For the past four thousand years mankind has equated cities with civilisation. Ever since the people of Jericho decided to live together in a walled compound shut off from the cruel outside world around the year 7800BC, cities have been synonymous with good sanitation, wealth-creating commerce and a lively intellectual life. Anyone with talent, intelligence or aspirations of any kind has always naturally gravitated towards cities. Only the simpletons and yellow-bellies wanted to stay behind to pull the plough and mind the animals.
But no longer, it seems. Polite society wants to go back to its roots. We're all countrymen again. Everything urban is ghastly, everything rural bliss. Farmers are the most level-headed chaps about. We all have a deep emotional need to hunt, just like all those skinny men in the cave paintings. Even Tony Blair wants to don a pair of wellies and join the mad rush to return to the sticks - a little inconsistent for a man whose heroes are such unapologetic urbanites as Richard Rogers and Terence Conran.
We shouldn't let ourselves be fooled by the born-again countrymen. Wanting to live in the country is all part of civilisation's mid-life crisis. People do it because they have either fulfilled or abandoned their ambitions. To paraphrase Lady Thatcher, the countryside is where you go when you haven't got anything better to do. The truth is that the countryman's way of life, far from being worthy of the kind of celebration presented to us in Hyde Park last week, proves for many to be a sad, lonely and mentally unstimulating form of existence. Farmers have one of the highest rates of suicide of any occupation; vets, those supposedly jolly, James Herriot-like creatures which according to legend weave from farm to farm in their period cars, have the highest rate of all. That is country life for you. I don't know about the cruelty of turning a twelve-bore on the pheasants and rabbits, the real cruelty seems to be that which countrymen inflict upon themselves. It doesn't help, of course, that country dwelling has become a thoroughly artificial way of life which can only be sustained thanks to generous handouts from the taxpayer. We pour money into the deeper corners of the English countryside to try to support a traditional way of life, and the beneficiaries respond by getting drunk and shooting themselves.
Things aren't a great deal better for the urban types who head down to the shires for what they imagine to be a stress-free way of life. If there is one thing more likely to drive you nuts than being a member of the urban rat race, it is joining the rural rat race. The countryside these days is full of people who have moved down from London and make no allowances for the inconveniences of living in an isolated place. They try to continue the same hectic social life, maintain the same level of domestic comforts and stick to the same cosmopolitan diet without appreciating that you have to travel a dozen miles to buy anything or do anything. Either the nearest washing machine dealer is in Warminster and he's closed on Wednesdays or you can't find any avocados closer than Devises, or the Jones' from two villages away have sold up and moved on and now you haven't got a single friend this side of Swindon. Then there are the parents who insist that little Tarquin must have a county-standard chess teacher and little Chloe must learn violin by the Suzuki method, and who fail to take into account the fact that arrangements which are easy to make in a city become a complete impossibility in an area with a diffuse population. It is not uncommon to come across mothers who habitually drive a hundred and fifty miles a day to deliver and collect their children from various schools scattered across the county. The result is pollution, traffic, expense and, too often, an unhappy wife who ends up scampering back to the town.
But worse than the stress of trying to keep up with urban standards of living is the sheer paranoia you find in many country folk. It is no wonder so many country folk felt moved to march to London to protest about some perceived threat from the "urban jackboot": rural living is a recipe for irrational fear. The deeper you go into the country, the nastier the dogs and the more elaborate the burglar alarms become. There are a lot of country people whose only contact with the outside world is the doom and gloom beamed through their television sets. The result is that they live in a perpetual state of suspicion about outsiders. You can see it in the opposition the self-styled countrymen level against the right to roam. It will increase crime, they complain, as if ramblers were in the habit of clambering over several miles of heather and gorse to fill their rucksacks with a landowner's best silver. I have even heard landowners complaining that long-established footpaths are a threat to their privacy and security; how do they think the other 99.9 per cent of the population cope with living within a few yards of a public road? Were it not for their paranoia the landowners would realise that having ordinary, law-abiding people around is a tremendous disincentive to criminals who, naturally, aren't going to be deterred from pillaging your possessions by the fear that they might be running foul of the trespassing laws.
What a pleasure it must have been for all those countrymen to have come out of darkest England into such a tolerant environment as Central London, where you are allowed to wander at will through the parks in silly costumes and the only reaction you get is one of bemusement. God forbid if there is ever an urban march in the countryside. There will be walking sticks waving, dogs chasing and guns blasting. If a countryman ever had genuine cause to carry a banner it would read: Warning: you are now leaving civilisation.Reuse content