LAST week, I was told in no uncertain terms that only a born and bred anarchist like myself could have a bad word to say about the Tidy Towns competition. I was taken aback, I have to say. I hadn’t said a word – good, bad or indifferent – about the Tidy Towns, the judging of which is now in full spate. All I had done was to express reservations about the annual invasion of giant hybrid petunias – genetically modified I suspect – sprouting on their slow-release fertiliser, in hanging baskets on village streets and ancient bridges all over the country, trying to define our identity.
“If those plants ever escaped from their moss-lined baskets, they’d take over the country in a flash, like the giant hogweed a few years back,” I warned. And just in case anyone still considered them harmless, I told them that the petunia is a native of South America, where some of the most seductive flora wouldn’t think twice about swallowing you whole. As well as that, they are closely related to the infamous tobacco plant. My new found botanical expertise, however, fell flat in the face of the ebullient gaudiness of the hanging baskets.
Even Bertie Ahern fell for their charms, but that doesn’t say that the rest of us have to follow suit. The Tidy Towns promoters are adamant that this is not what the competition is about. There’s a lot more to the Tidy Towns than hanging baskets, like community involvement, landscaping, streetscapes, wild life habitats, sustainable waste management and litter control. They said it themselves some while back. The last thing in the world they’d want to encourage is village cloning. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, they continue to award the top prizes to the towns and villages whose facades have been suitably stripped of jarring eccentricities and whose petunias shout the loudest. The village with the jolliest patch of native yellow dandelions, growing in glorious abandon and gaily defying decay and desolation as well as conformity, never gets a look in – not even for originality.
Anyway, who am I, with my cluttered life, to criticise the Tidy Towns? I’m certainly no Albert Einstein, who when told that a cluttered desk was a sign of a cluttered mind, asked “What does an empty desk suggest then?” The Tidy Towns has been running successfully for 38 years now and has transformed the country’s urban landscape. Now it is being extended into the countryside where tidy stretches of road are being groomed to challenge the natural disorder of Mother Nature. Thankfully, so far anyway, nobody has tried to hang a basket of flowers on the clipped hedgerows. The Tidy Towns competition has captured the imagination of the nation – even the most slovenly imagination – and has fed into our unquestionable pride of place. It has in fact become a sacred cow that nobody in his or her right mind would dream of criticising – unless it happened that your village, after putting in a superhuman effort, came last in the judging.
But after nearly four decades, surely it’s time now to reassess what makes any centre, big or small, a prizewinning tidy town. One of the biggest disappointments for me – apart from the proliferation of hanging baskets filled with hardy annuals – was the virtual ignoring by the Tidy Towns judges of the desecration of small villages and the erosion of whatever character they possessed by the construction of vast housing estates on their shoulders during the boom. Surely that was an opportunity to make a statement on how best to tidy up the changing face of village and small town life?
As the outskirts mushroomed, the centres of such towns and villages were slowly dying as shops went out of business and people sought employment elsewhere. Naturally some buildings on once thriving main streets became dilapidated eyesores. The Tidy Town judges’ answer to such dereliction was to encourage local organisations to camouflage the unsightly edifices with timber, and paint in fake windows and doors to make it look as if they were still inhabited. In one village I know, the enthusiasm was so intense that they even painted a fake cat sitting inside a fake window.
Not for one moment would I question the fact that the Tidy Towns’ campaign did change the mindset of a nation of litterbugs to a large extent; that it did help remove some of the drabness from our lives and that it fostered a new spirit of co-operation and involvement in communities up and down the country. Sometimes, however, I long for a bit of restraint with the hanging baskets and for the restoration of some of our own native quaintness and eccentricity. And sometimes, too, when I see volunteers out on Monday mornings cleaning up the litter left by Sunday night revellers in some of the tidiest centres in the country, I can’t help wondering if we’re not camouflaging a lot more than our dereliction.