Final Bell: protestors at Harmondsworth in 2007 when it was under threat of being bulldozed for a Heathrow third runway. (Photo: Getty)
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Will Self: A field trip to Heathrow via Harmondsworth Great Barn

A picturesque anomaly near the airport, ever waiting to be submerged by the tarmac of runway three.

It’s a blustery grey day on top of the short-stay car park at Heathrow Central. Down below us the new Terminal 2 building is taking shape in a series of steely whale ribs and arabesques. It doesn’t look like it will turn out to be anything much, but then nothing in the built environment nowadays looks like anything much; or, rather, it all looks like too much – too much airy embellishment, too many wave-form roofs, too many great expanses of curved glass parametrically wrapped around hideous atria. At least Heathrow has this solid virtue: it’s an almost historic airport that has been subjected to over half a century of chopping, changing and concrete-pouring, so that its ugly hugger-mugger of buildings replicates the very disorder of the unplanned metropolis it was never properly designed to serve.

Heathrow is the fons et origo of British spatiality. It was here in 1784 that Captain William Roy measured out a baseline that became the starting point for all subsequent trigonometric surveys of the country. These grew in the years following his death to become the Ordnance Survey. Note the “ordnance” – Roy’s mapping was for military purposes, and really our commonsensical internalised sense of rational, three-dimensional space relates to the ballistics of death-metal.

At either end of Roy’s baseline stands a memorial cannon, and not far from the one in Heathrow (the other end of the line is at Hampton) is the café frequented by London cabbies doing the airport run. There’s a nice circularity to it, all those cab drivers with their posterior hippocampus enlarged by sopping up the exhaustive Knowledge of the capital’s streets and public buildings, homing in day after day on this: the point at which accurate mapping began.

We’d set our sights on Heathrow because, for the second year in succession, I was taking a group of my psychogeography students to visit the Great Barn at Harmondsworth, then walk back from there, through the watery edgelands to our campus near Uxbridge. We like to think that space is a predetermined category into which objects fit, just as events can be slotted inside incremental time – but of course this is the kind of nonsense we psychically resist the whole time. The psychoanalyst manqué Adam Phillips asserts: “All of us may be surrealists in our dreams, but in our worries we are incorrigibly bourgeois.” To which I would add: all of us may be Newtonian in our daily go-round of calibrating time, distance and money, but in our minds we are transcendent disciples of Einstein.

The problem is to actualise this innate grasp we have of the relativity of space-time, and to that end I lead the students down off the car-park roof and on to the U3 bus, which chugs back through the tunnel under the runway and drops us on the peripheral road. A short walk across a dormant field and we’re in the village of Harmondsworth. This picturesque little anomaly, with its flinty church and whitewashed pub, has long been under threat of submersion beneath a third Heathrow runway – a threat that, though temporarily lifted, still hangs in the sky overhead, like a cloud of tarmac in suspension, waiting to pour down and heat-seal a new Pompeii. We liaise with Justine Bayley, a local resident and one of the leading lights of Friends of the Great Barn, who has agreed to show us round.

The Great Barn was built in the early 1500s and is the largest timber-framed building in England. John Betjeman, in between calling for air strikes on Slough, described it as the “Cathedral of Middlesex”. The barn’s history recapitulates the sorry deterritorialising tale of our property rights. Built by a religious foundation – Winchester School – it was briefly in royal ownership, and then passed through the hands of only three families over the next half-millennium; it was still actively used for its original agricultural purpose as late as the 1970s. However, in recent years, property speculators bought up the barn, bargaining on a profit to be gained from its compulsory purchase in the event of the government deciding to build runway three. It languished until English Heritage managed to acquire it – but what they’re going to do when the ’dozers come a’rolling is anyone’s guess.

The barn is a beautiful structure that looks like very little. Its oaken pillars and mighty trusses instantiate a unity of form and function that endured through time because the productive basis of its spatiality remained unchanged: the sheaves of wheat that were piled along the earthen floor of its nave; wheat that was harvested where Airbuses now bombinate. Not, I hasten to add, that I bring my students here out of nostalgia for a time and mode of production that none of us ever knew – my aims are as contemporary as those of any Gate Gourmet worker stirring up a mess of airline pottage in a steel barn. By getting my students to use their own bodies to mediate between these two very different spaces, I hope to detach them from the man-machine matrix that keeps us all calculating our mileage allowance, rather than simply wandering through the world.

Three hours later when, muddy and footsore, they stagger back to the university, I think I can spy just such an epiphanic consciousness flickering in their young faces – but then again it could be just me who’s hopelessly spaced-out.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.