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The English Countrycide

May 7, 2009

This morning I discovered a rather splendid article in the New Statesman by Owen Hatherley about a new collection of Penguin Travelogues.  In his piece, Hatherley points out that despite nominally being a series concerned with journeying through England, the series almost completely ignores the towns and cities which the overwhelming majority of British people call home.

“The England we live in is largely uncharted.

As a now mainly rural Conservative Party is likely to win the next election by default, the myths of rural England urgently need debunking, but these English journeys are more about escape from an urban country in deep crisis.

Lie back and think of England.”

The ‘myths of rural England’ that Hatherley rails against are the almost universally accepted beliefs that Britain is a “green and pleasant land” whose true nature lies not in London or the great cities of the Midlands and North but rather the green bits in-between those cities.  The vast acres given over to large-scale industrial farming and its ensuing nasal cocktail of nauseating slurry and allergy-provoking pollen.  The great spaces one travels through in order to get to something worth visiting.  The space into which cities should expand.

So needless to say, I am sympathetic to Hatherley’s frustration with Britain’s countryside fetish and the pseudoscientific ‘cult of the natural’ that comes in its wake.  However, Hatherley is not the only person to make this point :

In the episode of Even Further Abroad entitled “Remembering the Future”, Jonathan Meades looks back at the brief period in British history when the country expressed an interest in the future.  In human improvement.  In the new.  A new that is now crushed beneath the jackboot of the past.  Of national heritage.  Of the rural and the old.

In the kind of spooky coincidence that can only be understood in terms of great minds thinking alike and even greater minds thinking like Jonathan Meades, Meades also reacted to the rural character of the English travelogue in a piece about Worcestershire for the 1998 TV series Travels with Pevsner.

The circle of inspiration and homage is completed with Meades’ excellent review of Hatherley’s recent book Militant Modernism.

Meades names as the two icons of this rather deflationary view of England the composer Edward Elgar and the poet A.E. Housman but I would like to a third more recent champions of the idea that England is essentially one big garden centre.  A native of South Africa who successfully transplanted to Worcerstershire in his youth.  Tolkien’s Shire (right down to the name “Bag End”) channels the same fictional and idyllic past as many little Englanders and his hatred for the trappings of the modern world could be seen not only in his academic interests but also in the industrialisation of Isengard in the Lord of the Rings.  Which quite possibly explains why I so dislike The Lord of the Rings.

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