Clive Aslet on cranky neighbours, simmering resentments, barely contained hostilities and all the other summery joys of life in the country
his summer, British people will be getting to know their own country. It isn’t just that a combination of credit crunch at home and poor exchange rate abroad are discouraging foreign travel, but quite a lot of City types have retreated, on a semi-permanent basis, to their second homes. Tell me if I’m wrong, but what else can explain the level of property sales in central London, which remain low, when from the number of job losses you would expect them to have soared? The rental market is awash with properties, as previously high fliers take wing.
The inhabitants of pretty villages in the West Country and the Lake District are always complaining that London money is forcing local people out of the market. They resent the fact that no light shines in the windows through the winter. Well, now, presumably, they will find out what it is like to have these homes occupied year round. I bet that some of them may come to prefer them being empty.
‘In the country, people hate each other who have never exchanged a single word.’ I came across this great truth in an Edwardian book called The Country Life, written by the famously grumpy T.W.H. Crossland, a poet who wrote sonnets on, among other things, the sinking of the Titanic. As Crossland went on to say, there isn’t much to do in the countryside, so the scope for getting on each other’s nerves is expanded.
There is also the matter of neighbours. It can be very nice to have them. Cheery greetings as you walk to the post office (assuming it hasn’t closed) can be welcome, the human equivalent of thatched roofs, homemade marmalade and wood smoke. But townies like to be able to turn off the tap occasionally. In a village, you can’t; your every move is observed. I don’t know what village people do when they have affairs. They may as well have them announced by a town crier.
et love of village is deep rooted in the English psyche. I say English advisedly: Scottish, Welsh and Irish villages, except in the border country, are too tough to evoke much soppiness of sentiment. It would be ridiculous to call Edinburgh or Glasgow ‘a city of villages’, and the same goes for Cardiff and Belfast. Londoners, however, rejoice in the village identities of Chelsea, Fulham, Barnes…
This is partly to close ranks against the teenage hoodies who are supposed to terrorise the wastes beyond the frontiers. But it also preserves an image of life on a small scale, where people shop locally and know each other. You have neighbours when you want them; but you can perfectly well blot them out of your existence when you don’t. Real villages aren’t like that. It’s a 24/7 experience.
Poor John Clare found this in Northamptonshire. He was the plough boy poet, born in 1793, whose verses became a hit with literary society in London when they were published in the 1820s and, by a considerable margin, outsold Keats. Clare wasn’t just a plough boy. He also worked at a series of other menial occupations — serving in an inn, gardening, burning lime — while writing verses on scraps of paper that he kept in his hat. He didn’t much care for the intellectual life of the village. He called his neighbours ‘clowns’.
After fame had descended, the discrepancy between Clare’s poetic world and that of the village grew worse. It didn’t help that admirers would descend on his modest cottage, often not hesitating to go in and talk to Clare, which he hated. Not surprisingly, the other village people found the literary carry-on peculiar and shunned him. Then the craze for Clare fell away; his later collections did not have anything like the success of the early ones.
It was then that he found his real poetic voice, based on direct observation of Nature and thoughts of love. But it was all too much for him. Possibly he drank, he may have had venereal disease, he certainly started to go mad. His hopes, expressed in an early poem, of dying in the village proved unrealised. He spent the last 23 years of his life in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum.
hese days, the derivatives trader who finds himself temporarily resident in Port Isaac is not in Clare’s position. He may be distressed not to find a Starbucks, let alone a Daylesford Organic, by the waterside, but he can always do some internet shopping if he needs contact with a wider world. Nor will he find that the native population is composed of rustic clowns, because they shop on the internet as well.
But the disconnect will be there — and a certain amount of beneath-the-surface resentment. It can express itself in ways that the outsider would not even think about. In Cornwall, attitudes to the lifeboat are a litmus test.
‘Only families who have lived in the village for generations can be part of the crew,’ a friend from the Lizard tells me. It is regarded as an honour, a badge of belonging — a pretty macho one, considering the perils the boats are exposed to, although some boats now take women.
Newcomers may think they will ingratiate themselves by fund-raising; but that is something real village families never do. Money raised goes to the RNLI. That’s a national organisation, not a village one. Might as well be foreign.