England and the Octopus

Ferguson’s Gang was galvanised into action by Clough Wiliams-Ellis’ book ‘England and The Octopus’. First published in 1928 it is an essay chastising the carving up of countryside through ribbon developments and a call to arms that helped pave the way for subsequent planning and conservation acts.

The language is wonderfully theatrical and dramatic:

“you may ravish and defile the most divine landscape in the world, and your children will rise up and call you progressive. You are a “lucky prospector” or a “successful real estate operator” or a “live wire” and what local newspapers call “a prominent and respected citizen”.

and the structure of the essays has theatrical qualities. Talking about good architecture, he asks questions of a building:

“are you practical…are you an efficient house, shop or school…Are you beautiful, or did you seem so to those who built you?…..Are you a good neighbour, Do you do-as-you-would-be-done-by?”

Most striking of all, is how relevant the text is today, and although he was writing about conservation, much of his questions and rants fit perfectly within the themes surrounding our current housing crisis. He champions the garden city and all it stands for. Talks highly of community owned developments and puts down dollar driven housebuilding that puts profit before people and environment.

Much of the text is dated and is fun to look back at how someone might be disgusted by ‘modern bungalows’ and houses that we would now see as beautiful and charming, but the call to arms, the trust of the book is so modern and relevant that it breeds excitement to me as a theatre-maker, but sadness at how little we have moved on.

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