Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

How splendid it was to find, from the survey published in The Independent last week, that the level of contentment in different countries around the globe has almost no correlation with per capita wealth, car ownership, ease of access to Starbucks, etc. If anything, the correlation works in reverse, with humble Bhutan near the top of the list of 178 countries and Britain near the bottom.

I looked out for Bhutan in particular because our friends Charlie and Caroline went trekking there a few months ago and had told me that the king has declared his preoccupation to be "gross national happiness" rather than gross national product. Moreover, Charlie and Caroline, and their two children, so enjoyed the company of their guide, Tashi, that they encouraged him to visit them in Herefordshire. Tashi had probably received similar invitations before from Europeans at the end of memorable holidays, but Charlie and Caroline do not say such things frivolously. With their help and the support of the trekking company, Tashi got the air fare together and is here for six weeks, helping in the garden in return for bed, board and an introduction to the Western world.

It has been a mutually enlightening and uplifting exercise. Charlie collected Tashi from Heathrow and took him to London for three days, where at one stage they were compelled to travel on the Underground at rush hour. Tashi - who in terms of big-city sophistication makes Crocodile Dundee look like my colleague, John Walsh - was predictably astonished at the number of people crowded into such a tight space. Nor, of course, had he seen escalators before. Or traffic lights. Apparently, Bhutan fairly recently got its first set of traffic lights, but they were removed after a few days by public demand.

Anyway, when I last spoke to Charlie, I drew the obvious Crocodile Dundee comparison, and he told me that it was more apt than I realised. Tashi, it turns out, is the Bhutanese national archery champion, and while they were out there, Charlie and the family witnessed his expertise. He took part in a competition in which each team aimed at a target 140 metres away, with the opposition team standing scarcely a metre away from the target, firing back. Clearly, the health and safety guidelines in Bhutan are not what they are over here, not that anyone copped an arrow in the forehead. Whatever, it does seem rather a shame that Tashi was not called upon while in London to fell a runaway mugger by firing an arrow 140m over the heads of the multitude mooching along Oxford Street, Crocodile Dundee-style.

Here in Herefordshire, the way and pace of life is a little bit more familiar to him. But only a little bit. Even having seen London, he considers Hereford to be a glittering metropolis, and has spent hours wandering wide-eyed around the shops, in particular shoe shops and chemists, which for some reason seem to him to provide the best-possible spectacle of bewildering Western consumerism in action.

I am looking forward to meeting Tashi. Charlie asked me whether we could find him some odd-job work, so he's coming over on Friday. I might learn something. In the meantime, I have been learning things from a guy who comes from even further away, although to a home away from home rather than a mysterious foreign land away from home. Shaun is the gloriously fitting name of a New Zealander who used to run a contract sheep-shearing business out of Much Marcle but has since moved to Scotland to concentrate on agricultural fencing for the simple reason that he can't find enough shearers to work with him. There's a dire shortage, mainly because Kiwi shearers, for the first time in years, can make more money by staying Down Under.

Shaun still comes down here for the shearing season but, with one sidekick rather than the usual four, has only managed to shear 14,000 Herefordshire sheep this summer, rather than the usual 25,000. Whether that means that there are 11,000 unusually woolly sheep wandering around, I'm not sure. Sometimes, I am as baffled by the ways of the countryside, as Tashi is by the ways of the Western world.