The victims of rural breakdown

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The Independent Online

What an unlikely icon the "ordinary householders" of Britain have chosen in Tony Martin. Accepting him at his own evaluation - not mad, but eccentric - middle England has decided to identify with this man and to support his appeal against life imprisonment for shooting a 16-year- old burglar in the back and killing him because he was "defending his property".

And what bizarre scapegoats the nation has plumped for in deciding that the lack of rural police is to blame for the explosive situation in which Martin found himself. His victim, Fred Barras, had been convicted 29 times in the four years since his first brush with the law at the age of 12, and presumably was arrested or cautioned on many more occasions.

On the very evening of the burglary, he and his accomplice were stopped by the police in their car, and asked where they were going and what they planned to do. Needless to say, they did not inform the police that they were off to rob Martin's home, any more than Mr Martin had informed the police that he spent his nights waiting fully dressed in the booby-trapped dark with an illegal shotgun which he intended to use the first chance he got.

Further, what odd terms are used in conducting the wearisome debate around the tragic collision of Barras and Martin. We are forgetting which one is the criminal, people thunder. We are forgetting which one is the victim, folk splutter. But it seems quite clear that both of these men are criminals, and that both of them are victims.

Why, in a world of infinite subtlety and incalculable colour, do we persist in attempting to reduce everything to black and white? There are no forces of good here, and none of evil. But what we do find is a couple of men whose lives confirm every prejudice that we hold against them, and whose tale can therefore be employed to confirm our every prejudice. That's why the case has proved so irresistible, and also why it is so incendiary.

Take Martin, the "ordinary householder". He inherited a large house and grounds from an aunt and uncle, and let it rot away for years until it was half derelict. In the meantime, he continued to purchase antiques which he kept in this unlovely building, hoarded in the darkness and dirt. He kept three Rottweilers, to "defend his property", but not on the premises. Why? In case one of them might prove unlucky enough one night to take a stray bullet?

He loved animals, and would never shoot one. But he kept guns all the same, shattering the windows of his family home with one during an argument, and threatening a man who was scrumping apples on his land with another. After these incidents, his gun licence was revoked.

Unfortunately though, Martin took no more notice of the law than Barras. Perhaps he really thought that he was the law. Maybe that's why he insisted always on dressing in navy blue.

I'm no psychiatrist, but I'd wager that Martin is a man who suffers from a variety of obsessive-compulsive disorders. I'd wager, in fact, that Martin is a highly disturbed man, unable to face the reality of his life, unable to cope with the world.

Now take Barras. The little sod was the scum of the earth, God rest him. A tramp and thief, uneducated, uncontrollable, brought up in poverty on a sink estate, abandoned by his father, lazy, disrespectful of himself and others, a petty criminal, a bad lot, an irresponsible wee bugger who cared nothing for his victims, and cared nothing for the law.

As I say, I'm no psychiatrist, but I'd be very surprised if this boy survived his childhood without suffering the scars of some kind of abuse. I'd wager that Barras displayed all of the classic mental disorders associated with children from deprived backgrounds such as his. I'd wager, in fact, that Barras was a highly disturbed man, unable to face the reality of his life, unable to cope with the world.

When Barras climbed into Bleak House, through the one window which was left unbarred - an odd oversight in itself from a man who lived in such fear of intruders - he entered in the full knowledge that Martin was considered locally to be "a nutter". Martin, when he fired, could not have known that the person he shot was one of the gypsies he is reported to have praised Hitler for mounting a programme of genocide against.

But there is something darkly elegiac about the way in which these men found each other, in a double nemesis. Now one of them has lost his life, while the other faces life in prison.

The most significant of the extraordinary aftershocks of this terrible case is the attention that is now being focused on the contents of the rural White Paper. For years men have been being shot dead in the British countryside, week after week, month after month.

Usually, these men shoot themselves, and the metropolitan rulers of the country shrug. We have little sympathy for the farmers who turn their guns on themselves. But the farmer who turns it on a petty burglar, just like the ones who cause us so much grief in the big city, this farmer we identify with, this farmer we feel for, this farmer we must change the law for.

But this story, unusual as its particulars are, contains all the themes of the countryside and its crisis that we have been blithely ignoring or, even more commonly, brayed that rural communities have "brought on themselves". In this story is crime, poverty, intolerance, community breakdown, lack of hope for the future, paucity of amenity, neglect, rupture, abandonment, ignorance, fear, loss. This tale of the country is very similar to our tales of the city, the tales we have learned so little from.

For while the two things may seem a million miles apart, the ruthless efficiency with which we are presiding over the breakdown of farming, and of traditional rural ways of life, is arrestingly similar to the manner in which industry was crushed in the final decades of the last century. We have no sympathy for the farmers, and believe their dire warnings about the future to be bogus. We are cynical about their claims that our links with the land will be lost with them. We do not trust them. We tell them not to get on their bikes - but to "diversify".

We assume that the old ways will be replaced with new ways and that new ways, like New Labour, are better. But there are not so many new ways and for a lot of people there is just loss and disorder. Martin is by no means the only farmer in Britain who is willing to take desperate measures to defend his lifestyle. He is by no means the only countryman who feels isolated and embattled, and who thinks that there is no one he can turn to who will understand him or help him. He is a man who considers it should be his right to defend his antiques with a gun. Other farmers are fighting to defend things that are far older and far more valuable.

I do feel pity for Martin, and question what good his life sentence will do for anyone. And of course I feel pity for Barras, whose short life could not have been so very satisfactory.

But I feel far more strongly for the many other country people whose plight has not brought them to such reckless extremes. The "tens of millions of pounds" which has been pledged by the Home Office for the policing of rural areas is something. But rural Britain needs much more than this if the rot is to be stopped.