True Townie: Frankly we don't give a hoot for barn owls

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the most moving moments in all of Shakespeare's plays is the offstage death of Falstaff. Mistress Quickly gives us his last words: 'He babbled of green fields.' Babbling of green fields, we could say, is le vice anglais.

We English have a penchant for imagining ourselves as country folk, related, if somewhat distantly, to the Archers; living, if not in stately homes, at least in honeysuckled thatched cottages; and, if not exactly huntin', shootin' and fishin' squires, unquestionably as nature lovers. Preoccupied with the National Trust or Heritage, and crusading for conservation, Green Belts, Green parties and environmental correctness, we tend to luxuriate in Arcadian escapism, preferring the country to the town, the good old days to the present.

Unconvinced? Just glance at the Christmas cards now entering the shops.

'Having country roots,' explained that most English of historians, Sir Arthur Bryant, not so very long ago, 'we are constantly haunted by needs and cravings whose purpose is no longer clear to us. Our culture - to use a terrifying and much misused word - is a country culture; that is, such of it as is still left for us, for though we have lost and destroyed much of our own country culture since our emigration to the towns, we have not as yet built up a civil structure to take its place.'

Bearing in mind the appeal of the Lake poets and landscape painting in the Constable mould, it makes some sense to accept, with Bryant, that ours is a country culture - even a country-house culture. Yet the thought should also bring us up in our tracks. For the fact is that, for well over a century, the great majority of English people have lived in towns. The English obsession with the glories of rusticity, with preserving wild plants, creatures and footpaths, is, in truth, the fetish of towndwelling bourgeois chattering classes, expressing pastoral nostalgia for a mythic world of community, crafts and cottages. Of recent newspaper stories, the one that touched most readers was, I strongly suspect, the report of the decrease and possible disappearance of the barn owl. Sad indeed, but how many townies have ever seen a barn owl, except perhaps stuffed on some mantelpiece? The irony, of course, is that the decline of the barn owl is itself largely due to the conversion of barns to provide bijou dwellings for buyers who are basically townies.

Rose-tinted sentimentality towards Nature has bolstered the facile, unthinking and morally superior antiurbanism that has proved the bane of town life in this nation. Not all, of course, have been of that mind. 'When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,' opined the great Midlander Samuel Johnson, and a certain strain of opinion down the centuries has endorsed the Restoration wits' debunking of bucolic bliss, with its Tunbelly Clumsys, all hicks out in the sticks. It was Karl Marx who coined the phrase 'the idiocy of rural life'.

But the counter-chorus has probably been stronger and shriller, and it's not just a right-wing myth. The great early 19th-century radical William Cobbett, author of Rural Rides, damned all towns as 'wens' and cursed the capital in particular as the 'great wen'. And it was surely no accident that, in the late Eighties, the Labour Party adopted the English rose and 'Jerusalem' as its anthem, with its future perfect of a 'green and pleasant land'.

If sounding off against cities were but persiflage or dinner-party dudgeon, it would not matter. But it isn't and it does.

All such anti-urban spleen and its accompanying pseudo-pastoral nostalgia means bad news for our cities. Swayed by such fantasies, millions have fled them - many working in city centres but opting to live in the country, or at least in a dormitory village. And here the planners have much to answer for.

There was, doubtless, something noble about the Town Planning movement earlier this century, founded by Ebenezer Howard and carried further by Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker. The garden city ideal of the perfect marriage of town and country was surely better than the Victorian townscape of smokestacks and slums. But the underlying ideology was anti-urban, like other early 20th-century crazes such as camping and nudism (or at least going barefoot). And what the garden city movement meant in practice was the decanting of masses of people out of the towns into some supposedly healthy semi-sylvan setting, without a moment's thought for its effect on the town itself - though those left behind could compensate by calling their terraced house Glebe Cottage and eating Country Store muesli.

We have thought the town away for too long. It is time to embrace the places where most of us, willy-nilly, live. Not that they are specially lovely now; but if we start liking them, we will respect them, cherish them, and we will eventually make them places to be proud of.

And it's worth remembering that, given the nature of agribusiness, the town is probably less polluted than the country these days and less of a health risk. Finally, lest we forget, for sheer nastiness what place could rival Cold Comfort Farm?