Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Perth: chipping away at a little freedom.

The Scottish city of Perth has many small passageways and thoroughfares called vennels. This is a Scots word, etymologically akin to the word ginnel in dialects of Northern English, which has the same meaning of a narrow alleyway between town streets. One of Perth’s vennels, Meal Vennel, will not exist much longer if vested interest had its way. It’s disappearance will erode and show general contempt for a particular freedom. Let me explain.
Meal Vennel still exists, though not as it once was – a not very salubrious passage between South Street and High Street, too narrow for a car, and where in places the buildings met above. Now one approaches it from South Street via a wide, rather dark, paved space about the size of a shop*. At the top of a ramp one can either branch right through the back door of HMV, a retailer of DVDs and CDs, or left through the River Island clothing store, the route which follows more directly the historical line of the vennel. Once through the men’s department of River Island, one emerges via their front door into St John’s Precinct, an indoor shopping ‘mall’. Dodging the seats and tables of BB’s café, one then carries on through the Precinct, and out through automatic doors into the High Street.
I walked this route yesterday on several errands. People’s passing along this route is tolerated because it may bring passing trade to the various retail premises – even I have occasionally bought a DVD from HMV, a milk shake from BBs, or a birthday card from Clintons.
St John’s Precinct replaced Meal Vennel and a 1960s development comparatively recently: “[the vennel] was destroyed courtesy of Perth Town Council. A property developer wished to flatten the area between High St and South St to build a shopping mall. Local people protested as Meal Vennel – a public road and right of way – was to be flattened and was to disappear. The wishes of the populace were ignored with the explanation that access on the line of Meal Vennel [would] still be available by progressing from High Street via the Mall's main entrance, and then via the front and rear doors of a certain gent's outfitter. The Mall was built! Local people still exercise their right to walk between High St and South St via the gent's outfitter - an ongoing protest.”**
According to a headline in yesterday’s local newspaper, now even the virtual existence of Meal Vennel as a thoroughfare is threatened. The paved space between the Post Office and the Royal Bank of Scotland is due to be filled with yet another retail unit, and one which will not share a back door with River Island. No doubt the Local Authority will approve this, and say that access between the High Street and South Street will still be possible via a dog-leg route between the High Street entrance of St John’s Precinct and an entrance further down South Street; any protest would made to appear petty.
However, the principle here is that corporate and commercial interest will have won, at the expense of a freedom which is not public, not individual, but communal. The right to pass unimpeded between two places is something we share, though it is protected by no law and by no legal ‘ownership’, it is a societal thing, it is something in which we are a community. It is a long time since any such concept was at the forefront of legal or political thinking – if it ever was!
Everything in Western, capitalist, statist society is owned. If it is not in private hands it is in public hands, and ‘public’ ownership is just another kind of private ownership. The ‘Occupy’ movement(s) found this out when they tried to exercise the right to peaceful assembly. Oh yes you are free to assemble, until the moment until you try to make decisions about things, then someone in authority will find a law which says you must be moved on.***
It is important that we realise the corrosive nature of things like the blotting out of Meal Vennel. It is only a small matter, but until we begin to recognize things which are of communal value we will allow our freedom, which is already severely curtailed, to dissolve in the acid of corporate and commercial power.****
I would like to be able to address the Planning Committee of Perth and Kinross Council (I have no legal right to do so – after all, I only work in Perth, I’m not a constituent), I’d like to be able to address a board meeting of the developers (impossible – all corporate and commercial decisions are made in private with no public right of access – freedom? Ha!). I’d like to ask if any of them go to church on Sundays, and if they have ever heard of the concept of having all things in common.***** I’d like to stand up, point my finger, and shout “Thief!”. You can bet if I tried to do any of this it wouldn’t be long before I was strongarmed out of their presence by security personnel or police.
I would like to believe that if you are reading this you are starting to think about these principles.
* The paved space, by the way, does not even look as open as in the photo. It is currently full of boxed-off scaffolding as work of some nature is being done, though it is still possible to walk through the middle of the space.
** Perth History http://www.perthshire.thehighlands.co.uk/perth/perthhistry.htm
*** I am sure that the Occupy movement still exists and still functions in some way, but I forgot to mention another more subtle way of combating communal action – drop it from the headlines and from the nightly TV news.
**** Yes, I know we believe that we live in a free society, and indeed there is a remarkable amount of personal license granted. I deliberately say ‘granted’, because the people who hold the reins of political and commercial power are interested not in our freedom, beyond the exercise of choosing what to buy, but our acquiescence in their vision of ‘order’. Argue if you wish, you’ll find yourself on quicksand.
***** Acts 4:32 (King James Version). Look it up, it’s interesting, particularly if you are one of these people who thinks that Christianity and conservative politics are joined at the hip.