The country of lost dreams: Young people in the countryside may not be rioting, but they are angry and frustrated, says Linda Grant

Linda Grant
Saturday 01 August 1992 23:02
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'WHERE are you Johnny Rotten now that we need you?' Will Adams shouted at some sheep grazing on Pen-y-bont Common near Llandrindod Wells in Powys, mid Wales. Johnny Rotten is in California. Will, 28 and still at heart a country punk, dressing more or less exclusively in black and occasionally pulling out his old Sex Pistols albums for an injection of nihilism, lives at home with his parents in Crossgates, a hamlet near Llandod, as it's known locally. This weekend, according to signs nailed to telegraph poles in the area, several thousand hippies are expected to occupy Llanbister Common, four miles away. Llandod talks of little else. Will, like some of his friends, is deeply ambivalent about their arrival.

Listen closely to interviews with members of the hippy convoy and you will hear the rural accents of England and Wales. Many of the New Age travellers, scavenging a nomadic existence off the land, are not urban refuseniks but country kids. 'If my circumstances had been a little different I'd be with them,' Will Adams says. 'I really sympathise with the hippies. I used to share a lot of their ideals - I'm going to enjoy myself any way I can, I've got a right to claim dole, stuff you . . . I think it's terrible the way they're treated in what's supposed to be a free country. This area is full of remote spots where they could go and have a festival but the land is owned by the Ministry of Defence. But then again, it's true what is said about how they leave the land. It's awful that the farmers have to put up with that.'

Since he was 13, Will dreamed of being a game-keeper. What that dream has turned into is a parody of country life: he works in a garden centre. The position of young people now growing up in the countryside is ambiguous. On the one hand they lack townspeople's romanticisation of rural life, the organic farming and vegetarianism of the established hippy communities, or the designer 'country living' of the middle classes. Country youths shoot things and eat them. In the pubs they drink pints of snakebite, a lethal mix of beer and cider. They respect rural traditions like farmers' rights to fence off their fields and put up 'No Trespass' signs. But many are living out a rural version of urban alienation, as they see their way of life stolen from them by 'incomers'. Mid- Wales is a favourite spot for early retirers from the Midlands and South-East. For Will and his friends, joining the hippy convoy for ever (or just for the night), or going to the raves hidden in the hills, is seen as the last resort if they want to stay on the land.

The pub in Crossgates is one of the few left in the area which is still exclusively patronised by locals. On a Sunday night, in the tiny whitewashed public bar are some older men playing cribbage, younger lads and a couple of girls. Kev, in his twenties, is living back at home with his parents after he and his girlfriend split up. She had the tenancy of the council house 'so fair play like, I had to move out'. Even Crossgates is growing, Kev says. A small development is going up on the village boundaries. Although he works for a firm making stationery, which is one of the area's few reasonable payers, he won't be able to afford to buy one of its houses. Will and Kev hate cities: Kev tried London for three months and didn't like it, Will hasn't been since he was at school. Live in Llandrindod Wells? Kev asks. No thanks. It's full of pensioners and depressing as hell. And with a population of 5,000, it's too big. (Llandrindod is also known as the druggies' capital of Wales: it's said locally that you can get anything there, heroin, ecstasy, cannabis. Those whose future prospects are severely limited seek other means of escape.)

In The Archers, sons inherit farms or escape. You assume that anyone left behind must be slow, unimaginative, unambitious. Will Adams, however, is articulate and charming. Both his parents were teachers and one brother now works for a housing association. Will could have prospects too. What is holding him back is his deep love of the countryside and his refusal to leave it. 'Ever since I can remember my idea of fun was wandering around the woods on my own, poaching and getting books from the library about the old country estates. Gamekeeping is a way of being out in the country seven days a week, running a game shoot, mending fences, vermin control, rearing birds. The traditional country estate was a good way of life.'

No one apprentices a gamekeeper any more. They take on some YTS trainees and let them go after a few weeks. After school, and O-levels, Will got a few of these jobs and loved the work; dressed up in green wellies, waxed jacket and deerstalker by day, combing his mohican in the pub at night. Three years on the dole followed that, and finally he got his job at the garden centre where he is now warehouse manager taking home pounds 103 a week. Over the years he has supplemented his income by the countryside's exchange economy. When he was younger he and a friend collected two carrier bags of magic mushrooms from the hills and swapped them for a VW van. Now he has permission from a farmer to go out with his gun and shoot rabbits which he sometimes manages to sell. On Monday he read a report in the Guardian about a scandal in which children were getting shotgun licences. Will has had a shotgun licence since he was 15.

A couple of years ago, he and his girlfriend Nicola started a business under the Government's enterprise schemes, selling hamburgers from a van at fairs and shows. It didn't make them enough money to live on. Nicola is also now unemployed. She and her sister jointly own their house, inherited from their mother, and neither could afford to buy out the other: 'So it's all tied up in Never Never Land,' says Will.

'I'm disgusted and depressed at still living at home. My uncle used to live at home with his parents, which seemed really weird. Then it happened to me. It would help if I got my girlfriend pregnant because then I might be able to get a council flat.' There are flats in town to be rented at pounds 50 a week but that wouldn't leave him enough money to pay the bills and run his car, essential in the country.

Will is not a Welshman. He was born in Ashley, a village in Staffordshire. He says the local kids had no chance there, either. Most of his old friends have moved away to the Potteries towns.

There, they have a future, of sorts: 'You rent a flat, manage to buy a terraced house, work your life away and by the time you're 60, you'll have enough money to move back to the village, time to enjoy the last 10 years of your life and be buried in the village churchyard.'

Will is too cynical for that option himself.

We drove back from the pub at closing time, mapping the constellations. 'In London,' he said, 'the sky never goes dark at night. The sky and the stars are everything to me.'

(Photograph omitted)

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