Arcadia comes to the Big Smoke, to tell its well-worn tale of woe

Rural folk want urban dwellers to understand their way of life but, says David Aaronovitch, they're not as different as they think they are
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The Independent Online
Last night 6,000 beacons lit the February sky from The Ardoch to Brick Kiln Farm; for if there's one thing your countryman knows, it's how to build a good beacon. And on Sunday Arcadia comes to the Big Smoke to protest the threat, we are told, to its very existence. Shepherds and shepherdesses, huntsmen and huntswomen, blacksmiths, farriers, coopers, thatchers, agricultural feed salesmen, poachers, gamekeepers, lairds and ladies will march from Charing Cross to the banks of the Serpentine, urging us to listen - before it is too late - to the "voice of your Countryside". Well, I don't want to listen to it. I catch The Archers omnibus every Sunday, and that should be enough for you. I well remember the cavalier attitude taken by Brian Aldridge to the first BSE scare, and - courtesy of Neil Carter - know more about feed price fluctuations than I do about unemployment rates in the area in which I live. Or I can catch, on the badly mistitled Thought For The Day, the dreadful Anne Atkins prattling about skylarks and how fox hunting is really "man and beast working in partnership". (As mugging, presumably, is criminal and victim working in partnership.) We Londoners do not object to crowds of outsiders coming to the capital; it happens every time a major sports final is played. The fans roam our streets and are sick in our parks; but at least they do not demand that we listen to them.

So, I am every bit as capable of resenting rural Britain, as it is of resenting me. From our respective entrenchments we can lob grenades and epithets left over from previous phases of the war between Urbia and Arcadia. For the other side the city is degenerate, addicted to fashion, a sink of vice, a destroyer of health and a corrupter of morals; it makes men effete and women adulterous. Removed from any connection with a "natural" world that it cannot understand, it nevertheless reaches out tentacles of pollution and development to destroy the peace and happiness of Arcadia. The countryside, by contrast, is a land in communion with nature. It alone has a landscape. Those fields and villages preserve the traditions and the heritage of the nation. It is healthy and its colour is ruddy - the hue of roast beef and of the independence of old England. Children may roam it in peace, naming flowers and climbing trees.

Not so, say the Urbanites! From Franco's Spain to the steppes, the countryside has provided Reaction's human ballast. Beyond the street lights the country is priest-ridden, superstitious, cowed, inbred, and unenlightened; it is avaricious, suspicious, insular and violent - the world of Cold Comfort Farm, of Seth, Urk and Big Business the bull. Karl Marx spoke of the "idiocy of rural life", and now, to prove it, we have a demonstration in which a credulous peasantry is whipped in by their landowner bosses. How different from our own dear polis, in which Thelwall's dictum that "whatever presses men together is favourable to the diffusion of knowledge and ultimately promotive of human liberty" is proved over again by the wonderful cacophony and diversity of the city.

How productive is this division? As it happens I do think that we are in danger this weekend of being taken for a rural ride by the fox-hunters. The historian Linda Colley in her book Britons, notes how the 18th- and 19th-century landed elite managed the neat trick of associating its own interests with those of the nation. "Only in Great Britain," she wrote, "did it prove possible to float the idea that aristocratic property was in some magical and strictly intangible way the people's property also." (author's italics). In other words, it was good for all of us that they held vast tracts of land, even if we were none of us allowed to visit it. To that end the organisers have corralled together issues as diverse as rural poverty, beef on the bone, green belt housing, the right to roam, village shops, unemployment and transport, and are now busy tying them to the interests of the hunting and shooting lobbies.

This approach has received some surprising endorsements. "It is about the whole rural way of life," the Bishop of Bath and Wells wrote in the Telegraph yesterday, supporting the march. He went on, "Urban society has to realise how easily alienation from the natural world can develop in the plastic-wrapped supermarket culture."

I'm sorry, bishop, are you talking to me? It isn't me that drives my Range Rover to the out-of-town hypermarket, stocks up on inorganic produce from Swabia and then stuffs it into oversize freezers in converted rectories in Wiltshire. It isn't me that has killed the village shop and the village post office by not using them, closed the village school and who fails any more to attend the village church or man the Tombola stall at the village fete.

But then, bishop, what do you mean by "natural"? Do you mean the same thing as one of the march organisers meant when he said that "country people are not natural agitators"? Because, of course, most of them are not "natural" anything. The countryside itself is not "natural". It is a set of overlapping constructs, many of them (like fox-hunting) fairly recent. Country pursuits are no more natural than, say, taking a promenade in Regent's Park or going to the theatre. But then this whole debate is completely artificial. Once there was a genuine gulf between city and country. There was little choice about whether you lived in one or the other. Economic necessity or accident of birth linked to immobility dictated who was a city-dweller and who a villager. But today membership of one of the two great tribes is almost entirely voluntary.

I could easily do my job and survive, surrounded by fields and fox hunters. Indeed, many of my colleagues do. The Bishop's article recognised this by saying that, "In reality many urban people now live in the countryside." But he spoiled the point through the sentence's odd construction. Can you imagine anyone saying that "many rural people now live in the city"? Of course not. For the bishop the art of urban living may be acquired, but you must be born to country dwelling.

The point is that, like what trainers you wear, what perfume you buy, what car you drive, the decision to live in the country or the town is now yet another lifestyle choice. You want to be all dynamic and restless? Town. Fancy peace and Agas? Country.

In this sense the clash of the two great cultures is about as deep and significant as a rumble between Mods and Rockers on Clacton seafront. It is not about what we are, but about who we like to be. Et in Arcadia Ego. I too could live in Arcadia, if it wasn't for the bloody shepherdesses.