Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Art of Tea

Few political battles rage more fiercely than those we fight to protect what is close and dear to us. Even so, the public outcry over developer Hugh Scott's plans for Glasgow's Otago Lane has been remarkable in its size and volume. The campaign to protect the lane, bringing together people of all ages and backgrounds, has raged for three years. Today, despite all that - and in defiance of its own planning regulations - Glasgow City Council's planning committee voted to let the development go ahead. Some have said that the machinations around this recall Sun Tzu's The Art Of War. Yet there is another tradition perhaps more pertinent - perhaps more worrying for those who have betrayed their voters - and that is the art of tea.

A philosophy expounded by numerous eastern cultures, known in China as cha yi, the art of tea is centred on an understanding that there is more to the human experience than the material. It has an aesthetic aspect and a political one. Understanding the art of tea - or seeking to understand it - is vital to understanding how human affairs change and develop, and how certain ideas come to dominate, once we step beyond the battlefield.

“In the small [tea] room, it is desirable for every utensil to be less than adequate. There are those who dislike a piece when it is even slightly damaged; such an attitude shows a complete lack of comprehension,” said the tea master Sen no Rikyū (according to the Nampōroku). He could be providing a literal description of Tchai Ovna, the tea house at the centre of the lane, as he sums up very neatly the historic appeal of the area. He could also be summing up the blunder that the planning committee has made - that failure to comprehend what, in his native Japan, is called wabi - the aesthetics of imperfection. A generous observer might say that the councillors have been dazzled by an image of gleaming modern development. They have failed to understand what the lane means to people and why, sometimes, our imperfect heritage is more valuable than the slick and slippery.

Slippery, in this case, is also a term that has literal implications. The proposed site on the end of this small, historic lane is on the banks of the Kelvin River. It is a notorious slip zone. One architect has already said privately that he does not expect any new building constructed there, in accordance with the specifications outlined in Scott's proposal, to last for more than twelve years before it begins to slide dangerously into the water. If we run the numbers, we see that this is unlikely to bother Scott, who will have made a tidy profit by then, but it should bother the council and the local people, who will be left with the job of cleaning up the mess.

Some argue that this shouldn't matter - Glasgow needs new homes, urgently. Well, yes, but that's like saying that the world needs fewer children and eliding the inability of some countries to cope with the economic pressure of shrinking their populations too fast. Glasgow needs affordable homes and it needs them in underdeveloped areas. Luxury flats in areas whose infrastructure is already struggling to cope with population pressure are not a solution. They will do nothing to help the poor and they will do nothing to help revitalise those parts of the city that are struggling.

There are so many practical problems with this development that it would be impossible to go into them all in depth here. Alongside the damage to the city's heritage and the pressure the development will put on the lane's small businesses are major public safety issues around traffic - drivers use the surrounding streets as a shortcut between major thoroughfares, and there is a school just across the road, so the last thing it needs is more cars. There are also issues for the natural environment - the riverbank is an important wildlife corridor connecting parks. Without routes like this, animal populations become isolated and are damaged by inbreeding, with serious implications for conservation. The city planning regulations clearly state that all these issues should be cause for concern, so when they are ignored we should quiet our battle cries, sip our tea, and ponder what is going on.

At this stage it would appear that all those who voted in favour of the development are Labour councillors. The problems caused by Labour's grip on the council - and its sense of entitlement in that regard - are legendary and, again, difficult to go into in depth here, but suffice to say that many members of said party regret that influence of certain individuals in that context. At its heart, this isn't about party politics - we see the same issues come up in any number of areas where one group has achieved lasting dominance. It is about a group of people who have lost any sense of relationship with ordinary voters, to the point where they might easily be swayed by other interests.

Many had hoped that the shock Labour got at the last council election, when it briefly seemed they might lose overall control, might precipitate a shift in attitudes. Instead, a last minute surge in support (surely nothing to do with the city having now given permission for twenty two annual Orange marches) not only secured them but seemingly increased their audacity. Although campaigners plan to mount a legal challenge to today's decision, the councillors involved will no doubt feel secure in having had the last word. They have, for the time being at least, secured the ground. People are beginning to discuss when they should go for their last cup of Tchai Ovna tea.*

What has been missed, as so often, is the significance of the immaterial, of the lingering feelings this has set within those who feel that they have been betrayed. Those feelings are likely to lead to more than just legal contestation. They will entrench in a significant portion of the population a suspicion about council decisions that will last, that will spread, that will inform the investigation of planning matters across the city. From now on, everything those councillors do will be watched. They may come to regret their easy dismissal of the humble tea-drinker.

*The planning proposals would allow Tchai Ovna to remain open, but a probable decrease in custom whilst it is surrounded by construction work means its survival is still in jeopardy.

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