Arts & Giving | Diary of a Somebody

Stephen Bayley

The design guru succumbs to roadworks rage

Stephen Bayley

Image: Brijesh Patel

October 03 2010
Stephen Bayley

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Several years ago a television production company came to visit. They made their pitch. I said, sure, that’s very interesting. I’ll take part, but I don’t want to be stigmatised as a grumpy, old man. Ah, they said. That’s our title.

Anyway, street notices. Why is it that the people who disfigure cityscapes by so zealously attaching declamatory, threatening, asinine, redundant, nugatory, illiterate notices on any available item of street furniture do not act with equal industry in removing them when time-expired? The police are – I am tempted to write “naturally” – the worst culprits. First there are those fatuous yellow notices appealing for witnesses of a “serious assault” (as opposed, I s’pose, to a trivial one). PC Plod might as well put up a poster saying “There were no policemen anywhere near the site of this heinous crime, but do save us some legwork and see if you can recall anything yourselves. Meanwhile, criminal classes, be assured that any future transgression is sure to go unnoticed around here.”

This, of course, is the very same police force who managed to find two preposterous “commanders” dressed like Venezuelan admirals to command 59 (yes, 59) trigger-happy cowboys in full combat gear with night sights, carbon-fibre helmets, flak jackets and high-velocity rifles to contain (and then kill) a sad, rat-arsed Chelsea barrister with a birdgun. Meanwhile, notices warning of road closures for the 2009 Marathon remain in place.

And then there are roadworks. I’m too vaingloriously keen to maintain a reputation for originality to go into the conventional riff, but I do think if anybody could create an accurate methodology for measuring the economically depressing effect of crap all over the place, then someone in authority might take the matter more seriously. The wonderfully contrarian historian Correlli Barnett once told me that an accurate measure of the psychological health, moral probity, military preparedness and general attractiveness of any civilisation could be found in the condition of its roads. I believed him then and I still believe him now.

There is a hole at the top of the street where I live dug by EDF months ago. It has notices on it apologising for essential works. These works are so essential that they have been unattended since excavation. And, insultingly, to be credible, any apology has to contain genuine remorse plus a promise not to repeat the transgression in future. I do not think EDF is really apologising at all. Here, if ever it was needed, is dreadful evidence of what happens when bloated utilities have shareholders and tax obligations abroad.

Any licence to commit a roadwork should require that the purpose, brief, budget, schedule and direct lines of all responsible individuals be made explicitly public. This would be a fine opportunity for yet another notice; but it would be one I’d make very good use of.

Unfortunately for me, two subjects I’m very interested in (architecture and design) are sloppily governed by quangos. (It’s a relief that no one has yet established an unaccountable bureaucracy to deal with two other interests, white burgundy and sex.) Now, CABE and The Design Council are very likely under threat in the firestorm of anti-twaddle wrath so happily begun by the new government. Perhaps if they had worked more effectively on silly notices and ugly roadworks we might be more concerned at their possible passing.

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