BOOK REVIEW / I spy: looting and villaging: 'Childerley: Nature and Morality in A Country Village' Michael Mayerfeld Bell: University of Chicago, 25.95 pounds: Jonathan Keates on an unusual and beguiling slice of life ina atypical English village

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Except on those occasions when they don bizarre uniforms and silly hats, in connection with rituals involving royalty, public schools and the clergy, the English do not greatly enjoy being looked at. The net curtain, the privet hedge, the high garden wall, those profound ethnic denominators, all say something about our national horror of other people's curiosity; they also foster the assumption of a basic right to indulge our own whenever it suits us. Walls are built for snooping over, curtains for peering behind, but the illusion of privacy needs at all costs to be sustained.

Perhaps this explains something of the frisson which native-born readers will experience on opening Michael Mayerfeld Bell's book. A mild feeling of 'the bastard, how dare he?' overtakes us at the thought of an American sociologist using a modern Hampshire village as raw material for his field study. This sort of thing, we tell ourselves, is all very well in New Guinea, the Cameroons or one of the less evolved corners of southern Europe. Couldn't he have sought out somewhere closer to home? This isn't even New Hampshire, for Christ's sake.

As an archetype, of course, the choice is perfect, a chunk of Tory heartland, commuterish without being too obviously suburban. Volvos nudge muckspreaders amid Euro-agribiz surrounding 'sensitive' conversions of the sort advertised, with quaint verbal redundancy, as 'standing in their own grounds' among those mouthwatering introductory pages of Country Life.

Bell has the grace to explain to the natives what exactly he is doing with them and tries now and then to show them the various connecting links of his thesis. In return, they reward him by being themselves, often with a degree of authenticity which English readers will find positively chilling.

Childerley - not its real name - is unselfconsciously hierarchical. Its two pubs, the Horse and Hound, with its oak-beamed ceilings and real ale, and the Fox, which is louche and plastic and has a jukebox, preserve distinctions as great as the profound difference (and this one wows Bell so much that he devotes an entire chapter to it) between those who knock at the back door of your cottage and those who rap imperiously at the front.

The back-door folk, buying rounds in the Fox and ostentatiously not joining the Women's Institute because 'it's all rich ladies who have nothing better to do than be catty with each other' are predictably envious and resentful, while the front-doors come over as blithely paternalistic: 'I love working with the working class. They're much more direct, like children.'

If Bell were not assistant professor of sociology at Iowa State University, some of us might prefer to believe that he'd made up statements like this one, attributed to an affluent local farmer. The true snobbery he identifies, however, is a less easily identifiable one, cutting across social categories in search of 'real country people' who will eat jugged rabbit, can tell green wheat from young barley and don't throw away their brussels sprout tops.

What binds these indigenes and aboriginals, from Colonel Spreadbury up at the hall to Abel Harrowell in his tied cottage, together with the townies and incomers - at least according to Bell - is a concept of wild nature as the ultimate value system, 'a compelling basis for grounding the self'.

There is something touching, through its sheer incongruity, in the endurance, among darts competitions, pheasant shoots and paintball wargames, of this Rousseauesque concept of pastoral as a refuge from such menacing social eroders as hunt saboteurs and speculative developers.

However hard he tries to sustain the detachment appropriate to the academic researcher busy in his field, the author from time to time seems harmlessly seduced by his own vision of English ruralism.

To many of us natives, Childerley and its values will be dismally familiar embodiments of our current social sclerosis. Under these village voices, at one end kvetching about money and privilege, yet always deferential and knowing their place, at the other making aggressive noises in defence of vaguely defined 'values' and 'traditions', sounds the steady hum of a terrible acquiescent passivity which increasing numbers of us long to disturb.