A quarter of a century or so ago, I visited Ostia Antica, the long-abandoned port outside Rome. Now, I expect, it has a visitor centre, lavatories and car parks, and all the shoddy gloss which bureaucrats and tourist boards throw up to make everywhere look the same as they dig their snouts into the heritage trough.
Then it was just a few old buildings in a field, the plots and streets clearly delineated, evoking a clear picture of how it used to be and how far it had fallen, the grass pushing up through the old stones redolent of a lost civilisation.
You get much the same feeling of lost civilisation in Oriel Square now. The square is ruined anyway by the ugly monuments beloved of uncultured bureaucrats, in this case the bollards and other street furniture erected by the insensate oafs of Oxfordshire County Council’s highways department (see What a load of bollards in Oriel Square), an act of vandalism by people too thick to understand what they are ruining.
The sad-looking air in Oriel Square, however, derives as much from neglect as from official barbarism. As at Ostia, the grass pushes up through the streets. The cobbles are damaged, cheaply mended by rough and ready filling. It looks as if it was last swept about the time I graduated in the 1970s.
The posts are put there to prevent cars parking. You can just picture some little pen-pusher, charged with keeping cars out of the square and deciding that some wooden posts would look appropriate – wood’s old-fashioned, know wot I mean, that’s heritage innit, like, they had wooden posts in them old days, know wot I mean, so they’ll look OK against them old colleges.
Yes, thicko, there is nothing like a few wooden posts to complement 17th and 18th Century stone. The fact is that they look as much out of place against the metal bollards as they do in the context of the square as a whole. If it really was necessary to block off Oriel Square, it could have been done in a manner which fitted the context – a striking modern scheme with some thought behind it could actually have enhanced the place.
Instead, they dumped metal bollards and a nest of wooden posts – and then just abandoned Oriel Square to sad dereliction. The photograph sums it all up – a City Council notice board to encourage visitors above a gutter filled with weeds and litter.
It is not just the historic centre of Oxford which is neglected in this way. My own suburban street has weeds growing knee-high in the gutters. Oxford City Council make much of Oxford’s attractions for visitors, who bring millions of pounds of revenue into the city. I pay well over £2,000 a year in council tax and they cannot even weed my local streets.
The cultural vandalism of the bollards and the shabby neglect of the streets are as bad as each other. Both come together in Oriel Square as a monument to official incompetence. Perhaps it is not even anything so positive as incompetence, just no idea as to what is right, and no-one whose contract requires them to care.
They have the excuse at Ostia Antica that the inhabitants largely abandoned the city in the 11th Century. It became a place visited only by tourists for whom the faded ruins were the attraction. That is not, as I understand it, our councillors’ ambition for Oxford.
I do not, honestly, expect much better from the council officers. It seems odd though, does it not, for the elected councillors to have pitched for the title Capital of Culture whilst letting our own cultural heritage decline in a way so easily capable of remedy?