Monday, August 13, 2012

Polly Toynbee vs Charles Masterman

I wrote this back in September 2009 as In dejection near Polly Toynbee.

Polly Toynbee had a column in the Guardian yesterday extolling Labour's bright new generation and the party's achievements in Lambeth:
all around us are good Labour legacies of money well spent: the new school sports hall, the new primary school on Brixton Hill, nine new children's centres, health clinics, squads of neighbourhood police, and a spectacular sixth-form college next door to my home.
I was struck by her celebration of buildings rather than the life that goes on in them. The sixth-form college may be "spectacular", but does it provide its students with a good education?

And It has always seemed to me that one of Toynbee's weaknesses is that her writing fails to convey any sense that she is aware of the pleasures of family life. It is children's centres, children's centres, children's centres all the way.

More than this, I was strongly reminded of another piece of writing about South London. I knew it was by my hero Charles Masterman, but did not know where I had read it. Thanks to the wonders of the net, I was able to find what it was and share it with you.

It comes from the essay "In dejection near Tooting", which was collected in Masterman's 1905 book In Peril of Change. In it he describes that suburb as follows:
On every high hill towered a monstrous building of that particular blend of austerity and dignity dear to the municipal mind. Each was planned of vast spreading dimension, with innumerable blank windows, surrounded by high polished walls.
Down below in the valley, conveniently adjacent to the cemetery, was the immense fever hospital, a huddle of buildings of corrugated iron. In front was a gigantic workhouse; behind, a gigantic lunatic asylum; to the right, a gigantic barrack school; to the left, a gigantic prison.
And that, I think, is one of the differences between a liberal like Masterman, who celebrates life, and a social democrat like Toynbee, who celebrates institutions.

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