The country and the city

The recent re-issuing of Raymond Williams' The Country and the City should remind us of the importance of rural Britain.

Geoffrey Heptonstall
27 March 2016
John Deer Bamff.jpg

Image: Paul Ramsay, some rights reserved

Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City is now re-issued as a seminal work of social thinking. Written over forty years ago, it has lost none of its clear-eyed relevance to our society.

Escaping to the country, Mary McCarthy once pointed out, is the classic resolution of a problem. The implication is that such an escape is illusory. Yet city-dwellers dream of moving out to green fields. There are glossy magazines that cater for such dreams. Sell the flat and buy a period cottage. Of course you will need a car and/or easy access to a rail station. With reasonable money the dream of fresh air, village schools and old world inns looks very tempting.

When I used to tell people about my childhood they pictured a rural idyll. So I stopped talking about it because the truth was that I felt the remoteness to be oppressive at times. Everything required a journey. Nothing was within reach except horses. The lack of resources and opportunities for many made for a poverty that is immeasurable by the usual standards, for it was a part of the world that could boast of its immunity from the Depression. There was always work. It was the largest Tory constituency in the country. People lived traditional lives, limited lives in minster and market towns with a hinterland of remote farms and gothic schools. The few teenagers affected by the counter-culture would meet up in the school holidays and college vacations, barely aware of the people we were leaving behind. The resolution of the lack of opportunities was an escape to the city.

The re-issue of The Country and the City [1973] by Raymond Williams is welcome as a contribution to the thinking of a new generation. Well-received at the time, it now has classic status as a study in the contrasts that are known without often receiving the depth of consideration Williams gives them. Williams begin well with an original and well-researched observation that the nostalgia often evoked by mention of rural life has a long history. Every generation thinks that ‘the old country ways’ survived until recently, but are gone now. Laurie Lee thought so. Hardy thought so. As did the Romantics, notably Wordsworth. As did Goldsmith in The Deserted Village.

It is a way of thinking that predates the Industrial Revolution and probably has its roots in the Agricultural Revolution of the early Eighteenth Century. Farming became an industrialized process. Great swathes of common land were gentrified as the country parks of an aristocratic civility, familiar from the landscaping of Capability Brown and the portraiture of Gainsborough. The aesthetic achievement is equivalent to the contemporary courtly music of the Baroque and to Palladian architecture. We ought not to dismiss such achievements, but we do need to consider the economic and social costs. Another advancement had been proposed by the Diggers and Levellers of the Puritan Commonwealth. The Restoration, essentially a re-assertion of the London burgher culture, stressed pleasure [theatre], private money [an expanded banking system] and science [the Royal Society] at the expense of a country [in both senses] of commonwealth. A more rational and pleasurable advance would have been an accommodation between these ways of being, acknowledging the mutual dependency they may have.

The division between city and country proved disastrous as industrial development left behind ‘the idiocies of rural life.’ Williams bristled with fury at that famous phrase of Marx with its Nineteenth Century assumptions of progress based on technology. Williams was an advocate of an alternative model of socialism that is green. The presence of William Morris and Tolstoy shadows such thinking which has risen in value with the collapse of industrial socialism, the moral fragility of corporate capitalism and the unfolding ecological tragedy of climate change. Significantly, a leading European Green politician, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, was a progenitor of the 1968 Paris Rising.

The relatively early death of Raymond Williams [in 1988] deprived the left of a thinker whose reflections on subsequent events would have been invaluable. His reputation, high in his lifetime, began a decline until he could be dismissed as a failed writer and outmoded thinker. His socialism was qualified and tempered, as we have seen, to urgent world problems. He was not a natural writer in the manner of, say, Eric Hobsbawm, but Williams produced a respectable and respected corpus of creative work. His prose is reticent and sometimes opaque. But the intellect is undeniable. The prescience of his thinking is marked. In 1973 the idea of a Green politics for our time was emerging but nowhere near the serious force it is now in the European mainstream.

It has yet to take the centre ground, however. It is nowhere near the status of a governing influence. The dominant thinking of left and right remains locked into an urban, usually metropolitan, frame. In Britain the assumption of a ‘Northern powerhouse’ is that the natural development of regional life is focussed on cities. This makes sense in the South East, but does not reflect life in the rural heartlands beyond the commuter circle. Life in Cumbria, or in Dorset is far removed from city life.

There is validity in acknowledging the connections between these heartlands, connections that may cross conventional regional bounds. But to say that the East Riding has more in common with Norfolk than it does with West Yorkshire is simply too radical a thought to be considered. It is, none the less, one of the possible implications of The Country and the City.

Faster rail transport between Leeds and Manchester may make for more convenience, although the legitimate social and economic gains have yet to be detailed. Is there evidence that more commuting between Northern cities is desired, desirable, probable or necessary? A rail link across Somerset, however, has a pressing [and relatively inexpensive] urgency. To cross that county by public transport today is to travel no faster than Coleridge did two centuries ago by the mail coach. The idiocies of rural life are a pale reflection of the corrosive and corrupt thinking dominated by the City [itself a telling nomenclature].

The country is more than a pleasing prospect viewed from the train. It is where people live. It is where people feel ignored because all the talk is city talk. A reasonable response is to articulate the kind of transformative thinking of which Raymond Williams was so conspicuously an exemplar. The less informed and meaner reaction is in a nostalgic insularity rationalized politically as nationalism.

This will not be countered by responses that can be dismissed as metropolitan. But the question of how a radical response might develop is problematic. It must begin by coolly and carefully acknowledging observable realities. A government that turns attention to the transport and commercial infrastructure problems of rural areas has every chance of gaining a sense of trust. A government that builds London Underground lines at the cost of a billion pounds a mile also has the money to transform rural life with subsidised train networks and village post office, pharmacies and general stores. The cost of a few miles of new tube line, with money diverted into rural projects, could win over a disaffected and angry rural population.

That, however welcome, is only to lay the foundations. We have allowed cities to enlarge and to devour resources as wastefully as they devour people. Cities mean many things. One image that comes to mind is the perennial problem of the ghetto and gang cultures. Then there is overcrowded housing, and air pollution and a lack of recreational space. There are cracks in the concrete where wild grasses grow.

Cities also provide economic and social opportunities that can unlock human potential. An ideal city is the garden city. The Greenwood Plan of the 1929-31 Labour government was never able to fulfil its dream. All that remains are some well-built streets here and there in garden city style, palimpsests of Arthur Greenwood’s dream. The call for its revival even now is not too late. This is so much better than resources squandered on triumphalist urban towers that promise to become the ruined monuments of an empire that collapsed in hubris. And as it collapsed the starving people fled to the countryside in search of food, shelter and peace.

Of course that is the extreme scenario. But consider the steady drift out of London that has taken place for decades. This is especially true westward. The pattern of migration is discernible but rarely acknowledged in public discussion. The significant division between the multicultural conurbations and the more traditional shires raises some problematic questions that we barely have the vocabulary to answer. Certainly there are the crude, emotional reactions [that motivate some to leave the city]. A paucity of informed responses enables manipulative populists to articulate a divisive case. What we need is a case for harmony and co-operation between urban and rural life, stressing agreed mutual dependencies and the common sense of integrity and community. If we are ever to resolve the critical division between the country and the city it will be achieved only with the will to do so. Dismissal of vast areas and populations as marginal and irrelevant engenders resentment that will find a voice we shall not wish to hear.

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