Researchers have recently revealed some surprising statistics: the percentage of England’s total landmass that has been “concreted over” (or built on), is a mere 2.27%. When asked to guess the figure, however, most people imagine it to be closer to 50%. The reason for our collective misconception could be that 80% of us actually live in urban environments so we see a lot of concrete every day. Notwithstanding that, I have just been to Lincolnshire, a county renowned for its vast, flat expanses of sparsely populated farmland. My brother-in-law, who has lived there all his life, was driving us across this landscape when I decided to ask him the question: “What percentage of England’s landmass has been built on?” He thought for a moment before replying, “I would say, about 60%.” Perception, it seems, outflanks reality – a lesson we need to re-learn constantly.
Later, I left Lincolnshire by a very small train from a quite big village and, while waiting on the station’s windswept platform, concluded that rural trains are used only by people who either cannot or will not drive the long distances between amenities. My theory was soon validated by interaction with the two other passengers waiting. One of them, a young man I had previously encountered and know to be mentally disturbed, is not licensed to drive. The other, a young woman who smiled and said hello, explained to me that she was travelling by train because her car was broken. She also told me a lot of other stuff: her occupation, her qualifications, where she lives, her boyfriend’s details, where he lives, where she was going, what her hopes were for the future etc. (A new car was on her list). I had thought, at first, she wanted just to pass the time in polite conversation while waiting for the train but, by the time it arrived, I was more than ready to wish her bon voyage and seek a seat on my own. There I pondered whether she was a genuinely open and friendly person, an unfortunate patient on prescribed happiness medication, or a plain, old-fashion speed-freak.
At the next stop, she disembarked (to meet her mother, who was leaving work early so they could go shopping together...) and my thoughts were distracted by a newcomer to the carriage – a transvestite. I was a little surprised: I am used to seeing transvestites in the city but assume they are rarer on rural public transport. It would have been interesting to find out more about this person but, unfortunately, they reeked so badly of urine that the voluntary proximity which might have led to a conversation was out of the question. Instead, I opened the window and resorted to speculation until we reached the mainline station and I transferred to the London train.
In London, the 50% estimate seems very low – even allowing for the gardens and parks that compensate for the concrete. But I had little time for statistical evaluation: mine was a brief visit, though it did include a visit to Tate Britain to see Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures. I have long been intrigued by her work – solid castings of the spaces inside buildings and underneath objects such as chairs – though seeing so much of it in one place did break the spell. I liked more her project of placing castings of garden sheds in the great outdoors, where they seem to sit well in their ramshackle glory. I do have reservations about the one in the Mojave Desert, however. What if some desperate, lost wanderer should spy it from a distance and mistake it for shelter? The last thing they would want to see would be an art installation that confounds reality with perception.