Alex James: The rape of England


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The footpath that links the village on the top of the hill with the woods at the bottom cuts right through the middle of a vast field, the only big field in that vicinity. The rest of the landscape is a mosaic of tiny meadows. I never know exactly which one of them will contain the herd of steers that like to chase the dog but it’s always one of them. Handfuls of grazing sheep here and there; the odd bolting deer; a heron. Those little fields all have different personalities: different houses, different worlds

The path over the big field doesn’t go anywhere other than the woods, but it has probably been there for hundreds of years. Who knows, maybe even longer: ancient maps of this part of the country always look surprisingly similar to bang-up-to-date ones.

It’s on my rounds, that big field with the path going through it. I ran over it most days in January, ecstatic in the pouring rain and snow, and I wondered each time I passed what the crop squishing beneath my feet was. It didn’t look anything like the wheat here at home. It was quite fleshy and spinachy to start with, and then seemed to be leaning towards cabbage country. After the snow it went floppy and I thought it might all be dead. In fact I couldn’t help worrying about it. It was something I wondered about. It got to the point where I was looking forward to what happened next. It’s little things such as these that come to preoccupy the quiet country gentleman.

Well, then the sun came out and the stuff shot upwards, a foot in two days while I was in London. And it was revealed at last: It was rapeseed, that bright yellow stuff. I’ve always thought it looked quite pretty in the distance but, boy, it smells bad. I suddenly realised why the path goes through the middle of the field. You need big machines to grow rapeseed. It’s a poster crop for intensive agriculture.

Hedges have been removed so the equipment can get in there. That’s why the path runs through the crop. Historically, it would have followed a hedge line. Come to think of it, Cotswolds means something like “small meadows on hillsides”. In the middle of that rapeseed I could have been anywhere. Dismantling the English countryside, the most beautiful countryside in the world, one field at a time for a few quid extra. It’s a shame.

The quality of food has nothing to do with price

I do wonder what the farm of the future looks like. Will we embrace hippyish biodynamic principles or will chicken nuggets be grown hydroponically in perpetual sunlight somewhere above us in orbit? It could go either way but we do need to learn to recognise other qualities in food than how much it costs. At the moment, most of what we eat is more heavily promoted on its price than how brilliant it is. This doesn’t work with clothes. It shouldn’t work with what we put inside us.

Cheap isn’t necessarily a good deal when it comes to food, but the most important thing anyone ever has to tell us about dinner is how much it costs. We spend around 10 per cent of our income on food and that’s the second-lowest of any country in the world. (America is the lowest.) The French spend around 14 per cent, which is probably where we should be – by which I mean they eat about 100 per cent better, for not much more money.

It’s strange, really, because our farming standards are among the highest in the world. Our dairy herds are second to none. But when all customers care about is price, all farmers will care about is yield. They just try to grow more carrots per acre, rather than better carrots.

Not everyone wants to buy organic, but thank goodness it exists: a universal label that stands for some kind of quality other than cheapness, even if no one is really sure what that quality is.

Anything will grow if you drench it in pesticide and fertiliser but it won’t necessarily taste good. One hopes that in the future the idea of terroir will become more significant. A sheep, a carrot, an ear of corn grown here in Oxfordshire should taste different from one grown in Aberdeen or Aberdair. Or space.

At the moment agriculture is somehow strangely disconnected from food. I guess farmers are commodity traders, not gourmands. Maybe that’s the reason the worst food you’ll ever get is at agricultural shows. Have you noticed that?

Is having three wives like having three cars?

I keep thinking about Geoff Hurst mowing his lawn the day after he scored a hat-trick in the 1966 World Cup final. It’s held up as an anti-climax but I really can’t think of a happier ending than that. Happily ever after is just a garden full of children. I’m sure a winner’s medal has enriched his life in a way money could never have done in any case. He’s still happily married, I note.

What’s going on with the president of South Africa, though? Does he really have three wives? Is that true? How does it work, I wonder? Is it like when people have three cars? In that case there would be one for work – that would be the one who met the Queen. Then there must be a kind of smart, sporty weekend one, for taking to Daylesford and so on. And I suppose the modern president still needs a sort of Range Rover 4x4 utility wife as well, a workhorse for around the farm.

Do they know about each other? Maybe they live in different cities, different houses. Do they have days off? Are they allowed to have other husbands? I’m fascinated. I don’t know if we’re going to win the World Cup but I do know that Africa won’t be out of the soup until African women are free.

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