Oh, the hum of the bees and the whir of the modem: Geoffrey Wheatcroft in Somerset, or maybe Metroland

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The Independent Online
NOT LONG ago, a snobbish friend snapped, 'You don't live in the country,' when I had used that phrase. It's true that the outskirts of a West Country cathedral city are not quite the same as the Pennines or the coast of west Wales. But one thing is for sure: I no longer live in London.

That was where I was born, where I grew up, where I spent 20 years of my working life. Then, six years ago, still an Islington Person, I rented a house down here and began to extricate myself from my native city. The process was accelerated by becoming a family. Two, three, then four, people can't lead the bachelor's peripatetic existence. We moved to a larger house, and then realised that it was here that we now lived. We no longer even have a flat in London.

There were several reasons for this rustication. One was disenchantment with London, something plenty of Londoners feel. (Some years ago, Leo and Jilly Cooper moved from Putney to Gloucestershire. A Daily Mirror reporter rang to ask about the move, and Jilly said brightly, 'I'm tired of London but not tired of life, whatever Dr Johnson may say'. Later, the Mirror rang back to ask, 'That doctor you mentioned - is he National Health or private?')

Like Jilly rather than Johnson, I no longer enjoyed the noise and the people, the dirt and the fatigue of a city which in some ways has improved in my lifetime - shops and restaurants, certainly - but has sharply deteriorated in others. (I'm not being sentimental. I can actually remember when the London Underground was a source of civic pride.) And although I know parents who bring up children in London, I don't know any with no misgivings about it.

Another reason was that technology had made it feasible. It is now possible to make a tolerable living as a freelance journalist while based a hundred miles from London. Over the last century, the English countryside was depopulated by mechanisation: the combine harvester, the milking machine, the tractor. It is being gently repopulated by another technological revolution.

Instead of the hiss of the scythe, the clatter of the harrow, the hammering of the smithy, the English village now hums with new noises: the rattle of the laptop keyboard, the clicks and bleeps of answering machine, fax and modem. Apart from office intrigue and office romance, there is almost nothing a writing journalist cannot now do a long way away from London.

The change brought by the fax and the laptop is new. There's nothing new about the return to the country - a return, because it reverses a much longer historical process. Over many generations country people fled. In the most brutal cases - the Highland clearances - something like 'ethnic cleansing' took place. But from one end of the country to the other the migration was slower but sure. Enclosure, the end of common land, and capitalist farming turned a trickle of landless labourers migrating from country to industrial cities into a flood. It ran faster again with the great agricultural depression of the 1870s, which was what really finished traditional rural life. Almost 100,000 people left the land in that decade alone.

Agriculture itself was rescued, partly by subsidy, partly by mechanisation which (as our farmers like to remind us) made British farming the most efficient on earth. But that conceals another story. A 500-acre farm which once employed 12 horses and 20 men is now farmed by one man with a little cheap help and a lot of expensive machinery. What that has meant for the fabric of rural society speaks for itself.

Working countrymen, cowmen, ploughmen, dairymen, thatchers, coopers, left their villages for good. They were replaced by others: the products of bourgeois (literally 'urban') society who were fleeing from it. You can tell what has happened to life in the English village from the addresses where the middle classes now live. The Old Vicarage, The Old Mill, The Old Shop, The Old Chapel, The Old Tithe Barn, The Old Forge, The Old Post Office, The Old School: all those come from my address book. I haven't yet seen an Old Pub but that can only be a matter of time.

This 're-migration' has its comical and its gruesome sides. Some of the villages near us are frankly preposterous. Most of the cottages now display burglar alarms. Where haywains once stood stand Volvos, BMWs and 'off-road vehicles' which have never been off a road. The pubs that do remain sell more Campari than rough cider.

Musing once about the name 'ploughman's lunch', Jeffrey Bernard observed that the only ploughman he knew lunched off three Mars Bars and four bottles of brown ale. To judge from our local, the traditional meal of the agricultural classes is quiche and Californian chardonnay.

Sometimes class war flares up. When there's a row about building a factory, a housing estate, a bypass, you can't help noticing that it is the New Countrymen who lead the opposition. The few remaining natives are usually in favour.

It requires more eloquence than Jonathan and Bel Dimbleby (or I) possess to convert them to the Preservation of Rural England, if that means yokels preserved in picturesque simplicity like Indians on a reservation.

My own simplicity is patently phoney. As a journalist, I depend (parasitically, perhaps) on what is left of a great industrial society. I take no more part in agriculture

or country sports than growing vegetables desultorily in the garden and equally desultory trout-fishing. What is more, although we are a hundred miles from London, living near a mainline station means that we can get home after going to the theatre in the West End. We could almost be in Metroland.

But there it is and here we are, bogus as we may be. And after all, the countryside could be more artificial still. An element of the Luddite left wants slipyards and coal mines kept going like Marie Antoinette's model dairy. As with De Valera's attempt to recreate a simple Gaelic peasant society in Ireland, this is not ignoble or unattractive. It just isn't going to happen. Nor can Olde England and its village life be brought back.

Those of us who have returned to take possession of the country where once our rude forebears tilled the fields may be mocked. We may even smile at ourselves. Should we really be ashamed?

Alan Watkins is on holiday.

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