John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Country folk are suspicious of outsiders.' Next they'll be telling us the grass is green
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The Independent Online

You have to give an award for really crap timing to the Government's Dingly Dell Marketing Department, better known as the Countryside Agency. The agency has been looking into those twin poles of mutual incomprehension and dislike, the town and the country, and have announced its findings in two reports that were commissioned five years ago, after a White Paper announced the Government's desire to "increase and diversify enjoyment of the countryside."

The CA investigated what country folk think of outsiders, foreigners, urbanites and other pests, and then discovered what city types, ethnics, disabled and young people thought about England's green and pleasant landscape. It's not pretty reading. Indian men and women reported that, in their experience, rustic types tended to be stuck in their ways and unfriendly to outsiders.

Experimental day-trips by subcontinental immigrants to bosky dell and sylvan glade had met with mixed success. The visitors had been startled to find that Gloucestershire villages were full of white faces and had no black or Asian districts, and said this gave off an unwelcoming vibe. And if they didn't have a car (they said), they found it hard to get around when surrounded by, you know, fields. One Pakistani man was afraid of trespassing. In his home village, he said, you could wander round someone's farm and be greeted as a guest. In the English countryside, "you are intruding on someone's privacy, and they make clear that you are intruding."

Young interviewees said they thought the countryside was probably pretty dull with nothing to do except stand up to your knees in mud, watching Pete Doherty drift by on a raft. Country folk, asked for their response, said they hoped the little sods would stay mired in their urban grot and would never go further afield than Ealing, or words to that effect.

Well, well, that is a surprise. "Country folk hostile to outsiders and suspicious of foreigners" shock. Next they'll be telling us the sky is blue, the grass is green and Stephen Byers is as shady as an oak tree. What on earth did the Countryside Agency expect?

It's rather touching, though, the New Labour assumption that everything can be improved by a bit of decent marketing. The CA complain that rural businesses aren't trying hard enough to connect with minorities - that, for instance, there aren't enough ethnic faces in the brochures they distribute. They think a more positive approach would be a good idea.

Really? Do they think they can get a charabanc of multi-ethnic tourists to try their hand at dwile-flonking in the West Country? Do they think black and Asian communities in Bradford and Oldham will want to cram the tea shops of Stow-on-the-Wold, and visit National Trust properties in Sussex?

Even before the bombs tore the Tube apart, this initiative wasn't going to work. The multi-ethnic dream we cultivate in London doesn't really hold once the barns and meadows start to appear beside the motorways. As for the Pakistani chap innocently wishing he could ramble unchallenged around someone's farm, I fear his welcome these days would be even more chilly than hitherto. It would be like the reception that greeted Dustin Hoffman, putting his American head round the door of the Cornish local pub in Straw Dogs, only a good deal worse.

Royal chutzpah

Just one question hangs over the scandal surrounding Prince Albert of Monaco (and no, it isn't "Does he actually have a Prince Albert?").

You may admire his inclusiveness and lack of "side" in seducing Togolese air hostesses rather than sticking to Cote d'Azur heiresses. You may be impressed by his chutzpah in coming right out and telling the world about his illegitimate kid on prime-time TV. You might murmur admiringly about his tantalising hint (driving the Riviera tabloids into a frenzy) that there could be a whole crecheful of royal bastards littered all over the Principality waiting to be acknowledged.

The only nagging question is: with all his cash, could His Serene Highness not have afforded a few French letters?

Hogwarts excess

The Harry Potter bunfight is set to kick off tomorrow night, and the usual Harry-cloak of secrecy surrounds the occasion: the publishers have got booksellers to sign an embargo saying they won't sell a copy before Saturday, or disclose the plot.

I say the hell with it. Freedom of speech means more to me than this commercially-driven bullying. Dammit, I'm going to spill the beans right now.

Here goes...

In Volume Six, Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron are turned by Malfoy's evil spell into chav layabouts with horrid common accents, and are expelled from Hogwarts. Septimus Ganderbucket, the new Professor of Pointless Nomenclature, vows to save their reputation. Sirius Darke returns from the dead and makes a documentary about mandrakes. Dumbledore is discovered in flagrante delicto with Mrs Dursley. The Sorting Hat is stolen by Buttocks Academy and held to ransom.

Harry, now living in Croydon on income support with Hermione, is nicked for breaking and entering but told he can evade a prison sentence if he defeats the terrifying Trousersnake in the Tunnel of Dubious Symbolism. The Weasley brothers have become a vaudeville act singing old Kathy Kirby numbers, and relocated to Sausalito. At the end, they return to help Harry defeat Malfoy, watch Darke win a Bafta and see Dumbledore take his seat in the House of Lords.

That's it. Oh and on the last page, we learn that Hermione has started being sick in the mornings ... Sorry to ruin it for you, kids. But you can't live in Dreamland for ever