At the weekends, I often go running down country roads and lanes. As any long-distance runner will tell you, one of the things that may stop you from putting on your trainers and heading off is the prospect of sheer boredom. It’s all very well for urban dwellers to talk about preserving the countryside so that future generations can enjoy it, but the truth is that when you’re there, in the thick of it, one green field with a few cows surrounded by hedges is pretty much the same as the next. There is no enduring aesthetic delight in having a field when you’re out herding cows, shovelling dung and cutting silage.
City dwellers think of ‘the countryside’ as a type of refuge from all the demonic entanglements of city life: work, traffic, foreigners… and it is therefore somewhat understandable that they should seek to keep it immaculate. People who actually live there, and I mean those born and reared there, often known as culchies, don’t actually think of the countryside as the countryside at all. They just think of it as ‘here’. This point is often missed.
If you think of Country Roads by John Denver, or Country Boy by Glen Campbell, the ‘country’ evoked is basically what the city is not. These are notions of ‘the country’ developed in urban centres. So when I hear people talking about preserving the countryside, what they are really talking about is preserving the counterpoint to urban life. This is, among other things, another way of saying that you should try and preserve urban life as it is. I think this may be what Raymond Williams wrote about, but as I haven’t read the essays in question, I can’t be too sure.
I am sympathetic, then, to Sinn Fein’s opposition to rural planning policy proposals (via Balrog.) It may well be an instance of urban dwellers imposing their own designs, for the motivations explored above, on rural areas. But I can only agree up to a point.
Back to the run. One of the things that helps stave off boredom when out running is the dwellings on display. Many new residences, bungalow or not, are the lurid manifestations of their owner’s ego. Their rigorous, almost pathological symmetry and bric-a-brac ornamentation (statues of geese with gilded beaks wearing trousers is one example) could be interpreted as a crude homage to the landlords who once controlled the land where their ancestors worked. Those familiar with a particular area may be able to discern the local history behind the buildings, where one neighbour sought to outdo the next in his vulgar elaborations.
A point has now been reached where a peculiar style has been developed: a disturbing amalgam of Southfork and Footballer’s Wives. If you breathe in deep enough, you can get a faint whiff of cream leather. Images of the country, generated in urban centres, are what get imposed on the landscape in reality. In fact, this type of dwelling is like a miniature illustration of how most urban dwellers think of the city’s relation to the country: a big lump of concrete surrounded by copious swathes of unused green grass: the grass is there to be surveyed, but not much use for anything else. Apart from running past in a pair of Nikes.