02 January, 2004 Filed in: Capital Letters | Everything
It may strike you as a controversial statement, but living in the country is deeply stressful.
After all, there has been a rash of coffee-table TV lifestyle shows lately, all encouraging us to up-sticks to the sticks. According to the Countryside Agency, there is an echo of reality in these reality shows: a million relocated in the last ten years alone and, it appears, there's plenty more to come. Almost 8 million of us watch the exploits of hapless couples bombing down the A30 in 4x4s, while a sneering narrator points out the problems and cynically implies their eventual failure.
You can do without the film crew and the carping commentator, but move out of town, the programmes suggest, and your days as grimy Northern Liner are numbered.
You will no longer need to drink water that has, at some time, passed through the urinary tract of someone living in your road. Simple acts of unsolicited friendliness - like a smile or an attempt at a bus stop conversation - will stop drawing the same suspicion as an abandoned holdall on the tube. Never see that scared blank stare again, the one that makes pissing in your water polite by comparison.
But it's all very well for mid-to-late careerists who want to take things a bit easier, rear small humans or glory in the thick odour of shit. They have their reasons, after all. Reasons as robust as the two tonnes of Teutonic engineering they point their children to school in, so good luck to them. But if you live in the country already, it's a different story.
Living in the back of beyond is expensive, careers suffer and what jobs there are are usually badly paid. To cap it all, the alleged rural bonuses of farm-fresh food, peace and quiet and olde world friendliness may be harder to find than a regular bus service.
Fresh as the moment...
It is perhaps not widely enough acknowledged that the link between food and your mouth is a lot more complicated than a pan of boiling water and a fork. City folk are paradoxically more aware of this state of affairs. Sure, they know nothing about bastard trenching and probably think that animal husbandry is a euphemism for barely legal farmyard action, but they regard themselves as informed about the packaging, distribution and sales processes that actually dictate how fresh the food ends up. In the country, these processes take at least a day longer. That day is the day country-bound food spends in the city. After some truck journeys, and a warehouse or two, it arrives at the rural supermarket in time for the closed sign and tomorrow's wilting display of laughably unfresh produce.
Peace and quiet
You can forget peace and quiet, as well: the country can be extremely noisy. First off, there's church bell ringing practise, a dissonant racket so ungodly, you are left with the voice of Satan ringing in your ears. Blow up the God damn church. Do it. Do it now.
Then there's the thunderous roar of tractors, more gunfire than the Bronx and the casual assassination of animals for fun to contend with, but by far the noisiest parts of the country are all the areas colonized by city folk. And that's because, like the chip-inhaling, Watney's guzzling Brit-crims bunging up the Costa Del Brinksmat, many exiled urban warriors make the mistake of towing their urgent old lives down with them.
There are those who are still obviously plugged into some kind of Starbucks Matrix. Brusque and hurried, they point their body into a coffee shop and issue a paragraph-length, intricately detailed order for a hot beverage that betrays their inherent inability to leave any whisp of uncertainty uncrushed.
Fortunately, while terribly adept at synchronising a Palm Pilot, firing nannies and talking bollocks in meetings, their life runs on the kind of precise routine unfavoured by the brutal realities of the country mindset, and many run back to town, claiming the countryside is complete shit.
Then there are the nautical types. Most often encountered in rural yacht havens, these Ted Heath look-alikes – each and every one an amiable buffoon – ooze the braying twittery of the wealthy classes. More used to issuing commands in the teeth of a gale, the nautical type approach everything with the gravitas of a cruise liner in a duck pond. When not on the water, there's nothing they like better than tacking their way to the bar in waterside pubs, illuminated by the dim glow of lamps stolen from marker buoys in the channel. With staff rendered deaf by their customers, the easiest way to order a pint in a yachties pub is to stand at the door and signal with flags.
Finally there is the dewy-eyed Gaian Airhead. Labouring under the latest buzz-word of "Slippies" or Sloane-Hippies, people with this personal outlook parade their cock-eyed, crumpled spirituality in the country while retaining a well-appointed pied-à-terre, luxuriously furnished with unsustainable tropical hardwood knick-knacks, which are often crafted by kicked orphans in basement sweatshops. From their rural second homes the Airheads front local chapters of green organisations and tirelessly campaign to halt all forms of progress and development that would spoil the view from their balcony.
There you have it. Suddenly your elysian vision of babbling brooks, wild woods and bucolic simplicity has turned to shit of which, incidentally, there is also an ample amount awaiting you. You may decide that you don't want to move after all and who could blame you? You may have already suspected that the countryside is inconvenient, expensive and bereft of opportunity, but what might come as a surprise is that it is full of the kind of urban vermin that you already live next door to. What's the point? Not even the Northern Line seems quite so bad. Just remember not to smile at anyone and, whatever you do, don't drink the water.