Rural idylls: RDN’s take on Arcadia
The countryside is the repository of people’s dreams. It is the canvas on which they paint their fantasies. In this piece, I look at the way I do it.
To make things as clear as possible: there has always been a sort of culture war over rural aesthetics. It is seen in Virgil, Crabbe and Goldsmith, indeed in any poet writing rural verse in other than the most purely descriptive terms. It is a refraction of the wider political war between views about economic progress, which itself has dimensions of class war (itself both real and phoney, real and imagined). I try to talk about such matters here.
I am writing this because I think the issues are interesting in themselves, and because I want to clear the decks. I want to free myself to write poetically about the countryside rather than about the culture wars which rage there. But I don’t want my writing to be innocent of the things I think, though it isn’t primarily about them.
I know I love the English countryside but I find I am resistant to mourning over it. I think far too much writing about the countryside is a threnody, an elegy, a valedictory oration. This is of course circular: writers often want to mourn something or other which has gone wrong in the world and they see this failure reflected in the look or feel or workings of the countryside. Often, they see failure in the countryside where there is none: they bend it into metaphorical shape to suit their mood or opinion.
My own tastes are not particularly perverse, and I resist thinking them contrarian. Indeed, I can relate them both to a very highbrowbut also a well-developed mainstream aesthetic, and I shall do so.
But I freely concede that I am drawn to the ugly, robust, functional and realistic in life (they are not co-terminous). I like tough love, visiting places of upheaval like Chernobyl and places of pressure and temperature like chemical plants and places of giantism and trade like container ports, thrilling movies of jeopardy and violence, elitist places like Cambridge and Eton. I would probably like hare-coursing.
I like to think that I have these tastes partly because I have understood the role of the Sublime in the Picturesque. I like this part of the Enlightenment as seen in Burkean and other broadly matter-of-fact conservative lines of thought and sensibility. I love science (including the sciences of ecology and ethology and economics), but have little head for its mathematics, and I love the market (including its institutions of good manners, law and regulation).
So I like Coke the agricultural improver as much as John Clare, though I know too little of either. In landscape terms, I like a Turner or a Wright of Derby: they were drawn to the fire of furnaces in the country scene as well as to Vesuvius and to chocolate box idylls. I like Cotman’s blustery Norfolk (its dreams of Claude rendered familiar and unclassical in the English drizzle) or Rubens’ Rainbow with its wet cattle farm (where romance and profit graze together indifferently).
In short, even in the countryside, I know the power of the wild – I eulogise tundra if not with the best at least with a will (try my Wild Britain) – but will defend not merely the humanely mixed in farming, but also the ultra-modern, the industrial, and the productive as best I can and I do so from understandings that I derive from reading ecology as well as from enjoying supermarket food shelves.
I resist the seductive ideology of any rustic ideal, the virtues of which are usually oversold. The Organic and the Artisinal have great merit: they are beautifully middle and upper class; they are entrepreneurial. Their transactions are, like tourism, the tribute paid by affluence to poverty. But I love, too, the great fleets of tractors and sprayers, with GPS, and their sound systems playing to youngsters who will not get early onset arthritis. With luck their wider horizons (wider than any field) may spare them the suicidal tendencies of their forefathers, who sometimes went mad going round and round in circles in their crops. I once said that little ails the English countryside that cannot be fixed by the judicious use of a JCB: the digger and dozer can be Nature’s friend, say as they maintain ditches. And they could be crucial to the accommodation of new houses alongside improved naturalness in the landscape. Besides, a well placed rural car park is what I need, as much as a charcoal-burner’s glade.
Perhaps, by the way, that explains my pleasure in man-made nature. Managed Retreat – where engineers and heavy equipment produce seaside wetlands – tickles my fancy almost as much as the idea of taking Crossrail’s underground spoil and creating a new soggy landscape in Essex. It amuses me that Mankind can make up Nature. I like landfill as Creative Geology.
I can love the sweep of a motorway across a northern Dale or a Hampshire down (and with the pleasure of knowing that the road has brought me conveniently to great country just as logging tracks have taken me to rainforest, which I know can be harvested – if with care – much more like spinach than is supposed), and I can love the wide openness of a grain baron’s field – its Ravilious graphic sweep – as well as bocage. And I refuse not to hear that chickens in a large shed in a small valley may well be thriving better than those in the smallholding at its fence.
In about 2000 did a show in one of Michael Eavis’s fields at the Glastonbury Festival along some of these lines: I was herded off the place by eco-grunges whose passive aggressive sit-in frightened me far more than it did my partner, now my wife. (One of my countryside minders, helping me pack up in a hurry, remarked that Reading Festival had a far friendlier atmosphere, and in my predicament I found that sharply amusing.)
I learned the difficult way that everything that is easy to say about animals is likely to be flawed. My Animals Report (1982) brought me close to an understanding – which it was weak of me not to articulate thoroughly – that mankind cannot remove himself from animal life, at least not without his own diminution. And it is no more blindingly obvious that animals would be better off without us (or without cages, or without hunters or slaughter) than that soil would be better off without man’s chemicals. And these matters are not merely matters of evidence as to welfare (though they are all that): my inspection of my life alongside animals told me that I am glad that (for instance) we farm them in sheds as well as free-range.
It was being in chicken sheds and in slaughterhouses which told me that I enjoyed them. And that helped me hugely enjoy, as though she were a saint of some kind, and a hero, the work of Temple Grandin. Like Stanley Spencer, in his work between bathtubs in Macedonia, she knew the spatial comfort of confinement, and saw how to put her understanding at the service of animals.
Part of this parcel of tastes means that I am also drawn to engagement in the Culture Wars. I do not like the Luddite, class-ridden, negativism of the Romantic tradition and its soft-left liberal green – and often socialist – manifestations. Is it their whining or their smugness which most offends? I don’t mind if my ideology in part flows from my tastes in walking, poetry or art; but I prefer the idea that my eyes, feet, ears and mind are of a piece, though necessarily the mind tries to impose a tidiness which is a little artificial compared to the variety which tastes allow.
In saying this I may yet sound much more combative and negative than I feel. In fact, it is, I am pretty sure, the positive in me which fundamentally has latched on to the view that the bohemian, Romantic, lefty, liberal sense of superiority is deeply flawed spiritually and psychologically, let alone economically and politically. In the early 1970s I was some sort of green. By the mid-70s I was embarked on a journey, more or less completed in the mid-90s, in which I came to see much green thinking was ordinarily 19th Century in its Romanticism, and much of the rest pretty bad. So official, orthodox greenery became, and remains in my mind, peculiarly weak as to it use of science and evidence; and uninteresting politically, emotionally, spiritually, economically. That was the burden of my Life On a Modern Planet: A manifesto for progress (Manchester University Progress, 1995).
I feel very strongly that the countryside cannot thrive unless it thrives economically. Everything man does has an economic element, and there is beauty there. The Organic Farmer usually has a poor grasp of the science he affects to dislike, and the Organic Customer seems even more scientifically ignorant, but their transactions with each other are at least closer to the market than many of their industrialised neighbours. The market does not mind if sellers and buyers are self-deceiving, provided they are making rational choices as to price, so that’s fine. I enjoy the capitalistic business of providing entrepreneurial opportunity to all-comers, and I enjoy the liberation capitalistic industry offers to people, and no less in the country than in the city. I don’t mean I am a participant: I mean that I find pleasure, and solace, in knowing these processes are at work.
I simply don’t know where Cobbett, Defoe, Rider Haggard, Evelyn or Young are in the role of capitalism in farming. (I should know more, and may send time on that.) Some great improvers such as Coke were surely on the side of scaling-up. Cobbett, that great muddle, loved a good crop and might have embraced chemicals; but he hated The Wen (The City, broadly) but also (don’t I recall?) the business of subsidies (what he called “tax-farming”).
I am prone to approving the idea of “improvement”, as I am to Corn Law Reform and its lowering of food prices for the poor through globalisation. I therefore put at a discount the cruelties of the depopulation of the countryside they bring. And I note, with a small thrill of gratification that Raymond William’s The Country and the City is on my side in approving the very urbanisation mourned by most rural poetry. For him – though not of course for me – it is the baleful effects of capitalism that we should mourn, not industrialisation.
It isn’t altogether comfortable to acknowledge it, but the countryside we love is in some measure the result of the depopulation (the de-peasanting) that has always most informed and energised English rural poetry.
I celebrate as progress the English abandonment of villeiny and later of the peasant farmer. Indeed, I most sharply realised the redundancy of the peasant ideal when I was a paysan manqué in south-western France. I loved the life, but the French young around me did not. After that, I thrilled to the story of rural squalor told by Zola or in John Woodforde’s The Truth About Cottages. I accept pretty cheerfully that the yeoman gave way to the capitalistic.
I am quite proud to have coined the idea that: “Those who admire the peasant way of life have ether not known it or have known nothing else”. Equally, I like my: “Community is just a small number of people living too closely together and hating it.” (And the latter I had reinforced by my understanding from staying with monks that it was the communality of monastic life which was the hardest test and school for spiritual men.)
I see in rural development the Whiggish Liberation of Mankind, as I learned it from Hendrik Van Loon and Macaulay whose best single phrase was along the lines of, “Why, seeing a past in which there has been nothing but human progress, have men always asserted that the future will regress?”
Since I am no longer framing myself as a pundit, but more as a poet – and less as propagandist than as a pilgrim – I am now more interested than ever in what one can make of the rural scene – including the industrial farmscape – as it were spiritually.
So I am more interested than ever in what I can make of my feelings about the countryside and conservation, and about farmers and their critics amongst foodies, bird-watchers, anti-hunters, anti-commercialists.
Poetry – which is what I want to produce – is importantly about feelings, but they must be as true as possible. As a proto-poet I want of course to write honestly; but also to be honest about the facts as I have them and to understanding as best I have it.
I cannot just look at the countryside and celebrate its appearance or what I might dreamily make of it. I want to look deeper than that, for fear of, for instance, seeing symbols of the permanent in what may be fragile, or scenes of well-being where there may be suffering. Equally, I resist seeing despoliation just because there is change
Poetry makes metaphors and allegories, but they have to accord with the concrete and not shy away from concrete or theory either.