All is not lost - we can still save the countryside

From a lecture by Christopher Hart, the novelist and literary editor of 'The Erotic Review', at the Royal Festival Hall in the South Bank, London

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In a quiet, secluded and beautiful wooded valley in South Wiltshire, there lives a pop star. He's a rich and world-famous pop star. He's also famous for his concern about green issues. He's campaigned vociferously for the preservation of the Amazon rain forest, both its people and its wildlife. But there is an irony here. There's another kind of tribe, another human community and way of life that is also being driven to extinction, under our very noses. I am talking about the rural working classes.

In a quiet, secluded and beautiful wooded valley in South Wiltshire, there lives a pop star. He's a rich and world-famous pop star. He's also famous for his concern about green issues. He's campaigned vociferously for the preservation of the Amazon rain forest, both its people and its wildlife. But there is an irony here. There's another kind of tribe, another human community and way of life that is also being driven to extinction, under our very noses. I am talking about the rural working classes.

The fantasy of the English countryside still remains, however. Quaint locals, thatched cottages, village cricket - you know the kind of thing. It's a fantasy with a long history. You could trace the practice of rhapsodising about the rustic idyll back at least as far as Theocritus, if you wanted to - Sicily, third century BC - and probably further. But in England, and in modern times, it has become particularly hard to stomach.

Politicians sound especially ludicrous when they dip their toes into this treacly stream. Stanley Baldwin in 1924 referred to "the sounds of England, the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil in the country smithy, the corncrake on a dewy morning, the sound of the scythe against the whetstone, and the sight of a plough team coming over the brow of a hill." It wasn't true even when he wrote it - harvesting machines had pretty well replaced scythes by then - and it certainly isn't true now. And a corncrake on a dewy morning! In all the times I've lived or holidayed or just walked in the countryside, I've never even seen one.

In 1993, John Major talked of the English countryside as a place where you could see "old maids cycling to holy communion through the morning mist". Old maids cycling through the what? You're more likely to see a corncrake! He seemed to be under the impression that he had been quoting poetry at the time - had taken the phrase completely out of context. It was pinched from that celebrated essay by George Orwell, "England Your England", in which that great truth-teller gives this image as just one of a list of quintessentially English things, all the others notably urban: Orwell also listed "the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs."

The countryside has always been falsified. So what is the reality, in 2001? There are as many realities as there are people. In 10 years' time, perhaps 20 at most, there will be no hill farmers, no smallholders left. The only farms will be the vast agribusinesses growing GM crops for the supermarkets. Does any of this matter? Does it matter if if the village becomes no more than a dormitory surrounded by silent fields, filled with genetically-modified oilseed rape, nodding gently in the sunshine - and empty of birds, and butterflies, and farm workers?

The nonhuman environment also carries a spiritual truth. Both the natural world, and the divine, are nonhuman. The great, and nowadays rather neglected, rather discomforting American nature poet, Robinson Jeffers, declared that he was an Inhumanist. He regarded humanism as mere arrogance. To be reminded of the much greater worlds of the nonhuman or inhuman, beyond the merely human, is both humbling and elevating. It's a truth that is easily lost in the modern megalopolis.

But all is not yet lost. It doesn't have to be this way. We ought to protect what few smallholders and hill farmers survive, and give every possible incentive and tax break to labour-intensive organic farming.

That pop star I mentioned - who shall remain nameless, although he did used to front a band called The Police - he's not all bad. He's started to run an organic farm. The great thing about organic farms is that they're hopelessly inefficient - in purely market, economic terms, that is. But economics isn't everything.

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