Tuesday book: Reconciling town and country

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The Independent Culture


A NODDING acquaintance with the lives of the many eminent contributors to this symposium reveals that they are less typecast by locality than the Countryside March might suggest. Here are anarchist ramblers from Suffolk hamlets and urban academics defending the hunt. Whatever other issues this book debates, it is not, mercifully, predicated on some mythic stand-off between ignorant townees and sagacious rural natives. As George Monbiot and Ian McEwan write in their different ways, the rural fabric of the nation is legally, morally and aesthetically a common inheritance - a refuge to which all our imaginations retreat. Monbiot argues further that rights of access and participation based on this principle would be the best possible way of recruiting legions of concerned guardians.

But that is the nub of the argument. Support for that idea as a vague matter of national heritage collapses when it comes to practical policy. So we have what has come to be called the crisis of the countryside: a network of social, economic and ecological problems. From the rural perspective, it is seen as a consequence of the "urban jackboot": collapsing farms, too much housing, too little housing, toxic food, a ruined landscape...

One has only to begin this familiar litany to realise there are two sides to most of the countryside's problems. Villages are losing their ancient lineages but would die if it were not for the loathed "incomers". The whole context of food, ecology and rural employment might have been different if only more farmers had asserted their own skills and said no to the agrochemical industry. The town isn't to blame but perhaps the City is. But which is the road out?

Town and Country is good on food, with an uplifting essay by Hugh Raven on the many new small-scale trading structures across the land. But one has only to read this, and the many other essays that touch on farming and its possible futures, to become aware of one huge omission. Nowhere does anyone define what the countryside is. Most assume it is where farming happens; or, more evasively, that you know it when you're there.

Can this really be true in the light of the immense changes documented by this book? Drive out of any town, past the golf courses, country parks, nature reserves, overgrown commons, smallholdings and paddocks. Do these form the new countryside, and should we be pleased? If not, what are they? It matters not just because they are growing at the expense of farmland, but also because they offer up many new kinds of relationship between humans and nature.

Nature does not get much direct attention here. Without exception the contributors describe the countryside - and often nature itself - as an "artefact". It is a dated, anthropocentric view, rather like that of a Victorian parson who sees nature in need of redemption by mankind.

Natural or not, the countryside is now a congenial setting for more than just the light industry that Paul Hirst rightly urges as a replacement for agriculture. A whole new caste of villagers - telecottagers, craftspeople, artists, smallholders - is beginning to use the landscape as thoroughly as farmers. And a place where a growing landscape is dwelt in and employed is one definition of countryside.

There is not much on the character of the village here, which is odd (what a boon John Berger would have been). But the debate about the future of towns is the best thing in it, especially John Gummer's and Tim Mars's defences of "mixed development" - which could be a 21st-century version of William Morris's wood-encircled new villages.

Much that is fine, constructive and provocative in this book testifies to the diversity of life and opinion in both kinds of landscape. Colin Ward writes on the rich tradition of do-it-yourself building; and David Coffey (an urban vet) argues convincingly that the entire edifice of veterinary welfare turns all animals into human playthings. A marvellous piece by Libby Purves on "light pollution" turns into a plea for the importance of the numinous, as glimpsed in the night sky. And there's a good retelling of the rural myth that blames the miners' strike for BSE, as there wasn't enough energy about then to properly sterilise cannibalistic animal feed!

The editors' conclusions are fine pieces, too: Anthony Barnett on the interdependence of town and country; Roger Scruton (until he gets on his hunting horse) on the unique relationship of rural places with time. Yet in spite of its sprawling, intelligent coverage, something seems missing. Perhaps because of a nagging fear of the heinous crime of romanticisation, the countryside itself - that protean, mythic but transcendentally materialist region that exerts such a hold over our consciousness - rarely shows its sensuous face from behind the statistics and theories.

The writer is the author of `Flora Britannica'