Thursday, 22 April 2010


Serendipitously, the thoughtful Ghost of Elberry sends me the word agrestic, meaning 'pertaining to the countryside'. Just the other day I'd been looking for that very word. But despite feeling pretty sure something like it deriving from the Greek would exist, I'd failed to track it down (inadequate googling skills).

I'd wanted a substitute for rural, which I felt was carrying too heavy a burden in what I was writing. However, all I could find were words which approximated its meaning but whose connotations were overly charming, such as rusticpastoral, arcadianbucolic (the last, sometimes twinned with bliss, really wouldn't do, for instance.)

As well as to preserve the stories whilst they're still in living memory, one of my purposes in writing about the stranger fringes of my family history was to rebut the thesis that people and the lives they live are necessarily better in the countryside, that they're axiomatically more healthy. Most recently I'd come across this romantic view of rural life in Peter J. Conradi's consciously Rousseauan recent work, which carried the subtitle 'Radnorshire Pastoral'. But it can be found in many times - as the charming adjectives above imply it was originally a classical idea - and many places - writers as seemingly diverse as Roger Scruton and Paul Kingsnorth spring to mind.

Earlier this year, I'd watched an interview with R Scruton (posted on his blog but no longer available) in which he'd remarked on the unusual wholesomeness of his fellow hunters, ascribing it to their organic and traditional relationships, with each other, with their animals and with their environment. I write as someone who opposed the hunting ban and has relations and friends who have hunted but I'm convinced that's a lot of sentimental tosh. Hunting does have some deep meanings - but it won't necessarily make you a better or more complete person, believe me.

But despite all evidence to the contrary - if you bother to look, there's plenty of it - the romantic and morally positive view of the countryside remains a remarkably persistent cultural trope and a lasting foundation for philosophical speculation. My guess is it has something to do with the sublimation of the heavenly ideal, brought back down to earth in our more secular age, combined with the perennial restlessness and dissatisfaction of humans, more familiarly expressed in the belief that the grass is greener on the other side.

Writers are unavoidably part of civilisation - a word, note, that flows from the idea of the city - and they're pretty much unavoidably part of an industrialised, modern economy (at least if they want to type on a laptop and get published in some form). If they're going to sustain what is a rather impossible idea - that of a real, if necessarily diluted, heaven on earth -  they need their ideal to be located elsewhere, somewhere unfamiliar, somewhere that's handily mysterious to most of their readers. This place, if you're urbanised, civilised, industrialised and modern, is usually the countryside*. The grass there is both literally and figuratively greener.

And the more estranged the writers are from this agrestic world (ahem) and its people the easier it is for them to inscribe their fantasies on to it. To take the writers mentioned above, as far as I can discover none of Conradi, Scruton and Kingsnorth were raised on farms, or even in the countryside.

I don't want to be overly critical as this mentality has been productive of some wonderful art - writing, music and painting. However, it's something that it's worth keeping an eye on as it can lead to all sorts of unpleasant political ideas (viz. the French Revolution, the Khmer Rouge and many points in between).

Watteau's 'The Shepherds': rich people having fun pretending to be peasants.

* Rural romantics of the right tend to locate their Arcadia nearby but often in a former time whereas their leftist brethren locate theirs more distantly - so that it's mostly someone else's countryside (or jungle, etc.) that they end up hankering after - and also more contemporaneously. To do with patriotism versus internationalism, no doubt.


Sean said...

Well I was born in the city, my business and work is mainly in the city, I live in the countryside and I scoot between the two most days.

What I like about the countryside and think makes it the "artistic canvas" others imply is Time.

In the city you need a watch, time is present around you. You cant see the full sky so you dont know what the weather will be like in an couple of hours. You cant read the seasons, cities are warmer and so things grow quicker and irregular, once again distorting your perception of time.

In the Countryside you pick up all the natural clues to the coming weather, the seasons, what you can eat, what work needs to be done.
that sense of natural time frees the mind from the stress of pressing, mixed up time you get in a city.

When we lived in Perth WA, which is a very dry place, my wife would get a headache before the rain came, now she sits in the conservatory painting most afternoons, rain passes by us and her most days without any pain.

I see the city and countryside as one thing, but then again i don't wear a watch.

Gaw said...

I appreciate the countryside very much - visiting it for the weekend is like being able to take a deep breath for the first time in a while. I just don't think being brought up there necessarily makes you a better person.

I don't wear a watch either and never have, even when I did very time-sensitive work. Don't know why.

worm said...

nice post Gaw. It's the sort of thing I have written about on my blog too, although much less eloquently here
I think those of us bought up on farms have a much more down to earth view of the countryside.

I'm lucky to work in a beautiful office in an old brick barn that stands in the middle of some open fields, and I can walk to the lake nearby on my lunchbreaks. Even as a very 'urban' person (I'm definately not the robust farmer type) I don't think I would want to live and work in a city again.

Gaw said...

Nice post yourself (!). I can't imagine not living in London at the moment. I think I'd feel too cut off in the countryside, or even in a market town - but I wonder if once I'd moved my feelings would change.

However, if I couldn't escape to the countryside once every three weeks or so I'd go bonkers.

Recusant said...

Agreed, Gaw. Being the son, nephew and cousin of farmers has given me a more realistic idea of what the agrestic world is.

I love living London, and have done since I arrived at the age of eighteen, thirty two years ago. Of course having seven country dwelling siblings and a vast horde of similarly placed cousins - we're Catholic, breeding's what we do - does give me an advantage and an opportunity to dip my toes back in the rural mire when I feel the need.

What really marks the country down for me, is the necessity to choose your friends from a circle of about 200 people, and the narrowness of social discourse that results: 'intellectual' really is an insult there.

Brit said...

I agree with your scepticism about 'agrestic romanticism', though I think it is most commonly to be found in those raised in London (like my brother-in-law, a real Good Lifer).

But Sean's comment is good too. Driving about a lot, I've found Britain keeps shrinking and being 'cut off' has increasingly less meaning; you can 'live' in many places at once these days. And you don't have to go much more than 5 minutes out of most cities to be somewhere that feels rural.

worm said...

I have to agree yet also disagree with Recusant- the level of discourse and things is indeed low if thats where you wish to socialise.

I avoid local townie types on the whole and then just visit my friends' tiny gardenless flats in london (one hour on the train) every couple of weeks to get cultural nurishment. All other uplifting conversations I can usually find on this excellent blog here, and the others like it.

Gaw said...

Recusant: On a more basic level there's always something going on around here. There's constant mental stimulation (not always good though!). I would rather have that as my day-to-day backdrop than the mental relaxation you get in the country.

Brit: I think there's a difference between having regular access to the country and being brought up in a truly rural (usually farming) environment. An urban life - with its potential illusions about the agrestic - can be lived in most places.

Worm: I hope you return the favour and provide a weekend retreat for pale, rickety, troglogyditic Londoners.

Stephen said...

Great post, Gaw.
I've been thinking lately about what we mean when we talk about "the countryside". I live in a fair sized town about 12 miles from my place of work, Newcastle Upon Tyne. Every day travelling to work I pass fields, woods and hills yet I don't think of it as the countryside, whereas when I go walking in the Cheviots, say, that is very definitely countryside to me.
It's a very malleable concept, the countryside, imo.

Gaw said...

Cheers Stephen. I think you're right - our appreciation of the countryside is quite a personal thing.