Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

There is an old joke about a racist, misogynistic farmer in the US Deep South, who dies and, much to his surprise, is escorted to the gates of heaven, where St Peter confirms that he, Tyler B Grudge, late of Pike County, Alabama, is indeed to be permitted entry. "But before you go in, there's just one thing you should know about God," adds St Peter. "She's black."

So, too, is Sandra Samuels, 47-year-old daughter of Jamaican immigrants, and Labour's parliamentary candidate for North Shropshire. I would not dream of comparing the good folk of North Shropshire with Tyler B Grudge, but it would be a notable first for such a rural constituency, for many years the Tory seat of the Right Honourable John Biffen MP, to be represented on the Labour benches by a black woman.

Her campaign team e-mailed me to say that, since north Shropshire is probably much like north Herefordshire, where I live, I might be interested in her candidature.

She is a health service manager and a councillor in Wolverhampton, where much of her ward is non-white. If she does overturn the 6,000 Tory majority, she will have to get used to a very different complexion of constituency. Last week I rang her, and she told me that, in three months of canvassing in North Shropshire's five market towns - Wem, Whitchurch, Market Drayton, Ellesmere and Oswestry - she had encountered not one other black face, and just one brown one, an Asian newsagent.

Nor, happily, had she encountered any overt racism. "Everyone's been very polite to my face," she said. "Whether there have been comments behind my back, I don't know. I have noticed a few raised eyebrows when I've gone into country pubs, but on the whole I think the main shock to people is not that I'm black and female, but that there's someone telling them to vote Labour."

In north Herefordshire, meanwhile, we have seen neither hide nor hair of our Labour candidate. Nor, along the 11 miles of road between Bromyard and Leominster, have I spotted a single Labour poster. Or a Lib Dem one, for that matter. There are loads of Vote Conservatives, and a couple of huge boards proclaiming the virtues of the UK Independence Party. All this is in stark contrast to our environment at the last Election. In our part of Hornsey and Wood Green it was as hard to spot blue posters as it is here to spot yellow-and-red ones. Which is neither good nor bad; it just is.

As for black faces, they are even scarcer hereabouts than yellow-and-red posters. Scarcer, probably, than in north Shropshire, which at least has Sandra Samuels buzzing around. It is dispiriting that support for the Tories - and therefore, presumably, support for Michael Howard's immigration policies - is at its most unquestioning in parts of the country where there are hardly any immigrants. It's the classic fear of the unknown, I suppose.

But I don't want to sound condescending. And I don't want to sound like an unquestioning Labour voter, either, which I'm not. Besides, there is also something beguiling about living in the sticks at election time, something reassuring in the awareness that the next harvest is more important than any manifesto. Recently, I was flicking through a collection of Alistair Cooke's Letters From America, and in one of them he told the story of a poll conducted by Dr Gallup himself, in 1940. While the Battle of Britain raged, Dr Gallup went round England asking people if they had ever heard of Winston Churchill. Apparently, 96 per cent had. The 4 per cent who hadn't were all farmers, all from one county. The identity of that county has never been made public. But I wouldn't mind betting it was Herefordshire.

'Tales of the Country', by Brian Viner, is published by Simon & Schuster (£12.99)