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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 17th June 2011
It’s both fascinating and instructive to look back at examination papers from former years – and what better time to do it that at this time of the year, when public exams are taking place?

A book of 1979 Special Papers – those extra examinations taken by the most able A-level students to test their ability to think and argue outside the narrow limits of the A-level curriculum and to support university (mostly Oxbridge) entrance – makes interesting reading. Not only does it pose questions that still make one think; it also opens a small window into the thinking of the late 1970s.

Thus, for example, students of Economics were asked, ‘What do you understand by the term “‘market failure”? Does its existence necessarily justify government intervention?’ – a question still relevant, perhaps! Others, taking the German paper, could follow the instruction, ‘Comparing the work of a West German writer with the work of an East German writer, indicate the main aspects of their respective attitudes towards society’ – this was 10 years before the Berlin Wall fell.

And the Geography paper asks candidate to ‘Discuss . . .the ways in which the water supply authorities in Britain have tackled the problems caused by a spatial disparity between the different locations of the areas of greatest demand and those of greatest natural supply’ – particularly topical today, though it would, perhaps, be expressed rather more straightforwardly.

And, of more immediate interest to this column the Art Special Paper asked some deep questions. Resisting the temptation to answer a question about why ‘corduroy and leather have both had an important impact on 1978-9 fashions’, two others clamour for attention.

‘Do you think that by studying buildings of the past we can gain a clear insight into the social conditions and habits of a particular time?’ is one. The other asks, ‘Does the fact that so many people seek to live in the more rural or semi-rural areas of these islands suggest that in some way towns and cities have “failed” visually (as well as, possibly, in other ways) as centres of life and population?’

One can picture the students sitting their exam halls, possibly clad in corduroy and leather, on Thursday 28 June 1979 and puzzling over the best ways to answer those questions.

Some of the answers to the first question may be obvious. We can look at the remaining examples of 19th-century working class housing and deduce from it how the people lived in it when it was built. We can look at rows of upper-middle-class terraces and see that they were built to reflect not only status but a strict morality.
And, of course, we can look at the great country houses of the land, and see exactly how extraordinarily well-structured such a society was; from the lord to the boot boy, everyone knew their place. It is perhaps no coincidence that this question was asked in 1979, the year after Mark Girouard’s important book ‘Life in the English Country House’ had opened our eyes to just how such buildings were really used, from the castles of the Middle Ages to the houses of the 1920s, just before the era of plentiful servants ended.

And what of the other question? In 1979 it might have seemed inevitable that there was a drift of people with sufficient money from the city to the countryside. They were seen to be escaping from the degradation of our city centres, which in the 60s and 70s had been going on apace.

Two other books of the 1970s attempted to draw attention to this. ‘Goodbye London’ by Christopher Booker and Candida Lycett Green, published in 1973, looked at the destruction of large numbers of London’s buildings and the disruption of the pattern of people’s lives.

The other, published two years later, ranged more widely. Provocatively entitled, ‘The Rape of Britain’, the book, by Colin Amery and Dan Cruikshank, examined in detail several towns and cities in England, including Huddersfield, Hull and Leeds, as well as some smaller places, more akin to Ripon, like Hereford, Wisbech and Truro. For each it showed the destruction threatened or taking place.

John Betjeman, in his foreword, warned, ‘If there is some street or old shop in the market square, dock, factory or warehouse, barn or garden wall which you have passed often and taken for granted, do not expect to see it still there next week. Because it is not listed, because it is of ‘no historic interest’, the bulldozers will be in and part of your background will be gone for ever.’

The bright S-level student would, perhaps, have been aware of these polemics, and quoted them as reasons for the flight to the countryside. Thirty years on, we still live, in part even in Ripon, with the consequences. The NatWest Bank on the Square and the new shops on the corner of Queen Street and Moss’s Arcade are examples of how things change – as is Marshall Way, which cut through some of the historic burgage plots of the city.

But, in a way that those students would not have anticipated, life has returned to our cities. People once more want to live in city centres, traffic planners have made efforts to remove the scourge of the car from narrow streets, and new houses and flats, new bars restaurants and places of entertainment have been created, certainly in our large and more progressive cities. It could happen in Ripon too – we are behind the curve on this.

So have cities ‘failed’ visually? In some places, yes, though we are now more ready to do something about that failure. In Ripon we are lucky to have preserved so much. Now we need to make the city as vital and valuable as possible. It can be done – and some of those students of 1979 may even be in a position to do it!

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