Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
The Archangel Gabrielle chainsaw massacre
He cuts a modest figure beside the swanky champagne bar on St Pancras’s upper concourse. Shopping bag in one hand, overcoat flapping, the portly gent gazes intently skyward, struck by a sudden thought, or pigeon.
This is Betjeman, Britain’s revered ex-Poet Laureate. Yet it is not the laureate that Martin Jennings’s loveable bronze applauds but plain John Betjeman, poet, “who saved this glorious station”.
Betjeman’s long, impassioned battles to deliver then-unfashionable Victoriana from destruction weren’t always successful. The fight for London’s Greek-style Euston Arch, built 1837, had support from modernists Alison and Peter Smithson and legendary historian Sir John Summerson. But it fell to the 1962 prime ministerial directive that turned Euston Road into what Sir Terry Farrell now describes as “London’s most dreadful highway”.
The Euston Arch – not technically an arch at all but a huge and faithful Doric propylaeum, or entry (in this case to Euston Station and, through it, to regional Britain) – ended up as fill in the Lea River, near London’s 2012 Olympic site. And there it lay, hacked to pieces, until its 1996 rediscovery by the Betjeman-style TV historian Dan Cruickshank, who set up the Euston Arch Trust, in hope of having it rebuilt as part of next year’s Euston makeover.
Could it happen here? Could such a tale of passion and power, where the great and good rally to history’s defence, play on Sydney’s stage? Not likely, not now. Some think an outsize, bronze Jack Mundey might yet be warranted in The Rocks – not standing, lying down, the ratbag union longhair being carried off, feet first, by the coppers. Come along, sir, we don’t want any history-huggers round ‘ere, now do we, sir? Whack, biff, kapow. But now it’s starting to look like the Green Ban era, usually seen as the first delicate tendrils of Sydney’s heritage movement, may actually have been its fullest bloom.
Our heritage system has never, frankly, been one to write home about. But it has been a lot better than nothing, and it has been ours. The last 18 months’ depredations, however, have whittled these small virtues to almost nothing.
First, there was the infamous shoving-in of Part 3A into the Planning Act, effectively exempting from the Heritage Act anything deemed State Significant – including huge private residential enclaves and shopping malls. Then came the absorption of the Heritage Office into the Department of Planning and last year’s Planning Act review, which treats the whole of planning as the process of lubricating development, and heritage as a mere “obstacle” (official word), a lump in the KY.
Next, the more secretive series of changes that may yet be known as the Archangel Amendments. These are the Heritage Act review, chaired by Gabrielle Kibble; the re-sorting of the Heritage Council, to be chaired by Gabrielle Kibble; and the evisceration of the Heritage Office that serves said council, to sit under Gabrielle Kibble. Archangel Gabrielle.
Biblically speaking, you recall, the Archangel Gabriel was both annunciator and destroyer. In Christianity and Islam, Gabriel brings glad tidings (like the divine pregnancy; Easter’s upside). But in the Talmud, Gabriel is the assassin, sent to waste the sin-cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the armies of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, “with a sharpened scythe which had been ready since Creation”.
The Archangel Amendments draw more on Gabriel’s dark side. Annunciation isn’t in it. The Kibble Heritage Act Review did not consult either profession or community; sat, bound in secrecy, for months on the minister’s desk and now recommends more power to owners, less to the public, in the listing process.
Further, for the body that recommended the entire Currawong site for listing, the Kibble review sees “considerable merit” in the Heritage Council losing all its ex-officio members, including the National Trust, the Royal Australian Historical Society, the Heritage Office Director, the Government Architect, the Department of Environment and Climate Change and Unions NSW to “skills based” ministerial appointments.
Of course, it mightn’t matter if there’s no longer any independent heritage assessment in this state. It mightn’t matter that our new heritage chief, Kibble, has a public history with heritage you can only see with a microscope. Or that all heritage planners now answer to a minister who, as lord mayor, was known for reducing heritage planners to tears.
It mightn’t matter that it was Kibble who, as director of planning, devolved heritage to local government, and she who now sledges their handling of it. Or even that the minister dismisses scholars and lovers of heritage as the madly dangerous “heritage mafia,” treating heritage itself as a fly (dead) for assiduous plucking from the planning ointment. Deep down, though, we know it does matter. We know you don’t accumulate topsoil by constantly pulping the trees that hold it, however tempting the yield. That the million people considering emigrating from NSW are not repelled by excess culture. That the “green light” Askin era came this close to flattening our most precious inner-city precincts.
So perhaps it wasn’t a pigeon, catching Betjeman’s eye, but the fearsome Archangel, sharpening her scythe. Preparing to make heritage history.