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

Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Green Recruitment Company: Operations Manager - Anaerobic Digestion / Biogas

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Operation...

Recruitment Genius: IT Projects Engineer

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Account Director - OTE £60,000

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Inbound Sales Executive

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Inbound Sales Executive is required t...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Daily catch-up: How much difference does the wording of a referendum question make?

John Rentoul

An unelectable extremist who hijacked their party has already served as prime minister – her name was Margaret Thatcher

Jacques Peretti
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent