Country: Modern times and rural tragedy

Country Matters
Click to follow
Heading for home with my dog at the end of our morning walk, I turned off the lane on to a track that cuts diagonally down through the wood. Fifty yards into the trees stood a battered red car. Any vehicle out of place in the country at once arouses suspicion, and immediately I thought, "Possibly a courting couple - but not likely at this time of day: more probably a stolen car, or someone committing suicide".

The track is narrow, and to pass the car I had to walk very close to it. Peering in, I saw a man of maybe 30 years of age, slim and pale, lying on his right side in the driver's seat. Dead? No - his chest was moving in and out. I concluded that he was sleeping off a late-night drinking bout, and walked on, not wanting to disturb him.

Later in the morning one detail began to worry me. The night had been warm, the day even warmer, but all the car's windows had been tight shut. The more I thought about it, the more uneasy I became, and before lunch I drove back up the hill. The vehicle was still there. The driver had not moved an inch. When I banged on the window, he stirred slightly but didn't open his eyes. He had locked both doors, but luckily not the tailgate.

I opened that, scrambled over the rear seat, released the front door catches, shook him and shouted, "Hey! What's up with you?" All he could do was groan.

The inside of the car was an absolute tip - empty cigarette packets, filthy clothes, paper bags, plastic bottles. Between the front seats was a mass of empty prescription bottles and silver-foil trays that had held pharmaceutical tablets. On the passenger's seat lay two suicide notes, scribbled in pencil on opened-out drug packets. One was to his parents, one to his best friend.

"Listen," I said, shaking him again. "I'm getting help. Hang on."

I sped downhill, dialled 999, called for an ambulance and hurried back to the site, afraid the casualty might already have died. In fact he was exactly the same: yellowish-white in the face, immobile.

The ambulance arrived with commendable speed. Within a couple of minutes of reaching the scene the two paramedics had him on board breathing oxygen, and as soon as various tests had reassured them that his condition was stable, they whisked him away to hospital.

Later that day his sister and her husband drove out from the nearby town, where he had been living with his parents, to recover his car. Their story was depressingly predictable: that he'd had financial worries, had become increasingly reclusive, and had left other suicide notes in his room at home. Whether the overdose had inflicted permanent physical damage, it was too early to say.

Alas, this minor tragedy is only one among hundreds that reveal the stress of rural life today.

The fellow I rescued was not a farmer, although he had worked on farms; but he was self-employed, a loner, and had no one in whom he felt able to confide.

Such are the pressures on agricultural workers that the suicide rate among farmers is one of the highest in any profession - and nobody knows more about this melancholy subject than Malcolm Whitaker, a semi-retired farmer living near Cirencester. In the early Seventies he acted as a Samaritan, and then, as Gloucestershire chairman of the National Farmers' Union, gained further insight into the problems besetting country people.

His response, in 1991, was to form Gloucestershire Farming Friends, an informal group whose telephone numbers are published in the agricultural press, and who are prepared to talk to anyone in trouble. Now, through the Rural Stress Information Network, a charity launched in 1996, the scheme has spread into 12 counties, and vital information is being gathered.

Mr Whitaker's own telephone manner is wonderfully buoyant and reassuring, as is his accent - Gloucestershire still overlaid with his native Lancashire, whence his family migrated in 1936, when he was four. If any vice could rally a faltering spirit, it would be his.

"What's happened," he says, "is that the old farming community has gone. Back in the Fifties there would have been 60 or 65 men working on the land within a mile-and-a-half of where I live. Now there are six. I remember a time when my neighbours, if they finished harvest before we did, would come straight in with their combines and carry on cutting, and we'd do the same for them. Every farm was a little community on its own, surrounded by other similar ones, and if a man was ill, and couldn't milk the cows, there was always someone to help."

Today, because farmers employ so few men, and their wives go off to work, many men are on their own for 14 or 15 hours a day.

Loneliness increases the weight of their burdens - and they have at their disposal many means of ending their lives: heavy machinery, poison, firearms.

Of the 650 farmers who committed suicide between 1982 and 1992, 38 per cent shot themselves. The sad fact is that farmers live in a rural community which understands agriculture less and less, so that they feel unloved and unwanted.

My own experience left me feeling shaken. To start with, I wished I had been more positive and taken action when I first came upon the car. Then I began to wonder whether it would have been more humane just to let the man drift away.

Was it not cruel to drag him back into his tormented world? In any case, it seemed unbearably sad that he should have gone off into the woods to end his life. English forests should be places in which wild creatures, not humans, are born and live and die.