The photograph shows the Clarendon Building in Oxford, a fine stone building erected in 1711-1713 to the designs of Nicholas Hawksmoor. Hawksmoor was responsible for the towers of All Souls, for the front to Westminster Abbey, for some beautiful East London churches and for finishing off Blenheim Palace.
It is beautiful. It is important for itself, for its architect and for the man after whom it was named, Lord Clarendon, whose History of the Great Rebellion partly paid for it.
To the thick oaf in charge of signage and street furniture in central Oxford , it is just a building, a pile of old stone. He has split the view of its facade with a tall pole adorned with big bright signs.The really obtrusive one, the big blue cycle route sign pointing to the left, is new.
Beyond is one of the relatively elegant set of fingerposts from an earlier round of street signage, back in the days when Oxford employed someone to care about the street scene. He has long gone and now the troglodytes from Oxfordshire County Council and Oxford City Council do what they like.
Pinned to the fingerpost is a scruffy notice announcing that this is an area where public drinking is banned. The post is just a noticeboard for the diktats of an authoritarian power.
Up against the facade is one of a set of hideous brown notices erected three or four years ago, road-traffic sized signs pointing drivers towards tourist attractions which they cannot park near, signs which themselves obscure other attractions.
It makes you weep to see it. This is not just ugly stupidity, it is the act of someone who lacks any sensitivity, any sense of place or any appreciation of beautiful things. The uncultured oaf who did this, the dim, dull-witted plodder who stuck up all these notices, has no idea what he is ruining.
There are some things which you can explain to the people who run local authorities if you are patient and forceful enough. You can explain that their skate board area right next to houses makes an unacceptable noise and must come down, as happened at Aristotle Lane at a wasted cost of £50,000. You can point out that cobbled cycle lanes do not make much sense – something else which had to be undone at vast expense when a particularly thick highways officer laid them down.
But you could not make a council pen-pusher understand why these signs and poles are unacceptable. It is not (just) a matter of stupidity but evidence of a complete cultural and aesthetic vacuum. He would say that the signs are useful to guide people to the sights, unconscious of the fact that the signs have become the sights of Oxford, the things people will remember when they look at their photographs because that is what will appear in the foreground of every photograph.
It is perfectly possible to reconcile the requirements of utility with the need to preserve and enhance beautiful things. How do we get these people to understand that – or anything?
I don’t think it is a deficiency in their education – you don’t need ‘O’ Levels to see that all this signage is wrong. Nor is it a matter of class. Nor are all local authority staff like this. Yet I think it is something to do with working for the council. There is something deadening to the senses in the environment of a local authority planning or highways office which in turn attracts employees with no cultural or aesthetic senses. In Oxford and Oxfordshire, anyway.