As I mentioned in this column last week, I recently spent a little time at the Conservative Conference in Manchester, partly signing copies of a book I have recently published and partly doing some broadcasting.
It was very noticeable just how many splendid new buildings have sprung up in Manchester over the past couple of years since I was last there – and how transformed the centre of the city is looking, with grand public spaces and renovated 19th Century buildings. There is a way to go yet before this great northern city recaptures fully the splendours of its past – but it is hugely encouraging to see it making such strides in that direction. I have no doubt that the high speed railway and the very considerable other investments in rail and road links to and around the north of England will bring more industry, commerce and cultural activity to a part of our country that once played a major role not just in our national affairs but in the commerce and culture of the whole world.
Quite apart from the delight of seeing a great British city moving back to prosperity, we have a more parochial interest in all of this in West Dorset – since one of the effects of the imbalance between south and north has been to put excessive pressure on the housing market in the south of England. It’s very good to see splendid town-centre developments in Dorchester, bringing new life to our county town; and it’s good, too, that transport links to the south west are being dramatically improved with the dualling of the A303. But we all know that there are limits to what the countryside and the infrastructure of southern England will bear. And we, as much as northerners themselves, need the north to be an attractive place to work and live.
But it wasn’t only reflections on the social and economic demography of our country that arose from my trip to Manchester.
As I was sitting signing books and talking to people who were buying them either from the bookshop or on the internet, I reflected on the extraordinary fact that, notwithstanding all the modern technologies, we have recently seen a considerable increase in the sales of traditional, printed books.
Just as the old vinyl records are coming back into fashion, the lovely printed book which you can hold in your hands, and which you can navigate with such consummate ease before storing it in a bookshelf that will enhance any room, is becoming more and more fashionable. The new technologies, instead of defeating the book, are helping to sell it to a wider audience.
West Dorset is playing its part in all this, with more literary festivals per head of population than just about any other part of England.
I find this at least as encouraging as the regeneration of the north of our country.
Our economy and the beauty of our environment (including the buildings that form such an important part of it), matter to all of us. But so, too, does our culture – if the literary festivals are anything to go by (not to mention all the music drama and other arts), the cultural vitality of West Dorset is enormous.