My days in Hell

(or how I confronted all my prejudices about country life)
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The Independent Online

I can feel my chest constricting. My ribs are bruised. For a moment, I think I am having a heart-attack. There is something called "a bale of hay" on my back, and it appears to be slightly heavier than the continent of Asia. A huddle of cows are gloating in front of me. A gaggle of chickens is shrieking with laughter behind me. I am in hell. I am in a place called "Yorkshire".

I can feel my chest constricting. My ribs are bruised. For a moment, I think I am having a heart-attack. There is something called "a bale of hay" on my back, and it appears to be slightly heavier than the continent of Asia. A huddle of cows are gloating in front of me. A gaggle of chickens is shrieking with laughter behind me. I am in hell. I am in a place called "Yorkshire".

This story begins a week ago when I stumbled upon the pro-hunting riots in Parliament Square. As a hardcore Londoner who sees Hyde Park as excessively rural, these are the only countrypeople I ever see; enraged and contorted with hate for us "townies". I wrote a piece lambasting these very countryfolk for their ingratitude.

Amber Barnett, a reader, was so appalled by my article that she wrote to The Independent saying country people were clearly "the last minority it's OK to bash", and she invited me to stay with her family on their small farm in the village of Long Marston "to see what we are really like". I, of course, threw the letter away. The countryside terrifies me. I have only been there once; on a geography field-trip when I was 15, and it was so full of insects and incest and mud and cold and hideous country people, that ever since I have wanted to turn the M25 into a crocodile-filled moat to keep it as far from me as possible.

But Amber did a cunning thing. She cc'd her e-mail to my boss. And so within 24 hours I find myself in York rail station looking for Amber and her family. I picture The Wicker Man meets Camilla Parker Bowles; I look for a couple dancing around a maypole clutching a magical beaker of foreskins. But then a normal-looking middle- aged woman pulls up in a car.

As I jump in, she says: "I did consider putting straw in my ears for you." I relax slightly - but then we drive out of York, with its familiar internet cafés and Kentucky Fried Chicken bars along country lane after country lane. I clutch my mobile close to my chest in case they try to sacrifice me in the night... but then realise my mobile network doesn't stretch out here. So that's it. I am trapped.

As we drive beyond all known maps (or so I imagine), Amber says: "You can't possibly mean what you said in your article. Nobody could possibly believe that." Then she adds with a disturbing smile: "I'm looking forward to getting you to help with the silage tomorrow." Silage?

Amber's house has plants climbing hungrily up its walls, but otherwise it is a nice, normal family home, with a guesthouse attached. I am relieved to see it has electricity and telephones. "We have to do the B&B to make ends meet," she explains as she shows me around. "And we run a toy business selling to the local area too. That's how spoiled we are by farm subsidies - they give us just enough so that with two other businesses we can have a reasonable standard of living." When we get to the living room, Amber's husband Phil - who talks in a dense Yorkshire accent - greets me by saying: "So you're the prejudiced one?"

Phil decides to take me out to the local pub to be lynched. He calls it "having a drink", but I am convinced death awaits me. As we drive there, I ask - as a feeble joke - whether he knows everybody who drinks in the pub. "Oh aye," he says seriously, and he really does. When we walk through the door of the Sun Inn he greets everybody by name. Phil has always lived in Long Marston. His father was from here, and his mother was from the next village along.

The first person we chat to is Gerry Dawson, the local binman. I wouldn't have guessed that a binman would care about hunting rights, but he says furiously: "It's a disgrace, this ban! A disgrace!" He does not hunt foxes himself, but he enjoys shooting birds and is convinced shooting will be the next item on Blair's ban list. "Blair's taken a million quid from the animal rights people, and he's got to ban hunting or they won't give him any more. He doesn't care - it's his bloody wife and the money that he cares about." And then he adds: "We're a minority, aren't we? A minority. Nobody cares about us." I hear this everywhere over the next few days, and always with the same half-sad, half-delighted air. "I'll tell you this; if Blair does ban it, there will be a civil war in this country!" Gerry waves towards a picture of Cromwell that hangs in the pub, marking the fact that this area was a key battlefield in the English Civil War.

He is about to continue, but he is interrupted by Alan Jones, a retired electronics manager who lives in the village. "He doesn't speak for the countryside!" he says. "I'm in favour of a ban, and so are lots of country people. We had a straw poll in here the other night and most of us were in favour. The fox-hunters should be honest and admit it's nowt to do with controlling pests and all to do with enjoying the kill. Only 15 per cent of fox kills are done by the hunt." Gerry is appalled. "This all boils down to the Royal Family!" he yells. "Alan's not a royalist! He'd get rid of the Royal Family!" Alan shakes his head and says: "I don't see what..." "Are you a royalist or not?" Gerry demands. "Are you in favour of the Queen?"

When we get back to the farm, Phil says goodnight and adds: "I'll send some men up to milk you at five thirty." I sit in my room - amazed to still be alive - and look out over huge, empty fields. I long for the crush of a packed Tube carriage. I can't relax because there is a terrible noise. At first I can't figure out what it is; I look nervously around the room. And then it hits me: it is silence. I can't hear anything at all. I switch on the radio.

It is still playing when Amber wakes me up the next morning to help with this mysterious "silage" and with her horses. My heart soars when I discover that silage is merely straw to be fed to the cattle. She hands me a pitchfork. "What's this for?" I ask. "For lifting bales, and for killing journalists if they get out of line," she answers.

After the hay is moved and I have wept in agony, Amber takes me to meet her horses. They are lolling in the fields, looking uncannily like the Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. I am amazed to spot that the chickens just wander around freely. "What do you think they'll do - run away and send us a postcard from Paraguay?" she asks.

We spend the rest of the day meeting tens of country people who explain their problems to me. Many want to dedicate their farms to producing renewable energy, making oilseed rape into fuel for cars, but they can't get the funding. They all have traumatic memories of foot and mouth; being shut down in their farms and strictly forbidden from visiting their friends or making any "non-essential travel" for six whole months. Many of them explain in melancholy tones that they don't see how they can keep their farms and their lifestyle going much longer.

That's when I decide to fire my rhetorical nuclear missile; what about the miners? If you guys care about preserving traditional lifestyles, if you believe in subsidy so much, what were you doing during the miner's strike? Voting for Margaret bloody Thatcher, that's what. Amber replies quietly and with deadly force: "My father was a miner. My grandfather was a miner. We supported the miners totally. Am I being punished for what Thatcher did when I opposed her all the way?" Ah, I say, and go quiet.

Amber is not what I picture when I think about farmers' wives. She's smart (she used to lecture at the local college), she's witty, she's left-wing and it's easier to imagine her joining the mujahedin than the Women's Institute. When I tell her this, she says: "But most of us are like this. Don't you see that what you expected was a prejudice like any other?" She's right; my days of toff-hunting in Long Marston were all futile. We will not, I'm afraid, get revenge for the miners by punishing these people.

Hunting is, anyway, an issue where most country people agree with us townies. (Amber is ambivalent.) And on two huge issues - to my astonishment - country people are much more progressive than most townies. Everybody here talks about "corporations" with a scorn I only normally hear from my most left-wing friends. Everybody here is worried about big supermarkets and rich individuals buying up their areas. They talk about corporate monopolies and distorting the food supply like a Socialist Worker.

And, more than any other issue, everybody here is worried about climate change. The village's agronomist, Mike Simpson, explains why. "The changes in Britain's climate don't really affect you in an air-conditioned office, but for the people I work with it's their whole life. The changes that we are all noticing over the past decade are really weird. The weather is much more extreme. Last year we had a drought. This year we had torrential rain like nothing we've ever had in this country. It's changing the face of agriculture."

Before I go home, we pop in to visit of couple of local hunters called Wayne and Jane Burnell. Everything about them - from their names to their broad Yorkshire accents - makes them seem like characters in an Alan Bennett play. In their front room, sitting next to a cuddly Balloo the Bear for their tiny blonde daughter Poppy to play with, is a stuffed fox. "We found this one on the road," Wayne says. The fox appears to be grinning, though I can't imagine why.

"I've been hunting since I was a little kid, and I'll keep on doing it until I die," Wayne says. But what about after the ban? "I'll go to prison if I have to. this is our way of life. We won't let it be destroyed." Wayne and Jane immediately brandish pictures of Poppy at her first hunt - aged two. She is wearing a tiny huntsman's outfit and holding a tiny bugle. Just as I thought I was acclimatising I have crashed into a Berlin Wall of town-country incomprehension; it is time to leave.

The door to my flat in the East End clicks shut behind me. A couple are screaming at each other in the street outside. The fire alarm from the Kentucky Fried Chicken shop opposite almost drowns them out. A ragged pigeon with one scabby leg is slouching wearily on my windowsill. I place my farm shop marmalade on my mantelpiece and promise myself that next time I write about the countryside, I won't picture some fulminating toff; I will picture Amber.

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