C*UNTRYFILE

‘Follow the Country Code’ was one of numerous mottos stuck on the end of the Central Office of Information Public Information Films that put the fear of God into schoolchildren during the days when I myself could be counted amongst their ranks. It’s a subject I’ve raised before, but it’s always worth mentioning that the TV shorts this underfunded and overlooked Government department that Dave’s administration dispensed with during their initial Coalition axe-wielding served as a highly effective propaganda tool that got the message across far more efficiently than any other comparable campaigns. Whether consciously scaring the shit out of the population – see the mid-70s rabies series and the notorious Hammer-esque, Grim Reaper-by-the-river nightmare narrated by Donald Pleasence – or choosing to opt for comedic interludes featuring thick animated working-class couple Jo & Petunia (no relation), the PIFs of the past registered with the public and undoubtedly taught more than one generation to look both ways when crossing the road and to refrain from throwing bangers around on 5 November.

One only has to endure a shopping expedition at the moment to feel as though we are all currently living through a big-budget remake of a 70s PIF, so perhaps the need to reinforce the message via television reboots is unnecessary; there were a few half-hearted attempts early on in the pandemic, though these were unworthy of being lined-up alongside the classics of forty-fifty years ago. Anyway, to return to the opening sentence of this post, the PIFs that dealt with countryside matters were less reliant on shock tactics than tapping into the romantic allure of olde Albion. Other than the ones advising day-trippers to make sure they always closed gates behind them and didn’t offload their litter in farmer’s fields, the main rural-based PIFs were distinctively eerie travelogues profiling Great British beauty-spots that were generally deserted locations when the COI film crew turned up. Most included crumbling ruins of historic conflicts, the battles at which were painstakingly simulated by the cameraman shaking his equipment as the echoes of medieval swords clashing emphasised these tranquil surroundings once played host to unimaginable carnage.

I guess this particularly specific strain of PIFs was aimed at an audience poised to be tempted by the newfangled affordability of foreign travel and attempted to remind them of the attractions on their own doorstep. Holidaying at home has long been regarded as the poor relation of ‘going abroad’, yet many overseas excursions often become little more than glorified equivalents of the old ‘Wakes Week’ vacation, when blue-collar workers would descend en masse upon traditional British seaside resorts; it didn’t take long before the likes of Benidorm became Blackpool without the rainfall, so I suppose the PIFs that acted as promos for the various regional tourist boards were intended to offer an alternative. I can’t say that the appeal of either Blackpool or Benidorm has ever registered with yours truly, though if home-grown holidays have been the preserve of both the historical connoisseur and those on a limited budget during normal circumstances, the situation imposed upon us in 2020 has rendered Blighty the destination for the majority of natives – and the outcome of this unexpected ‘staycation’ has exposed how much Blighty has benefitted from exporting its least desirable elements to mainland Europe during the summer months.

Although a few took advantage of brief lockdown relaxations and holidayed abroad earlier in the summer, the sudden quarantine regulations relating to an increasing roll-call of nations have probably put paid to that for the time being; therefore, it would appear the British Isles will be the only option in the immediate future. Perhaps demonstrating how unaccustomed many are to holidaying at home, the manner in which some have treated their own backyard has mirrored the sole scenario they associate with the great outdoors – the festival circuit. Barbeques, rubbish, DIY bogs and the leaving behind of tents and garden furniture have so far characterised the mark made by ‘fly-campers’ on the rural landscape. Seemingly incapable of differentiating between the Lake District and Ibiza or the Peak District and Glastonbury, this generation of ill-educated holidaymakers deprived of the ‘Country Code’ manual via PIFs have created headaches for wildlife conservationists and nature rangers alike as they invade locations they have no notion of how to behave in. One Devon warden commented, ‘Anything you would expect people to understand, such as littering or people using the countryside as a lavatory, they ignore.’

Lest we forget, this is supposedly the über environmentally-aware generation, forever lecturing the rest of us on the danger of plastics clogging-up the oceans and the environmental Armageddon mankind is inflicting upon the planet; yet, paying lip-service to the cause of the day only stretches so far, it would seem. Decorating the countryside with nitrous oxide canisters or shitting in the open air because of coronavirus fears re public conveniences somehow don’t register as proper pollution. The potentials of fire, especially when the climate is conducive to spontaneous combustion, are something these eco-friendly charlatans don’t equate with their own approach to the rural life; tree-hugging only appears to be applicable when dispensing a lecture to everyone else. Mind you, anybody who has ever lived in a neighbourhood populated by visiting students with a twelve-month visa will be familiar with the wide chasm between saying and doing when it comes to consideration for the environment.

140 acres of Surrey heath-land was decimated by fire a couple of weeks ago, and emergency powers have been handed to the Dartmoor National Park Authority to prevent fly-camping, following one evening when over 50 fire pits were dug. With the final Bank Holiday of the year imminent, it’s understandable that those entrusted with care of the countryside are mindful that the last such weekend saw moorland fires causing chaos in the New Forest, Peak District and Yorkshire Dales. It can be bad enough having to inhale the noxious fumes of scorched slabs of animal hide emanating from a back garden, but at least the only prospect of an inferno resulting from that kind of repulsive banquet in urban surroundings is at the home of the chef; transplanting it to the country threatens something on a far greater scale.

There certainly seems to be a disconnect between ticking all the right eco-boxes and actually knowing how to act once in a rural location; a gap in education could probably explain the failure to join the dots, and I suspect there’s a little more to it than merely the abolition of the Central Office of Information. I don’t doubt that environmental concerns for some are authentic passions and motivated by genuine worries over what will remain for future generations; but so much of what we see today in terms of alleged love for the natural environment is a fashionable pose engineered to paint a flattering portrait on social media – the same superficial cyber virtue-signalling that can apply as much to what ‘issues’ the account holder supports as it can to a couple eager to fabricate a fairytale relationship that has little in common with reality. When it comes to demonstrating how much some care about ‘the environment’ once in it, too many are showing they couldn’t care less if it won’t adhere to their urban routines.

© The Editor

VILLAGE IDIOTS

At the point in the nineteenth century when Britain completed its transformation from a largely agricultural to a predominantly industrial economy, another transformation was all-but complete as a consequence of the changes. Every industry eventually had its own accompanying metropolis, boasting recognisably Victorian town centres resplendent with civic buildings, statues and squares, adhering to a familiar formula that also stretched to housing, encompassing both suburb and slum. The speed with which industry facilitated the urbanisation of the landscape gave the impression such locations were prototypes for the mid-twentieth century ‘New Towns’, as though they had sprung-up overnight, going direct from an architect’s drawing board to land that had previously been little more than mere fields.

The truth was, however, that most British cities had grown organically, at first filling in the empty spaces dividing networks of ancient villages and then swallowing the villages whole, absorbing them into the bigger picture. Although the areas of some cities today retain their village roots solely in terms of the rivalries between different neighbourhoods – sometimes even varying in their interpretation of the locality’s accent – there are others that defiantly cling to a townie’s ideal of village life, complete with the conveniences genuine village living lacks and missing all the inconveniences that come with the country.

A friend of mine once lived in such a ‘village’ on the outskirts of a certain town famed for its production of footwear. Her account of the so-called community seems like an accurate barometer of those who want the best of both worlds. The majority of homes were hidden from view behind high hedges and fences; everyone resident there travelled to and from their castles via the internal combustion engine, so anybody passing through on foot would be immediately suspected of being up to no good. Children playing on the street were notable by their absence on account of so many being dispatched to private schools, and the high price of housing meant anyone born and raised there couldn’t afford to retain their roots in the vicinity, anyway.

Communication between dwellers of these miniature citadels would be limited to sharing complaints about planning applications to build a genuine village necessity such as a shop, i.e. something that threatened to despoil the pseudo-rural facsimile; otherwise, nothing beyond a communal gripe could unite the disparate residents. Once the commute from the workplace was done for the day, inhabitants would retreat behind doors that caused a regular headache for the postman on account of lacking something as common as a number. This ‘commuter community’ was essentially a collection of isolated properties populated by people for whom the substance of the environment in which their home was situated would be restricted to its superficial surface.

All to a man were city expats that had fed into the urban notion of countryside, one that the actual countryside isn’t exactly conducive to. Natives often comment on how new arrivals to rural neighbourhoods tend to moan about sonic disruption from cockerels at the crack of dawn or church bells indulging in Sunday morning pealing; they whinge to farmers about the aroma of manure and view traditional country practices vital to the agricultural calendar as disruptive to the bucolic idyll derived from TV shows wherein smug, moneyed middle-class couples convert decrepit barns into homes possessing all the mod cons their past address possessed, basically transplanting their London life to prettier surroundings with no attempt to adapt to those surroundings at all.

When her house was on the market, it seemed at one stage that my friend’s home would be purchased by a pikey-ish Irish builder bearing more than a passing resemblance to the late lamented actor Brian Glover, a man not known for playing urbane sophisticates. I think the prospect of the upset such a gruff and ‘uncouth’ character – along with his brood of children and grandchildren – would cause her snooty neighbours appealed to her mischievous side, though the exchange unfortunately fell through due to the builder’s eagerness to do a cash-in-hand deal because he didn’t have a bank account.

Fear of the rougher element they imagined they’d left behind in the city bringing down the tone of their new neighbourhood is extended to the locals on occasion by these nouveau-riche villagers. One such local is stable-owner Linda Watson, whose exasperation with the attitude of those who have colonised her village in Cambridgeshire led to her publicly declaring they were ‘up their own arses’ following council rejection of her plans to build temporary accommodation for her stable workers thanks to village opposition. In response, she has tapped into their deepest fears by offering to sell her land to travellers, provoking a further storm of protest in the process.

The plot in question has an estimated value of £350,000 and Linda Watson says she’s already been flooded with calls since she made an announcement which sounds more of a cry for help. ‘I have had it up to here and I want to leave and move abroad,’ she says. ‘I can’t do this any longer. I would be a bastard to offer this land to a family that wants to use the land for stables because the neighbours make keeping horses here a nightmare.’ She does add a conciliatory note, however, by saying ‘I would welcome any villager to come and see me and talk to me and know that I’m not an ogre. I’m just at my wit’s end and I have had no support from the village.’

Relocating to the rural is a luxury of the wealthy, but the relocation is on their own terms; they often bring little to what’s already there, especially if it doesn’t square with their idea of what the rural represents. But in their attempt to remodel the rural in their own image, they’re ironically killing what made it such an alternative to the urban in the first place.

© The Editor