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Country Life

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 16 October 2013
For a while now, the thought has been scratching away in the back of my head that so few people live in the country. I keep thinking I should draw a conclusion from this, but I can’t quite scrabble around to find out what it is. Simon Jenkins, who has just published a rather wonderful book about the great views of England, has been lately mourning the lack of feeling that politicians have for the countryside. ‘I doubt whether Ed Miliband would recognise a blade of grass,’ he wrote, crossly.

I am conscious, as I contemplate all this, that I am in a very small numerical minority. I live not only in countryside, but in a wild Scottish landscape. I’m not one of the really hardy sorts, who are two miles off a metalled road, and for whom a journey to collect a morning newspaper is a trek of epic proportions. I have a delightful village half a mile away, where I may buy flowers, get a hair cut, stock up on basil and broccoli, or find a really proper double espresso, with dark rich beans from Columbia.

But still, if I get in my car and travel fifteen minutes to the north, I find myself in a landscape so untouched by time and technology that I can go for thirteen miles without seeing a human or a habitation. There is just mountain, and some incurious sheep.

Stanley the Dog, a country canine to his paw-tips, taking his ease on the autumn leaves.Stanley the Dog, a country canine to his paw-tips, taking his ease on the autumn leaves.

As I think of all this, the scratching thought returns. It transforms itself into a suspicion that country people are traduced or misunderstood, simply because they are such a small number. In 1950, the number of Britons living in cities was 79%; it is estimated that by 2030, that will rise to 92%. I shall be the eight percent. I am shrinking.

I think too of the easy assumptions about country folk. We rural rubes are either heathery, tweedy sorts, with the kind of certain, patrician voices that can carry over three fields, who like killing things and going nowhere without at least two black Labradors, or straw-chewing yokels, who scratch their heads and say things like, ‘The Forest of Dean; you don’t want to go there,’ in comedy West Coutnry accents. There are no good rural archetypes that I can think of. As wind farms march across the untouched land, those who object to ruined views, or suggest that this technology might be less about energy efficiency and more about massive subsidies (money, in other words, not love) are depicted as ghastly, backward nimbies, who do not know what the clever people in cities know.

There is a faint, sentimental affection for the countryside itself, at a distance. It is a dim, washy feeling, not related to real life. Not long ago, Toby Young wrote a furious article about how silly north Norfolk is, and how livid he was that he could not get wi-fi, and how relieved and delighted he was to return to Acton.

It seems to me that the country, and the people who live in it, are most often reduced to paper-thin stereotypes. This morning, I marched through the mud in my gumboots to do the horses. We are back in the muddy season now. I shall not know a clean day until April. My clothes, my boots, even sometimes my hair, will bear traces of the good Scottish earth. I had a long conversation with my barefoot trimmer, as she tended to the hooves of my glorious mare, who took the opportunity to have a little doze. (She adores having her manicure done.) We discussed horse psychology, and herd behaviour, and the musculature of the equine. It was very interesting and quite technical.

Then I went up, past the long blue mountains that rise to the south of the River Dee, to HorseBack UK, the charity for which I volunteer. Here, I ran into a Royal Marine who works there. We stood, looking out over the hills, and talked of anthropology, war, the invasion of Iraq, the differences between Sunni and Shia, the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland, and, of course, horses. It was a long and serious conversation, and at the end we had to make a quickfire series of jokes, leavening the whole thing with irony, because we are British, and are required by law not to be earnest for any length of time.

As the Royal Marine and I had our long and intricate conversation, this is what we were looking at: the HorseBack herd up on the northern slope.  What always interests me is the contrast in the hills: the ones to the south are indigo, whilst these northern ones are a motley of green and umber.As the Royal Marine and I had our long and intricate conversation, this is what we were looking at: the HorseBack herd up on the northern slope. What always interests me is the contrast in the hills: the ones to the south are indigo, whilst these northern ones are a motley of green and umber.

I thought about these two conversations. I thought they did not fit the stereotypes terribly well. I don’t really mind that country people are stuffed into small, idiot boxes, are considered to be lacking in sophistication and nuance, because I know that is not the truth. As the farmer roars up in his ancient Landrover to check his sheep, I don’t expect he frets too much about what the urban flâneurs think of him. As the magnificent fencer bashes in the posts for the new paddock with the skill of ages, I don’t imagine he gives a second thought to the limited boilerplate peddled by certain newspapers. But it is lazy thinking, for all that. I think, my most great-auntish self raising her head like a PG Wodehouse gorgon: people really should know better.

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