Like a porn channel that peddles varying versions of the same basic fantasy, British TV offers its viewers a gentle, sun-kissed, urban view of life in the countryside. The birds and woodland creatures are there on Springwatch. The Making of the Countryside brings us the rolling fields and moorland of the landscape. Interesting little rural issues and conundrums appear on Countryfile. Human life away from the cities is represented on Emmerdale or in the latest leafy detective drama.
Not before time, this sustained propaganda has been challenged. Launching a campaign called "Over the Hill", the Rural Media Company has warned those who are considering retiring to the country – almost 60 per cent of the people they surveyed – to look at the realities of what they would be facing.
"Never mind the rural dream, I still have the nightmares," wrote the author Mavis Cheek, supporting the campaign with an article in The Daily Telegraph. Her 10 years away from London had opened her eyes to aspects of rural life rarely covered in Escape to the Country: unacceptable attitudes by builders towards women, lack of local facilities, boys on motorbikes, racism, a dependence on cars, pheasants that wake you up at five in the morning, tractors, gardens which keep growing and growing.
It is a convincing piece, and some of the online replies it provoked have served to confirm its arguments. "Go back to the city where you belong, you middle-class townie drip," wrote one reader. In fact, Mavis Cheek is making a worthwhile point to anyone who is considering a move away from the town – and not just those about to retire. Largely thanks to the sentimentalised version of country life which appears on television, more and more people are attracted to the idea of a rural downshift. A move to a cottage is seen as a reward for hard work, like a gin and tonic at the end of the day.
There will be less stress and noise, the thinking goes. The contact with nature, the air, the exercise, the dog bounding happily at your feet: these will all be good, life-enhancing things. I happen to agree with all that, but I have also noticed that, for those used to convenience, a variety of human company, and entertainment, a move to the country can bring only disappointment and boredom.
Away from Emmerdale or Midsomer, there is more time and energy spent every day simply on surviving – driving to the shops, getting logs in, keeping nature at bay. Socially, it can pose problems. Like parents of small children, one can find that circumstances push you into the company of people with whom one would not normally be friends. There is more emphasis on the local community – a good thing, on the whole, but one which might involve your spending far more time discussing roads, litter, hedges and footpaths than you would dream of if you lived in a town.
Nature is closer, and that, too, might be less attractive than it appears on Springwatch. There are rats. Sheep in this part of the country have begun to abort their lambs as a result of yet another agricultural disease. Farther west, trained marksmen (ie farmers' sons) will soon be out at night shooting badgers with rifles. In the summer, the swallows and house martins that nest in your garage or around your eaves will shit on your car. The house will be under attack all year round by mice, wasps, moths, flies.
If you are contemplating a move to the country and these things depress or disturb, you should think again. Ask yourself honestly whether at the moment when you return to the town after a weekend in the country, your heart doesn't lift slightly. Do the houses on each side of the road settle around you like a comfortable old coat? If they do, you should probably see the countryside as a nice place to visit – and to look at on TV.
Sell your face and you sell your soul
A couple of years ago, there were reports in the press of a female undergraduate who had resorted to working in a lap-dancing club in order to pay off her student loans.
A marginally less sad version of the same story is contained in the news that two Cambridge students resolved to pay off their debts by allowing their faces to be used as sites for advertisements. They made £5,000 in two weeks.
With the sponsorship of the accountancy firm Ernst and Young, the face-painters – Ross Harper and Ed Moyse – have now set up a website called Buy My Face, which will enable other young people to walk around with their faces decorated by the logo for a bookmaker, accountant or maker of crisps.
The only possible disadvantage of the scheme is that it makes the face-advertiser look not only like an idiot, but also an idiot who will do anything for money. On the other hand, he is a perfect walking, painted symbol of an age in which nothing is too personal to be used for the purposes of marketing.