Insofar as we have a distinct culture in this country, perhaps its most visible and obvious manifestation is in our buildings. For a long time we seemed to care very little about them, and almost not to recognise them as works of art in their own right, worthy of conservation. The legacy, and evidence, of earlier ages was routinely swept aside by later ones. Had the Great Fire not razed the City of London the Georgians would probably have done so or, failing them, the Victorians. Similarly, and within painful living memory, the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s removed much of the surviving pre-20th century architecture of our towns that the Luftwaffe had inadvertently spared. It seemed, for a time, that an idea of progress and preparedness for the future was contingent upon a visible elimination of the past.
The Victorians, in their ruthless restorations of churches and their imposition of their interpretation of the medieval upon the real thing, largely got away with their vandalism. There is the odd barb in the literature of the time lamenting the wreckage of ancient art — Samuel Butler has a few things to say about it in The Way of All Flesh — but as an age they were so certain of the moral force of their own cultural superiority that they felt that anything they created must inevitably be more beautiful, more valuable and more useful than what it replaced. At least, for all their faults, the Victorians built with a solidity and sense of permanence that gave some justification to their view. They even, occasionally, built quite beautifully. It was their buildings, notably, that were in the line of fire when the modernists and brutalists moved in half a century or so ago. The modernists and brutalists had as much conviction as the Victorians that what they were doing was the ultimate in architecture. Unlike the Victorians, sadly, they usually happened to be wrong.
This, at least, did not go unopposed. Sir John Betjeman put himself at the forefront of campaigns to save the Euston Arch and, shortly afterwards, the Coal Exchange. Both of those failed, because of the ruthlessness of governments and the determination that progress was progress and never philistinism. Betjeman was, however, successful with St Pancras Station and its integral Midland Hotel, now both so beautifully restored as to look better, one imagines, than they did when George Gilbert Scott built them. But assisting him in these projects was one whom he had, by then, mocked and teased for nearly 30 years, Nikolaus Pevsner.
One suspects Betjeman, who left Oxford without a degree, resented Pevsner's orthodox erudition and intellectualism: buildings are there, after all, to be appreciated by the senses, not by the intellect. His habit of referring to Pevsner as "Herr Professor Doktor" says it all. What might have rankled more is that Pevsner undertook a project that Betjeman could have been forgiven for thinking ought to have had his own name on it: the Buildings of England series, begun for Allen Lane in the late 1940s and whose coverage, county by county, was not complete until the mid-1970s. This is Pevsner's monument: and one that Betjeman, for all his qualities, lacked the discipline and objectivity even to begin to aspire to write.