I was driving over to a primary school in Ilkley this morning (dribbly rain and mist over the wild moors) and listening to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was being interviewed about the British Government’s apparent approval of the idea of a new London airport (after Heathrow, Gatwick and City – Luton and Stansted don’t count as they are nowhere near London). The wisdom and feasibility of such a new venture will continue to be debated, but that isn’t what grabbed my attention.

Boris responded to an insinuation that it would take decades to build the thing and would, therefore, not be worth starting. He said that just because it might take a long time didn’t mean it shouldn’t be started. And this reminded me of something else: cathedrals.

When the architects and builders of our great cathedrals began their work – driven by imagination and a vision for a future – they knew they probably would never see the finished article. They would be dead – the building would take generations. Liverpool Cathedral (Anglican) was started in 1904 and almost everybody involved in imagining, designing and building it was dead by the time it was finally completed at the back end of the twentieth century.

Or think of gardens. Capability Brown designed some of Britain’s most glorious gardens, but knew he would never see what he had designed because by the time the trees and plants had grown, he would be long gone. This didn’t stop him doing it.

I took a couple of academic friends to the pub this evening to talk about a range of matters. At one point the conversation ran onto the shortsighted utilitarianism of current university funding methods in England. It seems as if the ‘now’ is all that matters and the Market will control all our destinies. Any idea of vision (what should a university actually be – and for whom and for what end?) or long-term constructiveness gets lost under the pressing immediacy of instant financial viability. Yet, I guess this is just one more example of a pragmatic culture which has lost track of its guiding narrative, its traditions and memory – living in and for the ‘now’ and hesitant about building for someone else’s future that can’t be guaranteed anyway.

Pessimistic? Maybe. But, any culture needs people who imagine a future, invest in it, know why they are doing it and who it is for. They must be driven by a vision for a society that doesn’t confuse ends (people/society) with means (the Market).

I don’t know if Boris is right about the airport. But, he has the right perspective on time and investment.

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