Paul Arnott: A townie in a country idyll. But why should I feel guilty?

I was not entirely the spare part London life had made me feel


What is it with metropolitan guilt? Last week, we Devonians happily learnt that our house prices increased by 200 per cent in the past 10 years. Immediately, the cry from the metropolis was that it's all the fault of Londoners heading west, leaving real locals shivering in the fields unable to afford a roof over their heads. Worse, that these greedy migrants were inflicting olive oil and cappuccino on bovine counties where the candle had only just been phased out.

Well, that's enough, and I write as a Devonian who, like thousands of others, can claim that affiliation for less than five years. For I was that man, who bought at the crippling top of the market in lovely Lewisham just before the Nineties crash, a loss only salvaged by the fluke arrival of the Docklands Light Railway. I am the very stereotype who could not stand the traffic and the sullen aggression of south London a moment longer, and gambled on moving a family of four children 200 miles west.

Yet I feel no guilt. The issue seems to be not where you live but what effort you make when you get there, and against all expectation I find myself prepared to die for Colyton, East Devon, on various fronts. Even though I promised my wife, brought up in Dorset, that I would keep my trap shut for a decade after our arrival, before offering to rub brasses at the local church in 2011.

I broke this promise the week after our arrival, when we learnt that the Church Commissioners (there are some metropolitan baddies) wanted to build in the garden of the ancient vicarage on the other side of our wall. I found myself speaking at parish meetings, spurred on by militant town elders, and was astonished, when the battle was won, to be launched into the rapids of town life.

What has followed has been a joy. I was not entirely the spare part London life had made me feel. Soon I was setting up the town's first girls' soccer team - 30 girls a week, including my daughters, running themselves ragged rather than growing plump in front of the TV. I was asked to chair a steering group addressing the sticky issue of building a youth centre and nursery. Since I'd had a few bob from the Lotto for a couple of hapless films it turned out that I had some handy knowledge of public funding.

And that was all before the town ignited over the proposal by Devon County Council to close its cherished library in order to fund a voguish new knowledge centre à la Peckham in Exeter. In Colyton now, outraged elderly citizens will chain themselves in and withhold their taxes if the council pursues its plan.

Precisely because I spent impoverished years in Lewisham as friends with the Orange Prize co-founder Kate Mosse when she was a humble editor, I was able to ask her down to help our campaign. That her novel Labyrinth is a number one bestseller was a happy coincidence, and guaranteed acres more coverage than a library closure story would otherwise achieve. And in this campaign, I realised precisely what a lapsed metropolitan like me can offer. First, the services of a moderate scribe. And secondly, the street-fighting instincts of Gotham.

The only fault that I can perceive in this town is a surfeit of courtesy. So I will not feel guilty about the two houses our vendors bought with the money when we bought one house from them, or the small fortune we put into the local economy. You are what you do, and most of those lucky enough to have headed to the West will do it a lot more good than harm.

Paul Arnott's book on sugar 'Let Me Eat Cake' is published in December

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