Monday, 5 March 2018

Escape to the country: is there anything to be gained from fleeing the urban jungle?

(This post is a slightly amended version of a piece originally published in 2015 on another website, now defunct.)

It’s funny the things that catch your attention. A couple of years ago, I read a detective story set in London in 1912. At one point, a policeman walking north through London is said to have emerged into open country shortly after Highgate. Highgate! Nowadays Highgate is about five miles from the northern outskirts of London. Since the beginning of the last century, our capital has spread relentlessly north into what was once Middlesex and Hertfordshire, swallowing up many places which used to be small villages and towns—Arnos Grove, Enfield, Palmers Green, Southgate, a pattern repeated on the east, south and west of the city. This growth of London’s geographical extent, its “footprint”, continued even as Greater London’s actual population went into considerable decline during the four decades after the Second World War. London’s population explosion in the nineteenth century—from about 1 million to over 6 million—did not affect London’s actual area in anything like the same way, presumably because so many of the new Londoners were poor workers and their families crammed into slums, as opposed to the comfortable middle-class commuters in their suburban semis who made up much of the twentieth century growth.

If, like me, you have an elegiac temperament, it can be sad to reflect on the many thousands of acres of meadow, field and woodland that have vanished forever under concrete and tarmac. As a fan of JRR Tolkien, I have always felt it sad that Sarehole, the village which inspired The Shire, that idealised vision of the English rural idyll, has long since been consumed by the Birmingham conurbation, its individuality destroyed.

I myself live in a heavily urbanised and densely populated part of south London several miles from the nearest true countryside, but a map in our local park shows that as late as the 1880s, the area was predominantly rural, with just a few scattered farms and dwellings. All over the capital, you come across reminders of a time before the expansion of the Great Wen (an unflattering nickname given to the city 200 years ago by early London-sceptic and Radical MP William Cobbett). Here a row of cottages built for agricultural labourers; there a house one hundred and fifty years old and so radically unlike its neighbours that it must once have stood alone, perhaps overlooking ancient trees and wildflowers rather than slab-sided towerblocks or boxy apartments.

For now, further major encroachments on the countryside around London are limited by the Green Belt. Nevertheless, a consensus seems to be growing that the housing crisis can only be solved by building hundreds of thousands of new homes, and the sanctity of the Green Belt can no longer be taken for granted. More and more of England’s countryside is to be given over to building projects. Before their near-wipeout in the 2015 General Election, the Liberal Democrats, of blessed memory, mooted the creation of new garden cities between Oxford and Cambridge, served by a rebuilt Varsity Line, an idea not without merit, though potentially destructive of some pleasant if unspectacular countryside.

I don’t wish to enter the debate over the future of housing policy. Given current demographic trends, many more homes are a necessity, and they will have to be built somewhere. What strikes me as an equally interesting, albeit philosophical, question is whether the old idea of the countryside as the place where we more clearly encounter the truth of things retains any resonance, and whether it is sustainable in the coming age of large, dominant cities.

One of the best books I have read in recent years was Akenfield, a beautifully written oral history documenting the stories of people living in Suffolk in the late 1960s. One of those featured was an Oxford-educated poet, a Londoner by birth, who had deliberately sought out country life as he believed it gave him a more authentic and uncluttered perspective, which would improve his work. This was in stark contrast to many of his contemporaries, who viewed his retreat from London as an abdication of his artistic responsibility to be politically engaged and in touch with the latest cultural fashions. I instinctively took his side. Partly this was because I have never been able to get on with explicitly political poetry. It is almost always leaden and hectoring, and the ideological certainty inherent in propaganda is poison to good poetry, which should be concerned with nuance and subtlety, with tensions and doubts and the exploration in words of truths that lie beyond mere words.

A more important reason why I sympathised with him was that I have always felt intuitively that the countryside is indeed the place most conducive to reflecting on the hard-to-grasp truths of human existence. Although I have lived all my adult life in cities, including a decade in London, the words written by WB Yeats in ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ still resonate with me:

“for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”

I remember reading, as an undergraduate, about the Roman tradition of otium, a sort of philosophical retreat where Roman gentlemen would spend time at a country estate discussing philosophy or law or matters of state, and thought it sounded wonderful. It was commended, in a Christianised form, by St Augustine, whose endorsement of it was influenced by the Life of St Anthony and other early Christian monastics (nowadays I might be more attentive to the injustices of class and sex which underlay otium as practised by the Romans, but abusus non tollit usum; there is clearly a useful ideal here). There is a long tradition in Christianity of believers seeking solitude away from the distractions and temptations associated with cities. The idea of the countryside as a place from which emerges a powerful ascetic challenge to the forgetful decay and disorder of the metropolis goes back to the Old Testament prophets. Early monasticism stressed the necessity for fleeing to quiet, isolated places to devote oneself to contemplation, prayer and spiritual combat, and this is reflected in the dramatic and lonely situations of early monasteries, from the barren wastes of the Egyptian and Syrian deserts to the steep crags of Mount Athos and the gale-hammered west coasts of Ireland and Scotland.

Now the pragmatist will say that regarding either town or country living as somehow better or more human is fanciful. It’s just down to temperament. Some people like cities, some people like the country, and that’s that. No point in elaborate rationalisations for a personal preference. There is certainly something to this. No doubt my own love for the calm and space of the country was formed by growing up in a quiet corner of Kent; the house where I spent most of my childhood was at the very edge of a small town, with sheep grazing over the garden fence and the long, low fields of Romney Marsh stretching out to the horizon. Others find rural life dull, static or claustrophobic. And it is easy, in this irony-saturated age, to mock what appears to be a sentimental nostalgia for a lost golden age of English village life, as John Major found when he invoked Orwell’s image of old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the morning mist.

But I don’t think it’s quite true that there are no special virtues to life outside the city. Some of them are proverbial and banal, of course, such as the greater and easier sense of community that is available in small settlements. My mother tells the story of a friend who moved to my parents’ village from a city and initially found people intrusive and gossipy, only to discover, when she fell seriously ill, that those faults were the shadow side of important virtues—neighbourliness, generosity and a feeling for the experiences of others.

There is one sense in which the countryside necessarily challenges modern people in particular. It kicks away some of the props which we use to insulate ourselves from the terrors of solitude. It is hard to be alone with our thoughts—“human kind/Cannot bear very much reality”, in Eliot’s immortal phrase—but it is sometimes vital, and modern life excels in removing opportunities for us to be so. To the ordinary noise and bustle of people living and working and moving in close proximity that marks city life, we can add piped music in almost every public place, a thousand TV channels, and of course the little plastic rectangle in our pockets that connects us, instantly and irresistibly, to almost all human knowledge and makes us constantly available (my own smartphone currently has no fewer than five apps through which I can be contacted, on top of text messages and phonecalls). The temptation is to constantly record and share and comment and react. The challenge is to simply be, to trust the moment—and for the Christian, to pray and listen, to resist the constantly available distractions, none of which may be bad in themselves, but which cumulatively undermine the capacity for serious reflection and devotion.

Of course mobile phones don’t suddenly stop working when you cross the M25, and I dare say villages are just as well-stocked with widescreen TVs and WiFi connections as cities (local problems of rural broadband notwithstanding). Still, the leaving behind of urban civilisation has the power, in my experience, to diminish the hold that our toys have upon us. Perhaps it is the sense that we are separating ourselves from a highly controlled and human-crafted environment and entering one that has not been subdued to the same degree.

This is partly illusory—the British countryside has been endlessly shaped by human hands over the centuries. Small fields lined with ancient flower-filled hedgerows are no more “natural”, really, than the vast unbounded acreages preferred by modern intensive farms. However, it is not wholly an illusion. Landscapes do remind us of our limitations in a way that cities do not - after all, a point often made in praise of cities is that they are places of ambition and endless possibility. And a person who does not sometimes reflect on the limitations of the human condition is not really living an examined life.

The countryside, and to an even greater extent the wilderness, is a place that challenges our assumptions about our ability to make the world in our image, and about the wisdom of doing so. In an age that celebrates human will and individual autonomy, the countryside challenges our assumptions about our ability to make the world in our image. The “givenness” of the natural world—the fact that we find ourselves here rather than placing ourselves here—reminds us that we do not and should not expect to be able to manipulate everything. Even something as simple as the ability to see the stars at night, unimpeded by light pollution, teaches us humility and wonder before the vastness and variety of the world, and the universe, in a way that the human-centred environment of a city cannot.

So perhaps the great lesson of the countryside is both very simple and endlessly complex: this is not a world which we create for our own purposes and over which we should seek mastery and control, but one into which we are placed, and which we must discover, respect and understand.

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