THE ENGLISHMANS LOVE OF THE COUNTRYSIDECategory: Leisure
Every Englishman is a countryman at heart. However many years he may have lived in the city, he does not believe he really belongs there. As he looks out of the window of his flat over the vast desert of brick and concrete, relieved by a single pollarded plane tree, he has in his mind a vivid picture of the day when he will live in a thatched cottage with roses round the porch and hollyhocks in the garden, and breathe in the fresh air of the unspoilt countryside, while listening for the first Percy Edwards of spring. It is a longdistance love affair. The further away the countryside is, both in miles and time since he was last there, the more desirable it becomes.
Everything he sees about him panders to his romantic illusion. Television commercials picture a countryside where it is always a sunny summer afternoon, never a wet and windy morning. Whether the commodity is milk, or corn flakes, or sweets, or cigars, or motor cars, or beer, the countryside has something to add to it. It stands for freshness, for purity,
for leisure, fun and games, for country lanes dotted with young couples on the verge, for rustic stiles more sinned against than sinning. Insurance companies have posters of country villages, suggesting something real in an artificial world, something enduring and unchanging in a world where everything else seems to be going rapidly downhill. Every Englishman feels all this deep in his heart and it is for this reason that every doctor and dentist has in his waiting room a copy of the magazine Country Life; descriptive of rural pleasures and retreats, it is the most powerful anodyne known to English pharmacology.
The English countryside is many things to many people. But to all of them, it is worth fighting for, and an Englishman gets tremendously upset if he hears of anything which threatens to disturb or destroy his idyll. He has probably never seen the place and probably never expects to see it. His opposition is rooted more in Thoreau than in anger. He has his National Trust, his Men of the Trees society, and preservation councils for just about every hill and valley south of the Caledonian Canal, and any scheme for moving smoky power stations away from crowded cities and on to empty moors, any proposal for a satellite town which will relieve the squalor of urban slums, anything which might interfere with the vast tracts of land he calls his countryside, will meet with implacable, though fruitless, opposition.
The only schemes exempt from his wrath are those for building motorways. And this is understandable, since it is only because of the motorways and trunk roads and railways that he knows the countryside is there at all. If all the countryside were removed except for what is visible from the main roads and the main lines, ninety-nine per cent of the English would be none the wiser.
For it is the idea of the countryside that the English are in love with. The reality they in fact detest. For the past two centuries the driving force of English society has been to get away from the country and into the towns and cities at the greatest possible speed and in the greatest possible numbers. Something like eighty per cent have achieved it, and the rest need hardly bother. Instead of rushing into town from the countryside, they find it easier to wait in the countryside . for the towns to rush out to them, most English farmers “ having one field down to wheat, one to potatoes and one to a housing estate.
Having got away from the country, the English have created for themselves an environment as much unlike it as possible, and whenever they venture back into it, they find ft almost unbearable. It is not only because of the crawly things and the horny things which menace them in ways undreamt-of in the cities; it is also because of the total absence of anything to do. According to television commercials the Englishman can go for leisurely walks with his girl friend through waist-high corn, he coveting her packet of fags, she his box of Milk Tray. In practice, these and similar notions are neither forthcoming nor attractive when he actually gets there. There is nothing he can in the country that he cannot do in the city, although it is true that with so much more space available he is rather less likely to get caught.
Above all, there is a very great deal of ghastly silence. The countryside is at best a lunch break on the way from the urban metropolis to a seaside one — which appeals in a direct ratio to its similarity to the city just left. The traveller might drive a hundred yards off the main road for his picnic, but finding even the transistor radio incapable of completely dispelling the eerie silence, he will soon be back on the strip of grass alongside the trunk road, where he and his family will be able to enjoy their meal thanks to the comforting roar of the cars hurtling past at the rate of a thousand an hour. Many of these cars will be heading for one of the vast car parks, complete with cafeteria, amusement arcade, lavatories and souvenir shop, which cater to the Englishman’s inability in any circumstances, including a visit to the country, to range more than two hundred yards in any direction from his car. He does not understand the complaint that these car parks are spoiling the countryside. Well sited at the top of various small rises, these are the only places, he will point out, that he can see the countryside from. The fact that there might actually be a real human being out there looking at his car park is so manifestly absurd and far-fetched as not even to enter his head. Safe and sound in the middle of Dartmoor, he gazes over the vast deserted panorama for a moment or two then, reassured that nobody is mucking England about, gets in his car, heads for the nearest clover-leaf junction and is quickly back in the mainstream of life.
(To England with Love by D. Frost and A. Jay)