RADIO / Road to nowhere: Robert Hanks on old hippies and young backpackers in Simon Dring's On the Road Again

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The Independent Culture
OUR ENGLAND is quite possibly a garden, but just at the moment the weeds and aphids have got the upper hand. Hence, it seems, the existence of a new diaspora, which Simon Dring tracked down in On the Road Again (Radio 4, Thursday): these are young people frightened of being trapped in a job or, more often, being trapped without a job, who have turned their backs on Britain and headed for warmer, cheaper lives in the sun.

Dring's aim over four weeks is to retrace his youthful steps along the 'hippie trail' to India (though with a jeep to help in the retracing). In the first programme he got as far as the Turkish-Syrian border, having first met some junior lotos-eaters in Greece. His aim was to find out 'if they're looking for the same kind of thing we were out for in the Sixties' - a phrase that seemed to imply that he himself had once nurtured notions of peace and love and the eternal mysteries of the East. Actually, by his own account, his 1962 odyssey started out as a quest for cheap cigarettes, preferably with some girls thrown in, and India was something of an afterthought. That seemed to be more or less the attitude of most of the people he spoke to today; people were less interested in penetrating the mysteries of the soul than in getting a decent tan.

Dring saw a reaction against the materialism of the Eighties at work here; but it would also be fair to see the backpacking crowd as embodying certain aspects of Thatcherism - true, they hadn't exactly got on their bikes and gone looking for work, but they weren't sitting around sponging off the state, either. They had a sort of aimless, drifting self-reliance, and a basic conservatism came across when Dring asked one group about drugs and rave culture: one teenager's 'I've done it and it's shit' seemed to sum up their attitude. He and his friends thought that you got a bigger high out of meeting new people and seeing great sunsets - they were into broadening the mind rather than expanding the consciousness. Their parents would have been proud.

Despite all the good intentions on show, this feckless, slightly disorientated life seemed vacuous, though; even hippie mysticism would be less dispiriting to listen to. But only at one point did you have any sense that the spirit of the Sixties had survived: one young woman, trying to explain how travel had changed her outlook, said, 'I don't like to sound like a hippie or anything but, like, those orange trees and, like, they were just amazing.'

She went on to explain how she would appreciate nature in England more keenly now. Oh, no, she won't - not according to the environmental magazine Costing the Earth (Radio 4, Saturday). David Holden, an American living in North London, went out to the greenbelt in search of the landscapes of Tennyson, Wordsworth, Hopkins and Winnie-the-Pooh - the bickering brook, the jocund companies of daffodils and the Hundred Acre Woods that were staples of his American boyhood. What he found was that our England is less a garden than a prairie: vast swathes of countryside have been ploughed into monochrome stretches of oilseed rape or huge mud-flats. When a tape of the dawn chorus in rural Oxfordshire was played alongside a tape of birdlife in Finsbury Park, London won hands down for numbers of species - there's a greater variety of habitats in the city.

Some of Holden's polemic was over the top and over-romantic, perhaps because he was reacting against having been forced to memorise Tennyson's 'The Brook' when he was nine: some of it was wittily done, and there were some sharp lines about farmers who regard land as 'horizontal capital'. For the sake of balance, a farmer and a green campaigner came on afterwards to rationalise and tone down Holden's message, but his reproaches bit rather too deep to be soothed away. The aphids are still gnawing.

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