Only in England could this happen: in a few days' time a judicial review will decide whether the countryside immediately surrounding Anne Hathaway's Cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon can be torn up to make way for a new housing estate. No, seriously.
The local government minister, Eric Pickles, has already ruled in favour of the development, backing Bloor Homes, and unless his decision is reversed, which few expect, one of the most popular heritage sites in Europe will be swamped by 800 new houses - not half a mile away, not even down the road, but rammed so tightly against its sides and rear that the tourists will find the little thatched building garlanded by satellite dishes, chrome barbecues and washing lines. Mr Pickles agreed that there were "material considerations weighing against the development", including "the harm to heritage assets". But he rubber-stamped it anyway.
Anne Hathaway's Cottage is of international significance. It is part of the Shakespeare story. It has stood in a tiny lane in the village of Shottery, a mile from Stratford, since before the 15th Century, surrounded by fields, flowers and cobbled walkways. Replicas of it have been built all over the world. Tens of millions have come from every continent to see it since it was sold to the nation by the Hathaway family in 1892. It was here, after all, that the boy William, collecting wool from local farmers for his father's glove-making business, met Anne. It was in the fields around Shottery that he first tasted the food of love - she fell pregnant before they were married - and where the emotional fabric of the sonnets and plays produced by the world's greatest writer was fashioned. In the Eric Pickles dystopia, however, Anne Hathaway's Cottage should soon abut a Tesco Metro and a bus stop.
Quite how this state of affairs has been arrived at is difficult to decipher. The Tory controlled council put the site into their local housing plan in 2005. The trust which administers the shakespeare properties is in financial crisis, struggling to meet educational, cultural and academic demands that have become global. Objectors doubt that it can hold out against the cash life-line it has been offered for the land.
This being England, of course, no one has made a fuss. The story hasn't even appeared in the national press. But that the council, the inspectorate and the secretary of state - in fact any group of people possessing a clutch of GCSEs between them - could decide that a housing complex was fair exchange for the vista of a national monument says something incredible and heart-breaking about modern England. Can you imagine this happening in St Mark's Square? The French building a multiplex in front of the Louvre? And where next? A Park & Ride in the grounds of Warwick Castle? (A few months ago, councillors in Berkshire voted 33 to 12 in favour of concreting over Watership Down, on Sandleford Common, and there are other landmarks under similar threat).
Where did this madness begin? The rush to build may be nothing new but the disinclination of normal people to resist, or even to mind very much, certainly is. Thirty years ago Margaret Thatcher went on a visit to the National Gallery. It bored her stiff. Art is about feelings - and she had no hinterland beyond coinage. She ended up taking tea with the restorers in the basement. Who the hell were Monet and Manet, anyway, compared to money?
After she had finished her tea she went back to her job of revving Britain up with a new set of social values. Since then, with one brief exception, we have been governed by Thatcherites - and Mr Pickles is a worthy dauphin - all of whom have propagated her view that art, culture, heritage should be either disregarded as meaningless or else looted as rapaciously as the public utilities. Nothing is as beautiful as a bank account. Almost all her successors have joined her in debasing the national culture. Thatcher's gluttonous flunky, Rupert Murdoch, has turned English civilisation into a junk food synthesis of game shows, soaps, celebrity circuses without celebrities, and phone-in talent contests. The useless froth of western society - Paris Hilton, Jordan, the Kardashians - are accorded a de jour but monumental status. The French have Jean-Luc Godard; the Germans have Goethe and Max Ernst. We have The Only Way is Essex. And we love it. We gorge on it. We buy this interminable garbage and surfeit till we're sick - increasingly illiterate, leading largely virtual lives, sitting silent and bug-eyed in front of iPads, PCs, Play Stations, televisions and mobiles.
So, goodbye then, to the beauty of Anne Hathaway's house. Everything has a sell-by date, even the Bard.
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