Thursday, 27 October 2011

Oh, he lives in a house, a very big house in the country…

I woke up this morning to hear a discussion between the editor of Country Life ('The Home of Premium Property', which tells you all you need to know) and an 'urban birder', about the British attitude towards the countryside. According to Mr. Hedges (nominative determinism in action?), 'everyone' wants to live in the countryside, because it's a paradise. He made this point repeatedly.

It's the word 'everyone' that really annoyed me. It assumed that 'everyone' is middle or upper class, white, and  I don't know if you're familiar with Country Life. My father used to buy it occasionally (generations of Irish land dispossession, often at the hands of the Country Life readership, promotes land avarice). It's a form of pornography for the middle classes. The first 100 pages are estate agent adverts featuring obscenely large houses in the £1m+ range. The next 100 are for antique auctions. Then there's the 'posh totty' equivalent of Page Three: a titled and eligible young lady, usually holding a horse's bridle, posed outside her parents' Regency mansion. The rest of the magazine is devoted to stories about hunting, choosing a helicopter for the school run, and favoured methods for beating your servants.

Back in the real world, Mr. Hedges' claims are deeply dubious. Firstly, 'everyone' fled the countryside back in the 18th-19th centuries. Certainly many were dispossessed by his subscribers' ancestors, but millions were eager to head off to the colonies or to the cities. Rather than being tied to exploitative rural rents, subject to the rapacity of the rackrent aristocracy, they sought work and solidarity in the factories: still exploited, but better than hacking frozen turnips out of the soil in December. Life was cheaper and arguably better in the cities. They weren't all scrumping apples and making corn dollies. People starved to death in the countryside in their millions.

Secondly, the Country Life version of the countryside - shooting, country fairs, Young Farmers' Balls - is a completely artificial fantasy generated by the aristocracy and sold to the Russian oligarchs and criminal bankers who are the only people with the cash to actually live this lifestyle. They can dress up in Barbour, customise their Range Rovers, buy a title with a coat of arms and a pair of Holland and Hollands, and pretend they're from ancient stock.

The real countryside has no squires, hunting pinks and tugged forelocks. The countryside is largely a green desert, drenched in pesticides and owned by massive offshore tax-evading corporations who fund their destruction of the environment by (sometimes fraudulently) playing the EU Common Agricultural Policy subsidy system. There are no apple-cheeked milkmaids and wise old farmers: most of the actual farming is done by contractors moving from estate to estate. Despite TV and other media portraying the countryside as a jungle of flora and fauna, the so-called guardians of rurality have presided over the most massive program of extinction this planet has ever seen. Farmers and landowners generally despise wildlife: if it's not subsidised, they'll shoot it, hence the current plan to slaughter every badger in the country. Our rivers are poisoned and our animals are dying: and we're paying for this.

There's no peasantry either. Every 'Cottage' or 'Barn' round my mother's house is occupied by a doctor, a lawyer or a dentist. The actual farm workers live in council houses in the city, because property prices have driven them out. It's a theme park for faux-nostalgia, sold by peddlers of property porn such as Move to the Country, Location, Location, Location and Country Life, whose readership is strongly concentrated in Chelsea and other urban ghettos of privilege. I lived in Shropshire for years, and get out into the countryside as often as I can. One of the things that makes me most angry is the exclusion of all but the super-rich from the county from their playground, and from much of Britain's rural space, bar the most marginal land. I'm from there. I'd like to go back there: but I cannot stand this mimsy pretence that the countryside is a green theme park.

Is it getting better? Of course not. One of the nasty little things this government has just done is abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board. It was set up to protect farm workers, because the isolated nature of their work made it easy to underpay and overwork them: collective action is almost impossible on a farm. But the Tory Scum have decided that rural workers can sink like the rest. How very petty.

Bring back the spirit of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, of Gerrard Winstanley and Woody Guthrie. This Land Is Our Land!

I'll end with a few lines of Oliver Goldsmith's bitter, sad poem about rural devastation, 'The Deserted Village': note that the bittern and the lapwing are virtually extinct.

Sweet smiling village, loveliest of the lawn,
Thy sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn;
Amidst thy bowers the tyrant's hand is seen,
And Desolation saddens all thy green:
One only master grasps the whole domain,
And half a tillage stints thy smiling plain.
No more thy glassy brook reflects the day,
But, choked with sedges, works its weedy way;
Along thy glades, a solitary guest,
The hollow-sounding bittern guards its nest;
Amidst thy desert walks the lapwing flies,
And tires their echoes with unvaried cries:
Sunk are thy bowers in shapeless ruin all,
And the long grass o'ertops the mouldering wall
And, trembling, shrinking from the spoiler's hand,
Far, far away thy children leave the land.

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made:
But a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
When once destroy'd, can never be supplied.

But times are alter'd; Trade's unfeeling train
Usurp the land, and dispossess the swain;
Along the lawn, where scatter'd hamlets rose,
Unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp repose;
And every want to luxury allied,
And every pang that folly pays to pride.

No comments: