Let billboards grow across the countryside

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The Independent Online

Inverted commas must always be used when talking about "environmentalists". This protective species is getting in a righteous fluster over the prospect of advertising hoardings polluting the countryside now that legislation may be relaxed, allowing put-upon farmers a little extra income. Need the gnashing and wringing be so intense?

Inverted commas must always be used when talking about "environmentalists". This protective species is getting in a righteous fluster over the prospect of advertising hoardings polluting the countryside now that legislation may be relaxed, allowing put-upon farmers a little extra income. Need the gnashing and wringing be so intense?

Lined up here are two classic antagonists: the sensitive ruralists vs the money-grubbing philistines. Except it is not quite so simple as that. Barring the wildernesses of Scotland and Wales, the British countryside - glorious except where it is mutilated by car parks, Little Chefs, pylons, lay-bys, toilets, litter bins, bijoux cottages, picnic areas, gift shops - is a commercial diagram. Our landscape is not natural, but refined and artificial. The agricultural and commercial innovations that created distinctive land use patterns, all those fields, hedgerows and plantings, are evidence of exploitation that goes back centuries.

Civilised man's interventions into nature are as often as beneficial as they are depredatory. Britain's greatest contribution to world art was the invention of the picturesque landscape: gentlemen's parks that were designed not to look like Northamptonshire in its unimproved natural state, but to ape the fashionable pictures of the Roman campagna by painters such as Claude Lorrain and Gaspar Poussin. Very few hills and dales would not be improved by the nice placing of a Palladian villa and some picturesque planting together with a water feature. Or so, at least, our more optimistic 18th-century ancestors believed.

Of course, 48-sheet poster sites for brassiÿres and dog food do not compare favourably with the gardens of Capability Brown and the architecture of William Kent in their power to exalt and delight. But why not expect more? Advertisers are clever enough to know that stimulating revulsion from a nation of consumers who enjoy their garden centres and the view of a mythic pastoral from the windows of a sports ute as it drives by at 50mph might respond to more creative advertising. If you could have explained to Capability Brown the idea of selling Pedigree Chum or a Wonderbra in the countryside, he might have found a more interesting way than an intrusive poster. His successors could start by trying sculpture, for instance.

And all of this anticipatory criticism ignores the foreign example. If you ever plan to motor west and take the highway that's the best, you would find yourself travelling through St Louis, Joplin (Missouri), Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Gallup (New Mexico), Flagstaff (Arizona), Winona, Kingman, Barstow and San Bernardino. In the US, rural advertising is one of the pleasures of travel.

And it is the same in Europe. The sierras of Andalucia are dramatically enhanced by those beautiful silhouettes of the Osborne fighting bull and the Sandeman cloaked figure each doing stirring service for sales of fino. And in France, how touchingly romantic are the faded wall paintings with the legends Pernod, Byrrh, Peugeot and Cynar.

People do remain anxious about commerce and culture, especially when the countryside is involved. Perhaps thinking of Route 66, Ogden Nash wrote in his "Song of the Open Road":

I think that I shall never see/ A billboard lovely as a tree/ Perhaps unless the billboards fall/ I'll never see a tree at all.

But in modern Britain - where the National Trust sells preposterous pots of jam with mob caps while coachloads of the incurious enjoy a view of "heritage" so synthetic and so adroitly packaged that it might as well be sold in a blisterpack with a barcode - objecting to an innovation that contains elements of economic advance and cultural potential seems hypocritical.

Anyway, what exactly were those chalk cuttings in the Downs selling?

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