A couple of years ago, a man asked me a question that has stuck in my mind ever since. He wondered what value the word “noble” might have in the 21st century. What did I think?
I was gripped, because “noble” seems to me to be a wonderful thing to aim for. But it also sounds incredibly old-fashioned. Could we ever reclaim it?
The man’s name was Grahame Hindes. He was (and is) chief executive of a housing association named after the great Victorian, Octavia Hill. Hill was co-founder of the National Trust, a valiant preserver of green spaces in cities, and a pioneer in social housing when, in 1865, she persuaded John Ruskin to buy two properties in Marylebone, London, to house the poor.
Grahame was wondering how to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Hill’s entry into social housing, and he had been struck by a quote in one of her letters – the quote at the top of this page.
He wondered what relevance the phrase has today – and to find out, he started asking people. A wide variety of people. And now he has published the responses in a handsome book.
Some of the people he asked are very well known: the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the writer Alain de Botton, the artist Grayson Perry, the businesswoman Deborah Meaden, politicians Alan Johnson and Michael Howard, the campaigner Shami Chakrabarti, the performer Tamsin Greig (pictured) and journalists Cathy Newman, Ian Hislop and Simon Jenkins, as well as senior lawyers and professors well known in their own field.
But most importantly Grahame and his team at Octavia asked residents in their properties (including one, Eileen, pictured here with Hislop), and members of staff, and people who work alongside them in related organisations or as volunteers.
The result is an eclectic compendium of wisdom about what it means to be a human, and particularly about how and where we live. There are literary essays, Q&As, stories of personal transformation and a number of startling facts. (I should note that I too am a contributor. My bit is a short comic strip.)
Some of the contributors are plainly attracted to the inspiring example of Octavia Hill, her many remarkable achievements and her progressive ideas. But others are sceptical, pointing attention to real problems in the way she saw the world, how she operated, and how very profoundly things are different now. (By no means always for the better.)
Like many anthologies, this is a book I can flick through again and again in search of something that might startle, provoke or confirm my own ideas.
Grahame’s team at Octavia has brilliantly pulled off something they don’t usually do: producing a book. Not only because the contents are good, but because the book itself is well made. The design is elegant, and the pages are stitch-bound, rather than cheaply glued at the spine like too many books today. I can only imagine that the same attention goes into Octavia’s housing stock (though that’s more than I know).