Richard D North

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The Independent Online
I upset myself more than I intended last week, by going back to visit the French peasants with whom I used to make wine 20 years ago. It was intended as a sentimental journey, admittedly, but the desire to cry was a bit unexpected.

Of course, even when I first started going to Aquitaine, everyone knew that an entire peasant world was dying, here, and everywhere in Europe. Two types of people over-admire the world of the small proprietors, who grow almost as much for subsistence as they do for cash. There are those who do not know it at all (for whom it has romance) and those who have never known anything else (for whom it has, at least, familiarity). The peasants' children could not be kept in this state of innocence: they saw television, travelled, and wanted out. It was clear that the present generation of elderly peasants would not be succeeded: their land would be amalgamated into sensible-sized farms, or abandoned.

In Bordeaux last week, it was clear that anyone who could afford one had the vine-harvesting machines which at the turn of their ignition destroy the back-break, the tedium and the charm of team-working by eight pickers and a porter, the latter straining under the hotte (a sort of dustbin worn on one's back) with which the grapes are taken from the vine to the trailer, and thence to the presses.

My old bosses were a couple, in their mid-fifties when I first met them. He ran almost everything that was grown for cash, and she ran almost everything within sight of the farmhouse, including the pigs, goats and three or four species of farmyard birds which, roasted, made the centrepiece of our daily seven-course lunch.

These people are now in their mid-seventies and do not so much complain of their many aches and pains as seem constantly to mourn their erstwhile ability to work and be useful. I have never met people who so held work as a kind of religion as these French peasants. I have taken all sorts of people to work with them, and I am sure it was more than an employer's eye with which they approved those of us who worked with a will. It was a real flash of moral approval and fellow-feeling. Considering how much we English also drank, there was some surprise as well.

Not, of course, that the death of the peasant world means that the place is becoming ugly. Nor that it is in some sudden decline. The population of the canton of Duras - where I worked - is a quarter of what it was 200 years ago, and the fall has been constant, not especially recent.

Everyone hopes that rural tourism can breathe life into the place, as it does in countryside from Japan to Herefordshire. Indeed, a visit last week to the castle in Duras made the point. Twenty years ago it was a quaint and dangerous ruin. Millions of francs later, it has been beautifully restored. I turned up to find that the region of Aquitaine had taken over the newly-chic place for a freebie for French travel agents. The tourism director was busy saying that there was more to his bailiwick than Biarritz, Bordeaux or even the grand vineyards of Saint-Emilion. There was this other countryside with its more humdrum rhythms and delights.

The director told me that he wasn't trying to create jobs in the countryside so much as keep jobs there. Farm B&Bs, and farm campsites, common now but unknown 20 years ago, will - it's hoped - bring more French tourists to the area, and be a useful new crop for the farmers.

Visitors would have had much more to see when every other farmhouse produced nearly everything needed for living. Nearly everything, apart from leisure and excitement. I don't claim that the old world was better or happier. But it was... different. It was normal throughout continental Europe, before the world of the Euro-normal.