exclusive academy of people, ideas and institutions that have been mocked, insulted and generally given a kicking in print by The Sunday Times’s restaurant critic, A A Gill. I’d attach a link but, sadly, the Paywall prevents it, so here’s a quick summary:
Our hero is invited to 10 Downing Street for the ‘Food is Great’ tourism launch event. He ascends ‘those stairs that Hugh grant danced down***’, finds the interior ‘dull’ and the State Dining Room ‘a good venue for gay weddings.’ He hears my speech, doesn’t like it and I ‘annoy (him) personally by qualifying unique about half a dozen unique times.’ I also, he thinks, ‘antagonise the room with the big, positive message that we don’t have to apologise for bad British food anymore,’ and then runs a variation on the old ‘not even a household name in his own household’ gag to round things off.
Mr Gill is a brilliant writer, of course, and I’m a fan. He’s as equally at home being fantastically rude to individuals in the public eye as he is with dismissing entire nations and even, on one occasion, uniting the animal kingdom against him when he told his readers how he had shot a baboon in Tanzania ‘to get a sense of what it might be like to kill someone, a stranger.’ So I’m pretty small beer in all this. That said, I can’t find it in me to apologise for stating the bleedin’ obvious: that British food is a lot better than it used to be, and it’s a shame that foreigners haven’t realised it yet.
And I’m sure my grammar is shocking – perhaps even uniquely shocking – when speaking without notes. So, ho hum. Still, on the bright side, there was a handy restaurant review wedged in towards the end of the piece and, if you fancy paying £212 for lunch for two, he’s got a four-star recommendation for you.
Me, I’m just relieved he didn’t bring his rifle.
*Designed by the sculptor, Sir Alfred Gilbert, it does in fact represent Anteros Agape, and stands for ‘reflective and mature love, as opposed to Eros or Cupid, the frivolous tyrant’. Anteros was the younger brother of Eros, of course.
**A clout is an antiquated word for an item of clothing, by the way. There’s some confusion as to whether the May referred to is the month of that name or, alternatively, the May flower or hawthorn (a tree which flowers in late April or early May.) But it comes to the same thing: our weather is so unpredictable, the proverb suggests, that you’d be well-advised to take a raincoat with you when you go out until at least the beginning of June. Imagine that. When have we ever had constant heavy rain in April or May, eh?
***The scene referred to, from Love Actually, was actually filmed at Shepperton, but I’m sure he realised that.
Photo by Simon Greig on Flickr. Some rights reserved.