Urban bliss, rural hell

Matthew Brace
Wednesday 12 April 1995 23:02

The Easter weekend is once more upon us and everyone will be heading for the country. Well, not quite everyone. Matthew Brace meets city folk who loathe our green and pleasant landscape

Rivers of people, fields of concrete and a forest of skyscrapers: cities, who'd have 'em?

Close to 23 million Britons at the last count - nearly half the population - who believe it must be worth enduring outrageous property prices and the higher crime rates to be a part of one of these great human machines.

But this is not to suggest that metropolitans merelyput up with city life. On the contrary, most go outof their way to embrace it, using their spare hours todelve into its bulging goodie-bag of victuals, culture and, of course, sleaze. As Oscar Wilde put it in The Picture of Dorian Gray, "Anybody can be good in the country".

"It's security," saysSophie Jones, 21, an aspiring businesswoman, dedicated nightclubber and "Londoner born and bred". If I can have everything going on around methen I feel secure. When I'm not in that atmosphere, I don't feel safe. I have a relationship with the city. When I go out for the night, it's as if I'm going out with London itself, on a date."

Venturing beyond the M25, however,leaves her cold. "I can't deal with it. I can't go there on my own. As soon as I drive out of London, panic sets in. I get scared. I can't sleep because when it's dark out there, it's pitch dark. No glow of street lights, no people, nothing ... horrible.''

Sophie shares her fear of all things rural with self-confessed city addict Woody Allen, who lives and films in Manhattan. As hetold Time magazine, "I'd rather die than live in the country. I've always been at two with nature."

But surely country life can be as idyllic as the postcards boast, with WI jumble sales, jolly harvest suppers and all?"I hate all that village fte stuff," snaps student Amanda Smith, 24. "All those farmers walking around in clumpy boots with red faces and big rough hands smelling of pig. People who think that's civilised must be mad."The popular image of the city as a crime-ridden hellhole from which people desperately flee to the purity and freedom of the country seems to be fading. Figures show that British cities are growing again.

According to the London Research Centre, which examines trends and issues in the capital, after more than a decade of population decline in the 1970s, the capital spent the 1980s expanding by almost 3 per cent, approximately 200,000 people, and predictions for the year 2011 show it topping 7 million once more.

The centre's demographic and statistical officer, John Hollis, believes this pattern is being repeated in other British cities.

"There does seem to be a move back towards cities, not necessarily the big cities of the north, but certainly the Southamptonsand cities of that size. Meanwhile, populations in some rural areas seem to be static, if not in decline."

For the novelist David Lodge,size is important. He lives in Birmingham where he feels he can "disappear" from prying eyes."I like the city's anonymity. In a country village everybody knows your business. In the city you can hide away from that ... which can be very useful. I'm quite economical with time - a bit of a workaholic - but in the country people seem to spend all their time driving everywhere, or ferrying their children around. I could never live there."

Rural landscapes provide daunting wastelands for many urbanites. It is as if they fear a latent force at work beneath the lonely fields and among the whispering woods.To cap it all there isunreliable public transport, few telephone boxes and not a 24-hour garage in sight.

But what of the friendly country people,ready to stop and chat over a pint in the local? "Bumpkins," scoffs lecturer Caroline Forster. "Aimless people wandering about in their wellies, covered in horse manure. Basically they are just horsey anddeliberately stupid. Nobody reads newspapers so you can't discuss foreign affairs orthe political state of the country.Going through theadulteries of people in the village is just boring."

Bumpkins alsofeature on former teacher Felicity Laing's hate list. Driven by hippy instincts and too many episodes of The Good Life, she left London for Devon to find solace and grow her own vegetables. "It was all right until we started talking to people. Especially teenagers, who were really excited about going on a day trip to Plymouth.There is no intellectual challenge out there, just small-minded, insular people who thought we were from another planet.

"When my daughter came along I didn't want her growing up in that environment, so a month after she was born we hightailed back to London. Every time I go to the country now I can't wait to drive back over the Thames and see the lights and know I'm home."

For Dr Neil Bingham, a curator of architectural drawings at the Royal Institute of British Architects who comes from the "middle-of-nowhere: Winnipeg, Canada", but now lives in south London, it's more a matter of skylines - or the lack of them.

"It's the rawness of the countryside that scares me," he says."I grew up on the prairies andthere wasso much space it was frightening. It just goes on and onand nothing happens. I had to leave.Now I'm a great fan ofhigh-rise council estates."

On Dr Bingham's native side of the Atlantic theyhave pet names for their cities. Chicago is"The Windy City", Detroit "Motown", New Orleans "The Big Easy". We British, however,praise our metropolises in verse: "A house is much more to my taste than a tree; And for groves, O! A good grove of chimneys for me," wrote the 19th century poet Charles Morris.

And, Sophie confirms, there is much worth praising: "I can go and see a grand cathedral, a world-famous painting and eat cuisines from every country in the world - all just around the corner from my house. Compare that to a miserable wet field full of rain and sheep dung."

So what of the country's fresh, unpolluted air, which replenishes the lungs and spirit, blowing out the smoky filth of urban living? Rebecca Pitt groans. "All the countryside does is activate my allergies. All those bugs and spores. I sneeze and choke. And it's impossible to lay your hands on any drugs. Thank God for London and nightclubs."

For saxophonist Ronnie Scott, 35 years running his jazz club in London's Sohohave left him emotionally chained to the area. "I've got a very low threshold of boredom.Being in the country and away from urban life I'd say 20 minutes is about it," he says. "Jazz is a very urban thing anyway. You don't get much of it in Stoke Poges."

This may be why so many city dwellers stay at home at the weekends - even Bank Holiday weekends - instead of rushing off to the wilds. A mere 6 per cent of the capital's 6.9 million inhabitants leave its boundaries each Friday and Saturday for leisure purposes, according to the London Research Centre - proof that for many city types the country just doesn't provide therequired distractions.

The isolation, the peace, the calm after the city's storm ... allleave charity education worker Debbie Allen cold. "The countryside ... There's no noise, no sirens. I love sirens, especially at night. It makes me feel that everything is all right. I just spent a week in a French farmhouse andI had to do alot of knittingto keep myself focused."

Above all, cities exude "attitude", which sets the pace and forces residents and visitors to keep up or be left behind. It is this sense of living at the cutting edge which drew Keiran Carr, 30, a computer analyst, from Eire to London.For Keiran, like fellow city addicts, there can be no compromises,no hamlets and certainly no hedgerows.

"It's only in a city that you really find yourself. Much better than small-townlife with all its inadequacies. It moves so quickly and it all fits together. People on the Tube know to stand on the right of an escalator because there'll be this river of people running down the left. Somehow that makes perfect sense, perfect sense of everything."

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