The question of from whence we came has rode and wrestled the minds of the poets, historians, philosophers and the academy more broadly from time immemorial. Whether from Sumer or Rome, from Babylon or Assyria, there is no certain ‘Day Zero, Year Zero,’ to borrow a ghastly term, for Western civilization (bar, perhaps, the birth of the Babe – though this was not ‘zeroed’ before the invention and miscalculation of inept monk Dionysus Exiguus in our sixth century.)
In any case, poets, historians, philosophers and indeed the entire academy of the future will certainly come together in rare consensus in answering quite when Western civilization came to an end.
For, in the summer of 2015, the King James Library was ‘refurbished’ in one of the greater acts of vandalism, biblioclasm and libricide since the sack of the Ayat Allah al-Hakim Library in Najaf. D’Anglas noted in 1795 that: “France is bathed in blood… devastated by anarchy, suffocated by acts of vandalism, prey to the ravages of greed and victim to the excesses of ignorance and savagery.” Yet our demise has not been dealt by the evils of revolution, but by what Betjeman neatly labelled ‘the average man.’ We see him on each walk no matter how brisk and we are thrown into collision with his consequence each time we open our eyes:
“He collects facts as some collect stamps, and he abhors excess in colour, speech or decoration. He is not vulgar. He is not the common man, but the average man, which is far worse. He is our ruler and he rules by committees. He gives us what most people want, and he believes that what is popular is what is best. He is the explanation of such phenomena as plastic tea-cups, Tizer, light ale, quizzes, mystery tours, cafeterias, discussion groups, Chapels of Unity, station announcers. At his best he is as lovable as Mr Footer, but he is no leader. He is the Lowest Common Multiple, not even the Highest Common Factor… His indifference to the look of things is catching. We discover it in our attitude to the horrors with which the delicate variety of our landscape has been afflicted.
We accept [it] without murmur.”
It is in his hands that our aesthetic experience is left, to be held under money. His music is chosen for him by radio stations, his breakfast by cereal adverts, his dreams sated in television box sets.
It is he, no doubt, that ticked the box next to the coverall raised blue synthetic carpentry that now covers not just a wonderful wood-boarded floor, but a floor upon which James Gregory lay his meridian line, upon which Samuel Johnson stood and declared the book room ‘elegant and luminous,’ upon which for 403 years undergraduates, graduates and researchers have marched out and paced over with bewildering optimism and the desire to know more.
It is he who chose plastic paneling to be inserted into the desk’s gallery on the infantile justification that, like a toddler’s sports shoe, it lights up when hit with enough vim. It is he who, in doing so, negated the wonderful nod to the Edwardian tradition of furniture design previously dotted about a library that used to be full of wondrous idiosyncrasy. Intricately banded and stringed, if slightly boxish, Carlton House-inspired shelved desks of mahogany were sat at with great comfort and written at with scholarship. This, now rendered unreplicatable by a wide and pale sigh of callousness in MDF, more befitting of a television advert superstore than medieval university.
Oh loveless writing tables, oh zaffre carpets, oh purge of serifs, oh indolence, why must they make you?
Now, now, Mr Ayling, has frivolity not grabbed your hand and run away with you here? Surely this matter of furnishing cannot be as bad as you say, nor illustrative of wider cultural briskness and burning. Has there been a time in this auld toon where a yearning for culture has been spread so wide – our spires rise still above shop roofs, theatre, chamber music, cinema all admired and adored our museums (plural) are enthusiastically patronised and cottage idylls routinely restored. The width of the pursuit of beauty is no substitute for the blindness in its navigation. I shall admit, our University is not as ugly as its counterparts in Edinburgh, Glasgow or Aberdeen, but it is nearly so and this must be no matter of indifference.