Walks: In search of the modern pastoral

A rural walk, an invigorating intake of fresh air - 'tis the season to be hiking. But, writes Richard D North, what does the countryside amount to today - and how does this resonate with urban life?

For some people, a walk in the country is a sort of radicalism all by itself. They remember that the National Trust was co-founded by a Ruskinite clergyman who led the first mass trespass in the Lake District. And then they recall the romantic socialists of the northern cities who went out on to moorland and braved the gamekeepers there.

Probably most people who take up the Ramblers' Festival of Winter Walks offer of routes, guides and company to help work off the Christmas torpor will do so for sheer pleasure, and perhaps with a bit of what the English rightly are shy of calling the "spiritual". Not going on the walks but imagining them is heady enough. Here is Cookham Dean (and thoughts of Stanley Spencer) or Buckinghamshire's Burnham (meet "end of Beeches Road, Farnham Common"). Anyone within a country mile ought to try to make the Abbeydore, Herefordshire event, beginning at the only roofed Cistercian Abbey in southern Britain. I am sorely tempted by Souldrop, Bedfordshire, simply by the promise of its name.

However, wherever people walk, they will find a terrain which actually is in hot dispute. Is that neat new crop of houses a disgrace? Should it have been built in the joke vernacular (very successfully adopted, by the way, in some infill near Abbeydore)? Can it be right that there is a small industrial estate in this field? Why on earth aren't there better car parking arrangements at this beauty spot? Why are there any at all?

William Waldegrave, one-time Green minister, has been writing in the Daily Telegraph about how messing about with the middle classes' extended garden - the countryside - may yet turn out to be New Labour's Achilles' heel. Increased urbanisation as we abandon the traditional family but instead spawn more than one family each, or none at all, will indeed impose tremendous strain.

So what else is new? Every generation has mourned the passing of the countryside of the day-before-yesterday. That is the message of the Pastoral, a literary and painting genre which is in the limelight at the moment. At the Royal National Theatre, Frank McGuinness has a powerful (and over- egged) piece about Edmund Spenser, England's great Elizabethan Pastoralist, in which the exiled poet wrestles with the supposed innocence of mythic Irish country-folk in dire need of "civilisation". Spenser does not notice the rustics are using him rather more cannily than he they. The problem is that nice aesthetic urban people want their nature and their natural people - the Pastoral - to stand about idly in a timewarp, in case they are wanted as a subject for admiration, or education. Rustic dynamism has always been a bit of an embarrassment to the simple-minded, and the rustic and primitive have always been best seen as a metaphor for both balm and harm.

The civilised are necessarily voyeuristic when they consider the country. They are dangerously affected and fashion-conscious as they go about making the Pastoral take landscape form. So Tom Stoppard's hilarious Arcadia had an English aristocrat of the early 19th century rip up the Italian garden of her forebears to replace it with the latest thing, which is something much more expensive and a little more primitive. Oddly though, as the Villa D'Este gives way to the paintings of Claude as an inspiration - and formal gardens are swept away before the grand sweep of Capability Brown and then the arboured and laked vision of Repton - it remains only the Pastoral of Virgil which is being invoked in all the different styles.

So civilised people invent and reinvent Golden Age ruralities as waking dreams through which they can discuss what they have gained and lost, and in which they can create sanctuaries from the modern. Tom Stoppard's new creation, The Invention of Love, has A E Housman torn between the classical and the romantic, which are - roughly - the civilised and the wild. Worcestershire-born Housman's Shropshire Lad used the Pastoral manner as it always has been used: to discuss very civilised people getting to grips with natures (their own) as yet untamed. It was, like the vision from the Malverns in the Shropshire-born Langland's Piers Plowman, a conceit with which to talk about unmentionables. Stoppard's new play deals with the problem that clever romantic moderns would get locked up for classical (that is, civilised) behaviour (call it pederasty), just as his Arcadia discussed the way that romantic behaviour is often merely a neurotic response to being over-civilised.

The modern Picturesque - that 18th-century halfway house between the wild and the prim - now takes in urban decay. The farouche Fiona Shaw is currently inhabiting a near-derelict music hall with her personification of T S Eliot's Wasteland. Its setting is as bleak as the limestone pavement invoked by McGuinness at the Cottesloe, and its style, for good and ill, is as frenetic as his. The Wasteland is about a rundown, listless London. The poem is an elegy for lost spiritual glamour, but faces a bit of a problem now. This is that the desolate, unreconstructed cityscape of which it speaks is now, like the old countryside, in such short supply that it has acquired a romance of its own.

Ideas such as this made Patrick Keiller's wonderful film, London, as gripping as it was static, deadpan and literary. Now his Robinson In Space, to be shown in January on BBC2 (and available on video), gives us an account of the hegemony beyond the M25 of the ersatz and the modern. Keiller sees the corporate sprawl of leisure parks and carparks, and a creeping disintegration elsewhere, as a troubling sort of public affluence in the midst of private squalor. It would be an odd Pastoral, except that its nostalgic tone is so familiar.

`Mutabilitie' at the Cottesloe, RNT until 17 February; `The Invention of Love' at the Lyttelton, RNT until 11 March at least; `The Wasteland', Wilton's Music Hall, Grace's Alley, Ensign St, London E1, until 11 Jan. `London, 1993' and `Robinson In Space, 1997' directed by Patrick Keiller, BFI/Connoisseur, pounds 17.49 each available from HMV Direct, 0990 334578.

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