Gardening: Outburst in village hall

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The Independent Online
Pudlestone village hall is a smart brick building. Inside, the walls are creamy, like a jolly village school, and there is a little dais at one end. It was from here that I delivered my micro- peroration, ranging widely over 'Theme Park Britain'.

The audience was of a sort that I do not think my own village could have fielded. For a start, it had some country types we don't have. There was the well-spoken woman regaling a friend on the matter of her new mare. There was a man who might have come out of any classic detective novel set in the country.

I was about 10 minutes into my rap, and had gained cruising speed, when there came an awkward, energising moment. I could feel autopilot tugging at my sentences, wanting to take them off on a flight path of its own devising. Then a youngish woman (also well- spoken) suddenly burst out: 'This man is making me boil with rage]'

I had been saying that the thing about the modern passion for putting up interpretive signs at nature reserves is that, on the one hand, it strikes us as vulgar and patronising and as lessening the naturalness of our experience (we feel we are no longer allowed to find our way and make our own mistakes), and on the other, it means that hordes of people (like me, I may have added), strangers in the countryside who don't know one end of a flower from another, can be helped to make sense of everything around them. So signboards both diminish and enhance.

Then I made my little mistake. 'The thing is, it's not so long ago that hardly anybody knew anything about the countryside. There were a few old straw-suckers in their smocks who knew the names of flowers and not much else, and then there were the educated classes who had the leisure and background to know a lot. In between, the majority never saw the countryside and knew nothing of it.' At this moment came the outburst.

Of course, I was out of order. My angry interlocutor asserted that the old boys knew more about the stars than I ever would. To which I was able smoothly to reply that that wouldn't take much. Still, she was right. I didn't mean - though I had perhaps implied - that the old villagers were lesser people or stupid or even ignorant. Of course, my kind of (tentative, trainee, teasing) reactionary never says anything like that. I don't often feel that people today are happier or wiser than previous generations. I hold it as axiomatic that we don't stand a sparrow's fart in hell's chance of being better than those who went before. The nearest I go to the unprovability doctrine is to wonder if it might just be permissible to say that the sufferings of previous generations have their justification in their contribution to making future generations wiser, happier and better.

Anyway, it can hardly be denied that the village elders of 100 or even 50 years ago led lives of a narrowness that education, affluence and myriad 'information technologies' have blown to kingdom come. Perhaps someone will say that in the countryside of 100 years ago there were poor people of astounding literacy, and I know that that is true. From my own experience of poetry readings round here, I know that there are old bats in nursing homes who may never have been to London or eaten pizza but can recite from memory great tracts of Victorian ballads, and often do, in both book and obscene versions.

Literate and steeped in country lore they may have been, but I bet even the flower-naming sages of old knew precious little ecology. They would probably have delighted in modern nature reserves where the strange biological reasons for things are sketched out. Near Pudlestone, there is a reserve made in what was once a series of derelict Roman fishponds, which had in recent times become a shoot, and is now the very image of rural enterprise (shop, cafe-cum-interpretation centre, dipping ponds, the lot). I love it, and one of my last acts as an affluent consumer was to buy a family membership so we could potter along the boardwalks to see the water lilies bloom.

With so much to learn, we need these short cuts. And yet I find it odd that my aesthetic pleasure should depend so much on being able to pin a label on what I see. I have taken to walking on a hill behind the village. Every morning last week I saw our buzzards hunting over the fields below me. They are very large, and take off and ascend in a motion that makes one think of a hearth-rug being flapped by a housewife. I am pleased that I now know where to look for them, and that they so often fulfil my expectations. But I know nothing about their habits, and even less about the flights of little birds that carry on a riotous business wherever I walk. I am beginning to be hungry to know their names and to look them up in books. Why can't I just look?

I suppose I got some of this across at Pudlestone, but I forgot to apologise to the woman who was so cross at my attempt to be colourful. However, a farmer came up to me at the end and said - in what the announcers on BBC Hereford and Worcester call an agricultural accent - that my views were a breath of fresh air.

We incomers to the countryside are very snobbish: a word of praise from a proper rustic overcomes any amount of criticism from people-like-us. It is kind of the locals to notice that it is the ignorant stranger who can best stir up the muddy puddle of rural life.